A 2021 Review of the DefenceSynergia (DS) Threat Analysis of March 2015
In 2015 DS conducted and published its own Threat Analysis in light of SDSR 2015. This has now been reviewed by DS and a comparison made with the current (2021) state of affairs post HMG’s Integrated Review and Command Paper. Our findings, in bold, are appended for each of the sections covered
- International Political/Diplomatic: The UK has attained over the years an international influence (soft – flexible – hard power) that many other equally or even richer yet envious nations do not – permanent seat on the UNSC, WTO, G8/20, NATO Council, Commonwealth. History and tradition alone will not guarantee that these positions of influence are maintained – only demonstrable effort through well funded diplomacy, leadership, presence and military force can ensure that this commercially beneficial situation is maintained. Already there has been erosion and concern amongst Allies over the cuts in the capability of the Armed Forces. The Skill of ‘Punching above one’s weight’ is waning.
- ISSUE : Current UK spending is unbalanced in favour of soft power undermining the nation’s ability to guarantee the judicious use of flexible and hard power.
Arguably the imbalance in funding between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power enablers has not been addressed at all. If anything, and despite the PM promising more new cash for defence the Chiefs of Staff have had to shed more personnel, sustainment enablers and weapons platforms in order to remain within budget limits and to achieve illogical ‘efficiency savings’. Indeed, despite political hype HM Forces are having to do more with less year on year.
Having said that the UK has played a diplomatic trump card by jointly agreeing with Australia and the USA to join AUKUS. This is in keeping with HMG’s global ambitions but there is no extra funding for the ‘Hard Power’ enablers required to make the policy a reality alongside UK’s other commitments, not least to NATO.
- Threat Regional/Domestic: Domestic threats to public, cyber, commercial and infrastructure security from terrorism, criminals or state actors are well publicised with varying levels of counter-measures being funded to combat attacks. Until very recently it was assessed that there was no direct threat to European or UK security from a state on state conflict but a high risk from terrorism and lower risk of natural disaster. However, very rapidly, following Russian annexation of the Crimea and support for Russian speaking dissidents in Ukraine this assessment has been altered and NATO is now struggling to meet a potential peer-on-peer confrontation. The threat of a maritime ‘trade or energy blockade’ would have very swift impact.
- ISSUE : Domestic security suffers from a lack of coordination between agencies. Whilst funding is available and mature professional emergency services (blue light) are in-place, the command and control element is confused and the funding streams reliant upon day to day activity. As a consequence the personnel, resources and funding are not in place to step up to a major emergency unless other agencies – MoD in particular – are called upon. Even then the processes are complex and depend upon ‘cash’ transactions.
The Covid19 pandemic rapidly proved the DS assessment absolutely correct. The pandemic, despite earlier exercises, took HMG and the civil authorities – NSC, Cabinet Office, Department of Health, Public Health England etc – by surprise. The lines of command and control were unclear and the subsequent response very weak and mixed. The British military stood by but the call to assist was tardy to say the least and when it did come it seemed, not for the first time, to be with resistance from the civil authorities. Nightingale Hospitals, PPE procurement and distribution and Vaccination programmes all benefited greatly from Armed Forces professional command and logistics expertise, yet the civil authorities have been slow to acknowledge this.
- 5. In regional terms the threat is existential. That is to say, in a globally connected world, UK security and prosperity are often hostages to another region’s (nation’s) fortunes especially the US and EU or a NATO Article 5 action. Instability, disaster or conflict at the regional level more often than not requires international (UK) intervention for national as well as altruistic reasons. Whereas a NATO Article 5 activation is a treaty obligation and non-negotiable, albeit in today’s world the exact nature (definition) of an armed attack on a NATO nation – asymmetric, Cyber, unconventional, proxy – has changed the certainty factor.
- Threat Climate/Weather/Health: Climate change and extremes of weather have the potential to affect security, health and commercial well being. Rising sea levels or desertification may force populations to disperse at the same time that basic resources (food and potable water) become scarce. The negative effects upon mortality of flood, drought and population displacement being a direct result of malnutrition, disease and conflicts over resources.
- ISSUE : The causes for climate change (is it man made, is it happening at all) are still not universally accepted. Where there is agreement that climate change is occurring there are still opposing views as to how to tackle it; whether it can be redressed in the long or short term; whether the West’s efforts to control carbon dioxide are futile as they are vastly outweighed by emissions in India, China and emerging nations? Does the risk to the UK economy outweigh the nation’s ability to influence or change another, more profligate, nations’ energy policies?
