If the UK is to avoid its finite defence resources being spread across multiple risk area in increasingly thinner layers it must prioritise, and learn to live with consequences. Some discussion on those risks is needed. Those risks will have impact, likelihood and timescale characteristics, and any risk analysis would also look at opportunities in addressing them.
Recruitment and Retention
Society changes, people change, but an indisputable fact is that capability rests on people. With constant bad news stories, there is a risk that the armed forces become decreasingly attractive as a career option.
Civilian and uniformed personnel in defence and their families are the backbone of capability. All the shiny toys in the world are useless unless we have committed and engaged personnel that are not taken advantage of or abused, see a career and vocation, not a job, and have partners that allow them to serve the nation without being disadvantaged because of it.
I cannot stress this enough.
Realistic training, a sense of being valued, good remuneration, partner employment options, a lack of petty regulation, not being persecuted by the legal profession, being treated like adults, decent accommodation and food and basic administrative systems that work all contribute to the objective of making people want to join, and perhaps more importantly, stay.
All three services are under-manned, clearly, there is a problem with recruitment and retention. Diversity, continued education and perhaps even flexible working for some trades are all good, but there are other fundamentals that need to be addressed.
There is no joy in saying this because reducing personnel means making them redundant, changing their lives and stopping them doing what they desire, and in no way should be viewed lightly. But if it creates a sustainable career and family life for those remain, instead of just continually asking them to do more and more with less and less then it is something that has to be considered.
Not only does defence have to shape and be shaped by the environment in which it resides, it must also anticipate future changes in readiness for when they may occur. The DCDC Strategic Trends programme publication ‘Future Operating Environment’ reviews and analyses likely threats and potential deployment scenarios to 2035 but was BREXIT predicted, the rise of ISIS or Russia getting back into the nation-state game, did anyone a few years ago understand the impact of cryptocurrencies and Blockchain technology, when did the global finance regulatory bodies warn about an impending financial crash? Predicting the future is difficult bordering on the impossible which makes publishing a document with a 25-year horizon interesting, but we should be wary of betting the farm on it.
Without veering too far into Donald Rumsfeld territory (or is it a Dunning-Kruger Black Swan!), there are threats as yet unknown and trends yet to be revealed.
This does create a problem, almost any capability at any scale could be justified on the basis of ‘well you never know’, but still, it is important to recognise unpredictability and our generally woeful ability to predict the future.
There is no doubt BREXIT will be a significant issue for the UK, NATO, European NATO Nations, the EU and European nations that are in NATO and/or the EU to deal with.
There are two principle risks with BREXIT, one related to finance and the other to the security of Europe.
The devaluation of the Pound will make imported defence equipment more expensive. It is important however to note that large and complex programmes like the F-35, P-8 or Apache will have an equally large and complex set of payment arrangements, profiles and assumptions. The Treasury will do some hedging but as with all these things, it is about degrees. Currency fluctuation is not unusual in long-duration projects and the Treasury have a range of instruments and techniques to deal with them. The F-35 for example; in 2007 when the UK ordered CVF, the Pound was worth just under $2. When the UK announced in 2015 it would order the full 138 F-35’s, it was $1.48. By March 2016, it was down to about $1.42. After the Brexit plunge, it has stabilised at around $1.35 but who knows what it will be over the lifecycle of some of the larger projects. The simple fact of the matter is equipment from the USA will be more expensive than previously. Future plans have also been based on a budget predicated on a forecast of national economic growth. Although the percentage of GDP is often used to describe defence spending one does not buy things with percentages. These predictions will have tolerances but if the post-Brexit economy contracts outside of those tolerances then there will potentially be less real term cash for the MoD.
Of more concern for all is the potential for defence relations to be harmed. Much has been said on this and much is yet to be said, it is not time to break out the fainting couches just yet, despite the rather ill-timed and unfortunately timed intervention from Michel Barnier about the UK in Europe’s fight against ISIS terrorism on the same day Theresa May was in Iraq discussing the UK’s significant (and largest in Europe) contribution to the fight against ISIS. This was both inflammatory and clumsy and elicited a strong response regardless of intent.
Despite that, cool heads on grown-up shoulders are needed to remind both the UK and the EU that the collective defence and security of Europe is a serious game with harsh offside rules.
There are some points that need to be fully understood.
Defence alliances depend on two things and two things only, the will and the wallet.
The UK’s will to contribute to Europe’s wider security is both in its interest and the right thing to do for allies within a collective defence environment that has a rich history of shared sacrifice. The will to defend a Europe that includes the UK is and should be absolutely undiminished by all and all should continually make that point.
But here is the blunt part…
Defence and security is very much dependant on the economy, the UK’s economy is very much dependant on the nature of any future trading relationship with the EU. Should that trading relationship be needlessly damaged it will reduce funding available for defence? If, as some predict, there will be a rapid and significant adverse economic impact to the UK, the Government will have to find significant funding for emergency measures, medium-term economic stimulus and unemployment benefit costs. Given the lack of MoD exceptionalism described in the first part of this series, the MoD will be invited to contribute to the costs of those short to medium term measures.
