Why UK Defence needs more mass, not less: Evidence to the Integrated Review

Rod Thornton and Marina Miron, both Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

The piece here constitutes the evidence submitted by the two authors to the United Kingdom government’s Integrated Review of defence, security, development and foreign affairs. The actual publication of the final Integrated Review document is expected in the next few weeks.

The three questions that form the sub-headings here are taken from the Integrated Review process’s call for evidence. Given the nature of the questions posed, there is some repetition of issues.

Question posed by Integrated Review:

  1. What are the key opportunities, challenges, threats and vulnerabilities facing the UK now?

The major threat facing the UK now is to its homeland resilience. Homeland resilience is also its chief vulnerability.

The UK government does not take the threat to the homeland seriously enough – this was evidenced by the patent lack of preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK, by one measure, ended up with the highest per capita death rate in the world. This was ironic given that the World Health Organisation, in 2019 and immediately prior to the pandemic, judged that the UK was actually the best prepared country in the world to face any future pandemic. So, it seems that the UK was the best prepared country and yet it was the worst affected.

The UK ended up in this position because, while its pandemic preparation plans looked very good on paper, when COVID-19 actually struck there was actually little physical capacity to put all the good plans into operation. In fact, the plans relied on a very large input from private sector contractors who, it turned out, took too long to be both appointed and to then become operational.

Reliance was thus placed, especially in terms of providing immediate mitigation effect, almost totally on the military. Included here were tasks such as forces’ personnel setting up the Nightingale field hospitals, running 95 per cent of the country’s mobile testing points and the whole of the NHS’s PPE delivery system. Moreover, some 10,000 troops were also on standby if needed to take over from an overstretched police force and to deal with any possible social disorder.

But relying on the military in future emergency situations for immediate mitigation effect is untenable. The government was extraordinarily lucky in that, in early 2020, more of the Armed Forces were based in the UK than at any time in their entire history. Huge numbers were thus on hand to provide assistance. But what would the government have done if the Armed Forces had been ‘busy’ on operations abroad and had insufficient spare capacity to act in a homeland resilience role?

Other European countries badly affected by the pandemic did not have to rely on luck or turn to their militaries for immediate mitigation. Every other major European state was prepared because they have large civil defence organisations – in some cases being able to draw on over 300,000 personnel. Their sole mission is to plan for emergencies and they are resourced to move into action immediately once called upon. The UK disbanded its civil defence body in 1967.

Beyond their civil defence organisations, most European countries also have a paramilitary force whose job it is to support not only the national and local police forces but also the civil defence bodies (as has been evidenced in the recent pandemic). These paramilitary forces have not only controlled the movement of people (something very rarely attempted in the UK) and tackled instances of pandemic-induced social disorder, but they have also been used to conduct major disinfection operations and undertaken many ‘care in the community’ tasks – such as delivering supplies to care homes and feeding homeless people.

While European countries did make use of their militaries for mitigation effect in the pandemic, they did not have to rely on them – so why does the UK have to? There is an opportunity now to ask the question as to why the UK does not have either a civil defence organisation or a paramilitary force. This is an especially pertinent question given the most likely major threats the UK will be facing in the very near future (see below).

Question posed by Integrated Review:

  • What are the keysteps the UK should take to maximise its resilience to natural hazards and malicious threats?

The UK will need to take certain key steps to improve its homeland resilience capacity because of the expected nature of future threats. The first step is to recognise where the threats will be coming from and the form they will be taking. Only then can the second step take place of properly developing resilience capacity and making the right preparations. These preparations need, though, to be made with public acceptance in mind. Here is the third key step – to make the UK public aware that homeland resilience is an important facet of their security and that there are costs attached to it.

The first significant future threat to resilience will be that from natural hazards. It is accepted among epidemiologists that the number of pandemics will increase. The UK thus needs to be far better prepared for the next one and not so reliant on its military for immediate mitigation. This military help, indeed, simply may not be available next time. Operational commitments may make it impossible or military numbers might be so reduced (Defence spending cuts) that personnel are simply not available. In terms of preparation, therefore, careful consideration is required as to the merits of setting up a civil defence organisation. This would need to have the capacity to both prepare for a pandemic and to be able to take the necessary immediate action once it has come to have effect.

Climate change will represent another threat vector. There will be the likes of more floods, wildfires and droughts. Again, while other countries have their dedicated civil defence agencies on hand to move into immediate action, the UK does not. For instance, all major European civil defence agencies can call on aircraft that are designed to drop water on wildfires. The UK has none. In drought situations, moreover, civil defence in Europe can deliver water to households via tanker vehicles and bowsers. This cannot be done in the UK.

