Friday, 28 February 2014

Mollifying the Mandarins - the payment of 'bonuses' to the Civil Service

It’s clearly that time again when having run out of other things to moan about, media ire is instead focused on the fact that the Civil Service have been paid bonuses this year. Stories in today’s media show that some £140m was paid out last year as bonuses for staff, including some departments where every member of staff received one. The bonus debate is a hugely emotive issue for many – to the public it brings to mind the images of bankers and makes them think of civil servants getting similar large pay outs just for doing their jobs. For many in the civil service though, the bonus brings up a sense of frustration – firstly for the fact it exists, and secondly because of the flak that they take because of it, when none of them ever asked to get one in the first place.

The whole argument in favour of paying a bonus is built on a very basic principle – namely the need to save money. It originates with the idea that by taking some of the annual pay award and awarding it as a special bonus, it is non-consolidated – in other words it doesn’t contribute to pensions. The more money paid out as a bonus in the short term , the less that is paid to the retired civil servant as a pension in the medium – long term. It’s a simple idea, but one that has quickly become very emotive to all concerned.

From a practical perspective the idea of recognising staff who go the extra mile is sensible. There are relatively few ways in Government to recognise the efforts of people, many of whom work extremely hard for the taxpayer and do a genuinely good job. There is no staff discount, no means of hosting a thank you party or throwing a Christmas drinks party and the nature of the work means many people often spend years in the same grade due to limited promotion prospects. The notion of an annual cash award to those who have gone the extra mile in comparison to their peer group makes a great deal of sense – but implementation is more tricky.

As a friend of the author once described – how do you work out in an office of 20-30 people, all of whom do the same job (e.g clerical work with very fixed references and very little opportunity to do more), how do you identify those who’ve gone the extra mile. In its early days the system provided a 50/50 chance of award – in other words, half the MOD got one and half did not. In the office of 30 with everyone doing the same job, it was an easy way to destroy morale overnight due to the seemingly arbitrary way in which the award was given.

Later efforts refined the system a bit more, and in some parts of government at least it is now firmly linked to the attainment of objectives. In other words, if you do your job to the standard expected, you receive a payrise and possibly a small amount of money as a non-consolidated lump sum (compared to previous years when you’d have got the full amount as a proper payrise). Reach beyond this, and you may find yourself getting a slightly larger amount in recognition of your efforts. Fail to meet the standard and you get no payrise and no bonus. Again, a good system and one that needs effective management and a good understanding of setting realistic objectives to succeed. Done well though and it hopefully acts as an incentive to staff to do their job against measured objectives (and failure to do so can start down the path to dismissal), and also encourages people to invest time in training to understand how to properly do objective setting.

How do you get the next generation of high quality civil servants?

 The sums involved are not large. The vast majority of people were earning maybe £200-300 before tax, if that. But, the fallout from it highlights the difficulty in the much more thorny issue of Civil Service pay. This was touched on earlier this week in the discussion about how much the MOD was having to pay on consultants to bring back in skills of people in DE&S who’d left in previous redundancy rounds because no one left had the skills to do the job. The challenge was to see whether it would be possible to use some of the consultancy money to adjust pay bands in DE&S to try and retain people rather than lose them and pay for a consultant.

How you balance off the natural desire to keep the Civil Service headcount and wage bill as low as possible, while simultaneously getting people to stay in with niche skills is a real challenge. No one likes paying more than they have to for people, and no one will ever win many votes for suggesting a large payrise for the Civil Service. But, there is clearly a growing issue that it is growing harder to retain people in technical and specialist areas if the money isn’t as good as it used to be.

 Ultimately MOD has need of people with very niche skills, these can take a long time to develop and train, and will be hugely valuable to other companies. As the MOD shrinks, promotion opportunities decline and people look to their career advancement and worry about paying bills, loyalty to the civil service is perhaps diminished. People see an organisation which while offering interesting work and a decent overall package doesn’t compete with employers for the mid seniority and specialist roles –in other words good project managers, technicians and so on. It is very common to see reasonably competent people leave MOD and go to the private sector for a 20-30% payrise, not because they want to leave the CS, but because the pay and prospects is simply not enough anymore.

While it is very easy to knock the civil service for failing to deliver, you can only work with the people and resources that you have to hand. People will walk for better money and the chance of development or career progression. If you are a mid-seniority C2 or C1 in somewhere like Abbey Wood  (middle management grades) then your chances of progressing up and through the system, or rising up the payspine to earn a salary which reflects your skills are slim. The only option is to leave and go to the private sector or become a consultant.

There is no easy way to fix this issue. No one ever joins Government to get rich, but equally plenty seem to be leaving to earn a living wage outside. Relocation of departments is one option – sending people to different parts of the country where the cost of living is lower and where a salary goes further. But if you look at the case of Bristol, where the cost of living is rapidly approaching London standards but without the equivalent London package, its very hard to keep a reasonable lifestyle ans attract good quality talent to join. The DE&S was looking for experienced project managers recently and was offering a starting salary of £36,000. Realistically how many people with the right experience would be willing to take a salary hit to join an organisation which still faces a very uncertain future.

The public image of a civil servant?

