HCDC INQUIRY – UK RESPONSE TO HYBRID THREATS [EXTRACTS] – 5 March 2019
Witnesses: Chris Donnelly, Institute for Statecraft, Dr Rob Johnson, University of Oxford, and Dr Andrew Mumford, University of Nottingham.
Q47 Chair [Dr Julian Lewis]: We are now on the home straight, and I will try to draw together some of the themes that have come out so far. Right at the end I will give each of you a last chance to add any thoughts that you wish we had drawn from you but we forgot to press the buttons concerned. First, I think we have agreed that the hybrid warfare technique is used by a range of adversaries – not just stateless violent extremists, but even major state opponents – so would you agree, if I asked for a list of our main adversaries that use hybridity in their war-fighting or war-waging methodology, that in no particular order the three would be Russia, China and totalitarian Islamists or, as I prefer to call them, un-Islamic extremists? Have I missed from that list any major adversary using hybridity as a technique, or are those the three main ones?
Dr Rob Johnson: You could potentially include Iran. What it does affects our partners and allies more than it affects the UK directly, but it’s still happening.
Q48 Dr Lewis: Any other thoughts, Chris and Andrew?
Dr Andrew Mumford: Iran is a good suggestion to add to that list.
Dr Lewis: Mark, you were saying North Korea perhaps?
Mark Francois: I was thinking about WannaCry and stuff like that.
Q49 Dr Lewis: So, given that we are looking at China as on that very short list of anything from three major to perhaps five major adversaries, are we not absolutely out of our minds to be considering allowing the state-based Huawei telecommunications company anywhere near our telecommunications system? Is there any dissent on that at all?
Dr Johnson: I would think it extremely inadvisable.
Q50 Dr Lewis: Are we, in a way, subject to what I sometimes call the Nixon Fallacy? That was to do with the tape recordings in the Oval Office that incriminated him. You were saying earlier that you thought that there was insufficient awareness among decision makers and the public about the dangers and about the vulnerabilities that we have, but isn’t there also a phenomenon analogous to what President Nixon did? I believe he was the person who actually initiated those tape recordings, and even though he knew that vulnerability was there, he still went on to incriminate himself. Isn’t it the case that we know that this massive and increasing dependence on the world of cyber is building in vulnerabilities, but we don’t seem to be able to help ourselves from going down that route? Have you any thoughts on that, or any possible remedies in mind?
Dr Johnson: There is going to be a battle of encryption and decryption over the next 20, 30, 40 or maybe 50 years, until such time as some new technology has emerged to replace the forms of communications technology we are used to at the moment, just as, by the way, the next generation of explosives technology will replace the explosive capacity of nuclear weapons – and that will be far more dangerous, because all the nuclear thresholds will have gone. We are going to have to get used to the fact that there are going to be significant vulnerabilities in all forms of connectivity, just as there were when the telegraph and then the telephone were invented. It was quite easy, initially, to connect yourself to these networks and to listen in on what was being recorded, until we developed more sophisticated forms of encoding. I think that is just part of what is going to happen, but there are some critical vulnerabilities that I would suggest we pay more attention to, particularly in space.
Q51 Dr Lewis: When we talk about the use of hybrid techniques by ideologically driven states or movements, my mind goes back to the fear at the end of World War 2, when Nazi Germany was defeated. So strong and poisonous was the Nazi ideology that it was certainly thought, was it not, that it might go underground – there was talk about the Werewolf organisations, for example – and might persist? If that is right, would you agree that one thing that prevented that was the International Military Tribunal, which exposed to the whole world in pitiless detail the horrors of what that regime had done, and do you think that there would be anything of value from some form of analogous process when the territory of ISIL/Daesh is finally overrun, or do you think that it is too difficult due to the tensions and dissonance between the various enemies of Daesh, ranging from Russia and the Syrian Government to the United States and the West?
