The House of Commons Defence Select committee has published its short report on the steps and progress made towards establishing the next Defence and Security Review in 2015. It can be found here and makes for compelling reading - LINK HERE. Although it gained headlines in the UK for suggesting that unless there was continued investment in defence spending, the UK would cease to be relevant as a power, it is worth reading for its wider discussions on the role of strategy and where the UK should focus its attention in the next review.
From the outset the review sought to portray the SDSR of 2010 as a purely cost driven and not strategy driven review. There is no doubt that it had to be though – anyone who was familiar with the parlous state of defence finances in the latter part of the last decade will recall the near permanent state of hand to mouth existence. With the review itself coming on the back of a global financial crisis, placing the UK in a perilous economic position, there was simply no way that the MOD could continue as planned without restructuring. While it is easy to sit with the benefit of hindsight and say ‘no more reviews that are financially driven’, one must appreciate just how challenging things were in 2010 to appreciate why SDSR needed to happen.
As we look to the future though, we must ask ourselves whether it is actually possible to have a proper strategy in any meaningful sense of the word. Personally Humphrey dislikes the phrase strategy – it is applied too freely and too often to pieces of work, and joins his own lexicon of ‘buzz words’ which he’d dearly love to see used less often (others being ‘swim lane’, ‘docking point’, ‘open kimono conversation’ to name but a few).
The problem with strategy is that to the author, it implies a long term plan which sets out goals that are realistically achievable, and a desired end state. At its most simplest, one could argue that the UKs defence, security and foreign policy all exists to support a very simple strategy – namely secure the Kingdoms continued existence. The problem though is when we come to looking at all the other ‘strategies’ out there which seem to sit uneasily with each other. The challenge the UK has is that it is a global power in the sense that it has interests which extend across the globe – a balanced look at where the UK has external interests would show there are very few countries other than some Pacific islands and parts of north west Africa which the UK doesn’t have some kind of investment or interest in.
To create a strategy which pushes forward UK interests when all of these areas have the potential to cause challenges is extremely difficult indeed. Developments in one country or region will often have an impact far beyond, thus making achievement of a goal sometimes challenging. For instance, one only has to look at the changes in North Africa and the Middle East since the Arab Spring of 2011 – where a small event in Tunisia quickly led to a wider series of uprisings which in turn led to the UK going to war in Libya. While it is tempting to want to have some kind of omnipotent strategy which accepts this sort of change, and structures UK diplomatic, security and military responses accordingly, the reality is it is almost impossible to predict this sort of occurrence and mitigate for it.
At best, a national strategy for a nation with global interests can probably set out a fairly loose set of optimal outcomes (e.g. peace, stability, economic investment etc) rather than focusing on a detailed end state. It is hard in this day and age to have a detailed strategy when events in one continent, can easily derail your objectives in another. By contrast, smaller nations which may have a far more limited outlook on the world may paradoxically find it easier to have a focused national strategy. If one looks at the middle east for instance, many nations there have national strategies for the medium term (e.g. out to 2030 in some cases). In a region where you have clearly understood threats and challenges, it is relatively easy to shape your foreign and defence policy to meet them. Where it is much more challenging is where you have to focus across the globe on a variety of issues, where meeting one may in turn deny resources to resolve another. For instance, the UK has long had an excellent relationship with Belize, maintaining a training team there for many years plus until 2010 an Army Air Corps training flight. This helped support UK interests in the region – but to support wider UK interests elsewhere (namely balancing the budget and providing helicopters to support training elsewhere), 25 Flt was closed in 2010 and its airframes sent to Kenya to support pre-deployment training for Afghanistan. This helped achieve one sub component of national goals (namely train troops to help achieve success in Afghanistan), but came at the cost of damaged relationships with Belize, where the lack of the helicopters remains keenly felt to this day. Thus one sees how achieving a goal in one location can reduce our standing elsewhere.
In the UK Humphrey would argue that actually the strategy document underpinning the SDSR (the National Security Strategy found HERE ) is actually a pretty good attempt to summarise what the UK is trying to do with its tools of foreign policy. It recognises that fundamentally the UK has external interests, has tools to deal with them, but avoids being too prescriptive on where those interests may be, or how the goals and end states should be achieved.