Humphrey wants to be clear – he is emphatically not suggesting that the civil service deserves vast pay rises. Frankly, for the more junior parts of the Civil Service, the payscale is very reasonable and roughly in line with the private sector. There is also a generous leave package available and reasonable employment conditions. But, as the economy gradually improves and  the private jobs market increases, the battle for talent will intensify. As jobs open up, it will be ever harder to encourage more experienced people to join an organisation where the salary scales simply do not offer credible return needed.

The danger is that the Civil Service gets excellent new entrants, but as they gain experience they will inevitably look outside. Much like many of the best Army officers leave in their late 30s, its likely that many of the best civil servants do the same, simply because they know the package on offer doesn't make it credible to stay.

When you consider that many civil servants can no longer afford to change locations as relocation expenses are not routinely paid any more, the real worry is of a civil service which over time becomes localised, with very little change of roles and experience for most staff, and led by a London centre where staff there are reluctant to leave the city, knowing they could never return. Humphrey would love to work out of London, but knows that the cost of doing so in terms of selling up and moving on would then price him out of ever returning to the London housing market.

Is it all doom and gloom? Probably not – the Faststream continues to generate far more applicants than are ever appointed, and most are of a very high quality indeed. There are always the idealists who will stay in the system for the long term, or those who do work which cannot be replicated outside of Government and for whom no salary can replace the challenging nature of what they do. Humphrey continues to believe that there is a good employment offer for many civil servants who enjoy not unreasonable salaries, and a reasonable set of conditions. But, he does worry that skills will be lost which are commercially transferable, and that over time this could present a real problem.

The real 'Sir Humphrey' - Sir Norman Brook - a great example of a truly great civil servant

The issue is one of whether Government is willing to risk all that most people that do stay on do so for the challenge, the opportunity and the nature of the work rather than fiscal and material reward. While it is easy to quibble over small things like performance related bonuses, it does add up to the question of what do you want your civil service to be, and what level of excellence do you want to attract into it at all levels? Exercise too much constraint on pay and the really good people that you either want to keep, or that you want to recruit in at more senior levels will simply not come.

There is no right answer to this age old problem, but it is a real issue. How do we ensure the Civil Service we have attracts the right talent, at the right levels and costs the right amount of money that the taxpayer is willing to bear? Answers to No11 Downing Street please! 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

What do US budget cuts mean for the UK?

The US Government has set out its vision of how budget cuts are likely to impact on the force structures and capabilities of the US military. At an announcement on Monday, Chuck Hagel, the US Defence Secretary set out his plans for the next few years, and warned of even further cuts ahead if budgetary wrangles continued. The full text of his speech can be found on the US Department of Defense website HERE.

The speech got a lot of headlines for both the planned reduction of the US Army to its smallest size since 1941, barely 450,000 troops all in. At the same time, it also generated headlines for its plans to reduce ship acquisition and deleting the legendary A10 aircraft. But in amidst all this, there were also some fascinating insights into the way US strategic thinking is evolving, which in turn is likely to have an impact on how the UK may seek to evolve its own forces.

One of the most telling signs of the impact on the military of the Iraq and Afghanistan years is the clear admission that in future the US Army (and wider military) is no longer going to be structured to conduct long term and large stabilisation operations. It is very likely that on resources grounds alone, the last decade represents the last cry of the ‘Peace and stability through the barrel of a gun’ approach to nation building which has characterised some views of international politics since the end of the Cold War. The chances of seeing sustained deployments into nations beyond the initial and aggressive ‘kick the door in’ at present seems slim.

But one should be wary of saying ‘never’ too loudly. There is an equally long history of trying to escape imperial entanglements, and somehow ending up ever more firmly stuck in the mire. If one looks at the history of the US armed forces in the 20th century, large amounts of time, money and blood have been shed conducting just this sort of operation in one form or another. Arguably, one could view the sustained presence of the US Army in Europe since 1945 as a very long stabilisation operation. The worry must be that cuts are made, a small detachment of advisors is sent in to conduct training and things quickly escalate out of control. Avoiding mission creep, and setting clear parameters on the limits of American power is going to be the real challenge for the US military in future – having grown up in a world of unquestioned military dominance, it is going to be difficult to explain why the US cannot do things that it used to take for granted.

The next reality is the acceptance that technological dominance can no longer be taken for granted in all domains: “ development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations that means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”

 Since WW2 the unquestioned truism has been that when the US, UK and to a lesser extent the French engage in military action, they do so as the dominant masters of the battlespace. But times are changing, and the ability to sustain the full spectrum dominance of the past is slowly going. A new generation of capability is emerging – often highly niche, but as budgets decrease, a nation able to develop and deploy niche capabilities may well find itself as a world leader in a way not previously seen. Similarly, the growth of arms procurement and exporting of hugely capable equipment means that US and allied forces could theoretically find themselves fighting some very well equipped foes. While the training may not be as good, the sheer existence of hugely capable weaponry in hostile hands, and not the old cliché of cast off soviet equipment and ancient French missiles and Chinese knock offs means planners have to be far more cautious when considering what their courses of action are.

