SDSR 2015 – A Balanced Platform, and an Old Vision


So, as predicted, the world really is a more dangerous and complex place. It was ever thus.

Speaking on Radio 4 this morning, the Defence Secretary argued that no-one could have predicted the rise of a capable insurgent force, a global jihad or a Russia doing things we didn’t like at the time of SDSR 2010. Other views are definitely available. Indeed, lots of people were expressing just these views in 2010 for the rush-job, Cabinet Office and Treasury-led review that seemed to insulate itself not only from expert voices from outside Whitehall but from those in Main Building too (hence the circular PR firing squad of military voices that boomed out prior to the publication of the review). So, having been pilloried in the press, by military experts and even by academics (including myself in measured tones) you would be a reasonable person if you’d have thought the government would have learnt from the experience. And they may have. This is a balanced programme. It might not require the sort of revisions that most defence reviews are subject to, which would make a distinct change to the past. But Cameron still said ‘full spectrum’, which to me kicks the ‘we just don’t have the money for this’ can further down the road.
The ‘trip-wire’ brigades are an interesting innovation, even if they are not going to be rapidly formed (they’ll be ten years in the making). Whilst 2010 was an insular review, signalling a withdraw from expedition – followed immediately by Libya (oops) – this implies that we’re still in the expeditionary game (be it eyeing up Eastern Europe, or the Middle East). Should these brigades need moving via the oceans then we might have a problem, even with the new announced capacity. But from 2025 onwards, wherever there is a fight with a western coalition of the willing, the UK will be in the middle of it. On one reading of the recent past, this sort of activity then causes the requirement for further investment in counter-terrorism capabilities.

But the big missing element is the coherent strategic vision the Prime Minister promised. Having failed to articulate one in 2010 and now in 2015, I think we have to conclude that despite the hours that have been invested in discussing ‘strategy’, the Parliamentary Committee inquiry led by Bernard Jenkin and so on, that strategy is a lost art. And it’s an expensively lost art. Because it causes us to cover everything badly, rather than build capabilities behind something coherent. These best single line articulation of the strategy the UK ‘ought’ to have is from Malcolm Chalmers of RUSI – ‘a force for stability in the world’, amending the ‘force for good’ that was so widely scoffed at, at the time. Such a strategy would build upon cooperative work with our ‘frenemies’ (relevant today might be Russia and Iran, who will almost certainly need to be the boots on the ground element to sort out the Syria debacle). Prosperity and security as bonded concepts has some traction, but it definitely spending to save, and it’s not clear to me why the UK has to be at the centre of it (the old east of Suez debate writ large). I may be being unfair. If there is a strategy, it’s to return to the post-war UK, of global reach just reframed for today.

The positioning of the nuclear deterrent could have been sorted out with a simple political decision – to underwrite that the money attached to the deterrent could be kept within the defence budget not repurposed away from defence and into something else. I think that the issues around the nuclear question become much more solvable with that in place: pound for pound into conventional forces the nuclear money becomes not just useful, but game-changing. I wrote a few years ago about how and why the defence review had made our nuclear deterrent unsafe. The missing ladder of escalation not only rendered the deterrent useless, but potentially dangerous too. The death and/or retirement of those who really understand nuclear deterrence is a gaping gap in our collective knowledge of defence currently.

One of the most important things to have come between the 2010 and 2015 reviews was the decision to break the tie to our native defence manufacturers. I wrote about what I saw as the significance at the time, but I had subsequently concluded I just was interested by something very dull. The decision to replace Nimrod with Boeing P8s, and the potential (and large) markets for smaller, and alternative defence manufacturers to meet the new threats I think evidences that breaking the tie was significant. I’m not sure it can be justified in terms of off-the-shelf capabilities being cheaper (the shelf is still expensive to fill), and ultimately it will undermine our defence industries, who are already migrating to markets that appreciate them more. The European system of manufacturing – be it collaboratively, or brokered via the European Defence Agency – has merely entrenched competition between European states, rather than broken them down. Consequently, the UK has left itself hostage to its relationship with US defence giants, rather than being part of a European alternative, or an expensive indigenous capability. It is made expensive by the absence of competing supply. When the UK led the way in aircraft, four or more manufacturers competed for aircraft contracts, with the MoD underwriting the losses (they could innovate because failure didn’t result in bankruptcy). What we have now are contractors who have to be cautious and who are forced to underbid – and then overrun. There are half as many officials involved in UK defence procurement as there are in the entire European Commission. Given the scale of their respective challenges, that’s shocking. But losing a third of defence civil servants is equally shocking, in its own way.

