Q165 Dr Julian Lewis (Chairman): Sir Mark, do you accept that the history of conflict in the greater part of the 20th century and beyond has been one of the unpredictability of what occurs?
Sir Mark Sedwill (National Security Adviser): Absolutely right, yes.
Q166 Dr Lewis: If so, what is the point of the National Security Risk Assessment?
Sir Mark Sedwill: Although things are unpredictable, we still need to have planning assumptions. We need to do a risk assessment. To be simplistic about it, risk is the difference between threat and capability, or hazard and capability, because there are risks that are hazards as well as threats. Without overdoing the crystal-ball gazing, it is important that we look at the range of threats, challenges and hazards that are out there and configure ourselves as best as we can.
One of the themes in the capability review is trying to create threat-agnostic capabilities, so that we are not designing ourselves against predictions of specific kinds of events – to go to your point about unpredictability – but can deploy capabilities flexibly and in a blend with the fusion doctrine, to bring them together in a more sophisticated way against a range of different manifestations of a threat depending on how circumstances take us.
Q167 Dr Lewis: Would you accept the analogy with paying the premiums on an insurance policy when we are dealing with defence against an unpredictable threat?
Sir Mark Sedwill: I think it is a good analogy. I would apply it not just to defence, but more broadly to national security capabilities as a whole. In a sense that is what we are doing. We are buying an insurance policy against threats to the security of the country and also the safety of our citizens. Sometimes we have to make a claim on that. I don’t want to drive the analogy too far. Having that insurance policy – this is where the analogy breaks down a bit – of effective defence and national security capabilities is part of supressing the threats, as well as dealing with them if they manifest themselves.
Q168 Dr Lewis: But the point about paying premiums on an insurance policy is precisely that you are investing against an uncertain future. You don’t know when you are going to have to call in the security from that policy, and therefore you are paying money up front in the hope that you will be able to meet whatever happens in the unpredictable future as a result of the investment you have made. Where is this leading in respect of the National Security Risk Assessment?
In a talk I gave in January 2017, I looked at the risk assessment and said that there are three tiers that have been published in it. The first includes terrorism, cyber-attacks and UK involvement in conflict between other states. The second tier is chemical, biological and nuclear attacks – if those really happened, despite their lower probability, they would dwarf anything in tier 1. Finally, the third tier is a conventional military attack on the United Kingdom, or its overseas territories and bases. Again, if that less likely threat were to materialise, that would completely overshadow everything else.
What is the point of these assessments if the more serious threats are the less likely ones? For example, with our aircraft carriers, it has taken us 20 years from the decision in 1998 to build them and bring them into service. Surely we are going to have to design our military forces and other security assets in a way that gives maximum flexibility, and not in a way that simply meets the threats we can see at the present time.
Sir Mark Sedwill: I agree. There is a second question in there, which is about the time it takes from decision to delivery. That is part of what the Modernising Defence programme is about. I know you are exploring it and have been following the NAO report on it quite closely. You are right.
To take the insurance analogy – we are perhaps at risk of driving it a bit far – if we get insurance on our property or life insurance, the premiums are based on an actuarial risk analysis of the different threats that might manifest themselves. Your premium also depends on the cost of replacing whatever it might be. In that sense, the national security risk assessment, or any risk analysis work, is designed to provide that input into a judgment about relative resources.
You are right that we need maximum flexibility, which is why we have talked about threat-agnostic capabilities. You are also right that we have to look at both the probability and the impact of a potential threat manifesting itself. Where I think the insurance analogy breaks down is that the fact that we buy an insurance policy does not make it less likely that our house will be burgled, whereas the fact that we have a nuclear deterrent makes it less likely that we will face that threat. That is where it is different. The investment is part of suppressing the threat, even if – as we all hope and pray – it is never used.
Q169 Dr Lewis: I entirely accept that. Surely that strengthens the case for saying that we must have as wide a range of capability as possible. If we cannot predict which threats are going to arise, and if we want to have the maximum chance of deterring those threats from arising – the very point you are making – we need to invest in the appropriate capability, not for the threats that face us today alone, but for all the other threats that could arise.
