“A hard rain is coming”
Dominic Cummings, Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Brexit and COVID-19 have fundamentally changed all of the great assumptive lathes upon which all the tools of Britain’s external reach have hitherto been forged. There has never been a more propitious moment for a truly radical re-evaluation of Britain’s vital interests and how to secure and defend them. A radical such as Cummings might just be the man to break the defence pretence from which for too long London has suffered. However, the forthcoming Integrated Foreign, Security and Defence Policy Review will need to be far more than the sum of his own prejudices.
A hard rain is Cummings
George Orwell once wrote that in times of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act. At first sight the news that London is considering sending HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific to deter China has the ring of Gilbert and Sullivan about it, especially as the announcement coincided with a rumour that the British were also planning to scrap the building of three Fleet Support Ships necessary to make future such deployments possible. For some strange reason the Americans tend to get a tad irritable when they are asked to use their over-stretched armed forces to support a bit of British grandstanding. Still, this is the silly season and there are many balloons been floated about the forthcoming ‘Dom Does Defence Review’ (aka the Integrated Foreign, Security and Defence Review) which will be led, as is so much of British policy these days, by Boris Johnson’s ‘Advisor for Everything’, Dominic Cummings.
There has been a fundamental problem with British security and defence policy since at least 1922: the yawning gap between ends, ways and means. Today, that gap is as wide as it has ever been. Listen to the rhetoric of the Johnson Government and the high summer of strategic pretence is in full bloom: Global Britain should do more on security and defence, but do it with significantly less money. To make this impossible equation ‘add up’ politically Cummings wants to hot-wire Britain’s defence by shifting the focus of Britain’s armed forces from the physical battlespace to the digital, the virtual, the orbital and the informational battlespace by downsizing the physical and the kinetic. Another of Dom’s prevailing assumptions is that such a shift can only be done if Britain relies more heavily on allies, most notably the US and NATO, even as it cuts the very British means the US and NATO need. In 2019 Britain effectively abandoned the Continental Strategy it is has followed since at least 1944 and effectively withdrew from the land defence of Europe.
Politics, as ever, is trumping strategy. London claims it will maintain the commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence and increase its real-term defence investment by 0.5% per annum. A lot of this smoke and mirrors. The accounting method used to calculate British defence expenditure might meet NATO’s very lax standards but would not pass muster with any decent accountant. Critically, COVID-19 has already seen a marked contraction in GDP and the shift to space, digital and virtual (always expensive) could only be paid for either increasing the defence investment budget markedly (very unlikely) or by cutting further vital military ‘teeth’ formations, such as 21st century airborne (sadly predictable) and equally vital support and logistics, such as Future Support Ships. Team Tempest and the much-vaunted Future Combat Air System? Let’s see where that goes.
Britain’s dangerous choice
The dangerous choice Britain now has to make which is implicit in the Review is thus: if Britain makes the wrong set of radical defence choices having caused The World Crisis – inadvertently or otherwise – China (and Russia) could well be the big strategic winners. If the UK goes all defence virtual and becomes the militant wing of soft power London will be complicit in worsening US military overstretch and further weaken the defence of Europe (a central theme of my forthcoming Oxford book Future War and the Defence of Europe). London has already retreated behind its nuclear shield in favour of some occasional strategic raider role. Global Britain?
Hard rain means hard truths. For all the current defence and deterrence pretence in the fashionable salons of London’s defense philosophes and their wittering about the ‘digital’ and ‘information’, warfare still ultimately involves well-trained and well-armed young men and women having ‘win’ hard yards and paying for it with their lives. Beijing and Moscow understand this. Indeed, if one reads Chinese and Russian military strategies and doctrine both see the primary purpose and utility of the virtual, digital and informational as enablers for the physical, not as an alternative to it. Cummings does not seem to understand that. Worse, it is not at all clear that the current service chiefs will be sufficiently robust with their political master/s (Dom) about the damage that defence amateurism on steroids could do to Britain, its defences and its alliance. Indeed, ‘the Chiefs’ seem more interested in appeasing Dom by implicitly endorsing the nonsense that the digital, the virtual and the informational is all the ‘warfare’ Britain should aspire to fight.
