Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The National Security Strategy Update

The Government has published the latest update to its National Security Strategy which sets out clearly how the threats to the UK are being faced, and what steps are being taken to deal with them. The National Security Strategy is an often forgotten document which in actuality is an extremely important read – issued the day before the SDSR, it clearly sets out the way that the UK Government sees the challenges facing the UK today, the level of the threat and what must be done to counter it.
The full document can be found at the following LINK and Humphrey cannot  recommend enough that people spend time examining it in detail.

Part of the challenge in following UK security matters is that too often the debate focuses purely on defence, without considering the wider picture. This is perhaps understandable, for Defence is perhaps the most physical manifestation of a nations security, but in reading the NSS, Humphrey was left with the very strong perception that for many threats to the UK, the role the MOD plays is actually perhaps smaller than people sometimes assume. Indeed one of the many benefits of improved electronic communications in recent years is the way that it is much easier to bring cross Government working and make it a reality – the notion of Home Office, MOD, FCO, UKTI , Police and all manner of other organisations with a stake in security working together collaboratively was until recently an extremely rare occurrence. Today's generation of civil servants though take such close work for granted, and it is to be strongly welcomed.

The document is built around the concept of levels of risks, essentially considering what poses a risk to the UK, the likelihood of it occurring and more broadly the impact on the UK if it were to happen - this in turn enables mitigation strategies to be considered which can prevent/reduce this situation. Accordingly some threats are far less likely to occur (but could be far more damaging) and thus lower immediate risk than others (but this is not to diminish their importance).

Reviewing the actual update, it is clear that the primary risks to the UK have not changed in outlook since 2010 (the document is reviewed every two years). The top tier of risks remains as

                International Terrorism against the UK (including CBRN related activity)
                Hostile attacks against UK interests in cyberspace
                Major accident or pandemic requiring national response
                International military crisis between states which draws in the UK.

Reading this list it is clear that the challenges to society are vastly different to just 25 years ago, and that there remains no single existential threat to UK interest.  it is also clear that Defence has an interest in all of the issues, but that its level of interest vary.

When you consider the nature of the risk/ threat, the sort of role Defence can play varies – against terrorism, at home much of the work is done by specialist organisations linked to the Home Office, with defence being very much supporting players through provision of niche capabilities like EOD or CBRN responses. In cyberspace, where arguably the single greatest threat to the sustaining of our way of life exists, again Defence does play a part, but the lead sits outside in other civilian areas like GCHQ and industry (it is often forgotten that the UK is an absolute world leader in the field of Cyber Security).

The response to a major incident has received a lot of media attention recently, particularly with the flooding across the UK. But, while the natural call seems to be ‘send in the Army’ it is often less clear as to what the Army can actually do in this sort of situation. The MOD has spent many years trying to extract itself from the world of civilian aid – its challenging, its often not the best use of personnel and it ties up assets and resources which may be needed for military tasks and instead expends them to do something they were never designed or purchased for. This is emphatically not a bad thing, and the Army can often make a difference, but equally one of the challenges in civil emergencies is working out what to do with the manpower and resources at your disposal. Humphrey spent a fascinating period of time involved in UK Operations, and was often taken by the reality that many local authorities disaster plan seemed to be ‘call in the Army’ without considering whether the Army was actually the right people for the job. Following the overhaul of civil emergency legislation and the introduction of the Civil Contingencies Act some 10 years ago, a great deal of work has been done to make this area far more self sustaining using ‘first responders’ and relying far less on the military. So, whilst it is helpful to provide military bodies, often the problem is working out ‘what to do with them all’ as one senior police officer put it to the author.

So, the primary area of UK military involvement in international security in the eyes of the government would seem to be participation in a military crisis. Based on experiences last year, and comments this week, one senses there is a deepening reluctance to actually use the military for a sustained crisis anymore. While politicians and the public like a quick victory, some airstrikes and film footage of RN warships rescuing expats and looking steely eyed, they also equally dislike film footage of troops in trenches dug in for the long haul. What this perhaps tells us is that while this is a high threat, it is a threat that needs to be neutralised quickly for there is no longer the appetite for long term military intervention .