The UK can offer something unique to its network of allies in ‘these dangerous times’. And that’s intelligence plus disruption. Because of our genuinely special relationship with the US in the intelligence field we do punch way above our weight in this field. The 1900 extra officers announced last week should be a welcome initiative, and meet some of the need of ‘Security Politics’, although recruitment and training puts extra capability years away. But in this area lies the British USP. Certainly on this budgetary spend.

So, do we have a coherent strategy? Maybe.

Do we have capabilities arriving quickly enough for the challenges? Not really.  

Is the navy still two men and a dinghy? Sadly yes.

Is the nuclear deterrent issue resolved? Yes.

Do we have answers for how we’re going to deal with the challenges presented in the Middle East and Eastern Europe? No…
But we have extra money, albeit coming relatively slowly, and some nice announcements and a balanced platform. Not a bad effort, given the timeline allowed for the review. But if you’re sat in Main Building tonight it’s one cheer and one raspberry apiece.

jobs 11943293716_c56a366775_o

Security Politics

Our contemporary political compact is premised on jobs and growth.

It’s the economy, stupid.. as Clinton so aptly put it.

And to be get elected parties need to be convincing on (and then deliver to get re-elected) economic prosperity, opportunities for future generations to get in on this prosperity, and the sorts of economic safety nets to encourage risk taking entrepreneurialism and yet to disincentivise idleness and work avoidance.

This was a tried and tested model that saw switches in the government of the time dependent largely on how successful they were in delivering jobs and prosperity, selling a vision and maintaining party unity. Such a focus has narrowed the pool of people coming into politics. They no longer needed to be former soldiers, or people with substantial experience in industry, the unions or other areas outside of narrow-band economic politics. It was said of Major, and Blair that they were the first Prime Ministers without direct experience of a war – the inference being that this sort of experience is vital for governing a state. Coupled with this was the European Union that had single-handedly delivered an unprecedented period of peace in Western Europe and relative economic prosperity and successfully sold (and kept selling) a vision of social and economic liberalism that was attractive to a wider set of European nation states. The EU was and is a technocratic set of organisations , geared to the business of developing and deepening a complex single market across many states: a primarily economic activity. So,in that frame the free movement of people makes perfect sense. And that the vast majority of European states soft pedaled their security and intelligence spend looked unproblematic: the capable states would keep their spending up, and the American umbrella would deliver a lot of the rest.

Only the twin problems of a refugee crisis bringing tens of thousands of people from an active war zone into societies focussed only, or mostly on jobs and growth, and the problems of attacks on the West are not economic problems. They are not – in the main – economic problems. Although the economic aspects of these problems are – in turn – security problems, or will quickly become so. So, the Generation X of special advisors and their political masters have a problem that they are ill-equipped to understand let alone deal with. The SDSR, which is now imminent, will be the first major test of this government’s ability to demonstrate that they understand the contemporary security environment. The SDSR rumour mill suggests that the government might have understood enough to increase some elements of the security budget, but the devil will be in the many details. (Another post will be forthcoming when it’s published). But the balance of politics is shifting. It is about the economy. It is also about jobs and growth. But the political class has successfully ballsed that up, over the last 7 or so years. And so for several reasons the politics is shifting to it being mostly about security.

As a instinctive europhile, it is with sadness to say that the European project is not currently fit for purpose following this shift. It is with slightly less surprise that we can currently observe that the political and special advisor class are not fit for purpose either. And as for the Labour Party… well.. if they don’t get with the shift pretty quickly they’ll be electoral toast. The hoohah today about the Shadow Chancellor and ‘that alleged leaflet’ makes the point better than a 1000word essay ever could.

