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Re-thinking Defence in the 21st Century
Thank you very much for that introduction, Malcolm, and may I start by saying what a privilege it is for me to speak here today?
I’m going to start by quoting a line from the Tory manifesto in 2015, and a line from the Labour manifesto.
See if you can guess which is which.
“The first duty of government is to keep you safe”, says one.
“The primary duty of any government is the defence of the nation and its interests”, says the other.
For once, it’s a good thing that there’s actually hardly any difference between the Labour and Tory manifestos.
It means that no matter which party is in government, that commitment to the primacy of defending the nation will never be in doubt.
What strikes me though, in my second month as Shadow Secretary of State, is that the moment we start getting into detail, the debate on defence becomes much more complex, and frankly more contentious.
For most of the last century we knew exactly the kinds of threats we were facing, and, importantly, we had a pretty good idea of what we needed to do to deter them.
The same cannot be said today.
Risks have been evolving in recent years; some with almost unimaginable speed.
And at the same time, new threats have emerged, often with little or no warning.
Despite the best of intentions, successive governments have not always been quick enough to adapt to this changing environment.
As most of you probably know, I’ve been asked by Jeremy Corbyn to lead a review into Labour’s defence and security policy.
A review, by definition, is something that looks back at recent events and how we have responded to them.
So an important part of my work is to draw conclusions, based on the evidence, about what we have done well in confronting security threats over recent years, but also at what we could have done better.
Of course, even more important than learning lessons is how we then apply them to an uncertain future.
And so, in my review, I want to do more than simply looking back.
I want to look forward too; to try and stimulate a debate, and start to build consensus around a new strategy; for keeping Britain safe in the 21st century, maintaining our global role, and adapting to a rapidly changing environment.
It’s been said before that Whitehall simply doesn’t “do” strategy, and it isn’t hard to see why.
But if we accept that there is no responsibility more important than defence, we have also to accept that we must not shy away from the challenge.
In considering the concept of strategy more fully, I want to say a few words about this blue book that’s been my bedtime reading recently.
Its official title is: “National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015”.
That seems to me to be a singularly inappropriate title for a document that, much like its predecessor, isn’t really strategic at all.
The Commons’ Defence Committee has defined strategy as: “a course of action integrating ends, ways and means to meet policy objectives.”
That seems as good a definition as any.
My quarrel with the current administration is less in terms of its ability to identify the right sort of objectives, which in many respects is the easy bit.
What I am less impressed by is their ability to identify and deploy the ways and means that make those objectives achievable.
The SDSR that was published in 2010, when the coalition was first elected, is a case in point.
This, famously, was the so-called “strategy” which first gave us aircraft carriers without any aircraft, and then left us with no aircraft carriers at all; which scrapped the Nimrod MRA4 programme, leaving us unable to patrol our own waters; which cut the size of the navy’s surface fleet by a sixth, and the size of the army by a fifth; and which pretended that all of that could be done without any “shrinkage of our influence” on the international stage.
That was a spectacularly optimistic assumption, which turned out to be just as spectacularly wrong.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated that, when taken together, the cuts announced in 2010 meant a reduction of between 20 and 30 per cent in our military capabilities.
With five years’ hindsight, that estimate doesn’t look too far off the mark.
Our army is now at its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars.
Its size has been cut by a fifth since 2010; and this has been done, as we all know, for purely financial reasons and without proper consideration of the implications.
As we have been cutting our own army so drastically, not everyone else has been doing the same.
Russia, for example, is now capable of deploying up to 150,000 troops within 72 hours.
Based on current planning, a NATO force of equivalent size could take up to six months to assemble.
And most importantly for us, only a fraction of it would be British.
Compare the situation today to that of 32 years ago, when Britain sent almost 58,000 troops to take part in a single NATO exercise called Lionheart.
Last year when a major exercise was held in Poland, we managed to send just 800.
It isn’t just the army that’s still dealing with the consequences of the 2010 SDSR.
The Royal Navy is now relying on a fleet of Destroyers which are liable to break down in the middle of operations because of a sudden power cut.
And the RAF campaign in Syria and Iraq is dependent on aircraft which are 40 years old –
few people’s idea of the best platform in 2016.
Without the maritime patrol capability that was lost when Nimrod was cut up and sold for scrap, we have left it to the Canadians and the US to help us track Russian submarines off the coast of Scotland.
And we are still as many as ten years away from having a full carrier strike capability.