To match this, the US is proposing to continue to invest in technological R&D, fielding world leading systems ahead of the opposition. In many ways this is the identical approach to the UK – deploy smaller but more capable forces. The challenge is in squaring the circle and finding sufficient funds to deploy at the right level of numbers with the right capability. At some point there may need to be a tough discussion about accepting risk on less capable acquisition, if only to ensure something can be purchased. This is essentially the problem facing the British Army today – to field a force in HERRICK that meets the appropriate standards is ruinously expensive, and essentially limits the size of the deployable Army – so why have a larger Army if you cannot afford to equip it, and dare not risk deploy it if it doesn’t have the technological edge?

The slow reduction of this qualitative and quantitative edge is where there is an opportunity for allies to bring more to the party. Previously the US had no real need of allies except in the political sense – the sheer size of the force it could deploy, and the associated capability meant that to operate with them on ‘Day One’ (e.g. the toughest possible conditions at the start of a campaign), a nation had to invest heavily in high end equipment, and probably sacrifice a balanced military in the process. One could argue much of what has driven UK defence structure and acquisition over the last 25 years has been this need to keep a ‘Day One’ capability in order to retain influence with the US.

But, as US budgets decline, the opportunity now exists for some allies to take a more influential role. Investing in certain highly niche areas like Cyber, or provision of MPAs, MCMV, aerial tankers may help give them assets which increasingly hard pressed US commanders may welcome. There is opportunity here for allies to acquire and bring real capability to the table, in turn giving them a much more valuable contribution than perhaps previously has been the case.

Of particular interest is the reviews emphasis on the continued decline of the US Navy. The news emerged that the Littoral Combat Ship has been capped at 32 units (with a frigate to theoretically follow), while at least 11 cruisers will be put into long term reserve while they are overhauled. It is hard to see them all emerging, particularly when most are getting on for 25-30 years old now (it perhaps brings back memories of the RN and its cruiser modernisation plans of the 1950s and 60s). Where this leaves the escort fleet is unclear – the future US fleet is likely to operate 60 Arleigh Burkes, 10 Ticonderoga class cruisers, 17 gun frigates (the very old and almost obsolete Oliver Hazard Perries) plus a small number of LCS and DDG-X vessels slowly entering service.

This may sound a lot, but a Navy built around 70 missile carrying escorts capable of blue water operations, of which many are ageing in number and others are tied to carrier battle groups, means that there is going to be a huge reduction in US naval presence around the world. Consider that many of these ships are older designs (Burkes date back to the early 1980s in design), and there is a sense of an emerging ‘escort gap’ which could cause problems for the USN in future.

It is particularly interesting to note that the USN has focused on retaining all of its 11 carriers in full operation. One is increasingly drawn to the parallels of the RN and the USN, with the USN continuing to follow where the RN had to go in the 1950s and beyond. A desire to remain a carrier operating navy meant protection of carrier hulls over escort numbers was the priority – one sees the same pattern emerging here. At the same time though, this is a clear indication of US priorities for the future – its going to be about mobile presence, not long term ground holding that matters.

This is also something which impacts on the UK, and may influence longer term planning. If the US is stepping away from the sustained presence on the ground, then one has to ask what this means for the British Army? It has done a superb job of effectively becoming an adjunct of the US Army, capable of working as a close ally on high intensity operations – but if the US is clearly stepping away from a desire to involve itself in this sort of work, then can the British Army continue to justify its need for 82000 regulars? Arguably much of the compelling argument for its force structure to date has been the need to be able to generate an Armoured Division or Brigades to deploy and sustain themselves on both high intensity fighting and long term sustained peacekeeping / stability operations. With the US clearly steering away from this, it is hard to see a willingness of the UK to take a lead in this sort of operation in future. One has to wonder whether the cuts in the US will in turn impact on the future structure and size of the British Army over the next 5-10 years.

The final thought is that in a sense by shifting away from the culture of ‘you break it, you pay for it’, the US is implicitly perhaps trying to walk away from conventional ground based warfighting full stop, except as a deterrent of last resort. It is hard to envisage a situation emerging in the near future like Iraq, where a US led coalition functionally defeats a regime, only to then see the US withdraw shortly afterwards as it has no appetite for long term stabilisation. Would allies be willing to stay the course if the US were themselves not willing to do so? Either this will lead to far fewer high intensity land based operations (somehow the desire to pay for damage and reconstruction caused by an air campaign like Libya seems less compelling), or it means that in future the US will simply walk away, leaving a shattered power vacuum at the outset with wider implications for regional stability.

What this means is perhaps twofold – firstly there needs to be a much higher emphasis on low level operations like capacity building, governance and other types of aid to try to avoid the situation arising where the US feels it has to resort to kinetic measures. Secondly, one has to wonder whether the threshold for US ground intervention will become so high that it becomes almost unthinkable. By making the Army the size where it can defend the nation, but not project power for the long term, it once again becomes a deterrent to be used when need really demands it, rather than when it feels right to do so.

This is just the start of what will prove to be a very painful process. Defence cuts are difficult to implement in the US due to the way in which scrapping forces and capability is often easier than shutting down a redundant storage depot. That said, it will be interesting to watch and see how the US military adapts to what could be a hugely challenging situation over the next couple of years, and in turn see how this impacts on both the UK and other nations too. There is scope for efficiency measures – anyone who has worked with the US system can testify to how inefficient it is in places, and how little jointery really exists, particularly when compared to the UK system. One way in which the UK is well placed is to advise the US on what it means to be a superpower in decline, and how to cut cloth to match aspirations. There is much that the UK can teach the US on its own experiences, and this in turn may prove helpful in trying to preserve the front line where possible.