The next tier has a similar level of interesting challenges, the majority of which do not really involve a direct military threat:

                Attack on the UK by a State (or proxy) using CBRN
Risk of major instability or civil war which causes an environment terrorists can use to threaten the UK
Significant Increase in Organised Crime
Severe disruption to information received, transmitted or collected by satellites as a result of a states actions.

Again an examination shows that many of these threats require engagement by a range of Government departments, ranging from Home Office (police matters) through to the FCO (diplomatic relations and influence) and also defence. Arguably these risks make a strong case for investment in diplomacy (good diplomatic work can open doors to police co-operation, extradition agreements and intelligence sharing), while investment in international aid helps create stability, jobs and prevents people from becoming radicalised and unemployed (the paper cites the example of Somalia where UK aid has been linked to the creation of 45000 jobs and saving over half a million lives). Investment here helps create stability, which in turn reduces migration away from the country, reduces unrest and helps improve long term prospects for the region.

The role of Defence in this seems to be linked primarily to handling the challenges of CBRN, but also in helping capacity build. The missions in Mali are a good example of where training Malian soldiers helps create order where previously there was vacuum, and all for a fairly small outlay of UK troops and investment. This in turn helps flag up the benefits of co-operation with the French and other partners, who are putting far more troops onto the ground than we are, although the benefits will be felt as much by the UK as elsewhere.

The final  tier looks at the least likely / ‘lowest’ risk options which could pose a threat to the stability of the UK. These include:

                Large scale military attack on the UK by another state
                Increase in levels of illegal immigrants, terrorists, organised crime trying to enter the UK
                Disruption to oil and gas supplies to the UK
                Major release of radioactivity from a civil nuclear site
                Conventional attack on NATO/EU state to which the UK would have to respond
                Attack on UK overseas territory as a result of sovereignty dispute / wider problem
                Short to medium term disruption of resources essential to the UK

It is only here that we see the sort of more traditional challenge so beloved of the ‘fantasy fleet’ commentators emerge. The reality is that attacks in a conventional sense on either UK or allied territory by a third power, at present, is highly unlikely. Indeed, when one considers where UK territory is located around the world, with the sole exception of the Falklands (which themselves are not under any credible military threat), it is hard to spot a UK territory other than Gibraltar experiencing sovereignty disputes. If anything these disputes push the case for a strong FCO which is able to help use diplomatic soft power to resolve them long before they reach the stage of being a military risk. A good example is the way that the Falkland Islanders are travelling around south and central America to push their case to various Governments, media and other outlets to highlight their desire to be British and not Argentinian – soft power yes, but far more effective in the medium term than bellicose threats of force.

When one considers the threats to oil and gas, the key issue here is what is needed to protect them from such disruption? Its not just about conventional troops digging in – proper cyber security is required to prevent hacking from locking people out, strong diplomatic pressure is needed to ensure conditions for workers remain at a level where people do not riot and burn facilities to the ground, and wider relations must be sustained – for instance how does one balance concerns over developments in Egypt with the natural desire to keep the Suez canal open? If you consider the dramas which seem to ensue when a bank is unable to open its cahs machines for a few hours, how will the UK population react if the lights go out and don’t come back on for several days?

So in purely military terms, what does the NSS tell us about current UK defence structures. Frankly, a read of the NSS highlights the reality that what the UK needs is highly specialist skills and personnel to meet the challenge of most of the threats today. What the UK probably doesn't need is 100,000 soldiers sitting in barracks in the UK waiting for a war that will never happen.

The NSS leads us to realise that future engagement for the UK is about short term training deployments merged with clever use of aid and wily attribution of diplomatic and other soft power assets. In future the customs officer or borders official is going to play as vital a role in the safeguarding of national security as a private or airman will. The MOD needs to show how their assets can meet this threat in a sufficiently timely manner. This means investment in defence engagement, training courses, small teams going overseas (return of the BMATT?), and assets able to move quickly from location to location to respond as required.