Rapid adaptation is required. Politics has gone Darwinian and the electorate will turn unforgiving very soon.


The 2015 SDSR consultation

The MoD have very kindly given the public 1500characters with which to insert their thoughts into the review process. That equates to just under 300words. I managed to underspend my contribution by 80 characters…

Do not start the report with ‘the world is an increasingly dangerous place’. It isn’t. The threat picture is just more complex and we are adapting too slowly. We face two predominant types of threat, with an overarching and underspecified element: 1) traditional military, 2) asymmetric and ‘glocalised’. The overarching element is ‘hybridity’. To think of defence and security as expressed exclusively by equipment and personnel capacity and capabilities is a mistake. Hybrid conflict requires the UK to understand influence ops, money, health, education as components of our security. It also requires us to better understand who are opponents are and what they are doing: this requires a plethora of approaches. Countering these threats requires upfront investment to meet them before they develop (spend to save). It also requires a far wider range of institutions and actors – inside and outside of government – to pull together in countering hybrid threats (a smarter, holistic approach). This mix is likely to cause some discomfort, but currently we are mismatching assets and approach to the threats we are facing.

Better match the full-spectrum positioning and rhetoric with capabilities. So, resource better to match current rhetoric or better position the UK to match resourcing restraints. Don’t try and meet the 2%GDP figure by including non-defence items. Either scrap the target, or invest the full amount.  ”


The brevity does clarify the mind.

If you wish to add your thoughts please find the page at (


Brexit and The City: A Security Question?

The 2017 referendum concerning the UK’s membership of the EU will turn on many factors, even if most sage observers think that the vote to remain will be won. Those factors splay across nationality and identity politics, the Scottish question, the cohesion of the Conservative and Labour parties, contested economic analyses and the various mystery x-factors such as the far more likely ‘Grexit’.

So, despite the received wisdom being that the vote to remain will be won (and Open Europe declared on the 5th June – with its methodological workings – that the chance of Brexit sits currently at 19% and the chance of the vote being lost as 28%) the City of London has begun to speak with a louder voice about why it sees its core interests being best served with a UK that sits in the EU. That the City feels moved to speak is both interesting and important: it is interesting because it implies that they feel that there is a chance of Brexit beyond that which they can reasonably sit back and ignore. It is important because 1) there are political and economic impacts to be endured by The City (and thus the wider economy) in a time of political uncertainty prior to December 2017, and thus potentially after that date too and 2) because there are other important sub-questions around Brexit too that deal with the type of economy the UK will continue to enjoy, and to whose benefit these sorts of political issues are settled.

The economic impacts to be endured are most likely to be felt as investment decisions. Uncertainty is the enemy of investment: the UK will already be being priced with a risk premium, and this will only get worse as we get nearer to 2017. As the pre-eminent financial centre in the EU (for mostly historical reasons initially, but now in terms of sheer weight of activity), the City carries great sway over the conduct of financial services in the Union. The proposed banking union (which the City and the UK government opposes) might be developed as a rival bloc to the City which would impact upon the UK’s global competitiveness, whilst the move to encourage EU level business activity away from bank-led finance to alternative forms of financial instrument would likely be led by the UK – who is the largest player in this field currently and who has the best developed understanding of the regulatory frameworks required for it in the post-2008 climate. Simple politics would dictate that European rivals will be quick to question why the UK should have an influential say over this area if it looks to be disengaging from the European project altogether.

The City and financial services amount to 9% of the UK’s GDP. Damage to this area of activity (particularly to a host of investment decisions) has a whole-economy impact. My question – as a security studies academic – is does the potential impact, and thus the roll out across the entire economy, amount to a security impact? Strapping on various different lenses – that of economic performance and the money to invest in key attributes to maintaining fighting fitness (and not necessarily military fitness) is one holistic way to assess an economic impact. Such an analysis fits closely to the far reaches of ‘hybrid warfare’, and looks at the maintenance of education and health as elements of holistic effect. The other is to look at the maintenance of the integrity of social fabric. We can draw simplistic correlations around a time of economic contraction and the emergence of complex threats generated by the disaffected.