One once again senses that we are living in very interesting times indeed… 

Saturday, 15 February 2014

In defence of the 'Love Boat'

To mark Valentines Day this year, the Royal Navy put out a small number of press releases showing how some deployed ships like HMS DARING had tried to mark the occasion. For instance, there was a picture of the crew on the flight deck, spelling out an ‘I love you’ message (news release is HERE). This particular story got quite a lot of media attention in the UK press, with a variety of outlets carrying it and giving coverage to the story. But, it also had its detractors – the superb website ‘Think Defence’ did not appreciate the story, feeling that it perhaps didn't reflect the RN in a truly professional manner – their views can be found HERE. The view expressed was essentially that in pushing across a human interest story, the RN was not demonstrating itself to be as professional as its peers in other navies, who perhaps did not feel the need to provide equivalent stories.

This debate perhaps goes to the heart of the question about how we can push the case for Defence in the modern UK. To the authors mind, the issue is that what specialists consider of interest ,and what the wider public consider of interest is two very different, and often arguably mutually incompatible subjects. Wander into any UK major newsagent and you will come across rack after rack of deeply specialist magazines, often providing immensely technical commentary on the most niche of subjects, ranging from transportation through to outdoor model railways and agricultural vehicles (a favourite story of the author is of when serving in Iraq seeing a friend open a morale package to receive a magazine about tractors, whose review of the novel  ‘ a short history of tractors in Ukrainian’ complained that while a good read, it would have benefited from far more detail about the tractors). All of these magazines have one thing in common – they write technical articles for a technically minded audience which gets much of the underpinning issues. There are letters pages and articles full of debates on the most minor of points, quite literally arguing over the location of a decimal place or widget. There is an incredible passion and intensity to these debates, but the fact remains that the subject matter remains a deeply niche and specialist interest.

'The Love Boat' (HMS DARING)
Arguably Defence is in a similar position to this – it is an organisation full of technical equipment, and engages in all manner of activities which people can take either an immensely superficial view, or spend many years becoming world class experts in. The problem is how to meet the interests of the experts, without losing the interest of the wider audience, who may have little to no idea of what the MOD really does all day. To an interested audience which inherently understands the importance of things like why the deployment of HMS DARING to the Far East was important, and why it achieved a tremendous amount of good for the RN, this sort of press release may well seem embarrassing – after all, who wants to see pictures of sailors missing their families when we could see press releases issued discussing whether there is sufficient space in the T45 hull to adopt a Mk141 launcher for VLS TLAM behind the PAAMS launcher but only if CEC were put onboard and the 114mm gun were downgraded to a 76mm OTO Melara – a complete exaggeration, but indicative of the sort of immensely technical debate which can be found in certain parts of the internet or specialist magazines.

By contrast, the overwhelming majority of the population in the UK have very little understanding of, or interest in, the technical minutiae which make up the way that the military works. They are proud of what the Armed Forces have done in the past (particularly when Grandad was in the Army in WW2), and they quite like the odd film footage of soldiers marching or steely warships at sea in a gale. It makes them proud to be British and proud of what the MOD can do – but at the same time, this pride does not necessarily translate into an understanding of what we actually DO with this equipment. This is backed up by a UK media which has little real interest in running repetitive stories about the same thing – had the press release not gone out on Valentines Day, and instead something like ‘RN Warship sails for home, just another day at sea’, then the chances are that absolutely no one would have carried it in their newspapers or print media.

As it is, when read it is actually a really good way of imparting a lot of information about what HMS DARING has been up to for quite some time, and is put across in a way that the average member of the public will want to read. The press release on the Royal Navy website talks about the deployment the vessel has done, reminding the public that the ship has deployed globally, that she has played an enormous part in disaster relief in the Philippines that she has travelled the world and been away from home for 9 months. It really flags up the capability of the modern RN, and the flexibility required of its people and vessels when they deploy, and helps remind people of the enormous human cost involved in this – particularly the separation, the challenges on people’s relationships and the human impact of a major deployment. At a time of the year when many people reflect on their loved ones, it is a very good way of informing about what the RN is up to right now, in a way which reflects well on the Navy.

The article got a lot of coverage, for instance a very good and positive account in the Daily Mail - HERE (which will doubtless run an article soon though asking ‘can serving on a Type 45 cause you cancer?), and a multitude of other UK and wider news organisations also carried it. In other words, for the sake of a fairly simple picture, the RN was able to get really widespread media coverage of what it is doing right now with one of its warships, and help reinforce wider messages about its capability and operational pattern. Yes, this sort of article doesn't appeal to the average deep specialist with an interest in Defence – its simplistic, it doesn't talk in depth about equipment and it doesn't really go into details, but that’s irrelevant because the sort of deep specialist who gets what Defence is doing is arguably not really the target audience.