Even a cursory look at the global response to climate change tells us that the major CO2 emitters are China 28%, USA 15%, India 7%, Russia 5%, Japan 3% and Germany, Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Canada are at 2%. The UK 1%. COP26 is a politic gamble for HMG. UK maybe chairing the meeting but fired-up Green elements like Extinction Rebellion are manipulating the ‘virtual signalling’ Political classes to act thereby forcing UK to take a serious financial risk for little return in world CO2 consumption terms.
- Threat Resource/Economic: The principal threat to the UK is that the nation is not self-sufficient in energy, resources or food. Therefore, the UK economy is highly dependent upon international free markets and the uninterrupted flow of trade – 92% of which transits to and from the UK by sea. In particular the nation’s energy- fuel stocks provide less than one month reserves across the mix of product.
- ISSUE : How to defend UK’s lines of sea/air communications, domestic sea and air ports and trading partners to ensure an uninterrupted free flow of imports and exports with a 19 destroyer and frigate fleet and zero long range maritime patrol aircraft? Whilst diplomacy is key (soft power influence) what if this fails? What level of flexible and hard power (NATO, Allies, UK armed force) are we prepared to fund out of area – ie Horn of Africa, the Middle East and East China Sea?
It is instructive to note that as DS was conducting this review the news headlines began to speak of a CO2 shortage leading to Christmas being cancelled! [The latter being a tad ironic given the object of COP26 is to eliminate CO2 from national emissions by some arbitrary date.] Then the second resource associated wave hit the UK: a shortage of HGV drivers caused minor panic in the public leading to garages running out of fuel.
It gives DS’s no pleasure to remind that we have been warning of this danger to UK from under resourcing essential national infrastructure and supplies. Shortages and panic are never far away when a ‘Just in Time’ reliant supply system has no reserves to fall back on. The undeniable connection between the current news headlines and a national dearth of Gas storage and fuel delivery infrastructure is instructive. DS was right to say that UK was far too reliant upon external delivery processes for power enablers and food and that UK lacked resilience with under 3 weeks of storage across a range of imported infrastructure enablers.
- Threat Asymmetric/Conventional Military: The UK military is reducing in size and capability to meet the future force 2020 (FF2020) order of battle (ORBAT) in the post Afghanistan era. The national security strategy (NSS) and HMG speak of a UK world wide role whilst at the same time placing more and more emphasis upon stabilisation, conflict prevention and humanitarian aid.
- ISSUE : The rhetoric emanating from within Whitehall is portrayed as one of ‘war weariness’, albeit there is little sign that this is proven public opinion, rather an excuse not to address the strategic defence issue. The approaching advent of a post Afghanistan era in particular is focussing attention away from ‘full spectrum capability’ towards stabilisation, conflict prevention and humanitarian activities primarily aimed at counter terrorism and failed state operations. Thus, HM armed forces are in danger of being structured to meet a low intensity threat with little or no ability to regenerate and sustain – or recover from – a peer on peer medium to high intensity war. The actuality of funding for FF2020, rather than HMG rhetoric, only providing the capacity and capability for HM armed forces to field a token expeditionary force. The importance of a wide ranging debate about the SDSR 2015 is vital in this respect to understand the role of Defence in future for the UK.
In addressing this broad subject area DS would draw on the most recent political, diplomatic and military debacle and simply say: Afghanistan, what was the Strategic Case that informed the military Strategy and Defence Planning Assumptions (DPA)?
- Threat Maritime/Land/Air: Albeit there is no immediately recognisable direct major threat of invasion of UK homeland it is recognised that allies (NATO), lines of communication, ports, air space and commerce are vulnerable. According to HMG, FF2020 is structured and funded to meet these threats albeit not all at the same time.
- ISSUE : As currently funded and configured FF2020 will only be capable of providing sufficient naval, air and land forces to either commit one brigade on an enduring low intensity stabilisation/conflict-prevention task OR to regroup by withdrawing from a current task to meet a one off divisional size short duration medium scale war fighting task. This situation calls into question the UK armed forces future ‘readiness’ posture given that in-place forces, reserves, regeneration capability, standby platforms and battle damage repair facilities are limited. Hence the nation’s ability to robustly respond to a ‘counter-surprise’ threat – a NATO Article 5 – is seriously undermined.
It is not easy to define exactly where, when or why but following SDSR 2010 the Defence Planning Assumptions (DPA), which used to be a more open document pre SDSR 2015, became secret. Therefore, whilst DS could say up to 2014 what in broad terms the UK Armed Forces were funded to do on a big hand small map basis this is no longer possible. What we can deduce is that as the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are all to be significantly further reduced following the 2021 Integrated Review and Command Paper any idea that the UK can field a divisional strength land force with air, combat support and combat service support, without several months warning and deployment time, is a case of hope over experience.