Dr Mumford: I would love to have seen what would have happened if the Nuremberg trials had occurred in the era of social media. There are new forms of information control. In previous iterations of warfare – to the victor the spoils. One of the key spoils of war was the ability to control the narrative of good versus bad: why the victory was hard-won and hard-fought, and why it was a necessary and just war. The era of social media has completely broken down those barriers, and it is no longer something that the UK can hope would be seen as a fundamental message that would be as self-evident as it was. We were able to control the message out of Nuremberg. In the era of social media, the ability to control a message in a counter-ISIL kind of way has dissipated massively. If there were to be a contemporary version of the Nuremberg trials, it would be spun massively in a way in which small elements or pockets of ISIS sympathisers could project their counter-narrative globally, and we would be able to see ways in which the western war effort could be undermined. It could be spun against us, which could be quite dangerous.
Q52 Dr Lewis: That is an interesting point. While you said that, I was thinking back on the way in which at one point Göring’s testimony seemed to be getting the better of the American prosecutor. If reported directly, that would have been an example of what you are suggesting. Chris, any thoughts on the propaganda value of exposing the black heart of what ISIL/Daesh have done? I am using propaganda as a neutral term.
Chris Donnelly: We are in such a new world – in terms of information and information warfare – that, in my view, we have not yet adequately mastered this to know truly what to do. To answer the question that you just put, we need to put a lot more intellectual effort into understanding how the mechanism of the spread of information influencing people works, how it is different – based on the age of the recipient subject, because a teenager’s brain works differently and hears and responds to something differently from an adult’s – and how it works on different sections of the population in our countries. Given their religious or cultural background, some people process information differently because they start from a set of beliefs and accepted wisdoms that is different from that of the mainstream population. We have not done nearly enough work on that to know the result of any counter-propaganda effort of ours. It is one of our biggest shortfalls.
Q53 Dr Lewis: Moving on to what you said about the relative decline in Defence expenditure as a proportion of GDP – as opposed to Welfare, Education and Health, which is of course something that we charted in great depth in our “Shifting the Goalposts?” report. To anyone who might not be familiar with it, it is still worth a read. Given the constraint on what politicians want to spend on Defence, usually until it is almost too late, isn’t there a danger that the Fusion approach is actually putting at risk our conventional Defence capabilities? We had a National Security Capability Review, with these new threats and new techniques to do with security services, intelligence services and counter-disinformation services lumped together with defence expenditure on the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. As there was a cap on the total expenditure, we nearly lost our amphibious capability entirely, because, if more was to be spent on dealing with the new threats, an equivalent sum of money was going to be taken away from dealing with the traditional, conventional threats.
You are all experts on the new threats. Do you feel qualified to say that, just because we have a lot of new threats that we are going to need to spend more money on countering, that does not mean that the old threats have gone away, and that the need for a range of capabilities by the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force is not still firmly in existence? Could I have some comments on that?
Dr Johnson: What we need is integration and synchronisation of the Armed Forces with those other organisations, agencies and budgets – not the replacement. You are absolutely right to say that the Armed Forces still need to do some of those traditional things as well. That has been evident over the conflicts of the last 20 years or so. As things became more complex in, for example, the electronic environment – the information domain – they certainly did not stop being as kinetic, difficult, complex and dirty as they had always been. It is a fallacy that somehow you can spend on one and not the other. That would be wholly wrong.
They are complementary. People have talked a lot, including this Committee, about a “credible deterrent”. That deterrent is credible only if, in the end, it has the capability to deliver the effect that you desire. If you take away that capability, clearly it is not going to be as useful. I was relieved, no doubt as the Committee was, to hear that our amphibious capability was, in the end, preserved.
Q54 Dr Lewis: The only way it was preserved in the end was because the Defence strands were taken away by the Defence Secretary, taken out of the National Security Capability Review, and thus could not be raided financially for meeting the costs of hybrid and other new forms of warfare. We very nearly ended up with major further cuts in an already depleted conventional order of battle, as it were. Any last thoughts from each of you, starting perhaps with Andrew?
Dr Mumford: HM Government and the Ministry of Defence need to be on the front foot with hybrid war. There are so many issues that have risen and fallen as predominant national security threats over the last few decades, during which the Government have been predominantly responsive to events after they have occurred.
We are at a point now where we can take a cold, calculated look at the strategic landscape, and we can see that the landscape has changed and that there are issues that we are going to need to address in the future. It does not require a crystal ball; it requires, as we have already asserted, a fundamental understanding of our historical trajectory up to this point, and an awareness of the way in which threats have adapted.
