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Just as the UK government announced the launch of its Integrated Review, the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the country. It is a vivid reminder that societal resilience must play a vital role in the formulation of the UK’s national security strategy.
As the tally of casualties from coronavirus started mounting last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a Cobra meeting. He emerged labelling the virus ‘the worst public health crisis in a generation’ and calling on the public to ‘commit wholeheartedly to a national effort’.
But calling for a national effort after a crisis is already underway is too late. Even though many Britons may wish to follow the prime minister’s advice, they have not been trained in what a national crisis effort may entail. They must be informed ahead of time what, exactly, their contribution should be. Indeed, any national crisis effort must involve both preparedness and crisis response, which is why it must be given serious consideration in the Integrated Review. That is all the more important given that the UK – like other liberal democracies – will continue to be hit by domestic contingencies of the coronavirus magnitude, or even worse. They may be caused by nature or hostile states, but their disruptive effect on society will be the same.
In its 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, the UK government states that ‘[w]e will expand and deepen the Government’s partnership with the private and voluntary sectors, and with communities and individuals, as it is on these relationships that the resilience of the UK ultimately rests. We will concentrate in particular on improving the resilience of our CNI [critical national infrastructure], our energy security and our resilience to major flooding’, the document states.
That is a worthy ambition; indeed, as the coronavirus pandemic has shown, partnerships with communities and especially individuals are vital if the country is to contain the effects of any contingency. The partnerships with the public outlined in the 2015 strategy have, however, not materialised, perhaps because the UK lacks a structure through which to conduct such tie-ups.
In recent months, this author has proposed competitive national service for teenagers based on Norway’s successful competitive national service model. The UK model that I have proposed would involve not just the armed forces but all government agencies involved in national security, including the NHS, which would be able to select the best 18-year-olds for training. The trainees would subsequently join a reserve and would be available for service during crises. With such a system in place, the NHS would now have thousands of trained nursing staff on which to fall back.
For more rudimentary training, I have proposed resilience training for teenagers. With such training in place, the UK would have a critical mass of residents with knowledge of what to do during a crisis. The skills would not only benefit the individuals themselves, their families and local communities but also ease the burden on the national government. In addition, as the training graduates would be included in a command-and-control system, government agencies would have access to them in contingency situations. The current coronavirus outbreak demonstrates the desirability of such a corps of citizens trained in the fundamentals of preparedness and emergency response.
UK cadet forces used to function in a similar manner: those trained as cadets could deploy as part of government contingency measures. That is, however, no longer the case. Cadets are trained by the government but, to put it plainly, are of no use to it during contingencies. And that is a missed opportunity.
Resilience matters because national security threats are changing. The UK and other liberal democracies must, of course, maintain credible defence against kinetic threats, but these are – as cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns have demonstrated over the past few years – no longer the only form of aggression against which our countries must defend themselves. A fundamental question the Integrated Review must answer is what that defence should look like and who should be part of it. Given the range of the new threats, the threats’ primarily non-kinetic nature and the fact that they mostly target civil society, it stands to reason that the defence against them cannot be carried out solely by the armed forces or even the wider government.
The competitive national service for highly able teenagers, which allows each part of the government involved in national security in the wider sense to select a small number of teenagers and train them in specialist skills – is one answer to the question. With this model, each government agency involved would have access to a trained reserve force which it can use in contingency situations. As much of the defence could involve no offensive components but simply a collective effort to soften the blow of the aggression, resilience training for a large number of teenagers is another answer. It would train a large number of people in basic skills currently not widely available among the UK population. Indeed, in responding to the coronavirus outbreak, French President Emmanuel Macron highlighted as a solution the mobilisation of teenagers and students.
The Integrated Review aims to address not just defence and security, but foreign policy as well – and to project the government’s Global Britain ambitions. Involving citizens in national security is not vital to the country’s security, but it is also an asset to Global Britain. Appropriately trained young people could, for example, volunteer for duty in a crisis-stricken country turning to the UK for assistance.
The UK enjoys a well-deserved reputation for pioneering national security thinking. At a time when national security threats are rapidly changing, the UK can cement this reputation through pioneering actions of a kind otherwise attempted only by certain Nordic and Baltic countries.
Elisabeth Braw is a Senior Research Fellow and leads RUSI’s Modern Deterrence Programme.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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