When you look at the current force structures, the decisions taken back in 2010 still feel about right in terms of where the money was prioritised. What the future force promises to deliver is a very agile force able to go where trouble is, and deal with it, and not sit at home waiting for it to come here. Its about safeguarding a lot of very niche capabilities (for instance CBRN response) which need a long time to invest and train in, and not sustaining large capbadges which have far less military utility. As we move towards the next SDSR, it seems unlikely that much will change to challenge these assumptions – namely that the UK needs flexible, deployable armed forces willing to work at far smaller levels than before in order to nip problems in the bud and not prepare for the end of the world conflict previously assumed. This requires one hell of a mindset shift, away from that of preparing for Armageddon, and instead thinking about how to keep and retain highly trained people who can at very junior levels deliver training and influence that in years to come could prevent a war breaking out. Arguably the future is as much about how good our very junior officers and SNCOs are at training as it is about our ability to put two large aircraft carriers to sea.

So, the next time you see a debate on the internet about how the UK is a failed nation because it can no longer do X, Y, or Z, perhaps instead of wading in, ask yourself what the National Security Strategy sees the threat as being, and ask yourself whether the UK has the assets, the people and the capability to meet those threats. If the answer is yes, then perhaps we shouldn't be so defeatist after all?



  1. Sir H,

    Another interesting blog, and the importance of actually paying attention to the NSS and matching our military, where possible, to its conclusions is one worth remembering, as is the point also made in the NSS about using all the capabilities of government.

    However, I have to correct you on a common misperception. The three tiers are for risks, NOT threats. This is important because the two things are different. Threat is a measure of a combination of capability and intent and equates to how likely something is to happen. Risk, as the NSS states, is a combination of likelihood and impact, and therefore measures how concerned we should be about something. The items in Tier Three are there NOT "less likely" than those in Tier Two, but are things we judge we should be less concerned about (perhaps because they may not occur, but alternatively because we think we are better able to handle them).

    The most obvious example is that a nuclear attack is in Tier Two, above disruption to energy supplies or other resources. This isn't because it's more likely (it probably isn't) but because the impact would be greater.

    So while the prioritisation of SDSR 2010 probably is 'about right', we need to be careful of confusing threat and risk, and drawing a direct conclusion across to capabilities (and para 3.16 and 3.17 in the NSS make this clear).

    1. Thanks Securocrat - I've amended the language appropriately and am off to do some penance for mixing risk/threat (which bluntly I should know better by now!).

  2. I cannot agree that the risk model being used by the UK is complete, or even very sensible. It looks very like a politically inspired 'outside to in' risk model tailored for available funds.

    It does not address the fundamental issue of national security for a nation-state, and that is 'what are the things which must be secured to ensure the continued independence of the nation'.

    A brief example is to look at what keeps your economy going. Like us you are an island state and your economy is completely dependent on maritime trade. In the very worst case, the protection of maritime trade is the fundamental military task for an island state, the one task which cannot be abrogated without opening the nation state to severe risk. In fact, the risk is asymetric in this case.

    Is this addressed in current UK strategic thinking?

    From what I can see it is addressed partially in some of the risk definitions: and that means that it may not be directly addressed but that 'unfettered use of the sea for the transport of economic essentials' is an assumption within the strategic planning process.

    That is as dangerous for you as it is for us - in our case, there is no way we can ever afford the force levels to guarantee our maritime trade. So our response has been to build as close a relationship as possible with the globally dominant maritime power committant with maintaining national independence.

    The risk structure you have sketched above is therefore built on the same strategic concept as we use - dependence on the USA as the globally dominant maritime power. We have good reason for this, there is no way a small power such as Australia can dominate the 20% of the world-ocean which our critical trade must use (our trade with Europe is non-critical and Europe is essentially irrelevant to us in strategic terms).

    I think it is quite contentious to suggest that the UK can dispense with the trade protection function. You are dependent on short-sea trade with Europe and the North Atlantic trades. Yet your RAF and RN force structure says that you have dispensed with this function. Therefore you are as dependent on the USN as we are, which makes the UK not an independent medium power at all but a small and dependent one like us. Comparison with China tends to support this, UK, France and Germany combined do not even equal the Chinese military budget these days.

    And in all honesty I suspect that declining to this level of dependence now is a serious strategic error. The US remains an Atlas, but it is quite plainly an Atlas which is shrugging.