In terms of ‘the business dimension’ to Brexit. The City wants to remain in. Small businesses, who are doing less and less trade with continental Europe, might reasonably want to leave. Large manufacturing concerns have welcomed the prospect of having more flexible regulatory conditions outside of the EU – and so divide reasonably equally. Looking at the question from a UK Plc perspective, where is our influence best felt? Where do we exercise most ‘power’? In an era that has seen and will continue to see us effectively winding down our military power (SDSR 2015 will need to do something radical to stop this rot), activities that we do that our globally important should be retained. Even in the context of the disaster of 2008, the City remains a vastly overpaid wealth generator for the nation, and a lever of power on the international stage. Looking from the outside the UK, if one was to do an assessment of what to try and undermine in the UK as part of a hybrid war, the City would be a large target. Where are the successor sources of wealth generation outside of The City?

The fate of the City in the question around Brexit is fundamental to whether the UK remains a mid-range power, or a small power with an expansive history. More particularly, it is a security question.


UK Election 2015: Chaos, Disengagement and the Hunger Games

In 2010 I ran a series of short pieces on these pages about the General Election (and the image is from the 2010 result). Back through no popular demand at all… some thoughts.

This election will have four main head-lines on May 8th, and a big mess of two significant minorities to hack about trying to form a government:

1) The SNP wiped the floor with Labour in Scotland.

2) The LibDems melted down

3) UKIP were second in over 100 seats, but gained only 5 seats, and thus – ironically – have become the new LibDems…

4) Both the Conservatives and Labour can mathematically form a minority government, and that leaves the Queen with a somewhat large constitutional headache.

So, let’s start with Scotland. Lovely place, one day I will live there. Well, Nicola Sturgeon (leader of the Scottish Nationalists) was the stand-out winner of the televised debate of all seven main party leaders. Indeed, the people I watched it with (who all live in England, and aren’t known for socialist tendencies) all wanted to vote for her by the end of evening. This was partly because she sounded competent (‘knows what she’s doing’), and partly because didn’t seem as ‘male and smug’ as the other ones. So, on an unscientific poll in the Midlands, the leader of a party no-one could vote for, had a clear majority. In more scientific polls, she is set to lead (despite not standing for a Westminster seat herself) an absolute drubbing for Labour north of the border. For Labour’s chances of forming a majority government this is catastrophic. Well, it has ended the chance of a majority. For Jim Murphy (the Scottish Labour Party leader) this will be – if it comes about – a disaster, which is a shame because he is both a competent politician and by most accounts a decent man too. So, whilst the SNP has been making strides to dominate Scottish politics for a good number of years it is the catalysing effect of the Scottish independence referendum that is catapulting the party ever higher in the polls. The notion that the independence referendum was the end of the matter ‘for a generation’ seems fanciful. The mode of exit for the Scots seems painfully clear: the 2017 EU referendum provides them with the perfect opportunity to jump a Brexiting ship. Expect to see to Nicola Sturgeon looking very pleased on May 8th, and her former mentor Alex Salmond restored to Westminster and full of the joys of holding someone over a barrel.

The LibDems are having what is known in cricketing circles as ‘a total mare’. There appears to be nowhere in the land that they are currently safe – bar Eastleigh – according to an aggregator poll yesterday, and the lack of local support (their traditional strength) will be particularly concerning for them. The LibDems have – by dint of their internal constitution – always been very close to their membership, but they seemed to forget this during Coalition and frankly didn’t spend enough time saying how they had held back the Tories from doing whatever it is we assume they would have done if given free rein. And that’s the LibDems problem in a nutshell: what did they provide the Coalition, short of bodies to form a majority? If Clegg is lucky he’ll be offered a seat in the European Commission, a job he’d do fabulously well. As for those LibDem MPs that survive next Thursday, theirs might be a cosy and lonely existence. Back to the drawing board, and the sort of localism that saw them as ‘the’ party of local government for 20years.

