In a new war of all against all, the UK needs a defence revolution

Rather than grandstanding as a global military power, Britain must respond to direct threats.

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Announced to fanfare last December, the government’s sweeping review of security, defence and foreign policy was put on hold in April – for the obvious reason that Covid-19 changes everything. In the meantime, the People’s Republic of China has “changed everything” all over again, by ripping up Hong Kong's legal freedoms.

The US has responded with a fundamental re-evaluation of its relationship with China, abandoning the assumption that there is mutual interest in its current development path and declaring itself to be “in a strategic competition” with Beijing. Meanwhile, numerous other wars and conflicts have flourished during the pandemic: the India-China border clash; the proxy war being waged between France and Turkey in Libya; and the step change in militia activity in the US, which is eroding the federal government’s monopoly on the use of armed force.

The world, in short, has become qualitatively more unstable. And the prospects for the rules-based international system – whose defence has been the cornerstone of UK foreign policy since Tony Blair's Chicago speech in 1999 – are deteriorating. This makes the core conceit of the Cameron era – that Britain has "global reach" in military and security affairs – a dead letter. Even as late as 3 February, in his Greenwich speech, Boris Johnson laboured under the delusion that the UK was going to emerge from Brexit as a revived mercantilist power.

Now, after the appointment of the Brexit negotiator David Frost as national security adviser, the security review is restarting. But most of the assumptions it was based on have disappeared. The UK, in truth, currently has no foreign policy. It has a muscle memory – of what worked when the international order worked. But since 2013-14, when Syria bombed its own people with poison gas and Russia annexed part of Ukraine, the international order has not worked.

In search of solutions we need to start from a frank assessment of the problems. Problem number one is that international relations have become Hobbesian. In place of a relatively clear set of bilateral conflicts – Israel-Palestine, Russia-Ukraine, for example – each taking place in a specific sphere, all conflicts have begun to interact. There is a war of all against all and, as the often forgotten second part of the saying goes, “in that war all men have equal right unto all things”. 

Conflict is no longer taking place in separate spheres: a business competing with a business rival may suddenly find a state actor behind the scenes on the other side; corruption, tax evasion and organised crime are becoming politicised. And wherever there is social unrest, there is geostrategic manipulation of it.

In this new, Hobbesian world, the UK has to be seen for what it has become: a medium-sized military power whose alliance structures – the Commonwealth, Nato and the EU – have each become less reliable. One response to this, increasingly popular among the Tory MPs who have driven the Huawei U-turn, is a conscious move towards a "Five Eyes" alliance – composed of the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The second big problem is that, in common with all democracies, we have failed to respond coherently to Russia’s switch to “hybrid” or “grey warfare. Most politicians, and the vast majority of UK citizens, still think of war as something fought by infantry soldiers in a dusty part of the world. In reality, there are numerous foreign state actors, Russia chief among them, waging a form of conflict designed to weaken our resilience, disintegrate our society, erode belief in democracy and human rights, and ultimately, our willingness to defend ourselves.

As a democrat, you may be repulsed by the question: “How do we fight back?” But, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in hybrid warfare, but hybrid warfare is interested in you. It's the democratic duty of politicians to draw lines around the activity of hostile actors, and to evolve responses to them consistent with democracy and the rule of law. That's why the Huawei U-turn was right, and should have come sooner.

Thirdly, there is the question of money and resources. The UK’s projected budget deficit has ballooned from £60bn to more than £300bn in this year alone under the impact of Covid-19. Even under the Office for Budget Responsibility’s central (ie, not worst case) scenario, UK debt will remain above 100 per cent of GDP for the best part of a decade.

See also: Peter Ricketts on British foreign policy and the lost art of grand strategy

The coherence of Britain’s defence strategy was already under strain, from a mixture of budget cuts and privatisations alongside the dogged determination to do “a bit of everything” – from strike fighters to jungle warfare training in Belize – albeit perpetually on the cheap.

If the foreign policy review is to break this cycle, the first precondition is that it has to be, as much as possible, open and bipartisan. There is little point in Dominic Cummings and Frost devising a masterplan  sidelining the securocrats, the defence companies, Labour, the SNP and the Tories’ nostalgic hinterland  if there is no underlying consent for the new doctrine, or even general understanding of it. 