The UK also has almost no capacity to deal with a major nuclear incident (such as a leak at a nuclear plant). In the case of such an accident in the UK, it is, remarkably, the Ambulance Service that is responsible for all ‘mass decontamination’ tasks (although it has next to no equipment to fulfil them). It is not a military responsibility. Indeed, the military has itself no ability to carry out ‘mass decontamination’ on a battlefield (of vehicles, etc).

Given the changing character of war (see below), the UK also has to accept that malicious actors will want to destabilise the functioning of the UK state. The military doctrines of both Russia and China assume that the best way of defeating state adversaries today is not to fight them on any kinetic battlefield, but rather to achieve strategic effect by destabilising them from within. The aim is to undermine state authority and control by creating domestic – to use the Russian word – khaos.  As Russian military doctrine puts it, one of the main aims of modern warfare is to exacerbate ‘the protest potential of the population’ of adversary states through non-kinetic means – specifically through the use of ‘information-psychological warfare’.

Virtually every country around the world has an internal security – a paramilitary – force that is available to support the police if social order breaks down. The UK does not. Surely the time has come to discuss why the UK has no capability of its own to reinforce what is a – comparatively – very small standing police force. The UK government will have to rely for public order – in extremis – on the use of actual troops.

Society, however, needs to be carefully briefed as to why a paramilitary force might be necessary. But, given the way that the character of war is progressing, a paramilitary force would seem to be essential. 

Overall, the UK simply does not spend enough money on being able to mitigate the effects of disasters wrought either by climate change, accidents or by malicious actors. It needs to spend more and the UK government need to explain to the public why this expense is necessary. Indeed, high spending up-front on mitigation capacity may prove to be a much cheaper option – in terms of both increased deaths and financial costs – than dealing with the fall-out of the likes of pandemics and out-of-control social disorder. (Remember Capitol Hill.)

Question posed by Integrated Review:

  • What changes are needed to Defence so that it can underpin the UK’s security and respond to the challenges and opportunities we face? (Submissions focusing on the changing character of warfare, broader concepts of deterrence, technological advantage and the role of the Armed Forces in building national resilience are particularly welcome.)

Although it is unfashionable to say so, Defence needs, above all, to have more mass. This is not so much that it can better serve the interests of the UK abroad, but rather that it can better balance its overseas commitments – now and in the future – with those it will be increasingly called upon to perform at home. The Armed Forces cannot, given their much-reduced size now, be both an interventionary/‘force for good’ overseas and a significant homeland resilience actor. Without increased mass, there will be a lot of robbing of Peter to pay Paul. This will be especially true if neither a civil defence organisation nor a paramilitary force is established in the UK.

The pandemic showed the military’s predicament. The Armed Forces were left in a position where they had, first and foremost, to serve the government’s domestic interests. The military of the UK’s closest ally, the United States had no such predicament. None of its forces (bar two hospital ships) were required to conduct mitigation tasks. Other agencies, including FEMA and the part-time National Guard, were available to the government and to individual states. The US military was left free to serve US foreign policy interests if called upon; that of the UK was not.

To create a better balance of tasking between overseas and domestic, Defence might follow the lead of the armed forces of Australia and New Zealand. Both of these are specifically designed to operate as homeland resilience actors. The Spanish military also has an entire brigade slated to move from Ministry of Defence control to that of the Ministry of Interior at times of domestic crisis. Should the UK military follow suit?

And then there is the changing character of war and how it should come to affect the future shape of the UK’s Armed Forces. This change, as noted above, is showing a move towards the non-kinetic internal destabilisation of state adversaries rather than, as has historically largely been the case, having outcomes decided on kinetic battlefields. Nowadays, victor and vanquished will be decided in peer-state warfare by whichever side has the greatest ability to undermine an adversary state’s ability to maintain domestic control. In essence, today it is social discontent and street protests that will weaken or even bring down an adversary’s government and thus signal its defeat.

Weak and divided Western governments, more concerned with domestic issues, will not stand up to Russian and Chinese revisionist activities on the international stage. Moscow and Beijing will have licence to operate more freely. They may be said to have then ‘won’.  

If there is no paramilitary force in the UK to help maintain domestic control then it will fall to the military to keep order – however unpalatable that may sound now. (But remember how unlikely Capitol Hill seemed.) As such, the Armed Forces will need to have mass to make any meaningful contribution. Major discussion on this point is needed.

And if it is accepted that homelands are the new frontlines of war and, when it patently appears that UK homeland resilience is so weak, then deterrence is undermined. The likes of Russia and China will be encouraged to generate strategic effect by attacking the UK internally because the country has shown it has very little deterrence-by-denial capacity. After COVID-19, the UK looks weak. If the UK had stronger homeland resilience (through setting up a viable civil defence force and a paramilitary force) then, theoretically, the temptation to destabilise the UK should be more limited. This aspect of deterrence also needs to be explored.

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