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It is ironic that the government’s stated top priority – the defence and security of the UK – should receive more attention after the election than during it. Lord Robertson’s recent article in the Scottish Review shows how urgent a greater focus on national defence is. Entitled ‘Seven Steps to a Better World’, it neatly skewers the complacency that has led us to assume a ‘peace dividend’ when we are in fact in an era of great power competition. Thus, the announced intent of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Dominic Cummings to conduct the most profound review of defence and foreign policy since 1945 is to be welcomed.
Moreover, the parliamentary majority the current government enjoys means that it has a good chance to be in power for not one but two consecutive electoral terms, so mistakes made in any review could come back to haunt the Johnson government for the rest of this decade. Given Cummings’ desire for accountability in government, it is therefore very much in his - as well as the government’s - interests to get this right. What follows are five suggestions as to how this review should be conducted, important precisely because they have not been followed in recent reviews.
Who is in Charge?
A serious review of how to counter the threats to the UK needs a clearly identified person in charge. At present, the National Security Adviser (NSA) Mark Sedwill is both NSA and Chief Secretary to the Cabinet. Cummings intends to re-shape Whitehall so this arrangement is likely to prove unworkable as well as inappropriate for a serious review, for it involves a conflict of interest. The NSA needs to be staffed and empowered to create governmental plans and enforce them across government.
Since the end of the Cold War, the threats this country has faced have multiplied and diversified. The 2010 Security and Defence Review was the first to recognise this; the 2020 review should have a similar scope, not least as this administration aspires to a ‘Global Britain’ agenda which must have a governmental rather than departmental focus.
Go Slow, Go Deep
A review is better done correctly than rapidly. The word is that ‘much work has already been done’ on the next review but this will be the normal cost re-profiling of inherited or planned projects. In post-austerity Britain, inherited resource constraints need to be challenged. More profoundly, a new government with a new mandate and ambitious global policy objectives needs to take time to make achieving these post-Brexit objectives a reality and allocate the resources required to close the gap between external realities and government policy ambitions. Only if these three (ambitions, realities and resources) are coherent will Cummings produce a strategic plan; otherwise it will be an illusion for which he will be held accountable.
Review Command-and-Control Settings for Hybrid Crises
Crucially, the review needs to recognise that the narrative of ‘threats’ which this country may face – the usual parlance in such defence reviews – is in itself a delusion; it implies a contingency, but the reality is that we are in conflict now, and have been for some years. Chinese and Russian doctrines indicate how they intend to undermine the West. Manifestations of hybrid warfare (the Skripal attacks, electoral interference, cyber attacks, ‘little green men’ now re-appearing in Libya as deniable Russian agents) indicate we are in a contested campaign now whether we like it or not and need to respond accordingly. Both China and Russia have a command-and-control set up to match their ongoing campaign; the UK does not. We have a highly effective crisis management organisation which is mobilised in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR) in reaction to a crisis, but no national operations room to proactively challenge the threats the UK now faces. A ‘COBR in permanent session’ would be a quick win for a new government looking to show early effect.
The other key role of this body would be to direct the delivery of the Review’s plan. Writing a plan is relatively easy; delivering it, when the variables keep changing, is the hardest part. Fluid campaign management across government over time would be a worthy challenge for a new government wishing to make its mark on history.
An All-Government Effort
Cummings’ wider ambitions for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department for International Development and Department for International Trade fit well into this model of more centralised governmental campaign planning and execution. The howls of anguish are already being heard across Whitehall. These howls should encourage Cummings to press on with renewed energy.
A properly funded, coherent and comprehensive British defence and security plan should replace the Robertson review of 1998 as the benchmark for future reviews. And that in itself would be a huge achievement.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, former Chief of the Air Staff.
Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, lately Deputy Chief of Defence Staff and former RUSI Vice-President.
Major General Jonathan Shaw, previously Director Special Forces and, subsequently, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff.
Antony Hichens, lately Chairman of DS Smith PLC, the UK-based paper manufacturer.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Ministry of Defence.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.