Main Image Credit A Russian Bear bomber is escorted by a Royal Air Force Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Typhoon from RAF Lossiemouth. Courtesy of Ministry of Defence
The new National Security Capabilities Review might engage the public in thinking about its role in protecting the UK in contrast to perceiving the military as primarily for going far away to fight foreign wars.
Announced in the summer of 2017, the UK government’s National Security Capabilities Review (NSCR) led by the National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill is supposed to examine the policy and plans across government to deliver the national security strategy and to ensure that investment in the necessary capabilities is efficient and effective.
The Review includes thirteen strands, but it is the defence strand that has received the most media attention. In part, this reflects the very real challenge of managing the defence budget which, while the details are disputed, remains unaffordable.
A raft of new capabilities is planned to be brought into service, including advanced armoured fighting vehicles, frigates, fast jets and maritime patrol aircraft the costs of some of which have been negatively affected by changes in the sterling–dollar exchange rate.
While there are some calls for an increase in defence spending to reflect the new range of threats, given the position of the Conservative government on public spending and other priorities, such as health and education, an increase seems extremely unlikely.
Inevitably when resources are limited, this sparks competition between the individual services and this has been reflected in the leaking of developing plans from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and interventions by recently retired senior ex-service personnel.
What appears to be absent is any meaningful conversation around the defence contribution to the homeland
Part of the problem is that the MoD and government have kept the review close to their chest, which provides a space for both speculation and advocacy. The baseline remains that established in the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (NSS and SDSR), which recognises threats including terrorism both overseas at home and the resurgence of state-based threats, most notably that from Russia.
Thus, it might be argued that UK defence needs to focus on capabilities that are expeditionary in nature, whether that is to contribute to international efforts to counter terrorism in Africa, the greater Middle East and elsewhere or to participate in deterrent efforts in Europe alongside NATO allies.
Indeed, much of the public debate has been around these sorts of capabilities, whether it is the necessity to maintain a fleet of amphibious shipping to allow the UK to deliver a force across a beach or the future of 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade, the primary elements of an early-entry capability.
However, what appears to be absent is any meaningful conversation around the defence contribution to the homeland.
Over the past two decades, the UK armed forces have largely been involved in counterinsurgency and related counter-piracy and counter-proliferation operations. These have had an impact in the home base in the form of a series of terrorist attacks.
However, apart from the temporary deployment of armed personnel on UK city streets to protect key facilities under Operation Temperer, the criminalisation of domestic terrorism means this is largely distanced from the military effort.
More routinely, Royal Air Force Typhoons and Royal Navy ships maintain the integrity of the UK’s airspace and territorial waters, with the latter also making a substantial contribution to fishery protection. This last task is likely to become even more challenging with Brexit.
In addition, the armed forces are often called upon to assist the civilian authorities in the event of crises, whether strike action by fire fighters or fuel tanker drivers, or flooding or other natural disasters, such as the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. However, despite these significant contributions, the apparent focus remains substantially on the need for expeditionary capabilities.
The risks extend beyond cyber attacks to acts of sabotage, as well as the threat from ballistic and cruise missiles
While the current tension with Russia is not a repeat of the Cold War, it is worth reflecting that the military role in homeland defence was much more explicit at that time. The UK had a key role as a base for US forces operating in support of NATO, and as an entry point for reinforcements coming from North America.
There was a very effective system in place that understood the key points in the critical national infrastructure and the role for the military in protecting those, and which integrated national and local government with the military and civilian agencies.
Understandably, given the lack of a substantive threat to the homeland, much of this system has become moribund and defining what comprises the critical national infrastructure has changed substantially since the end of the Cold War with the advent of the information age.
While not a full-scale security and defence review, the NSCR would seem a heaven-sent opportunity for the UK to rediscover the importance of homeland defence
In her Mansion House speech in November 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May reflected on Russia’s and others’ challenge to the UK. She noted the way in which the information age had provided opportunities for those who wished to destabilise the UK to do so at a distance whether through interfering in political processes or indeed threatening that critical national infrastructure through malicious activity in cyberspace.
This was also reflected in a speech at RUSI by Chief of the Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach last month, and the risk to the UK in the event of a major confrontation between Russia and NATO was highlighted at RUSI’s Warfare in the Information Age Conference in September.
This risk extends beyond cyber attacks to acts of sabotage, as well as the threat from ballistic and cruise missiles. With the focus in NATO being on the application of modern deterrence to reduce the risk of conflict, a credible defence of the UK is an essential element.
Elsewhere in Europe, states are rediscovering the necessity and benefits of an integrated approach to defence. In 2016, Sweden reopened its policy of total defence seeking to bring more cohesive planning to its military and civilian defence effort at both the national and local levels.
Denmark also espouses a total defence approach and in the Home Guard has a part-time, unpaid volunteer force. In the UK, recent suggestions that the Border Force could be complemented by an auxiliary force of volunteers was met with derision in the media.
However, while not a full-scale security and defence review, the NSCR would seem a heaven-sent opportunity for the UK to rediscover the importance of homeland defence. This would be a vital balance to the focus on expeditionary military capabilities, and would provide an opportunity to redevelop a more integrated approach across the military and civilian sectors.
This might open the door to more creative ways of thinking about how necessary capabilities are organised and delivered, recognising that some of our allies may have valuable examples for us to follow.
Lastly, it might also engage the public in thinking about its role in protecting the UK in contrast to perceiving the military as primarily for going far away to fight foreign wars.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.