The Intregrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is superbly conceived and presented. Driven by the Prime Minister’s foreign affairs adviser, John Bew, it covers everything from conventional forces to cyber, terror, climate change, space, border control, aid and making the UK a “science superpower”.
Its core strength is that it grasps, as Alexander Downer wrote on this site recently, that these compartmentalisations are, in terms of our national security, illusions rather than real. A man-made famine, caused by war, can spur mass migration. Spin-offs from the quest for space can magic up new technologies for Earth.
Pause over this warning from the review for a moment: “it is likely that a terrorist group will launch a successful chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack by 2030″. It’s no use patrolling your front door if an Islamist, far left or far right or green extremist strolls in through your back with a bomb.
Ben Wallace, a former soldier himself, could scarcely be in better position to pull the threads together. At a time when the rise in public spending is due to slow, he and Boris Johnson have wrung a four year settlement from the Treasury which sees the largest real-term increase in the defence budget since the early years of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership.
Nonetheless, the question that follows last week’s Review and this week’s Defence White Paper is whether the money and kit will be there to deliver the aims that both set out. In which context, we take for the rest of our article a quote from our proprietor.
“Our armed forces are nothing if not resilient, but they were hollowed out in the devastating cuts imposed by the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, and have endured remorseless salami slicing ever since,” Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott, his co-author, write in their study of our armed forces, White Flag.
“There comes a point when what remains is not a smaller, neater version of the original – still able to fulfill the same functions – but an entirely different entity, with greatly diminished utility.” But the question isn’t only whether the Review will make up for lost time (and cash).
For the capacity of the Ministry of Defence’s procurement function to eat money, like a tapeworm, without necessarily leaving the armed forces better off, is legendary. In which context, consider an unusually bluntly-worded report from the Defence Select Committee.
It tells a “woeful story of bureaucratic procrastination, military indecision, financial mismanagement and general ineptitude, which have continually bedevilled attempts to properly re-equip the British Army over the last two decades,” the committee concluded in its probe of the Army’s armoured field capacity.
Lord Levene made waves with his procurement review during the 1980s and was back at the Department helping out when the Coalition was formed. Since his first review and the present day, some 13 reviews have followed. Yet the the money has continued to vanish into the maw.
Our proprietor’s book painted a terrifying picture of the exposure of our 800 or so soldiers in Estonia from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh. To cut a long story short, they would be exposed, in the event of a Russian military attack, until American support turned up. The title of the chapter that describes their situation is “Operation Tethered Goat”.
The question that follows is whether even that recent spending commitment will be enough, whether the procurement reform in place to guarantee it and, if not, where the reach of the Review might exceed its grasp. So: back to basics. What are the main threats to our national security?
Essentially, there are three: Islamist terror, which threatens the general public (bundle into it other dangers of a similar kind, such as that posed by far right or far left extremists, the fringe of the green movement, or revived republican and loyalist terror from Northern Ireland).
Then there is the one directly identified by the Review, Russia. It is capable of striking here, as we saw in Salisbury, but more likely to do so in Eastern Europe, so triggering the obligations we have signed up to as part of our NATO membership.
Finally, there is the subject of the moment: China. Only this week, the Government staved off a motion that could have led to the Commons formally declaring it guilty of genocide by the slender margin of 18 votes. Twenty-nine Conservative MPs voted for an amendment to the Trade Bill that would have paved the way for such a development.
China’s purge of democracy in Hong Hong and its wicked treatment of the Uighars is swelling the pressure on Ministers from the backbenches. The Government itself pulled in two different directions: towards engagement, by the trade interest, and towards detachment, by the security one.
The formula that seeks to patch over the differences in the review is: “we will continue to pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with China, while ensuring our national security and values are protected.” The best way of minimising these tensions may be to respond to the nature of China’s threat.
Its troops aren’t going to march in the Baltic States any time soon; nor has it yet deployed a Novichok in a cathedral city. The danger is mainly to our national infrastructure, both physical and otherwise. On this site, our columnist Neil O’Brien and Tom Tugendhat, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee chairman, have set out what needs to be done.
These including diversifying our overseas student portfolio (Tugendhat points out that a third of it comes from China) and greater transparency on who is working with our universities. (O’Brien writes that we don’t even collect data on who is funding them from overseas.
In the light of the different nature of China’s threat to Russia’s we question, as Garvan Walshe did on this site last week, aspects of the Review’s so-called “Indo-Pacific Tilt”. It refers to “persistent engagement by our armed forces” and “building on our overseas military bases”. As we write, the HMS Elizabeth is preparing to drill in the Pacific.
What may not apply in trade, where Asia is a growing market, does so in defence. Our military presence in the Far East is never going to be more than symbolic. Harold Wilson was right to keep Britain out of Vietnam during the 1960s, and the precedent may turn out to come in useful.
The army lobbyists have an interest in playing down the future role of drones in the air and other tech wizardry at the expense of boots on the ground. But they aren’t necessarily wrong to argue that the proposed cut in army numbers leaves it over-exposed at a time when NATO itself is looking rickety.
Think the tensions between Greece and Turkey; think Putin’s diplomatic outreach in Poland and Hungary; think too about the EU’s mix of grandiose defence ambition and its members’ low defence spending – before pondering the unstable mix of our excellent relationship with France over security and our rotten one with it over politics, post-Brexit.
“What constrains me?” Henry VIII asks Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall about his military adventure in France. His future adviser replies: “distance”. Fiction and history has a lesson here for modernity and fact – at least, if the past of the Ministry of Defence is any guide to its future.