UKIP and the irrepressible Farage will be disappointed on 8 May. They’ll be disappointed because – ironically -we don’t have a European system of voting. If we did, they’d be laughing. Nige would be all over the papers guzzling warm beer and basking in the joy of 1953 (cards on the table: as a europhile, I’m not a fan, but I do think he’s a nearly-brilliant politician). So, in line with the Ashcroft polling, I’m also happy to think that UKIP will come 2nd in over 100 constituencies, but fail to win outright in many. The act of coming second in a large number of seats (although they’ll feel like it’s a cup of sick) is actually a very strong result, that they’ll need to work hard, and more coherently, to build upon. For me, the really interesting point is who they are taking votes from: I had assumed years ago that they were the militant wing of the Conservative Party, but there’s good evidence that they’re taking working class Labour votes (which will see Tory MPs saved) and I’ve heard a number of LibDems in the midlands saying they’ve switched to UKIP too (which is interesting, when you compare the platforms). What Farage does very well, is tap into the concerns of actual voters. Not the issues that the mainstream think we ought to be bothered about, but what the ordinary voter is actually bothered about. That makes him a bit of a mystery to people.. well, like me. But after May 8, if he can actually build a party machine and match populism to policies that don’t get automatically shredded by the majority of the press, he’ll cause electoral chaos.

It’s been noticeable that defence and security have been almost totally missing from the election debates. There was half a day on trident, and the debate centred on 4 boats, 3 boats, no boats, and what is trident? But by lunchtime, it was as if all the parties had come together and agreed that trident and defence in general was a bad topic for all of them, and it was better not to talk about it. What I took from this is that defence is going to suffer further irksome cuts after the election no matter who wins, and none of them wish to point out the emperor has his fundamentals dangling in the breeze. We must surely be at the point where the next SDSR needs to have a strong element of public engagement – we are moving from full-spectrum to limited spectrum capabilities and the public are only just beginning to wake up to it. Miliband’s attempt to engage on foreign policy – at Chatham House – was met with howls and protests, and the modification of what went out from the Labour press office the night before rather indicated that the language had been loose. It would have made for a more interesting foreign policy debate if Miliband had gone for the strongest interpretation of what he said – the debate around interventionism and isolationism (a false dichotomy in my view) would have been worth having. But all the parties decided this was bad karma for them too. Even the debate on economics has swirled around, with Cameron’s job’s miracle not landing properly, nor Labour’s swipe at zero-hours jobs and food banks misfiring – you’d have to wonder what carnage Blair and Campbell would have caused with this.

So, on May 8th (and then for probably a month) we’ll witness the moving of the chairs as two credible minority governments vie to actually form the government. Who’d be the Queen in those circs: unenviable! Cameron has seemed – unfairly, so he keeps saying – disconnected and without gusto. But he’s done the job as a Chief Exec rather than a vision thing, whilst Miliband – in not setting fire to anything or falling over in public – has exceeded popular expectations. His brand of geek-immunity from social pressure allows him to rock up with Russell Brand and not be intimidated by the coolest kid in the playground, whilst meandering into a hen party and looking appropriately geeky. Weirdly, Miliband is becoming the Labour party’s secret weapon… six months ago, you’d have laughed to see it written.

This election of disengagement and the race to the deadheat of 33% makes me almost nostalgic for the crushing certainties of electoral domination of the 80s and early 00s. Almost….



Hybrid War (or hypercompetition….)

A while ago – I lose track of when – I wrote about something on KoW which I’d clumsily called hypercompetition. I don’t claim anything particularly original about the notion, but I heard it blaring out of my radio last week under the guise of something now called hybrid war. 

The problem of the conspiracy theory accusations or difficulties with hypercompetition seem to have been politically overcome with the perception of threat provided by Russia in Ukraine. Prior to this a notion that Russian funding of things of influence might be problematic was bracketed under the heading of ‘conspiracy theory’. Money likes to travel.. and in this globalised world money is colour blind.. let it come from wherever it comes. That sort of thing. And it’s not to pick on the Russian money, certainly not in the way I think about this hybridity or hypercompetition. It strikes me that there is rather a large number of states and significant networks of influence leveraging influence.