It is no wonder, then, that a senior military figure quoted in the press at the time described the 2010 review as “a fig leaf with the word ‘strategy’ written on it”.
Many were expecting the 2015 review to be just as bad, and were relieved when it turned out not to be.
I think Malcolm described last year’s SDSR as a “steady as she goes” review.
But to say that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, is not to say very much for it.
Because the truth is that we are still recovering from the damage done in the last five years.
Some of it may be repaired in the next five, but by no means all.
And some of the capabilities we have lost may never be recovered.
But beyond its failure to properly clean up this mess, what I think may have been the most fundamental flaw in last year’s review was its failure to address the underlying problem:
the absence of a genuine strategy to underpin the entire approach.
As I have said, a strategy should start by looking at threats before moving onto the capabilities needed to respond to them.
Terrorism & failed states:
There is one threat in particular that has done more, perhaps than any other, to change the way we think about defence and security in recent years.
When I was first elected as an MP, within months I lost 13 people from Islington to a terrorist attack on 7/7.
The attacks came as a brutal shock, not just to the families and communities directly affected, to my local community, but to the entire country.
Back then, we were still getting to grips with a new threat which was radically different from what we had faced before.
In the twentieth century, we usually thought of threats in terms of hostile governments in foreign countries.
In the twenty-first, we are more likely to be kept awake at night by the possibility of seemingly random attacks by small groups or individuals, acting on their own initiative and not under the direction of any state or authority, or even any recognisable group such as the IRA, which had a clear structure and political agenda.
Unlike traditional state-based threats, terrorism may be largely invisible until it is too late.
This new form of terrorism does not respect international borders, it is harder to predict, and it is harder to trace once an attack has occurred.
But although our understanding of the changing environment has improved, we have not yet been able to stop the new terrorist threat itself from growing.
So one thing we clearly need to get better at is tackling the root causes of violent extremism,
instead of just dealing with its consequences.
As the rise of Daesh has reminded us, we can no longer think of the collapse of governments or armed conflict, in failed or failing states, as purely somebody else’s problem.
In his foreword to the then-Labour government’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review, George Robertson, who was Secretary of State at the time, wrote that:
“In the post Cold War world, we must be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us.”
Today, it might be added that it is also in our national interest to do a better job of stopping so many international crises from breaking out in the first place.
We know that poor governance and armed conflict are by far the most significant drivers of radicalisation – which may not only be based on distortions of religion, but can be social or economic as well.
But we also know, from past experience, that tackling these drivers is extraordinarily complex.
Where the roots of the problem are political, we should look for political solutions and not just military ones.
And when we do consider military action, we need to make sure that we have properly thought through the consequences – especially where there is the potential for ripple effects to cause further destabilisation.
For example, in south-east Asia in the 1960s, and in sub-Saharan African in the 90s, we saw how conflicts that began in individual countries, like Vietnam and Rwanda, could rapidly spill over into the surrounding regions.
Today we are seeing the same dynamic in the Middle East and North Africa; whether it is the knock-on effects of the conflict in Libya on Chad and Niger, or the spread of violence from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Lebanon. In both cases, we see the resulting ungoverned space ruthlessly exploited by Daesh.
Of course, forecasting all the possible consequences of military interventions is much easier said than done.
But as the world continues to grow smaller, we should not allow ourselves to duck the questions which don’t have easy answers.
At the same time as we re-evaluate the nature of the threats we face, we also have to start recognising the ways in which new and emerging technologies are changing the nature of conflict itself.
We have just marked the five-year anniversary of the Arab Spring.
The protests we witnessed in 2011 were profoundly influenced by the use of social media platforms which had barely even been invented five years before.
Now, with the rise of Daesh, we are grappling with the threat of a murderous terrorist movement which has been brutally effective in its use of these same platforms as a tool for boosting recruitment and spreading its vile propaganda.
Or consider cyber attack – a phrase which didn’t even exist until the early 1990s.
By 2015, as the Financial Times recently reported, the Ministry of Defence itself was fending off “hundreds if not thousands” of attempted cyber attacks every single day.
Probably the most significant turning point in the interim years came in 2007.
That year, in Estonia, we witnessed what was probably the first ever instance of an attack launched by one state against another, entirely in cyberspace.
Since then, we have seen cyber operations conducted by states and non-state groups across a vast spectrum, from state-sponsored espionage to crude propaganda wars.
In some cases, like the alleged theft of the new F35 aircraft designs, the implications for our conventional defences are enormous.
