Reflecting Reality: The Chief of Defence Staff’s Vision for Security

General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, delivered a speech this week that laid down some big challenges; to our adversaries, our allies and to our own Government. Any CDS can be relied on to ‘stay on message’ and in this case he certainly did. But he was also holding up a mirror to the Government’s oft-repeated message about security in ‘Global Britain’. And next year’s Integrated Review might still create a distorting image. Michael Clarke reviews the essence of the speech.

The Chief of Defence Staff was right to highlight, in his annual RUSI Christmas Lecture this week, how significantly and quickly the threats to British security have increased – not just in the growing swagger of the country’s adversaries and potential enemies, but also in the ways they now try to undermine British security. While Britain has undertaken no fewer than twelve significant military operations since the end of the Cold War, mainly with allies and largely through the use of traditional military systems and weapons, our adversaries have been watching carefully and noting all our vulnerabilities and potential points of failure.

They have had a lot to watch. Notwithstanding the tactical successes that British forces have been able to grind out from Bosnia to Iraq and Afghanistan, our adversaries have observed and noted the trajectory of western forces; from early successes in the 1990s, over-confidence and strategic dislocation after 2001, and straight strategic failure after 2011 following Libya, Iraq, Syria and now, Afghanistan.

They have seen that Britain’s biggest points of strategic failure cluster just beneath the threshold of ‘major operations’ or ‘war’ itself. The wars in the Falklands in 1982 and Iraq in 1990-91 were unusual in that they were both short conflicts to reverse unprovoked, naked aggression. It was not difficult to justify them. But most other operations were a good deal more ambiguous, and the political uncertainty in these cases around what Britain should do, how deeply it was prepared to commit, and how far the public would support operations that seemed to be open-ended, emerged as key points of potential strategic failure – whatever the military did in-theatre.

Our autocratic adversaries have learned to coordinate all their policy instruments – from social media campaigns directed at public opinion, cyber-hacking, subversion, state-based mercenary forces, to not-so-subtle deterrence with new types and applications of weapon technologies. With such coordinated approaches they can hustle Britain and other western states into the strategic failure zone – where the challenge to our security is serious enough to demand action; but not so serious that we are comfortable about a military response. It plays on our natural instinct that the military is the last resort; that the military is only an insurance policy for when compromise has failed.

In effect, our own threshold for using the military is set too high these days. That is understandable in a democracy, but modern ‘security’ needs a military instrument that is usable below the traditional thresholds we used to regard as normal, and in much closer conjunction with all the other policy instruments of British security.

The Chief of Defence Staff took this challenge head-on. He outlined again the Integrated Operational Concept 2025, launched in late September. (Which should be seen in the context also of the Science and Technology Strategy 2020, unveiled in October by the MoD’s Chief Scientific Advisor.) By its own estimation, the Integrated Operational Concept heralds a ‘fundamental transformation in the military instrument…the most significant change in UK military thought in several generations’. It’s a doctrine that lines up defence to work alongside other government agencies on a consistent and ongoing basis – not just when other things have gone wrong and political leaders turn to the military. It is a doctrine that accepts security competition with our adversaries is constant and intense – just ask Fireeye in the US who discovered last week how long Solarwinds have been penetrated by Russian state hackers – who have therefore been deep inside the US security establishment for the last nine months. But the doctrine also wants to make British responses to challenge ‘more assertive’; to seek continuously the ‘information advantage’ and to operate ‘on our terms and in places of our choosing’ – warlike phrases but in situations outside warfare, in the grey political twilight between peaceful coexistence and outright conflict. And it all applies as much to Britain’s allies in Europe as it does to Britain itself. It will not be sufficient for Britain to go alone down this path, even if it leads the way among its European partners.

Of course, many a CDS has spoken in technically visionary terms about the future of the Armed Forces; buzz words are easy. But there is something conceptually critical going on here. British forces have traditionally structured and trained for war, on the assumption that if they were prepared for war, they could improvise for whatever else they were called on to do. There have only been brief departures from this underlying assumption. It’s the grand version of the ‘train hard; fight easy’ maxim.

But the current vision is that Britain – and its close allies – should compete smartly and vigorously below the major conflict threshold, not only to protect their security interests but to deter major conflict or war itself. And, if that deterrent should fail, then the forces have to be capable of going to war if necessary. It’s a big ask; to compete actively in ‘sub-threshold’ ways, but still be able to cross the threshold quickly, if called to do so. It’s not that the boys and girls of Britain’s Armed Forces couldn’t do it; they almost certainly could. But there will be some risky decisions to make in training, equipping, and rotating them to be capable of operating on both sides of major conflict thresholds.

All this suggests that the Armed Forces will be pretty busy – ‘forward deployed; engaged’ in the words of the CDS – as Britain navigates it way through a decade or more of great power competition and possibly, military confrontation. Britain must be assertive and tough enough not be seen as a soft touch for the blackmailers, or the salami slicers or the mere opportunists. Not least, under this doctrine, the Armed Forces would find themselves playing a range of roles in domestic resilience, from floods and supply chains, to space and cyber security. It could be an interesting time to be a Regular, a Reserve – or even a robot – as the Ministry of Defence looks to get back onto the front foot after years of hesitating strategic commitment.

There are, however, two imponderables. The CDS can exercise this degree of imagination because the financial settlement for defence announced in November allows the MoD to plan with greater certainty how it will begin the real journey from ‘sunset’ to ‘sunrise’ technologies and to lay the foundations for a transformed force structure. But by 2025, they will still only be the foundations. In reality, most of the force structure in 2025 will be that which was envisaged in 2015 (and conceptualised around 2010 or earlier). The Integrated Operational Concept scores highly for its realism and undeniable relevance. But it has implicit price tags all over it, and a properly transformed force for the 2030s will likely start to cost a good deal more after 2025.

Secondly, the Armed Forces are only one part of the radically new approach we are promised in the Integrated Review, to be released maybe in late-January. It is far from clear that other Whitehall departments have their own counterparts to the Integrated Operational Concept ready to go. The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office have made some strong gestures on particular issues with Russia and China. But the way overseas aid policy seems to be going, investment in the Diplomatic Service, international policing cooperation, research and development, and the ability of the current National Security Council to bring it all together at the centre, don’t suggest that the rest of Whitehall is quite up with the MoD. The Government’s policy bandwidth, of course, has been critically limited by the Covid crisis and the end of the Brexit transition period.

That’s understood. But unless the Integrated Review, when it appears in a few weeks, is able to fit the CDS’s current vision into its broader framework for ‘Global Britain’, and put some resources behind it once the multi-year spending review becomes feasible, it won’t just represent a ‘missed opportunity’ but it will simply fail to match the level of challenge our adversaries are now posing. That would leave Britain more insecure for the coming decade. A truly integrated security policy is not just a ‘nice to have’ commodity. It has become a necessity.


Michael Clarke is author of The Challenge of Defending Britain (Manchester University Press, 2018) and co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2019).