Sir Mark Sedwill: Yes, I agree. To broaden your point, that applies to the national security capability spectrum – the capability set – as a whole, and of course it applies to the defence component of it. As I mentioned earlier, I think it also applies to thinking about how we dock in with our allies. Some of the capabilities that we can provide versus some of the ones they can provide could give us that blended and more flexible approach, rather than every country trying to do a little bit of everything. As we know, that does not achieve the kind of effects that Mrs Moon was referring to earlier.
Q170 Dr Lewis: That, then, brings us back to the evidence that you gave to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, where you seemed to take the view that before we start looking at spending any more money on defence, we ought to decide whether we are investing the money that we have available to spend on defence in the right way.
Yet, as Mark Francois pointed out, only a couple of years ago, the threat of state-on-state warfare was considered a low probability, and indeed, arguments were being made that the future of the armed forces in terms of action, perhaps for several decades to come, was going to be about counter-insurgency and that we should invest in that rather than in the theoretical possibility of state-on-state conflict. Here we are, only a handful of years later, and the scenario has been reversed, has it not?
Sir Mark Sedwill: I accept the point, but I do not think, Dr Lewis, that it was ever quite as binary as that. Although we were configuring parts of the infantry, for example, and the commando forces and so on particularly to deal with that expeditionary set of issues, notably Afghanistan and Iraq, at the same time we were continuing to invest in the deterrent and the Astute submarine programme. Those were always designed to deal with a strategic state-based threat. It is a matter of balance and emphasis.
I agree that we need to configure ourselves against a wide range of eventualities. We have to make a judgment about which are most likely to manifest themselves and when, to ensure that we are essentially match-fit to deal with those issues with our allies, but I do not think it is ever as binary as one or the other. It is a mixture of both, and then it is a judgment about how much of both across the whole national security capability.
Q171 Mark Francois: I served in the Department from 2012 to 2015. At that time, the Department was still – this was as we were drawing down from Afghanistan – focused primarily on expeditionary warfare at reach with a counter-insurgency element against a technologically inferior but none the less very determined enemy.
What you might have called more conventional capabilities, such as air defence, were run down. Our anti-submarine warfare capability was run down because the planning assumption was that we were not going to have to fight a conventional war in the way that we had planned to do in such detail during the Cold War. A lot of officers had made their careers in the sand, as the saying has it, and that is what we increasingly focused on and became more efficient at doing.
In actual fact, there was a great deal of concentration of effort on that, and not least because the MoD was under such financial pressure, it became more efficient at doing that, but a lot of other things effectively went by the board. Now what is having to happen is that there is a tremendous amount of catching-up going on, and the MoD is having to change its thinking and reassess its capabilities against a resurgent conventional threat.
I am here to tell you that we actually went so far in one direction that it was quite difficult to get the Ministry to look at some of the more traditional conventional capabilities. In terms of our spending, we have quite a lot of catching-up to do.
Dr Lewis: Sir Mark, before you come back on that, you said it was not such a binary choice, but I remember General Richards, as he then was, formulating that quite reasonably from his perspective as a very senior Army officer. He said that he thought – I can remember the exact words he used – that a tipping-point was coming when we would have to choose between “a war”, meaning the theoretical possibility of state-on-state conflict at some indeterminate future time, and “the war”, meaning the counter-insurgency campaigns in which we were embroiled, and that we could probably not do both. I think it was fairly binary, but please respond.
Sir Mark Sedwill: I think we are expressing a similar point in different ways; I do not think we are fundamentally disagreeing. When General Richards became Chief of Defence Staff, one of his first decisions was to direct the MoD that the campaign in Afghanistan was the main effort. You are absolutely right, Mr Francois, that there was then a shift of resources to try to achieve that. That was the war we were fighting. It had gone on longer and was proving more challenging than had been anticipated. It required more resources from us and others, at a much higher rate of casualties than anyone had expected
It was absolutely right in the short term to surge effort into trying to get that campaign right. I served in Afghanistan, as you will know, so I strongly supported that. I felt in the end, to use a sporting analogy, that you have to play what is in front of you. That is what was in front of us at the time.
You are absolutely right: this is a problem. I do not think it is completely binary, in the sense that those other capabilities were still there, but there was clearly some hollowing out of some of those strategic resilience capabilities: air defence – we don’t really have the kind of missile defence that we may need – and there are a range of other things that we need to have in a balanced force and national security capability posture for the future. That will have to be the subject not only of the current work but, more importantly, of a future strategic review.
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