But the threat is to civilian life as well, and could involve disruption to services as essential as electricity or water in the event of an attack on our Critical National Infrastructure.
These are developments which fundamentally challenge traditional definitions of conflict,
as well as the associated rules and norms of conduct.
Whether or not we can adequately respond to these challenges is likely to be the crucial test of our defence policies in the twenty-first century.
I’ve said quite a lot about what I generally refer to as “new” threats.
But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that some of the “old” threats haven’t necessarily gone away either.
Far from it.
We cannot simply dismiss the threat of hostility from foreign governments as a relic of the twentieth century.
I am reminded of that on a regular basis as I ask people, as part of my review, about the issues that most concern them.
What comes up, perhaps more than any other topic, is Russia.
Partly the perception is based on recent experience.
Events in Georgia and in Crimea have shown Putin’s interest in expanding Russia’s sphere of influence, and his willingness to use military force in order to do so.
But beyond that, the fear that Russia often provokes can also be seen as an understandable reaction to words and images that, in many cases, had not until recently been seen or heard since the Cold War.
The rhetoric is increasingly strident, and cannot be dismissed entirely as grand-standing for domestic audiences.
And the images we see – whether of Russian jets flying off the coast of Cornwall, or of submarines in the North Sea – can be deeply unsettling.
Against this background, it is perhaps understandable that some would not even contemplate a re-think of Britain’s current strategy on nuclear weapons.
But it is incumbent on all of us, I think, to try to look at this issue from a pragmatic point of view rather than an ideological one.
We must ask ourselves whether the cost of four new submarines – which is more than an entire year’s defence budget – will prove sufficient value for money in the long term,
especially if it has to come at the expense of other crucial investments in our defences.
Moreover, we also need to consider the scope of the technological advances we are likely to see over the next 20 or 30 years, and we must ask whether, if we are going to commit ourselves to the current platform for the next three decades, we can really be sure that it is future-proof.
These are the kinds of questions my defence review is considering.
So when I talk to people who tell me that they’re worried about Russia, I can completely understand where they’re coming from.
But I also believe that we need to ask ourselves whether it is right to place our trust in one single weapons system to deter all threats and to protect us in all circumstances,
and if we do, whether the platform we currently have is necessarily the right one.
These kinds of debates about capabilities usually revolve around platforms,
or the latest piece of kit.
But as I come to the end of my remarks, I want to move the discussion further towards thinking about what more we can do with our people.
The renowned military historian, Sir Michael Howard, recently said:
“There are three things we are going to need for future wars: geeks, spooks and thugs. The back-room computer geeks capable of dealing with cyberwar; spooks to provide intelligence, which is always vital; and thugs – special forces – small numbers of very able, very ruthless, sophisticated soldiers prepared to go everywhere.”
While his description of special forces as “thugs” is not one I would use, the overarching point is well taken. So while maintaining the conventional forces at our disposal, and ensuring that they are properly resourced, we will also need to focus more on those vital specialisms – cyber experts, intelligence operatives and special forces – in the years to come.
We are increasingly looking towards the ideal of a multi-purpose force – civilian and military – which is capable of doing many things, in many places,
at almost all times.
“Adaptability” seems in many ways to be the Holy Grail of current thinking on defence and security policy.
But adaptability, I think, has to mean adaptable people above all.
Not to return to the language of the party manifestos, but if we believe – as I’m sure everyone in this room does – that the most important duty of any government is to defend the nation, then it follows that the most important debate we can have as a country is about how best to do so, both now and in the decades to come.
This is undoubtedly a debate where we need the benefit of your expertise and ideas.
You will recall that when the government originally launched a consultation on its so-called Strategic Defence and Security Review, submissions were limited to around 200 words.
I can assure you that there is no word limit when it comes to receiving your input to Labour’s defence review.
And even if we only have limited time for questions and comments today, I look forward to speaking to as many of you as possible in more depth over the coming weeks and months.
Thank you for your time today, and let the debate begin.
Emily Thornberry MP is the Labour Member of Parliament for Islington South and Finsbury. After working as a barrister for twenty years, she was first elected in 2005 and was re-elected in 2010 and 2015, increasing her majority each time. Emily has held a number of front bench roles, shadowing the Departments of Health, Energy & Climate Change and Work & Pensions, in addition to serving between 2011 and 2014 as Shadow Attorney General. She was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Defence in January 2016.