Rod Thornton, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London
The government in the United Kingdom has recently released two important documents pointing the way forward in terms of its defence, security and foreign policy thinking. These are the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy and Defence in a Competitive Age. But there seems to be something missing from both documents. While much is made, and laudably so, of the need to present the UK as a power with global influence – one that takes the lead on climate-related issues and one that acts as a general ‘force for good’ – there seems to be an avoidance of what might be seen as the elephant in the room.
The point of any country setting its defence policy is that it should always be based on that country’s appreciation of where the major future threats might be coming from. That is, they should be threat-based rather than, as these UK documents appear to be, aspiration-based. There seems to be little understanding in both documents that the greatest threat to the UK might actually be in its own ‘backyard’ – it may emanate from a degree of uncontrollable domestic social unrest.
Such unrest may not yet be manifest in the UK and to talk of it may sound alarmist, but the direction of travel is clear. The necessity of dealing with public disorder is a facet of defence (rather than security) that does need to be broached – and the two documents in question do not.
The power of social media
The riots at and the storming of the Capitol Building in Washington in January 2021 in support of President Donald Trump were, on one level, totally unexpected. It was a shock. What many viewed as the very seat of Western democracy was under threat. A few days later, and to ensure that the actual presidential inauguration passed off peacefully, the government was forced to call in 20,000 troops from the National Guard. Tens of thousands more from the Guard were also deployed at the same time across 21 US states to protect their own Capitol buildings.
While what happened at Capitol Hill was unexpected, it should not actually have been a shock. It was, perhaps, a natural result of our information age. It was a product of the way that many individuals in democracies across the world now garner their information. The advent of the likes of social media groups, a wide choice of online sources and niche sites means that people are increasingly gravitating to sources that reflect their own views. These views are then reinforced and amplified by the like-minded people that they then come across online. These views are also, and crucially, not mellowed or ameliorated by information from other sources: traditional, generalist news sources are being increasingly sidelined in the modern world and they are losing their influence. The net result is group polarisation and social cleavage.
Inevitably, protest movements result. Such protests can, via online means, be both large and well organised. They can emerge from right-wing or left-wing groups or from those with no political affiliation. They seem, across the democratic world, to be growing in both number and intensity. And the states where these movements are manifest, being democratic, have little means of clamping down on the information sources that originally generated them. They can only really deal, it may be argued, with their consequences.
Capitol Hill was the exemplar par excellence of the power of social media today.
That mere information could create a degree of social unrest in Western states was recognised a long time ago by the Soviet Union’s military and security organs. Today, this is emphasised by, in particular, the Russian military. This military has understood that the character of peer-state warfare has changed. As Jānis Bērziņš pointed out in his seminal 2015 paper on ‘Russia’s new generation warfare’, the goal of such warfare has moved away from the ‘direct annihilation of the opponent to its inner decay’. The power of kinetic force was being usurped by the power of information. Information was a distinct weapon – it could undermine, disrupt and weaken state adversaries from within – to create what Russian military analysts refer to as internal ‘khaos’.
Information warfare is thus key – the use of misinformation and disinformation to generate effect. The particular tool of choice in this regard is, of course, social media. As Timothy Thomas puts it, the Russian military sees that, ‘Social media can be an asymmetric way to foment chaos and dissatisfaction in the [adversary state’s] populace’. Indeed, Russian military doctrine itself refers to the importance of utilising the ‘protest potential of the population’. Incite this and you have gone a long way in terms of the generation of the hoped-for domestic khaos in your state opponents.
The Kremlin also understands the power of what is viewed there as the Western use of information warfare against Russia. The Putin government sees itself as being under threat from the directed spread of democratic mores amongst the Russian population that might undermine Kremlin authority. Restrictions have therefore been placed on the likes of mainstream and social media in Russia and the authorities are developing the country’s own ‘unplugged’ internet in order to work around the global variant and its pernicious (in Kremlin eyes) influences. Any lightning rods for opposition to the state – such as Alexei Navalny – are jailed on spurious charges. New education laws are being introduced to stymie any teaching that does not support government policy and efforts are being made, furthermore, to inculcate a greater sense of patriotism in Russia that can help unify the population. In a variety of ways, the Kremlin wants to prevent any social cleavages that might generate any Western-inspired ‘inner decay’ in Russia itself.
The ultimate guarantor, though, of preventing this ‘decay’ within Russia is the internal security force – the Rosgvardia. Already 340,000-strong (larger than the army’s Ground Forces), it is currently being reinforced. Its vital main mission is to deal with what the Putin government fears most – and which currently represents the chief manifestation of opposition to the regime – street protests. Above all, the Kremlin fears the ‘protest potential’ of its own population. (This Russian ‘clampdown’ is also being mirrored in China.)
It is thus clearly understood in Moscow (and Beijing) that today ‘homelands’ are the frontlines of inter-state ‘competition’. This is where what used to be called ‘wars’ will be won and lost. Given this understanding, and given what happened at Capitol Hill, it might also be thought that in these two latest UK defence and security documents – the Integrated Review and Defence in a Competitive Age – there would be some stressing of the importance of protecting the UK ‘homeland’ from any sort of ‘inner decay’; particularly on how public order would be maintained in extremis.