There are several underpinning follow-on questions:

1) Is this is a paranoid view of the world? Does it too close to conspiracy theory? Two responses: 1) a wise friend of mine noted that all IR theories are merely a myopia or conspiracy built upon the exponent’s preferences. So, this is merely a dissenting voice. As those mainstream conceptions were when they were mooted.

2) Is Western Europe just really bad at this form of warfare or influence? Following media reportage, it would appear that we’re under siege from many external sources. That we’re the timid supplicant… flotsam bounced around by nasty ‘forren’ types. I’m not convinced we’re bad at the prosecution of this kind of activity – afterall, if 500 years of imperialism hasn’t taught us something we should give up and cower at home. However, we seem very bad at countering it at home. Part of this might be the Bronwen Jones line of the coloniser being eventually colonised, but I think our weakness and vulnerability actually stems from the near universal acceptance of a narrative that, for instance, says that third country investment in our core infrastructure is ‘just the market’ rather than representing something political. Afterall, the restrictive rules on FDI in other countries means that we’re not aligned to a brand of universal thought on this. The underfunding of European universities – for example – means that the sector arguably has taken to servicing global elites and seeking out international (non-EU) money (from all sorts of places) that helps to tailor intellectual agendas and allows for foreign-domestic political debates/fights to be had on EU soil, away from the more problematic political environments of those students. This is the sort of political activity that gave European governments the creeps in the 1920s, and whilst the positive externalities of internationalisation are clear to those who work in universities – as anyone engaged in Horizon2020 funding, or in finding research partners in the US will tell you – there is a potential darker side that administrators seem unkeen to think about. Whether these networks pose a risk or not would require the right question, the right data and fine judgments. And of course it might be that we are fine exponents of exporting our own norms…

So, should we be worried about this hybridity as it pertains to Russia. Well, Russian money has traveled, and London’s housing market is partly inflated and propped up by it. Money has traveled into think-tanks and research efforts, and into infrastructure. Leveraging influence is not solely a case of invest and nice things will follow. But it helps. The Economist – which has become increasingly shrill on this issue – plotted Russian connections to European political parties to more than suggest that hybrid war threatened the fabric of the continent and the European project in particular. But most of the scaryness seems to be because of the word Russia, rather than the pattern of behaviour, which is a logic of neoliberal economics and PR/influence. Can we unpick or understand the complex influences on our politics (both organisational and ideological)? No. Should we pay attention to the fine documentary by Adam Curtis, Bitter Lake...? Yes, well worth a watch.

So, I would say this, wouldn’t I… but there is much in the concept of hybrid war. But we are only at the start of really understanding what is meant by it, and a country mile off understanding how to counter it. Particularly when countering it will rely upon a challenge to neoliberal orthodoxies.

groundhog day

Gulf War III

The new gulf war will be an amazing thing.

It won’t be like the previous two in any way.

This time there will be a clear strategy from the start: to kill the bad people.

And the range of activities to be performed will be tightly bounded: we won’t go into ground operations unless all the air operations turn out to be not quite as effective as we thought. Then we’ll vacillate about whether we meant we weren’t going to go in on the ground, agonize about whether we have the correct authorities to do so, and then under resource it. To make it interesting.

We know exactly that this is the thing that the enemy least wants: the people cutting off heads and making videos of it precisely don’t want us to attack them. That’s the thing they’re most seeking to avoid. Because if we don’t attack them they’ll be able to find cohesion amongst Middle Eastern populations to widen the caliphate. It’s either that or it’s precisely what they want. Bit like AQ and the death by a thousand cuts that bin Laden predicted for Gulf War II.

We won’t turn a blind eye to who is – predominantly – funding these groups, and we will certainly make stiff representations to them: unless they have lot of money. In which case we’ll pretend the root cause is something else. Because that’s less inconvenient.

We will give our armed forces the %GDP funding and capabilities to deal with these endless interventions: or, alternatively, we’ll keep forgetting that we said we’d stop intervening, cut the funding and wonder why it’s all a bit touch and go. God forbid we actually and seriously engage in drumming out duplication in Europe to make sure that our buck is delivering a bang not a sizzle. (Sorry, I realise I went far too far there….)