The target audience today is a UK population indifferent to Defence, and which associates the Army with failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with bloody battles and bodies coming home to Wooten Basset. It sees defence as something which goes on in the background and where expenditure is broadly a good thing, but it does seem a lot of money to spend on not very much, and besides, we don’t have a navy any more after all these cuts, so why bother doing defence spending at all? And, if there are all these cuts, then why bother joining or recruiting into the forces? All of this sounds simplistic, but it accurately reflects conversations Humphrey has had with often highly intelligent well educated friends who simply don’t understand or appreciate what the MOD is getting up to day in and day out.

Couple this indifference to a media which is often reluctant to run stories without a human interest factor, and you realise that its actually extremely difficult to get the press to run positive ‘good news’ stories on the MOD which talk about how much the armed forces do, and how busy they are. By anchoring a story to a good ‘fluffy human touch’ story, the chances are that the press will cover it, and with a well written press release, they’ll give the ability to not only give the British public a nice news story, but also educate them in a small way about what the Royal Navy is doing right now.

The irony is that at a time when information and news cover is more accessible than ever before, the public understanding of what the MOD does remains far lower than it has done for many years, due in part to smaller armed forces and fewer military bases meaning that many in the UK will go for years without ever actually meeting a member of the military. The challenge is to try and put the information across in a way which makes the public realise and appreciate the case for a strong level of defence expenditure, and to support ongoing operations. As we move to a post HERRICK world, it is inevitable that the activities of the armed forces are going to drop out of the media's focus, and the average member of the public will not see much about what is going on. To address this, it seems eminently sensible to come up with the sort of press release that media organisations want to carry, and which helps get the MOD message across. If this means accepting that it upsets specialists, or that it doesn't seem terribly ‘professional’ (whatever that means) then so be it. But if this gets the message to the public, and it if helps them understand why Defence is a good thing, and not an indifferent issue, then that’s worth it. More importantly, if that article yesterday helped spark a little fire of imagination in potential recruits who read it, saw what the RN does and suddenly thought ‘I want to find out more’ then is that really a bad thing? Lets be honest here, the chances are that if that press release hadn't gone out yesterday then there would have been no coverage of RN activities beyond flooding relief, which while vital is not something which really shows the justification for a global navy. One only has to look at the dozens of press releases issued on the RN website to see that a lot of them are interesting and informative to specialist publications, but are never picked up by the mainstream media. So, what is worse – a slightly schmaltzy article which gets lots of media coverage and lets people know what HMS DARING has done, or no coverage at all beyond the specialist areas which already know what she has done?

Frankly Humphrey is firmly in the ‘better to get some good coverage than no coverage’ camp – yes it doesn't appeal to everyone, but it does feel like what is being shown helps show the RN off to those people who really matter – the bulk of UK taxpayers. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The #Russians are coming!

In Parliament this week the Secretary of State for Defence updated the House of Commons about the recent incident with the presence of Russian vessels off the Scottish coast line over the Christmas period. This was originally something which people tried to turn into political capital against the RN, suggesting that somehow the UK was no longer a relevant power because the nearest frigate was sent up from Portsmouth and not Faslane, and that because there was not an MPA anymore, it wasn’t possible to monitor the Russians effectively.(The link to the debate is HERE)

This week it was revealed that actually the Russian presence had been long anticipated, through a combination of liaison and intelligence sharing with our allies, and also through open source media, including Twitter. The Russian Navy apparently operates a PR feed through twitter and reportedly announced the vessels deployment this way (although Humphrey was unable to find the one most likely to be it). The reaction in the UK through some papers was one of ridicule and barely concealed amusement that the once mighty Royal Navy and UK was now reduced to watching Twitter to know when the Russians would be coming.

By contrast Humphrey is of the view that this sort of announcement is an excellent indication of the value of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) in helping to build a picture of our understanding of what is going on in the world, and in showing how the UK is able to adapt to changing technology. At its heart, intelligence is fundamentally about providing decision makers with an assessment based on the materials available to you, often of varying provenance and reliability, about the likely intentions or actions of another power. During the Cold War, the UK and other nations invested huge amounts of time, resource and risk in monitoring what was going on in the Northern Fleet. One only has to read books like ‘Hunter Killers’ by Ian Ballantyne (Kindle link here) to get an idea of what Royal Navy submarines may have done during the Cold War.

Let’s consider for a moment how thirty years ago the RN would have had to have found out about this deployment. Either through use of vessels observing discretely (and possibly in harms way), or through the use of other more covert assets like overhead imagery or maybe human intelligence. This would have been fused together to provide a judgement that the Kuznetzov was to deploy, and her likely course would have taken her close to UK waters .The resulting material would have been extremely highly classified as a result, reducing those who could see it, and also restricting the choices on how to react to it. One of the challenges of handling highly sensitive intelligence sources is that it is very easy to compromise them – if the RN had found out that a deployment was occurring and sailed to intercept, then the resulting Soviet (as was) investigation could have compromised the source of material and blocked future such results. In other words, even if we did know what was going on, our ability to respond to it and action it was itself often constrained.

How the game is traditionally played!