But there is little emphasis in both, firstly, on the concept of homeland resilience. In the Integrated Review it is relegated to last place in the chapter order. It seems thus to be labelled the least important facet of the UK’s defence and security. And there is, secondly, no mention at all in either document of how public order might be maintained in the UK. Where is there a recognition that today perhaps the principal danger to democratic societies such as the UK’s is actually in the type of social unrest witnessed at Capitol Hill?
Why the downplaying of ‘homeland resilience’?
Homeland resilience should actually be a major factor in UK defence and security thinking, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. This has (so far) killed over twice as many people in the UK as did German bombing in the Second World War. The high mortality rate (prior to the vaccine rollout) compared to other countries in Europe and across the world has shown up the UK’s general lack of homeland resilience capacity.
It thus might be thought, given what happened in the pandemic, that there would be some major discussion within the Integrated Review (IR) as to how the UK government could improve its homeland resilience. But there seems to be, in the document, something of an abnegation of responsibility on the government’s part when it comes to this resilience. The IR notes, for instance, that. in future, the generation of resilience will be devolved to the individual nations in the UK; to local councils, and to local resilience forums – the government will, it seems, be standing to one side. There will also, it is noted in the IR, be ‘a “whole-of-society” approach to resilience’. Again, this speaks of a government that seems to want to ‘pass the buck’ when it comes to resilience and not be in a directing role – a further indication, perhaps, that it does not really take the issue seriously enough.
And the role of the regular military in resilience tasks likewise seems to be limited. ‘We plan’, notes the IR, ‘on making greater use of the military reserves in supporting domestic national security priorities. We will also consider how to extend this to a civilian reservist cadre for support in times of crisis.’ So, it will be not only military reservists who will shoulder an increased burden but also notional and unspecified ‘civilian reservists’. There seems to be a sense that the government wants to move homeland resilience tasks away from the regular military and to give them to various forms of reservists.
Given this general lack of enthusiasm to grasp the nettle of homeland resilience, it should come as no surprise that perhaps the thorniest homeland resilience issue – how to deal with any major public disorder – is not mentioned at all. This, though, does seems strange given, firstly, that the UK’s principal state ‘competitor’ – Russia – clearly seeks to target the ‘protest potential’ of its adversaries’ populations and, secondly, what happened all too recently at Capitol Hill.
This issue of dealing with public order is, moreover, particularly pertinent where the UK is concerned. This is because the UK police force is small (England’s force, per capita, is one of the smallest in the world). Hence, there is very little spare capacity to deal with any major manifestations of social unrest. Moreover, the UK does not have a paramilitary force which is specifically designed to deal with public disorder. The UK is almost unique in the world in this regard. France, for instance, has its Gendarmerie (100,000-strong); Spain its Guardia Civil (78,000) and Italy its Carabinieri (110,000). These organisations also have tens of thousands of reservist paramilitaries to call upon. The United States, likewise, has its National Guard (450,000) available to deploy in situations such as Capitol Hill.
Thus the vital question that should have been addressed in both UK documents, given the dangers posed by manifestations of public disorder and given that the UK has no designated force element designed to deal with them, is how should they be tackled if the police are overwhelmed? Clearly, the regular military should have a role here (reservists can hardly be trained up to do riot control). But the closest either document comes to mentioning military assistance to the police is with the note in Defence in a Competitive Age that the military will provide support ‘to law enforcement following terror attacks.’ But why only ‘terror attacks’? What about in public order situations?
Maintaining public order is a vital element of homeland resilience for the reasons discussed above. This was, in fact, noted by Armed Forces Minister James Heappey during the pandemic. He said that, and to ‘support the police’ in the pandemic’s early stages, 10,000 troops were being held in the wings. It seems that they were ready to deal with any pandemic-induced social disorder that the police were unable to handle. For Heappey had given the Delphic warning that, ‘crisis brings economic instability and economic instability brings insecurity. At times of insecurity Defence is at its busiest.’ So, the notion that the military has a role to play in dealing with domestic ‘instability’ is clearly understood – so why is it not discussed in either of these two documents?
It should also be noted that another recent government publication, the National Risk Register 2020, has a section devoted to ‘Widespread public disorder’. Again, though, the use of the military is not mentioned at all as a party that might help deal with it.
Discussed but not disclosed?
It may be that all the discussion of using troops in a public order role is for a reason: it may be seen as too controversial. It may thus be covered in the classified document, the National Security Risk Assessment. But if the government is advocating a ‘whole of society approach’ to homeland resilience measures, and if maintaining public order has to be seen as a vital element of those measures, then it might be best to openly avail society of all the attendant issues – including how public order is, indeed, to be maintained. This is especially pertinent given that public order is likely to be such a fragile concept in the years ahead. Capitol Hill may be just the harbinger of worse to come.