The problem with having a very deep strategy which sets out in huge detail what your national goals are, and how you want to achieve them is that it rarely survives contact with events. If one looks at the NSS, what it does very well is summarise in 2010 what we know well in 2014, that the main threats to the UK are terrorism, cyberspace attacks, environmental challenges, and outright military action. You can easily see that the sort of threats facing the UK are primarily extra-territorial, and that the threat doesn’t come from one specific state or actor. Instead it will change regularly, and there needs to be a lot of flexibility to meet this. If you consider what sort of foreign and security policy challenges have faced the UK in the last few years, they all seem to be captured in some form by the NSS.
The other challenge to consider when looking at the formulation of strategy is of timescales in a democracy. Strategic goals should by definition be long term, and take many years to reach – it is ultimately about securing an end state. The world changes rapidly, but does not move quickly, and as such it can be difficult to have time to simultaneously absorb the many changes going on around you and react accordingly, but also to have time to understand how other nations are reacting. Arguably we are still seeing reaction now to the Arab Spring, nearly 3 years after it first started, and in that time much has occurred, but many nations policies are still in the throes of adapting or changing.
When you consider that most western democracies have an electoral cycle built around change every four – five years, and that this can often herald new governments with new ideas about how to achieve goals, you suddenly realise that the ability for any democratic nation to put in place a truly long term strategy is perhaps limited. As Governments change, views often change about where national interests sit, and how resources should be applied. One only has to look at the way that under the current UK Government the Gulf has occupied a much higher foreign policy priority than the previous one (which in turn had very different priorities to previous Governments) to realise that it is very hard to get continuity when it comes to strategy.
Couple this regular change to the constant churn of officials in the military and civil service, and you quickly realise that it is hard in Government to find the deep experts and ‘wise old men’ who can sit back with the benefit of hindsight, time and experience and provide continuity of advice. Few of the senior officials in Government today were in the same jobs in 2010 – meaning that it is harder to have people who can offer advice based on hindsight. One disadvantage of the model of moving posts every 2-3 years for broadening is that it becomes extremely difficult to become a subject matter expert, and when promotion and prospects are linked to moving, it is hard to find many high flyers willing to put their careers on hold to be the long term expert.
What this means is that it is perhaps very difficult for any Government to genuinely have a long term strategy or strategic goals. It can set short term aspirations, maybe in the 5-10 year timeframe, and respond to events, but the ability to sit and deeply contemplate the world with a 20-30 year vision (as arguably some Middle Eastern nations where people will stay in senior posts for that length of time can) is perhaps not easily achievable. So, while it is easy to criticise the lack of strategy in any Governments plans, one can perhaps forgive this when they realise that by the time the goals would have been met, the Government of the day would long have been forgotten. Far better to focus on short term achievable generic tasks like combatting terrorism or cyber security, than set out a long term goal for which the UK would not meet during their time in office, nor for many years to come.
A final thought is that while it is easy to decry defence cuts and argue for strategy, one could argue that a truly objective linking of UK defence outputs to long term foreign policy goals would probably not produce the force structure we have now. An outsider looking in may well conclude that the sort of military assets needed to build and effect long term change, stability and security are those which have effects such as training teams, defence attaches, limited professional training and so on with the nuclear deterrent as the ultimate guarantor of security, and not so much on very heavy army assets like armoured divisions which are much harder to deploy. Looking more broadly, things like focusing heavily on cyber security defence is arguably more important than some other tasks – this is perhaps the problem facing the military today. The sort of interaction many nations want is quite localised, involving maybe a training team or specialist advisors or access to training courses. It is rare to find many nations keen to see long term air or naval bases and deployments of armoured divisions on the ground. There will be a need for some heavier support for the very rare chance of intra-state conflict, but as we move into a world where cyber attacks, terrorism, and the steady blurring of the lines between defence, security and foreign policy continue, the challenge for policy makers is to come up with a force structure which reflects our long term interests, our medium term strategic goals and the need to sustain a military capable of defending the UK and its allies. As ever, we live in ‘interesting times’.
(For those interested in the UK Military attitudes to strategy and planning, then the attached link is scarily prescient! http://www.arrse.co.uk/intelligence-cell/25016-funny-actions-thread.html)