Ed McGuinness is a founder of Conservatives in the City, and contested Hornsey & Wood Green at the last General Election.
During the past two years, we have seen our Armed Forces take on a far wider remit domestically than we would normally expect: our servicemen and women have become builders of Nightingale hospitals and vaccination centres, they have taken on the role of healthcare professionals; delivering vaccines into the arms of people across the nation and have backfilled precariously understaffed NHS positions such as ambulance drivers and A&E staff at the peaks of the pandemic.
The military does have a significant role to play in aiding the civilian community, a process known formally as Military Aid to the Civilian Authorities or MACA. Whilst not grounded in statute (the Civil Contingencies Act charges first level responders with this responsibility) MACA is a formal Ministry of Defence policy, and is governed by four key principles.
These are: when there is a a definite need to act and the tasks are clear, other options have been discounted, the civil authority lacks the necessary capability to fulfil the task, and the civil authority has all or some capability, but it may not be available immediately.
All of these seem reasonable in the face of the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic. But a critical factor is that the armed forces provide this support from spare capacity. So it must be subject to the availability of resources, and not affect core MoD objectives. There is a danger that the scale of the military support, and the can-do attitude of the Armed Forces, will lead to a mission creep, whereby the military is increasingly asked to routinely fulfil roles it is not designed to do.
There is of course a political calculus to maintaining public support for the military during peacetime. A standing, effective military is of great expense to a nation, and the UK which seeks to avoid conflict, therefore spends a great deal of treasure on a resource, that by definition, should be sparingly used for the role for which it trains the most. Plus of course the range of standing operations that the Armed Forces have, such as: peacekeeping, natural disaster relief, anti-piracy and nuclear deterrence.
Any government must therefore balance the good that the military can achieve against overstretching it. This calculation is of course topical – given the crises in Ukraine, where the military is delivering in its core role of protection of UK national interests and deterrence.
Working closely with the US and some NATO allies, the UK has been providing weapons and training to Ukrainian forces as Russia continues its belligerent build-up. Such a high-profile opportunity to showcase the core role of the military should not be squandered.
More importantly, the crisis in Ukraine ought to focus the Government on the need appropriately to resource the UK military for operations which, by definition, it should do everything to avoid. This mind-set is difficult to wrap one’s head around and, as a result, there is temptation to resource the military and only then to use it beyond its core role. This remains a key challenge that must be addresses by strong Secretaries of State for Defence.
Ben Wallace has shown that he is willing to challenge mission creep – most notably in Scotland, where he decried “policy failings” as being necessary for the deployment of the military to backfill NHS posts during the latter stages of 2021. The irony of the separatist Sturgeon-led Scottish government using the British Army is not lost.
The ever-increasing use of the military speaks to a wider problem with management of public money. The NHS is now demanding almost 20 per cent of public spending. This leaves less resource for other important public services.
For example, whilst the Army has not been called in to teach algebra quite yet, a failure to resource departments such as education can lead to an array of socio-economic problems that decrease personal health and place even more strain on the health service.
The military, unlike many other public services, can step in and backfill public services with some specialist and much generalist help. A feedback loop of inefficient public services demanding more acute assistance followed by more resourcing for less capability is a dangerous one
It is important to remember that the military is not a panacea – and I write that with great admiration for it, having served in it for six years. Our armed forces operates best when, as the MACA principles set out, it has a definite need to act and the tasks are clear.
I would add: and when it is trained, equipped and given the freedom, within the law, to do so. As a fiscal conservative, and an ex-military officer, I am not a tub-thumping advocate for huge increases in military spending for the sake of it, but the Integrated Security and Defence Review set out a set of principles and capabilities that the Government wants our military to achieve over the longer term and it must be resourced to do that core role and crucially, any additional roles that may be necessary.
One of the planning tools we used in our tactical operations was a handrail called the 7Qs – a series of questions, of variable depth, depending on capacity available. One of the questions, in the middle, was: Has the situation changed? Its purpose was to force you to reassess your prior assumptions, and ensure you were fighting the right battle before you took action.
A real concern is that we change what we expect of our Armed Forces, and drift from a small MACA provision to a larger MACA provision to the detriment of its core purpose. The core purpose of our military should not be compromised and hard choices elsewhere will need to be made. If the situation in Ukraine is anything to go by, the strength of that core purpose is as necessary today as it was 25 years ago in the Balkans or 80 years ago in Western Europe. Simply put: beware of mission creep.