By contrast, Twitter and the internet have changed how the game is played forever. Suddenly it is possible to get a very open flow of usable reporting which can be used to build a baseline level of knowledge and information. It may not have the allure of being super-secret intelligence reporting, but arguably the sort of information that is seen daily on Twitter would thirty years ago have been classed as ‘TOP SECRET UK EYES ONLY’ and treated as the crown jewels of reporting. This is not to say that Twitter and other feeds should somehow replace the intelligence community, but it does allow a chance to find out valuable information, often that you would not otherwise have picked up on, and also to make it usable information that can make a battle winning difference. For instance, friends of the authors described how during OP TELIC they were able to get commercial satellite imagery provided to them on laminated maps. This may not sound like much, but at the time this was when imagery like Google earth was in its infancy and the ability to get up to date usable maps was very limited other than through scarce and highly sensitive overhead assets, which in turn couldn't produce material for use on the front line for fear of compromise. But, by relying on tasking commercial satellites, it was possible to get perfectly good imagery which provided an up to date and completely unclassified document for use by the troops. Similarly, Humphrey has come across websites built using Google Earth which provided a complete and completely unclassified breakdown of the Russian Air Defence network – something which a few years ago would have been impossible to do without relying on overhead imagery and which again would have been classed as TOP SECRET BURN BEFORE READING.

So, one key  lesson that should be drawn from this is that we should not perhaps be so dismissive of the value of things like Twitter or Google Earth. While it will never completely replace other, more traditional, forms of collection, it does provide a valuable means of corroboration and of allowing a legitimate response to developments without compromising more delicate sources of intelligence. This may come as a disappointment to those who feel that the only true intelligence is that gleaned via James Bond types, or through satellites hurtling in orbit, but it does reflect the world we live in. Additionally, in an era of constrained budgets and reducing manpower, the ability to draw on OSINT to provide an 80% solution is of real value – for instance consider somewhere like West Africa and the Francophonie, where the UK has a minimal historical interest and tiny diplomatic presence. The ability to draw on developments via the Internet means that it is possible to stay reasonably abreast of developments as they happen, in a way that would otherwise be impossible to manage. It is emphatically not a substitute for presence, but it is a valuable compensatory tool.

Perhaps more importantly it shows that these days what is even more valuable than good sources, is good analysts and the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff. Unlike the Cold War, where accounts suggest that during much of it the intelligence take was highly limited, particularly in the early days, the challenge today is the opposite – there is a plethora of information out there via the internet, much of which, as seen in the case of the Kuznetzov, has potential to be of value. It is knowing what it genuinely useful, versus that which is merely reportage or dross, that is the new skill that matters.  One only has to look at the range of websites, ranging from some of the so-called ‘discussion forums’ which in truth are essentially overly nationalistic teenagers spouting random drivel at each other, through to some very quiet but often hugely informed sites where a great deal of valuable information can be gained. One only has to look at the sort of material available on things like the Type 45 to see that while not classified, it is easy to build up an 80-90% intelligence solution which can tell you what the vessel is putatively capable of, and more importantly what she may be doing next.

Now more than ever the ability to analyse hugely diverse sources of information and translate them into actionable valuable intelligence which helps policy makers is a key skill. This in itself is a fascinating area of study, as the resources available now to the average private individual to conduct open source analysis easily rival those that were previously limited only to Government for many years. The ability of private companies to effectively act as intelligence analysts and brokers, arguably in some cases with more resources and better connections than some Governments, and the ability to provide an easily releasable and often timely and valuable feed of reporting is of huge long term significance. If nothing else, the challenge for Government is perhaps to hold onto its analysts, many of whom are relatively poorly paid and suffer from hugely limited career prospects, when they can earn significantly more in the private sector.

Shot from the superb MOD Online Security campaign

The final thought on this is that OSINT is a two way street and that the current and next generation of recruits in the military will perhaps have to learn the hard way that their Facebooks, Twitters, Snapchats and other social media represent a real security risk and intelligence bonanza. Having grown up in a world where social interaction is instantaneous, and sharing one message across a broad spectrum of friends is taken for granted, trying to explain to them that tweeting locations, or messaging about what they are doing on board a vessel can be a dangerous thing to do, is perhaps a very challenging task.  One only has to do a cursory look at most social media sites to find it possible to build a profile of what many Western military units are doing simply by following the Twitter and Facebook profiles. In the 1970s onwards, personal security was about having as anonymous a presence as possible on the streets. Today we need to ensure that our next generation of military personnel understand that this also must translate into as anonymous an online presence as possible when it comes to talking about what their work or unit is doing.

This is perhaps a major cultural challenge facing most Western militarys in trying to explain to a new generation of linked in individuals that careless talk can easily cost lives. Posting when you come alongside and are planning a run ashore, or linking photos of your child’s first day at school to your open account places a huge personal security risk on the individual and their family. The MOD has done an absolutely superb campaign highlighting the risks of too much information sharing online, but it may take some time for people to realise just how much they are giving away. The irony is that people who take their jobs so seriously, and are passionate about protection of classified material at work see nothing inherently wrong in talking online about their units activities or ships forthcoming programme.

The recent news from the Ukraine, where taped conversations between US officials were leaked highlights that the collection threat has not gone away, and that even very high level communications are open to interception. Perhaps more intriguingly, the fact that a foreign Government was willing to sacrifice the particular source, intentionally denying itself future collection from what was presumably a valuable source is very interesting and raises further questions. What is does show though is that the threat has not gone away, and that publicising locations, deployments, expected return dates and information like pictures onboard ship will help hostile powers build a much better picture of intentions, capabilities and help them take actions that may not be in our interests.

