The UK Integrated Review and security sector innovation: a ‘Cargo Cult’?

Dr Christopher Kinsey, Defence Studies Department, & Ronald Ti, PhD candidate, Wars Studies Department, King’s College London

Cargo cults exist to this day in the South-West Pacific. They arose following World War Two after vast quantities of materiel were left by the departing Allied forces. The belief sprang up that more of this vast wealth of goods (or cargo in Melanesian Pidgin English) could be had for the asking, typically by erecting statues of the departed Allies that would somehow attract them back, together, of course, with their abundance. The fundamental idea associated with cargo cults is a ‘…belief in the imminence of a new age of blessing, to be initiated by the arrival of a special cargo of goods from supernatural sources…’ (Britannica). Central to a cargo cult is a belief system in which the believers perform rituals which they believe will cause a more technologically advanced society to re-appear and literally deliver the goods. In the same way, the UK Integrated Review, it seems, is here to deliver the goods for the security of Global Britain in the 21st century.

The UK Integrated Review (the Review) together with its two closely associated documents, the Defence Command Paper (DCP), and the Defence Security and Industrial Strategy (DSIS) have been closely scrutinised by various commentators, each paying due attention to their own particular viewpoint. The interest of the authors here is specifically in innovation in the security sector and given that all three documents clearly identify the bulk of security industry providers to be small to medium enterprises (SMEs), the focus here must therefore be on how the UK government intends to foster innovation in a market comprising 95% SMEs and which provides essential goods and services in a key strategic sector. Given the Review’s shift away from the long-established global competition by default policy towards domestic sourcing and procurement, principally as a means of protecting against undue foreign influence, innovative practices in the UK security market are now of even greater importance. 

Innovation itself may take a number of forms, but a principal focus in the Review vests in the promotion of SMEs in wider Defenceprocurement. This may take any of a number of forms including incentives and innovative solutions for research, development, seed capital, as well as incentives for ongoing downstream development and successful commercialisation. What seems initially promising from all three Review documents is the strong emphasis on making procurement more user friendly, with plenty of good cheer expressed throughout the Review in the words, “partnership” and “partnerships”. These appear no less than 116 and 78 times respectively within all three Review documents; surely indicating there is as much partnership occurring here as occurs in the average proscribed offshore tax haven.

It is at this point in the Review, however, that intent and good cheer collide with reality. The Review is long on intent, but very short of practical detail, lacking substance. As one important example, the proposals presented in the Review (particularly in the DSIS, which has the bulk of the discussion) are little more than standard format top-down generated entrepreneur-type programmes which aim to target certain talented individuals.

Historically, these have been hampered by restrictive conditions and funds which do not reflect the true costs of research, development, and commercialisation: in this respect there is no reason to expect that the red tape commonly associated with these schemes would have disappeared overnight. A Home Office entrepreneur-type visa is also referenced without any indication of how access to seed capital to achieve successful commercialisation will be facilitated; the talented protégée could be left holding her passport with its stamp and little else.  

It is as if the whole innovative process rests around a ‘Few, this happy Few’; a band of entrepreneurial spirits who, supposedly, by their very presence, will magically transform the market. Crucially, the place of the UK tertiary science and technology education sector is not mentioned. Mention of this critical upstream feeder component of the security sector is completely absent throughout the Review. Additional issues of crucial importance to SMEs, such as intellectual property protection and effective technology transfer, are also conspicuous by their absence. In short, the information and power asymmetry that all this “partnership” is supposed to render impotent, is still, after all the rhetoric, important.

Which brings us back to the South Pacific cargo cults. The structures set up within the substance of the Review are strangely reminiscent of the wooden statues of Allied servicemen on remote Melanesian Islands. It is as if an intent to promote innovation and empowering SMEs has been set up, but without the necessary underlying link to reality. Like the cargo cult with its ‘…belief in the imminence of a new age of blessing, to be initiated by the arrival of a special “cargo” of goods from supernatural sources…’, it seems to usthat the Review treats the security sector in much the same way.

As far as security innovation and the market is concerned, all appears to have been set up with the idea that if you attract a certain type of individual, like the cargo falling out of the sky, somehow innovation and beneficence will automatically follow.

There is no need, it seems, to address the critical issues we have mentioned above. There is no need, it seems, to incentivise the UK tertiary science and technology sector. There is no need, it seems, to think deeply and empathically about what the UK security market actually needs to achieve in order to gain the ideal of the virtuous circle partnership. There is no need, it seems, to consider critical issues of intellectual property and licensing that protect SMEs from the ravages of larger enterprises, or perhaps even the largest enterprise of them all, the UK government. Simply build the intent and somehow the rest will follow. This is an attitude that has more to do with the magical thinking of Pacific cargo cults than a government that is serious about innovation. Hope and wishful thinking are poor strategies for UK security sector innovation in a future Global Britain.

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