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Past defence reviews have asserted the necessary interdependence between security at home and security abroad, though in truth it was hard to find concrete evidence of such interdependence in the reviews themselves. This Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), however, has made that interdependence somewhat more of a reality. This review has tried to shift resources and political weight in a balanced fashion to address the ability of the UK’s defence and security forces both to go to war, but also to safeguard British society more efficiently from any terrorist attack.
This is partly driven by events. Since the 2010 SDSR the prospect of a resurgent Russia and the enhanced threat from terrorism arising from the meltdown in North Africa and across the Levant has presented the government with the challenge of both preparing to deploy more conventional forces in a traditional war-fighting manner, as well as being seen to meet a growing and long-term terrorist threat. The phenomenon of Daesh and the Paris attacks prompted the government to announce a number of the review’s initiatives ahead of its publication, and some clear trends can be discerned that show an evolution in government thinking about national security.
These new trends are also partly driven by economic circumstances. Notwithstanding the recent announcements saying that more money would be put into defence than was anticipated before the general election, spending on defence and national security forces will still be small in absolute terms, despite the fact that these forces will simultaneously have to reconcile growing international and domestic challenges. A much greater integration between their relative capacities is as much an economic necessity as it is strategically enlightened: more of the work done by the armed forces and counter-terrorism officers must be led by beefed-up intelligence assets; more of the work done by the special forces must relate to national security and counter-terrorism; and more cyber-security must be integrated into national defence and policing.
The announcements made in advance of the SDSR along with other details revealed today are all consistent with this line of thinking, even if there are a number of important questions still left hanging. On 16 November the government announced that it would recruit an extra 1,900 staff to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – a 15 per cent increase in headcount overall. It is expected that the extra staff will take some time to recruit and train effectively and that each of the three agencies would share the staff increases more or less evenly. But after relatively gradual increases in service numbers after 2001, this sharp increase indicates a shift towards consolidating skills for intelligence-led operations, both domestically and internationally.
On 17 November the government announced an extra £1.9 billion for cyber-security by 2020, almost doubling the existing investment and taking government spending on cyber-security over the next five years to some £3.2 billion. This money would help create a National Cyber Centre and a new ‘cyber-force’ at GCHQ that would be part of a re-launched National Cyber Security Strategy in 2016. The work of the National Cyber Crime Unit would be enhanced and a Centre for Digital Skills in Computer Science would be created to improve coding skills at the highest levels, while more work with internet service providers – building on the June 2015 recommendations of Sir Nigel Sheinwald – would try to create greater consensus between industry and government on the powers of legitimate investigation. GCHQ has been offering its specialist skills to British industry and the wider society in a limited way over recent years, and it seems clear that this is intended as an explicit step to show GCHQ underpinning more generally some key aspects of UK cyber-security.
In addition to the extra funding for cyber security, the government also announced that an extra £2 billion would be spent over five years on the special forces: doubling the level of previously planned investment. This money will not go towards significantly expanding their numbers; rather, it will provide them with new personal equipment, helicopters and communications, enabling them to play a greater role both in war-fighting and domestic counter-terrorism operations. This financial commitment will be outside the existing MoD budget and in that sense is ‘new’, though it will certainly be counted subsequently as part of the UK’s commitment to meet its target of spending 2 per cent of its GDP on defence. The expectation is that at least some of this enhancement will go to the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, which covers domestic counter-terrorism and related intelligence tasks.
Following the two-day Exercise Strong Tower at the end of June, which simulated a marauding terrorist attack in central London, special forces are expected to prepare for an enhanced role in such situations by providing a more integrated rapid response alongside armed police (not simply after armed police action). Strong Tower was based on scenarios derived from the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January this year and the Sydney Cafe siege of December 2014. In the wake of the latest Paris attacks, however, it is no secret that police forces feel they would be stretched if similar attacks were to be repeated in British cities, even London. Though the SDSR says nothing explicitly about special forces playing an enhanced role in the event of marauding attacks, it seems to set up the conditions where such arrangements would be taken forward as a matter of operational prudence. Integrating special forces more extensively with armed-police responses is undoubtedly a top security priority in the current climate.
Notwithstanding special forces, the review also commits up to 10,000 regular troops to be made available ‘on stand-by’ for significant counter-terrorism incidents. So far, it is unclear how this might work though it unlikely that the UK would turn armed troops onto the streets as readily as in France or Belgium, with their gendarmerie cultures; more likely that such troops would perform support tasks to release more armed police or special forces personnel to deal directly with an incident.
The government has made clear that – while the police force budget is not ‘protected’ in the way that defence is now largely a protected budget – there will be no cuts to police counter-terrorist capacities. The counter-terrorist unit of the Metropolitan Police, SO15, seems likely to get funding to increase its technical capabilities quite considerably through a National Digital Media Exploitation facility, through the enhancement of its biometric and other technical capabilities, and by more or less doubling the number of its officers deployed to foreign countries.
What is Left Unsaid
All this can be seen as a clear series of steps in the direction of a more integrated policy, not just between the armed forces and the police, but also across central government. Nevertheless, a number of further questions arise that will be critical to the success of a more interdependent strategy.
One question regards the inevitable time lags between announcements and implementation, particularly in regard to recruitment and training for highly specialised roles, whether as intelligence officers, field agents or cyber-specialists. The government’s announcements are made on the basis of a five-year programme that should come to fruition by 2020. Ministers know as well as anyone else, however, that the threat picture has evolved very rapidly since 2010 and is likely to keep on changing in unpredictable ways. Whilst it would be dangerous to rush a process of capacity enhancement in such highly technical areas, there is danger inherent in the time it takes to become effective.
A more acute problem surrounds the cuts to police budgets. Whilst these budgets are not directly related to ‘counter-terrorism’ policing, they may nevertheless have knock-on effects for counter-terrorism itself. In particular, neighbourhood policing is expected to be severely affected. In London, neighbourhood policing – initiated by then-Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair and completed in 2007 after a long programme covering every London ward – has already been severely reduced and may disappear altogether after the spending review on Wednesday. Yet neighbourhood policing is a key aspect of the ‘Prevent’ strand of the government’s CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy. To lose the engagement and intelligence-gathering function that neighbourhood policing has created would be a blow to counter-terrorism efforts that might have long-term consequences for the policy.
In addition, cuts in police budgets force more severe prioritisation in the way police handle cases and to which particular cases they choose to devote resources. As the background of known terrorists over the last ten years frequently indicates, petty crime and social alienation is an element in a great deal of jihadist radicalisation, though by no means in all of it. Every successful terrorist attack represents some sort of intelligence failure, and in practice all jihadi terrorists are somewhere on the radar of the police or security services. The practical issue is not whether such people were known to the authorities before they committed their acts of terrorism, but rather what prioritisation their behaviour or orientation had been accorded by those who knew of them.
Finally, changes that may affect the UK’s Border Force also have an important effect not just on counter-terrorism but also on the government’s ability to combat serious and organised crime. With some 220 million people, over 450 million tonnes of goods and 5.5 million sea containers transiting the UK’s borders every year, the role and capacity of the Border Force is both highly significant and politically sensitive. The Review recognises this. Nevertheless, future funding for the capabilities of the Border Force – and the technical innovations available to it – will be key issues in the implementation of a fully integrated defence and security strategy. In an open and free society, porous borders are an inevitable consequence of pursuing prosperity, as the SDSR stresses. But such borders are also a source of the particular types of insecurity this review is determined to address. That is a very difficult circle to attempt to square.
Professor Michael Clarke is the Director General of RUSI.