So, while there is without doubt a wider debate to be had on the importance of possessing a maritime patrol aircraft capability in the UK, and indeed, the Secretary of State seemed to admit as such when he answered questions in the House when he seemed to suggest that SDSR 2015 would look again at this issue. But, when you look back at the situation in 2010, given how badly over budget Nimrod was, and how out of control the wider equipment budget was at the time, the cancellation seems to make regrettable but understandable sense. Ultimately given the financial situation, one has to ask what else would have had to have been cancelled in order to keep Nimrod on track for entry into service, and at what cost.

But, while there is recognition of some kind of need for a surveillance capability, we should be wary of mocking the efforts of the RN to make best use of material available online. The internet provides the world with the ability to monitor ship movements in practically real time, and glean valuable raw intelligence material which was previously unthinkable. Mock all you want that it seems foolish to rely on something as mundane as twitter, but frankly if it is doing a job that in previous years would have required huge amounts of high risk collection efforts to uncover, then that is surely not a bad thing? 

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The National Security Strategy Update

The Government has published the latest update to its National Security Strategy which sets out clearly how the threats to the UK are being faced, and what steps are being taken to deal with them. The National Security Strategy is an often forgotten document which in actuality is an extremely important read – issued the day before the SDSR, it clearly sets out the way that the UK Government sees the challenges facing the UK today, the level of the threat and what must be done to counter it.
The full document can be found at the following LINK and Humphrey cannot  recommend enough that people spend time examining it in detail.

Part of the challenge in following UK security matters is that too often the debate focuses purely on defence, without considering the wider picture. This is perhaps understandable, for Defence is perhaps the most physical manifestation of a nations security, but in reading the NSS, Humphrey was left with the very strong perception that for many threats to the UK, the role the MOD plays is actually perhaps smaller than people sometimes assume. Indeed one of the many benefits of improved electronic communications in recent years is the way that it is much easier to bring cross Government working and make it a reality – the notion of Home Office, MOD, FCO, UKTI , Police and all manner of other organisations with a stake in security working together collaboratively was until recently an extremely rare occurrence. Today's generation of civil servants though take such close work for granted, and it is to be strongly welcomed.

The document is built around the concept of levels of risks, essentially considering what poses a risk to the UK, the likelihood of it occurring and more broadly the impact on the UK if it were to happen - this in turn enables mitigation strategies to be considered which can prevent/reduce this situation. Accordingly some threats are far less likely to occur (but could be far more damaging) and thus lower immediate risk than others (but this is not to diminish their importance).

Reviewing the actual update, it is clear that the primary risks to the UK have not changed in outlook since 2010 (the document is reviewed every two years). The top tier of risks remains as

                International Terrorism against the UK (including CBRN related activity)
                Hostile attacks against UK interests in cyberspace
                Major accident or pandemic requiring national response
                International military crisis between states which draws in the UK.

Reading this list it is clear that the challenges to society are vastly different to just 25 years ago, and that there remains no single existential threat to UK interest.  it is also clear that Defence has an interest in all of the issues, but that its level of interest vary.

When you consider the nature of the risk/ threat, the sort of role Defence can play varies – against terrorism, at home much of the work is done by specialist organisations linked to the Home Office, with defence being very much supporting players through provision of niche capabilities like EOD or CBRN responses. In cyberspace, where arguably the single greatest threat to the sustaining of our way of life exists, again Defence does play a part, but the lead sits outside in other civilian areas like GCHQ and industry (it is often forgotten that the UK is an absolute world leader in the field of Cyber Security).

The response to a major incident has received a lot of media attention recently, particularly with the flooding across the UK. But, while the natural call seems to be ‘send in the Army’ it is often less clear as to what the Army can actually do in this sort of situation. The MOD has spent many years trying to extract itself from the world of civilian aid – its challenging, its often not the best use of personnel and it ties up assets and resources which may be needed for military tasks and instead expends them to do something they were never designed or purchased for. This is emphatically not a bad thing, and the Army can often make a difference, but equally one of the challenges in civil emergencies is working out what to do with the manpower and resources at your disposal. Humphrey spent a fascinating period of time involved in UK Operations, and was often taken by the reality that many local authorities disaster plan seemed to be ‘call in the Army’ without considering whether the Army was actually the right people for the job. Following the overhaul of civil emergency legislation and the introduction of the Civil Contingencies Act some 10 years ago, a great deal of work has been done to make this area far more self sustaining using ‘first responders’ and relying far less on the military. So, whilst it is helpful to provide military bodies, often the problem is working out ‘what to do with them all’ as one senior police officer put it to the author.

So, the primary area of UK military involvement in international security in the eyes of the government would seem to be participation in a military crisis. Based on experiences last year, and comments this week, one senses there is a deepening reluctance to actually use the military for a sustained crisis anymore. While politicians and the public like a quick victory, some airstrikes and film footage of RN warships rescuing expats and looking steely eyed, they also equally dislike film footage of troops in trenches dug in for the long haul. What this perhaps tells us is that while this is a high threat, it is a threat that needs to be neutralised quickly for there is no longer the appetite for long term military intervention .

