UK Defence Strategy – Time To Get It Right

christopher_lee180-11

21 September 2015. London.

Tomorrow the British Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon will set out his government’s view of the “strategic context” of the most important UK defence plan since the post Falklands War 1980s.  It will be the basis of a new Defence Review – the document that will say how Britain sees the world and in it the potential threats to the United Kingdom.

Today there are close on 40 wars around the globe. In each of a third of those conflicts as many as 10,000 are killed each year. British troops are deployed in 80 countries, most in peaceful roles but each with a security background.

It is very possible that a new deployment will be announced before this month is out; the UK has a request to supply a blue beret United Nations peace keeping force into Southern Sudan.  It is not a mission the British want but may have to take up.

Mr Fallon’s speech to the Royal United Services Institute, the London think tank on Tuesday will reflect the fact that three trigger words have to be in his thinking as never before on such a scale of importance: cyber, Daesh (IS) and refugee.

Cyber security is now so complex that the best Intelligence agencies in the world cannot cope with the way terrorist organisations are using this technology as part of attacking planning.  But cyber security threat is not all laptop terrorism.  Hacking units in China can get into the Pentagon and the British Defence Ministry the bastions of military opposition to state to state threats as well as the more complicated planning needed for asymmetric warfare.

Daesh can be disrupted but its true threat is that thus far there is little sign that regional governments can counter its ambitions without major military intervention from a coalition of Western forces. Few governments are willing to get directly involved at a level of eyeball to eyeball ground operations necessary to squash IS – a deceptively sophisticated enemy.

Perhaps of particular importance in Mr Fallon’s understanding of IS is that it constantly attracts men and women who see it as more than a cause.  Many of its recruits are young, educated and at odds with their own societies. In the UK for example, an IS recruit is typically the radicalised son or grandson of a family of sometime immigrants.  The radicalised generation says that the father, grandfather syndrome may live in the UK thankful for the shelter given by the British, but the young man – often with few long term prospects – has no deep identity and one who feels an alien and not willing to continue in that uneasy state as does his parent’s line. For Mr Fallon and his advisers here is a reminder of the threat of the enemy within. A mega buck defence budget cannot plan for that.  But it has to plan for the consequences of disaffection and radicalisation – the hardest aspect of his security diagram.

Refugees are not a direct military problem but they are destabilising. This phenomenon is not just about people escaping from war zones that Western governments have helped create either by commission or omission. It is not even about opportunism.  The greater and destabilising factor of mass movement of peoples is a reflection that most countries from whence they come simply do not work.  They come from corruptly governed states with individual high level corruption at an unprecedented level.  The refugee is in a mass movement that is already causing a long term schism in what was once a community of hope, the EU.

Here then the conundrum: at one time the British defence budget was simple.  The UK military had a nuclear deterrent system and then a traditionally balanced conventional tri-service that could honour post-colonial obligations and be part of that great coalition of the willing, NATO.  It may not have worked that well, but then it was not required to.

Today the British defence analysis  sees a world with uncertainty in Europe and not all the doing of President Putin of Russia.  It has to anticipate the consequences of a threat that it little understands – climate change and the imbalances of natural resources and changing societies.  Refugees are but one aspect of climate change. The Fallon plan has to look at the possibilities of conflict that are as yet quite unclear, for example, the grab for resources in the Arctic.  All this and more and not even mentioning the long term emergence of a Middle East and sub Saharan Africa with re-drawn boundaries.

In short there is hardly a spot on the globe that does not demand Mr Fallon’s attention. Hence his review. Hence his speech. The job of Britain is finally to decided how it sees its part in the world for the coming two decades and then to see if it has the military capability to support that vision.  Mr Fallon’s is an unenviable task.

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