This time when we break the china in the shop, we’ll own the shop. Definitely. We won’t cut and run with the shop still broken and a big sign saying ‘easy thieving opportunities here’ placed in the window. No sir. Unless we get bored of the people not being able to stop killing each other.  Which is, afterall, very tedious.

So, off to war we go.

But it would be nicer to have an exit strategy from the start, and a range of things that looked like an understanding of what success in this space is.

Most importantly, I wonder whether Chilcot will manage to report before Gulf War IV?


Mitrokhin & lessons learned

Two thousand pages of Mitrokhin’s notebooks have been cleared by the vetters and released into Churchill College for all to see.

The FBI described Mitrokhin’s files as the most complete set of intelligence ever gifted to them from a single source, and there was much that was compelling within them. There were particular revelations that shook the various institutions they touched. But I was asked by a journalist-friend to provide a comment about what these files taught us about ‘the Russian playbook’, and how to deal with Russia now. And I provided an answer that partly skirted the issue, because I think it’s a misreading of the utility of the files and how we should understand intelligence agencies in general.

The Mitrokhin files tell us that intelligence agencies operate in a slightly different way to common public perception’s understanding. These government bodies operate mostly as agents of influence – very rarely do they directly recruit high value operatives (and Mitrokhin is scathing about the Cambridge spy ring’s actual abilities) but they mostly establish low-level relationships in which the party being used has very little understanding of their role. That’s partly because of the transaction costs (in terms of time, opportunity and risk) of recruiting high-value targets (and presumably the low success rate) and partly because the role of an intelligence agency is as a norm entrepreneur, not just a collector and assessor of raw information. A wider net is more useful for these purposes, and just as in business is likely to throw up unexpected bonuses.

I also think that a lesson from the files is that the European security system has changed. If we take the UK as a snap-shot of a post-Cold War security state – the relief at the end of the nuclear confrontation has allowed foreign adversaries to hold large financial positions in London – which has, for example, undermined the Prime Minister’s ambitions to leverage sanctions recently – and to allow what could uncharitably be called influence operations to be conducted against educational establishments, think-tanks and the like.* Most European governments have focused their security attentions away from their traditional adversaries (who have not gone away) and onto newer threats in the Middle East and neighbouring regions whilst simultaneously trying to make financial savings or efficiency gains.

So, I think it’s a mistake to think of this as only a Russia issue or a Russia problem. The logic of security competition means that all states with active intelligence capabilities enthusiastically engage in these activities. The lesson to be learned is not a country specific one… it’s to embrace the notion that hyper-competition involves influence and the constraining of autonomy across intellectual, financial and infrastructural lines. Mitrokhin provides a rich, but limited case study of one nation’s efforts in this regard. The pattern of behaviour is somewhat more ubiquitous though. 


*Be cautious, also, of over-reading the impact of these target groups: it was well-known in Russian security circles that over-reading these groups cheered up the Politburo, but little else.


Reservists and the NAO

(You wait or dread a long time for a Dover post, and then two come along in half an hour.. hardly seems right, does it?)

The government got a thorough drubbing from the NAO about the plan to have in place 30,000 reservists, whilst dialing down the number of regulars to 82,000 (a historically low figure). The NAO concluded that the government was going to fall well short of the required figure of 30,000 by 2018. There was also criticism of yet another government IT project that looks like it can just be added to the litany of computer system gaffs that all governments seem acutely prone…

General Sir Peter was quoted in the media yesterday as saying that the army should not face any further reorganisation or redundancy until after SDSR 2015 – this has to be palpably correct. The thousand redundancy notices poised to be sent to serving members of the army should be shredded until such time as it makes some/any sense to issue them. If the reservists cannot be recruited why go through the self-defeating exercise of expelling regulars.

