By John Marshall, Defence Synergia Founding member.
I came away pretty unimpressed with Sir Mark Sedwill’s (NSA) honesty and highly impressed with his ability to dodge the issues and his own responsibilities.
During the course of evidence, Julian Lewis, Johnny Mercer, Madeleine Moon, and Ruth Smeeth made telling points which were all brushed aside by long winded and oft repeated “lectures” on process rather than giving succinct answers to the questions and giving his honest and straightforward opinion on specific aspects when asked; after all, as The Security Adviser, that would have been perfectly in order, subject to genuine security caveats. Instead, he prevaricated behind a general shield of being a humble civil servant. Additionally, he repeatedly muddied the waters by dissipating “defence” issues in the morass of “twelve areas of security considerations”.
It was a ‘smoke and mirrors’ performance by Sir Mark, especially about the MoD leaks and him not understanding that they were triggered by his own view that national cyber capability, and other of the 12 elements, needed to be increased so, funds for new resources to cover this ought to come from the MoD!
I’m afraid I don’t accept his comments (11:32) that he doesn’t have an agenda. From the beginnings of his current work and reading between the lines of his replies to the Committee, it seems very clear that NSA appeared to imply that the Royal Navy is no longer capable of dealing with high end threats saying that the Carriers were too vulnerable to be allowed to fight except with allied protection. NSA seems to take comfort in being unable to imagine the need to operate autonomously ever arising again.
He, then, tried to use the government’s response to the Salisbury poisonings (11:40) to demonstrate the more joined up NSC response; this seemed to me a classic example of how joined up government (Amber Rudd and the HO/Police) faltered rather, Public Health England stumbled (poor, inconsistent and wrong advice to the public), Jt CBRN were not the right unit for this complex task – at least initially (DCBRNC should, arguably, have been in the lead), evidence collection seemed to be haphazard (stuff only covered up or removed after weeks) and probably else besides.
There was much waffle about what the NSCR focus was, especially with r regard to MoD – was it a review of progress to meet Joint Force 2025 and SDSR15; was it a review to see how the £20bn black hole in the defence budget could be closed; or, was it linked to a fiscally neutral delivery of a wider UK security and defence Capability review?
Mentioned many times were the original 12 strands but he never explained what they were or how they complemented each other or what options to rob Peter to pay Paul were discussed. For instance were there any suggestions to take money from other departments such as DFID to help out MoD rather than vice versa?
Once MoD had been taken out of NSCR, Sir Mark mentioned (12:03) that “NSCR has redeployed some resources” – but how much, between what departments and for what?
Lots of response about UK not needing a full spectrum military capability and that NATO countries contribute their piece, some being specialist capabilities. Sounds great in theory but have NATO countries agreed to provide specialist capabilities and always to support NATO nations? What about the UK having operations outside her NATO remit or where are the solutions when there are disputes between NATO partners (Gibraltar, Cyprus, Brunei, Falklands, Commonwealth countries)?
I do support Sedwill’s comment at the beginning about developing ‘threat agnostic capabilities’.
The NSA didn’t appear to explain why NSCR had to be fiscally neutral rather than Julian Lewis’s suggestion that you do a budget-free assessment of what security and defence threats there are and what you need to defend against them; you then have a menu, that ministers can select from, to meet the budget or, increase the budget to deliver the agreed level of essential capabilities required to ensure “defence and security of the realm”.
Sir Mark parroted the usual ‘UK has 5th largest defence budget in the world’, ‘second biggest defence budget in NATO’, ‘second biggest military in NATO’, ‘biggest military in Europe’ nonsense. It is not the budget, it is how you spend it and what that delivers in terms of operational capability that is important.
On that note, I believe France has the most extensive European military capability, not the UK: more active and reserve personnel; more nuclear capability (inc air and land options); more total naval assets; more tanks, AFVs and self-propelled artillery; more combat and transport aircraft and more helicopters; all this is delivered on 80% of UK budget and a smaller national labour force.
I did appreciate the explanation about ‘Fusion Doctrine’; the 6 questions the NSC asks and the Red teaming that supposedly happens for each scenario but, not sure this actually happens. The NSC should work more comprehensively and coherently. Also agree that behavioural change and culture needs to change. Don’t agree with Sedwill’s comment that ‘most civil servants are fundamentally team players – the ‘me’ in ‘team’ is more important to most of the senior ones at least. There is a big hill to climb to convince me anything fundamental has changed post Chilcott report.
NSA was completely let off after his comment (around 11:05) that whilst MoD has the biggest budget, it wasn’t the biggest capability area that needed addressing. No-one followed this up with the obvious – so what is the biggest capability area needing addressing – presumably cyber? Which department does this impact the most, what is being done about it, and what is the link to MoD’s contribution?
There was an interesting early focus on M0D leaks of options to the press, especially by the Times, and Sedwill’s reflection that this wasn’t an issue with other departments involved in the NSCR process – obvious follow up question should have been – why not?
MoD/MDP really has a fundamental question to ask itself and this might be: – is the 10 year implementation of Joint Force 2025 as recommended in SDSR15 still relevant and realistic to meet the changed threats of 2018-2025?
How does MoD contribute to the 11 other national security strands, and how do other departments contribute to MoD’s Defence strand?
I found the piece below about what the NSCR is covering, but again no real insight into how the review is comprehensive and looks across ‘themes’, nor which ‘external experts’ (normal tame ones probably) were engaged and consulted. An open debate would have been better than this cloak and daggers behind closed doors process.
There was no discussion on how UK national security and defence is discussed and responsibilities and contributions apportioned and agreed with other EU countries, NATO members, etc, especially on where we have capability gaps, or common national security issues (Russian cyber attacks across EU, EU energy security, etc).
I think Sedwill got off far too lightly here. I can only hope the HoCDC have seen through this obfuscation and write a searing report on his performance.
Image By UK Government –  , OGL 3, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41342189