A smaller ‘wallet’ means less defence for Europe at a time when it needs more, regardless of the ‘will’
If a poorly managed exit generates significant financial impact a blame game will be played out. Why should British blood and British treasure be put on the line for those who have been active in damaging the British economy will be the cry? Regardless of your position on Brexit, your thoughts on the acceptability or validity of this position, it is as predictable as night following day that it will happen. It would be argued that given the UK is part of Europe and when Europe is threatened the UK is threatened so regardless of BREXIT, our commitment should remain in both will and wallet. Good luck with convincing the British people of that, especially when the opposition party now has much stronger anti-Trident and anti-NATO views.
SDSR 2010 had barely a mention of Russia, four of them, and two of those were in the Glossary. ‘Russia blindness’ was not confined to the UK with perhaps the best illustration of it coming during the US 2012 Presidential Election.
SDSR 2015 upped the count to twenty-five but the reality is the UK and others failed to take Russia seriously whilst allowing the EU and NATO to expand east, expecting no response. The pride and resilience of Russia and their status as a great power downplayed or ignored.
This was foolish, but what threat does Russia pose now?
The Russian economy is not in rude health, is based largely on the extractive industries and beset with corruption and low productivity. Its single greatest strategic threat is US non-conventional oil and gas but none of that means all of a sudden there will be a clamour for less defence spending. The West tends to under-estimate the degree of hardship the Russian people will endure and the resilience of its current leadership. Russia devotes a large part of its wealth to defence and manages to produce a wide range of equipment, much of it every bit as good as equivalent NATO nations.
- Improvements and modernisation in strategic nuclear forces
- Introduction of the Borei (Dolgorukiy) ballistic missile submarine
- Iskander-M and Kalibr cruise missiles
- Bastion shore defence missiles protected by S-400 air defence missile systems
- Launched 55 military satellites in the last 5 years
- 16 air defence regiments upgraded to the S-400
- New deliveries of aircraft at the rate of 200 per year
- 60 new naval vessels in the last 5 years
- 3,000 new armoured vehicles delivered
- New command and control systems implemented
- 1,800 new unmanned aircraft
- UAV based radio jamming equipment
- High levels of readiness and an increasing move away from conscription
In addition to these conventional capabilities, Russia has clearly shown an ability in cyber and information operations. These threats cannot be seen in isolation, neatly boxed off that allows defence to handle one and the security services the other. The west should not ignore Russian meddling in its politics but should also be very wary of over-reacting and ascribe a degree of actual influence over recent elections and the EU Referendum that it did not have. Over-reacting will likely be counterproductive as it becomes a matter of party and cultural politics instead of security. This is already evident in the ‘Russians made me do it’ comedy memes one can easily find and the over-amplification of issues in partisan media outlets.
Threats are likely to be greater the closer one is to Russia, probably fair to say Lithuania faces a greater threat than Portugal, both members of NATO. The threat ranges from a hugely increased level of submarine activity in the North Atlantic to blended cyber-attacks and information warfare in the Baltic States. It is a complex threat.
To counter this evolving spectrum of threats from Russia, NATO, the EU and individual nations are increasing defence spending, improving equipment and readiness, and innovating in response to unconventional and conventional threats alike. Even Sweden and Finland are increasing cooperation with NATO, all this is good, although we can argue the pace of change isn’t fast enough given the ground many NATO members have to recover.
Instability in Africa and the Middle East
The conflict in Libya exacerbated an already fragile security situation by releasing huge quantities of arms and munitions into the area. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Mourabitoun and Boko Haram are all active, and all creating mayhem and conflict. Boko Haram, as just one example, killed 11,000 people in 2015, the scale is staggering. The French intervention in Mali came as a result of attacks by no less than five separate Islamist groups for example. The rivalry between Al Qaeda, ISIS and other Islamist groups is often intertwined with decades-old local conflict.
On top of this; corruption, water scarcity, religious extremism, transnational crime, piracy, migration exploitation, conflict minerals, great power shenanigans, human trafficking, illegal fishing, poor governance and poaching, Africa has it all. The net result is increased migration to Europe, illegal trafficking and an attendant increase in security threats for Europe.
The UK is already engaged in Somalia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and other locations across the area in addition to providing ongoing support for France who has a more formal operation across the Sahel called Operation Bharkane. Italy has also been quietly working in Libya to reduce the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.
There does seem to be a feeling that Iraq may be returning to some level of stability after ISIS but the wider Middle East is still in a perpetual state of conflict. Saudi Arabian and Iranian funded proxies continue to corrupt and destabilise nations. Whether the ancient Shia/Sunni conflict will continue to find release in proxy conflicts or explode into full-on war is not clear but whatever happens, the UK has direct interests in the region and any number of indirect interests.
Significant quantities of natural gas and refined petrochemical products are imported into the UK from the region and many Middle East nations are important trading partners, both for import and export.
Wider conflict in the area would likely result in global economic impact.