Make Britain strong enough…
So, what is the British defence-strategic role Cummings should aspire to? There is a mantra Cummings should have pinned to his office wall: ensure Britain is strong enough where it is critically necessary; help keep America strong where and when it is strategically necessary, and make NATO work where absolutely necessary.
The US needs Europeans to do far more for their own defence and Britain, as an important European regional strategic power, needs to be at the core of any such European effort. Forget all the nonsense about an EU common defence. The only way to organise such a US-supported European defence will be to construct it around Europe’s three major powers, Britain, France and Germany, and within NATO. Indeed, NATO is the only available mechanism for the all-important transformation of a European defence effort that by 2030 (at the very latest) will need to credibly deter and defend across the physical, digital and virtual domains of 5D warfare: disinformation, deception, destabilisation, disruption and implied or actual destruction.
Therefore, the forthcoming Cummings defence review (forget all the guff about an integrated approach) should be about generating sufficient British military power to buy influence in Washington and the Alliance, power is after all influence. The aim of the review should be the transformation of NATO into THE vehicle for the generation and rapid deployment of sufficient European force to deter and defend against both a high-end peer competitor AND support front-line Allies dealing with chaos to NATO’s south. The true and coming test of both NATO and Britain will rest on the ability of Europeans to mount a defence against the worst-case scenario in which adversaries exploit US military over-stretch by engineering crises in multiple theatres simultaneously. The EU? Adapt the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) to focus on greater resiliency of critical command and security infrastructures, and make Britain a strategic partner.
Where Britain can add specific value
Defence reviews are about difficult choices, the Cummings Review is no different. Given the rapidly changing and deteriorating strategic environment Britain can add most value to its own future defence, that of its European neighbours and its American allies by helping create a high-end, first responder European Future Force. Such a force must be able to operate to effect across the multiple battlespaces of air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge and NATO’s European pillar should be reformed with that single aim in mind. At the core of the force should be an Allied Command Operations European Mobile Force (based on the old ACE Mobile Force) and organised around a British-led Allied Rapid Reaction Corps and other NATO commands that has sufficient twenty-first century military manoeuvre power to block a major attack on the Alliance (supported by relevant enablers, logistics and indicators) AND sufficient military mass to support front-line states to the south dealing with the consequences of engineered chaos across the Middle East and North Africa. If Britain’s Strategic Command is to match words with deeds the creation of such a force should be central to its mission.
In the wake of COVID-19 such a vision will not only demand more defence from states like Britain but far greater synergy between European forces and a profound change of mind-set on the part of European leaders. It will also demand that in spite of Brexit Britain, France and Germany march in strategic lock-step. Therefore, establishing the foundations of a new transatlantic/European strategic partnership should the single over-arching political and strategic aim of the Cummings Review.
The Cummings Review
Dominic Cummings is essentially right – a hard rain is indeed coming to Britain’s foreign, security and defence establishment and Britain’s strategic outreach certainly needs shaking up. Brexit, COVID-19, the publication of the Russia report by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, and the rapid deterioration in Sino-British relations are the first heavy showers of the Gathering Storm. Closing the woeful ends, ways and means gap from which Britain’s armed forces have for too long suffered not only needs to be grounded in geopolitical reality it must also do something inimical to the Westminster and Whitehall mind – put strategy before politics in pursuit of the national rather than the political interest.
The alternative is that the Cummings Review will turn out to be yet another exercise in strategic pretence, the musings of an over-mighty defence amateur with a chance to impose his particular prejudices on a defence establishment already teetering on the edge of dysfunction. If Cummings is to do any service to Britain’s critical national interests in the wake of the COVID-19 disaster he will also need to answer two questions that too many British governments have for too long dodged: what kind of power is contemporary Britain, and what hard power role should Britain aspire to play? The mushy furnishings of British soft power so beloved of the London Establishment will simply can no longer afford comfort in this world.
US and Indian forces will shortly begin a major joint military exercise. It is part of the emerging World-Wide web of Democracies that will contest the twenty-first century strategic space with China and Russia. Britain is a major strand of that web, albeit very much a Euro-Atlantic strand. Ultimately, the Cummings Review must understand that and end British strategic pretence or fail. To do that Cummings must properly consider the application of all national means in pursuit of Britain’s national interests but in the world as it is, not the world London would prefer to exist.