The NAO were critical of the MoD in saying that the policy had not been rigorously tested. To be fair to the MoD it’s difficult to pre-test a radical departure, there is a sense in which one has to live these things to discover whether they work or not, and whilst many people did highlight the many difficulties with the policy it isn’t right to say it was obviously fatally flawed from the start. I thought and wrote here that it was going to be difficult to persuade regulars made redundant to come back in via the reservists (there is nuance here around statutory compulsion to that effect anyway, but the essence is right) because rightly or wrongly it is seen as a less good contractual basis. I argued that the military covenant was simply not strong nor effective enough to deliver the guarantees to service personnel they needed, nor were the provisions in place for compensating civilian workplaces for reservists going on tour strong enough: they relied (in part, I thought) on a kind of patriotic sense of duty for the employer, that is simply misplaced in this economy.

It is easy to sit back and say that what is really required is another thought about fundamental strategy (that’s right, but the message is out there) and unless I’ve missed something fundamental SDSR 2015 is moving along quietly and without really taking up the time of anyone other than the usual academic suspects. But that’s not to write it off a year and a bit out from when it will be published. Needless to say, it strikes me that the intellectually sound fix to these issues is to appropriately position the UK in the world etc and then to work out how much security one can buy. My friend and colleague Tim Edmunds uses a risk methodology for this equation, and whilst this has its own flaws, one can see that evidence-based joy of it.

Anyhow, the view before breakfast is halt the redundancies, pause, reflect, and wait for SDSR 2015.

FSA_rebels_cleaning_their_AK47s (1)

Isis and the strange wisdom of Vlad?

When I was a student in Nottingham (which is now a scary amount of time ago).. there was a dubious nightclub called ISIS. It was only dubious because of the calibre of us students frequenting it, mostly on a Wednesday night. It had seemingly changed its name from Black Orchid to get away from the connotations of ‘BO’ and the athletics union night that it so famously hosted at that time, although it never got away from the sticky floor it had whatever time of day or night one went in. But on the plus side it wasn’t into world domination, mass beheadings or any of the other nasties that the group that has taken inspiration from its name are clearly into… so that’s a plus.

There are many things to be perturbed about regarding the sudden rush of ISIS through key parts of Iraq. Why was there not the intelligence in place to identify this in advance (and if there was why was the response so poor?), why did 800 armed militants scare of two divisions of Iraqi army.. just how flaky is the Iraqi army? And – worst of all (I jest) – was Putin correct in supporting Assad?

This is a theme I have touched on before on these pages… The simple logic of my enemy’s enemy is my friend, the challenge to it, and the notion that containment of an enemy like Hussein, like Assad is far more effective that toppling or attempting to topple.

Is the chemical weapons using Assad better or worse for our interests, for regional stability than ISIS? An ISIS now using the American supplied equipment that the Iraqi army dropped when it turned on its heel and ran crying a couple of days ago? Well, given that I’d rather containment than rash acts (and cards on the table, I was ghoulishly excited by rash acts in 2003…)  my hunch is that once again we’ve not only dropped a plate, we’ve hurled the plate into the wall and then realised we’re not at a cliched and improbable Greek wedding (I’ve not been to one where anyone has wanted to break stuff… shoot into the air, yes. Curiously. But not break stuff). Putin supported Assad’s Syria because it was one of the last mainstays of Russian support in the Middle East (so, self interest), he also said to us he supported it because the alternative was worse (and he appears to be very correct about that), and because he noted that our ‘civilising mission’ in the Middle East had been differently successful (given the whole running away thing, that’s also pretty correct).

So, we’re in a pickle. And for anyone who follows @SoVeryBritish we are thankful for the definition of this which is: “A bit of a pickle – Translation: A catastrophically bad situation with potentially fatal consequences.” We actually require Assad to survive. Because we actually cannot have ISIS conducting a cross-border insurgency in Iraq and Syria in which two non-functioning states are (un)created. As a friend whimsically put it yesterday, ‘at least Iraq no longer has WMD’.

ISIS appear to be well-organised (not just because of the recent victories), are very ambitious, and having been disavowed by AQ, present a strong risk to our key interests in the Middle East and nearer to home (mostly because their membership is said to have a large European contingent).

I’m not sure it’s the time to say Vlad was right, but it might be the time to start doing things that could be misinterpreted in that way. Getting Assad somewhere back into the fold and contained is – it would seem – the lesser of two evils and the bastard you know is better than the bastard you don’t…