I cannot believe that we have been sat here for nearly two hours and, if we are playing hybrid warfare bingo, no one has mentioned the words “grey zone”. The boundaries between war and peace are shifting. If we consider how in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st we have seen a 50% reduction in major inter or intra-state armed conflict, that does not mean that the world is becoming more peaceable, or that states are turning away from war; it means that they are turning to alternative forms of armed conflicts, interference and influence.
That is exactly where hybrid war fills the gap. To that extent, if the boundaries between war and peace are fundamentally shifting, it is going to mean that we in the UK have to think creatively about ways in which our Armed Forces, who we try to ensure are primed for conditions of war, are asked to do things in a time of peace as well in order to maintain the very liberties, the way of life and the political system that we hold true. That is the final word I would leave the Committee with.
Q55 Dr Lewis: Thank you. Chris, may I just put on the record how glad we are to see you back in action after some difficult times?
Chris Donnelly: Thank you very much. What Andrew has described, and I thoroughly concur with, is basically a paradigm shift – or, if you prefer, a revolution – in the nature of conflict. If you are in the middle of a revolution, as we are, the big problem is knowing what is going to change and what is not. Not everything changes in a revolution. What do you keep of the old, what do you give up, and what do you buy of the new? That is a problem that faces us, our Armed Forces and all the other forces for mobilising and utilising the forms of power we need to fight warfare in the 21st century, whatever we call it.
That calls for more national effort in strategic thinking and the development of national strategy. Without that, we will constantly be trying to solve all these problems with a crisis management app on our iPhones, when what we really need is strategic thinking. Strategy is not a plan; it is the capacity to adapt, to be opportunistic, to think different thoughts and to think the unpalatable. At the moment, we are so locked in our peacetime mentality that we find it very difficult to do that.
Dr Johnson: I am conscious of the time, so I will be very brief. We discussed the purpose of hybrid threats, or strategy or confrontation, which is to create strategic options and to weaken an enemy. We are being confronted by that pretty directly. Is also occurs where confrontation, in a conventional sense, is too costly. We discussed some of the vulnerabilities, and I repeat my offer to the Committee: we would be very happy to explain some more of what those vulnerabilities are – not just the current ones but particularly the emerging ones, because we need to think a little bit long term.
I think we gave you a fairly strong and consistent message about preparing now for what is coming. We are running out of time. It is pretty clear when you look at the calculus of some of the Russian officers of their general staff that they either think they are in a conflict already or they are getting ready for something quite serious. We are pretty unprepared in some respects, so we certainly need to prepare now. There is a lot that we can be doing now.
We particularly need to create what the military like to call a J5 cell – a forward-planning project management team, if you like – to look out well beyond the immediate five-year horizon and the next two elections to the next 15 to 25 years, not to spot the emerging technologies but to look at the overall trends and take a view about some of the enduring national interests of not only our own country but our rivals. We also particularly need to make full use of our allies – the Commonwealth and our partners overseas. There is an enormous amount of good will towards the UK, and if we are seen to be leading on the right lines with this, adhering to international law and to our own values, which they share, that will be splendid.
But ultimately, the solution is to deny the fulfilment of our rivals’, or our enemies’, strategic intent. We can deny them things much more cheaply than trying to fight them. What was it Churchill said? Jaw, jaw is always preferable to war, war. That is absolutely right, but we do need ultimately to compel our adversaries to make a choice, and we will not do that if we do not invest, we do not prepare and we are not credible.
Q56 Dr Lewis: May I ask you to clarify that? You have used that phrase several times. What sort of choice are you trying to force upon them?
Dr Johnson: In simple terms, if a country like Russia, for example, persists in the kinds of activities it is involved in – trying to murder people on the streets of Britain, for example, and of course, in one particular case, doing so – and if it thinks it can get away with bullying or intimidating this country, you have to put in place a series of diplomatic, military and economic measures and be prepared to stand up for certain measures internationally to compel them either to continue with that course and suffer accordingly or to realise that they have to cease and desist. We can encourage them into better behaviour rather than continuing to do what they do to us at the moment.
Q57 Dr Lewis: So we have to make it clear that they will not get away with it without paying a disproportionate price?
Dr Johnson: Yes.
Dr Lewis: Thank you all very much indeed for a most thoughtful and expert session. We are most grateful to you.