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Documents at odds: the UK’s national security review

The narrative of the Cold War imposed a simplified vision of the world. The UK’s defence review does move towards an understanding that risks normally associated with domestic concerns now have to be dealt with on a global scale. What it does not do is to create a capability for this kind of intervention

Mary Kaldor
10 November 2010

On October 18 and 19, the Coalition government published two documents: A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The New National Security Strategy and Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategy Defence and Security Review, hereafter referred to as Document 1 and Document 2. In the foreword to both documents, the terrible twins, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, claim that these are ‘historic’ documents  - Britain’s first comprehensive national security review. In Document 1, they claim that the new strategy offers a ‘radical transformation’ in the way we do security and, in both documents, they insist that they have inherited a legacy of defence equipment based on a ‘Cold War mindset’. So how far do the documents fulfil their claims to go beyond that mindset?

Document 1, The National Security Strategy, offers a litany of possible risks and threats to the UK, none of which include a military attack on the UK by a foreign enemy, although what they call ‘tier three risks’ (low priority) include an attack on an ally or a UK overseas territory. Their high priority risks include international terrorism, cyber attack and crime, a major accident or natural disaster, and an ‘international military crisis between states’ involving state and non-state actors. Of the eight national security tasks they list, only one, task 6 - ‘help resolve conflicts and contribute to stability’ - actually requires the use of military force. Instead, policing, intelligence, diplomacy and aid are all viewed as tools for national security.

The strategy proposes a ‘whole-of-government’ approach in line with the establishment of the new National Security Council. Of course, it can be argued that it is very unclear how the particular list of seemingly rather random threats was worked out. Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian describes them as a ‘paranoid’s manifesto, a Matrix movie horror.’ In particular, what is meant by an international military crisis between states is never explained. It can also be argued that this widening of the kind of risks that are included as part of security potentially represents a massive securitisation of every-day life. Indeed, the justification for maintaining the overseas aid budget is based on national security considerations and a big increase in the share of total aid going to Afghanistan has been announced. But the good thing about the national security strategy is the way it moves away from classic military threats towards an understanding that the kind of risks that we normally associate with domestic concerns and for which we maintain emergency services (police, firefighters or paramedical services) now have to be dealt with on a global scale.

Document 2, however, the Strategic Defence and Security Review is oddly at variance with the first document. It is, perhaps not surprisingly, rather traditional and conventional. It is focused on defence and says very little about civilian capabilities. It retains the old defence stovepipes and so preserves the three separate arms of the military together with their  flagship pieces of equipment. It talks about bilateral and multilateral partners including the UN and the EU. But the priority is still NATO and the US relationship, thereby reproducing Cold War legacy priorities. (My next column will review NATO’s new strategic concept due to be unveiled at the Lisbon Summit). It does, at the end talk about structural reform, but the reform appears to hardly touch the defence sector. It is mainly about establishing new units to address  the new risks identified in the first document and is not integrated with the rest of the document.

Essentially, the second document reflects a cost-cutting exercise. It protects the requirements for the Afghan War, and it projects into the future a capability for full-scale traditional warfare (on the Cold-War-imagined-model, itself a legacy of World War II). It retains Trident, even though it postpones the decision on replacement until after the next election. Maintaining Trident also means maintaining a whole set of naval capabilities such as the Astute class hunter-killer nuclear submarines, needed to protect it. It will go ahead with two new large and expensive carriers, while retiring existing carriers and the Harriers jets that operate from them. Like Trident, the carriers require a dedicated family of naval support (destroyers, submarines, refuelling tankers) and therefore bring with them a commitment to much more than just the carriers. The air force will get advanced aircraft – more Typhoon multi-role combat aircraft and the American Joint Strike aircraft, in a cheaper version that does not involve vertical take-off and landing and so can only be used on a carrier through the installation of a catapult. Each of these systems have been developed in a linear trajectory from the past and each provides the justification for the separate arms of the military. The army is cut least because of its role in Afghanistan and it will shed some but not all Cold War capabilities (40% of the heavy Challenger tanks and 35% of heavy artillery). Actually, by committing to these Cold War legacy weapons systems, all that has been achieved has been the postponement of costs. When these projects come on stream after 2015 there will enormous cost pressures. There will have to be further reviews and further cuts.

Neither the Afghan war nor full-scale warfare are the most likely contingencies in the future. The high intensity counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan, like the war in Iraq, is probably an exception, the result of a conventional military intervention. There has actually been a decline in the number of wars since the end of Cold War and in the number of people killed in wars.  Quantitative analysis suggests that Iraq and Afghanistan are outliers, both in terms of intensity and the method of warfare. As for the high end of warfare, which has almost disappeared since the end of the Cold War, it would be suicidal for a country like Britain to contemplate taking part in such a war. Were it to take place, the consequences could only be catastrophic. As Document 1 makes clear, the best approach is prevention.

What the defence review does not do is to create a capability for the kind of intervention envisaged in the first document, intervention to resolve conflict or to preserve stability. On the contrary, our ability to do this kind of humanitarian policing task is even less than before. In particular, the retirement of existing carriers and the grand scale and cost of future carriers has eroded our small scale expeditionary capabilities. It would not be possible, for example, without Harriers, to intervene in Sierra Leone as we did in 2001. Yet these are the most likely contingencies in which the UK might be expected to make a contribution and they are the contingencies for which the UK has developed an effective capability to act alongside the United Nations and the European Union. Dealing with piracy, preventing or responding to genocides, upholding ceasefires, re-establishing the monopoly of force in fragile states: these are tasks that are actually essential in creating a more secure world where protection against other types of risk (terrorism, pandemics, natural disasters, organised crime) can be strengthened. The role of the military in these situations is essentially policing and constabulary functions together with other humanitarian emergency capabilities. Yet it is precisely our capability to undertake these tasks that are being whittled away in the defence review.

A huge opportunity has been missed. The implication of Document 1, for all its flaws, is that what we need is to design a whole-of-government approach starting from the requirements. Essentially this amounts to building what I call a human security capability for contributing to global responses to varying life-threatening situations in different parts of the world. Such a capability would be both military and civilian, including diplomacy, policing, legal experts, health and humanitarian experts, engineers, fire fighters etc. It would replace both the armed forces and the separate arms of the military. The military part of this force would be an expeditionary capability with military and civilian personnel who would operate according to human security principles: protecting people rather than defeating an enemy; operating under rules of engagement more similar to policing than to war-fighting; and under a civilian command. I have developed this proposal in my book The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon: Human Security and the New Rules of War and Peace, written jointly with an American Army officer.

Actually, the world is no more complex and uncertain than it was during the Cold War. Many of the risks listed in Document 1 existed then. The narrative of the Cold War imposed a simplified vision of the world. It obscured complexity and uncertainty. The worst thing that could possibly happen was another World War and so it did not seem important to deal with lesser risks. Now we are searching for a new narrative to make sense of the post-Cold War world in a way that might help us to address multiple risks. Human security offers both a narrative and an organising framework. It would have been good to think through the ways in which the establishment of a national security council potentially overrides sectional bureaucratic interests. Even better would have been to rename the National Security Council the Human Security Council and think through what this might mean in practice.

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