The next tier has a similar level of interesting challenges, the majority of which do not really involve a direct military threat:

                Attack on the UK by a State (or proxy) using CBRN
Risk of major instability or civil war which causes an environment terrorists can use to threaten the UK
Significant Increase in Organised Crime
Severe disruption to information received, transmitted or collected by satellites as a result of a states actions.

Again an examination shows that many of these threats require engagement by a range of Government departments, ranging from Home Office (police matters) through to the FCO (diplomatic relations and influence) and also defence. Arguably these risks make a strong case for investment in diplomacy (good diplomatic work can open doors to police co-operation, extradition agreements and intelligence sharing), while investment in international aid helps create stability, jobs and prevents people from becoming radicalised and unemployed (the paper cites the example of Somalia where UK aid has been linked to the creation of 45000 jobs and saving over half a million lives). Investment here helps create stability, which in turn reduces migration away from the country, reduces unrest and helps improve long term prospects for the region.

The role of Defence in this seems to be linked primarily to handling the challenges of CBRN, but also in helping capacity build. The missions in Mali are a good example of where training Malian soldiers helps create order where previously there was vacuum, and all for a fairly small outlay of UK troops and investment. This in turn helps flag up the benefits of co-operation with the French and other partners, who are putting far more troops onto the ground than we are, although the benefits will be felt as much by the UK as elsewhere.

The final  tier looks at the least likely / ‘lowest’ risk options which could pose a threat to the stability of the UK. These include:

                Large scale military attack on the UK by another state
                Increase in levels of illegal immigrants, terrorists, organised crime trying to enter the UK
                Disruption to oil and gas supplies to the UK
                Major release of radioactivity from a civil nuclear site
                Conventional attack on NATO/EU state to which the UK would have to respond
                Attack on UK overseas territory as a result of sovereignty dispute / wider problem
                Short to medium term disruption of resources essential to the UK

It is only here that we see the sort of more traditional challenge so beloved of the ‘fantasy fleet’ commentators emerge. The reality is that attacks in a conventional sense on either UK or allied territory by a third power, at present, is highly unlikely. Indeed, when one considers where UK territory is located around the world, with the sole exception of the Falklands (which themselves are not under any credible military threat), it is hard to spot a UK territory other than Gibraltar experiencing sovereignty disputes. If anything these disputes push the case for a strong FCO which is able to help use diplomatic soft power to resolve them long before they reach the stage of being a military risk. A good example is the way that the Falkland Islanders are travelling around south and central America to push their case to various Governments, media and other outlets to highlight their desire to be British and not Argentinian – soft power yes, but far more effective in the medium term than bellicose threats of force.

When one considers the threats to oil and gas, the key issue here is what is needed to protect them from such disruption? Its not just about conventional troops digging in – proper cyber security is required to prevent hacking from locking people out, strong diplomatic pressure is needed to ensure conditions for workers remain at a level where people do not riot and burn facilities to the ground, and wider relations must be sustained – for instance how does one balance concerns over developments in Egypt with the natural desire to keep the Suez canal open? If you consider the dramas which seem to ensue when a bank is unable to open its cahs machines for a few hours, how will the UK population react if the lights go out and don’t come back on for several days?

So in purely military terms, what does the NSS tell us about current UK defence structures. Frankly, a read of the NSS highlights the reality that what the UK needs is highly specialist skills and personnel to meet the challenge of most of the threats today. What the UK probably doesn't need is 100,000 soldiers sitting in barracks in the UK waiting for a war that will never happen.

The NSS leads us to realise that future engagement for the UK is about short term training deployments merged with clever use of aid and wily attribution of diplomatic and other soft power assets. In future the customs officer or borders official is going to play as vital a role in the safeguarding of national security as a private or airman will. The MOD needs to show how their assets can meet this threat in a sufficiently timely manner. This means investment in defence engagement, training courses, small teams going overseas (return of the BMATT?), and assets able to move quickly from location to location to respond as required.

When you look at the current force structures, the decisions taken back in 2010 still feel about right in terms of where the money was prioritised. What the future force promises to deliver is a very agile force able to go where trouble is, and deal with it, and not sit at home waiting for it to come here. Its about safeguarding a lot of very niche capabilities (for instance CBRN response) which need a long time to invest and train in, and not sustaining large capbadges which have far less military utility. As we move towards the next SDSR, it seems unlikely that much will change to challenge these assumptions – namely that the UK needs flexible, deployable armed forces willing to work at far smaller levels than before in order to nip problems in the bud and not prepare for the end of the world conflict previously assumed. This requires one hell of a mindset shift, away from that of preparing for Armageddon, and instead thinking about how to keep and retain highly trained people who can at very junior levels deliver training and influence that in years to come could prevent a war breaking out. Arguably the future is as much about how good our very junior officers and SNCOs are at training as it is about our ability to put two large aircraft carriers to sea.

So, the next time you see a debate on the internet about how the UK is a failed nation because it can no longer do X, Y, or Z, perhaps instead of wading in, ask yourself what the National Security Strategy sees the threat as being, and ask yourself whether the UK has the assets, the people and the capability to meet those threats. If the answer is yes, then perhaps we shouldn't be so defeatist after all?