    This is precisely the reason that the UK's Pacific equivalent, Japan, is ramping up military spending and developing new capabilities to replace the rapidly declining US capability in the western Pacific. Witness as examples their new Soryu class submarines and their unusually large and flat-topped 'destroyers'. They are not increasing the size of their army, but are focussing on their ADGE and above all else on their navy, adding entirely new capabilities.

    I may be wrong, but I detect no such coherence in UK strategic policy at all, and the risk assessment process (such as I know of it) appears incomplete at best, and at worst a political smoke-and-mirrors show.

    I sincerely hope I am incorrect.

    Regards: Mark Bailey, Canberra

    PS: my PhD is in the Australian role in maritime trade protection within the British Empire

    1. That was interesting Mark. Thanks for posting it. And I agree with it.

      But I think you will find the modern RN is one more interested in politics, equal rights, soft kill, PR, and anything but its traditional role that helped found the Empire and gave birth to your country. The mantra is "we will never go to war without the USN".

    2. Very very well said Mark. Totally agree.

  3. So this
    and this

    Can easily lead us from this:-
    Hostile attacks against UK interests in cyberspace
    International military crisis between states which draws in the UK.
    to this
    Attack on the UK by a State (or proxy) using CBRN
    Severe disruption to information received, transmitted or collected by satellites as a result of a states actions.
    and thence to this
    Disruption to oil and gas supplies to the UK
    Short to medium term disruption of resources essential to the UK
    in a very short space of time!
    or maybe even worse.

    At this point the 'fantasy fleet' may prove to have not seemed such a silly idea after all.

  4. "Conventional attack on NATO/EU state to which the UK would have to respond"

    EU state? Really??

  5. Steve "But I think you will find the modern RN is one more interested in politics, equal rights, soft kill, PR, and anything but its traditional role "

    Then that is a very great shame and illustrates a serious degree of intellectual decay within the senior ranks and MODUK. The thing which separates a small navy (or nation) like us from a major navy (or nation) like Japan is the answer to this question.

    'Can the navy guarantee the economic survival of the nation from within national resources?'

    For if the answer is 'yes' then the nation can have an independent foreign policy should it so choose, its major allies will know this and accord it the respect and latitude it can enforce should it choose to do so.

    If the answer is 'no', then the nation has to accord itself to the general foreign policy goals of the major ally. We are past masters at doing this because we have no choice. That may be altering as the disastrous Obama administration continues in its fecklessness to wreck strategic structures carefully maintained for 60-70 years.

    This fecklessness and the inchoate rundown of US military, fiscal and suasive power is now generating serious ramp-ups of military capability in Asia as local powers scramble to replace the capability this administration is draining away. Don't mistake this for an arms race. Not yet, anyway. Even Australia - now under a government which is at least sensible and competent - is looking with growing concern at what is happening in the near north and to the west in the Levant and Persian Gulf areas. We have gotten rid of our own feckless and incompetent government but that does not matter much while the US retains theirs. We are now seeing some very interesting (and dangerous) effects from this US fecklessness.

    My US contacts take the view that we are seeing the commencement of one of their 'constitutional adjustments' which in their view occur every century or so. That's an intriguing view (and not one I feel able to comment sensibly on), but if it is actually correct I hope such an event is more 1930s than 1860s or 1776-1783 in nature!

    What's so intriguing about that view is that during such an event teh US turns inwards. Now that would make for a return to the general global strategic shape of the late 19th century, which was a dangerous period kept in balance by people like Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck. I don't see such a figure.....

    Mark Bailey

    1. An excellent post Mr Bailey. I couldn't agree more with your conclusions. Sir Humphreys view seems to be the current articles of faith at the MOD. It borders on panglossian conceit, to the extent of recklessness.

      The heart of the problem with the ruling bureaucracy is that those in control are wedded to the WW2 narrative. To sum up, we won because we were always going to win.

      That victory was never assured at any point up to 1943. The speed at which events unfolded seems to be totally overlooked. The UK was virtually on it's knees within a year of the start of the war. Germany had not even been fully mobilised by that point. You only have to read UK newspapers printed in 1940 to sense the desperate situation we were in. How accurate were the 1938 assessments of potential of the UKs opponents then I wonder.