For China and Russia, the creation of incoherence among Western policy elites is one of the clearest upsides of taking aggressive, unpredictable and unconventional moves. This debate has to answer questions on a ten- to 50-year timescale. There are some no-brainers: are we going to rapidly decarbonise? Yes. Are we keeping the nuclear deterrent? Yes. Do we need to increase our biosecurity and the resilience of our healthcare system in an era of pandemics? Yes. 

But can we go on pretending that we're a global power, which can simultaneously deter piracy off the Horn of Africa, contest the South China Sea with China’s giant navy, and intercept the yachts of drug dealers off Harwich? Unfortunately for the Empire 2.0 mob, the answer is no.

From this, though the future arenas and forms of conflict remain highly unpredictable, some conclusions follow. 

The first is that, as Malcolm Chalmers and Will Jessett of the Royal United Services Institute argue, the UK has to defend its own space first: its borders, its airspace, its cyber and energy infrastructure, and its civil society and democratic institutions. 

In the era of the “international community”, the domestic space could be assumed safe from almost everything except terrorism and conventional espionage. That’s not so now. If you want to imagine what foreign hybrid warfare strategists plan for, think of the Covid-19 pandemic combined with a cyber attack that paralyses the NHS.

The second conclusion has to be: stop tooling up for random, generic expeditionary warfare. There is no political consent for it. But, influenced by the war in Afghanistan, that is exactly where the last defence review, in 2015, ended up. As the experts wrangle over the mix of vehicles to be procured for new strike brigades, the better question would be: who are they supposed to fight and why? 

See also: Ailbhe Rea considers the policy positions of the shadow foreign chancellor, Lisa Nandy

It's the same with the new mix of aircraft carriers and strike fighters that will form the core of the Royal Navy. Why are we building a force projection system on a par with the US Marine Corps when – as Chalmers and Jessett point out – the conflict we're trying to stop, by deterring it, is likely to be in the Baltic Sea, which is on average 55m deep, and its neighbouring states?

Even conventional warfare increasingly involves metal boxes built in the 20th century deploying lasers, drones, cyber attacks and semi-autonomous weapons designed in the 21st. And while Britain has world-class metal box-building industries, its capabilities in these 21st-century technologies are being matched by second- and third-tier countries. Designing a future military force around what we already have might be a bad idea.

A third conclusion is that both the military and the domestic defence industries that support it have to be rapidly scaleable. Nick Carter, the chief of the defence staff, has warned that we need the ability to hike defence spending from 2 per cent to 5 per cent of GDP – if something sudden and dangerous happens. But with what’s left of our engineering, aerospace and steel industries (leaving aside the issue of political consent), it is difficult to see how that could happen – especially as the government's destructive Brexit strategy is forcing such companies to concentrate their operations inside the EU.

A fourth conclusion is that the armed forces need to be rooted more deeply in UK civil society. Their culture has changed – above all in places such as the Defence Academy at Shrivenham, where if you talk to future generals and admirals they speak the language of human rights law and behavioural science. But the armed forces face the same problem as the Labour Party: they’re pretty strongly rooted on one side of the culture war and the institution itself – as demonstrated by the discovery of a neo-Nazi National Action cell in 2018 – is becoming a politically contested space.

Finally, we need a responsible debate that – in a situation of high uncertainty – is not needlessly politicised. Boris Johnson has politicised the post of national security adviser by appointing his pro-Brexit aide Frost, rather than a career civil servant. Labour, meanwhile, has kept a low profile on defence. That makes sense under Keir Starmer's reputational repair strategy, but being a constructive opposition means engaging in the big and legitimate questions arising from the geopolitical turmoil.

The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, has made a good start by condemning China over Hong Kong, and calling for its exclusion from the UK nuclear programme. Now Labour needs to actively engage in the debates over the defence review: Cummings may love the idea of “red teams” to test the resilience of government policy, but in a democracy the ultimate red team has to be the opposition.

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Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.

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