General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff, RUSI Christmas Speech 2015.
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen. Can I say how delighted I am to be back at RUSI for my third and, most probably, final CDS Christmas Lecture. If I am still here in 12 months time, something has gone badly wrong with the succession planning and I need to re-look at my holiday cancellation insurance cover.
Inevitably, in choosing a subject for tonight’s talk, I thought that the outcome of the recent SDSR would dominate. But my working title for tonight is ‘interesting times’.
It is not that I felt the need to try to draw a bigger audience since the audience tonight flatters me with its interest. But to me, ‘interesting times’ captures the context in which the review was held; it is probably the best strategic forecast of what lay ahead; and, I trust, will encourage some wider questions once I have finished my on-the-record remarks.
But I also wanted to exploit this opportunity to go beyond the capability headlines of the Review and to give you a broader sense of what it means for defence and the armed forces over the coming years. As such it is, at least in part, a self-reflection on my own future legacy.
The context for the review we have just completed was in many respects a challenging one. I think that the challenge manifested itself in at least 4 ways.
First, was the complexity of the global security environment. An environment of greater danger, defined by increased instability and uncertainty; by a wider and more diverse range of threats, many of which were now more patent than latent; and by ever greater complexity in the nature of the relationships between countries which now sees a far greater diffusion of the ways in which power inter-acts. It is a far more difficult context in which to identify friend from foe; war from peace; or to properly situate the utility of military force.
Second, was the enduring aftermath of the global economic crisis which had led many countries to reduce defence expenditure and which prompted the reaffirming 15 months ago, at the NATO Summit, in South Wales, of the NATO benchmark target of 2% of GDP for defence expenditure. A target that, even 6 months ago, the UK had not yet re-committed to.
Third, I sense was a broader questioning of the enduring utility of much of the conventional arsenals of western countries; a sense amongst some commentators of the declining relevance of hard power in the context of the threats of the moment.
And fourth, was a parliamentary and the wider societal unease, borne of the experiences of Iraq and to some extent Afghanistan, with regard to the beneficial utility of armed force; particularly when used at strategic distance, in culturally alien places with uncertain strategic outcomes. A common line I have used over the past few years, is that the British Armed Forces have seldom been held in higher public esteem, but the purposes to which we have most recently been put, have never been more deeply questioned.
From that unpromising context, but maybe partly because of it, I think that the defence review has delivered a remarkably good outcome. The UK has looked itself in the mirror and decided it needed to do better.
The first concrete sign of that outcome was the political commitment last July to sustaining the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence. That commitment alone meant that our defence review was going to be about betterment not decline.
But, taken together with earlier commitments to nuclear deterrence, to carrier operations and to sustaining military manpower, there was amongst the military a growing confidence that the UK government was committed to retaining a global role, to reasserting its strategic authority and, more widely, to recognising the need to respond to a security context more replete with risk.
So, as I say, the outcome of the review itself was, I believe, a very good one. It has, I know, been well received by many of our allies. It is one in which there was considerable input from outside government. It saw unprecedented levels of mutual cooperation amongst close partners in its preparation, for which we were hugely grateful.
Specifically the review broke old custom and new ground by presenting the defence dimension of security as an integrated part of a national strategy serving national strategic objectives. In this respect it was not narrowly a defence white paper. An outcome I consider, wholly appropriate, for the complexity of challenges we face.
From a pure defence perspective, I think that, perhaps inevitably, the financial and capability aspects of the Review stole many of the immediate headlines.
In capability terms the review has allowed us to lift our level of equipment investment to £178 billion over the next 10 years. This, in turn, will allow us to plug many of the capability gaps that worried us, as well as investing in new capabilities. Let me quickly summarise the main capability choices we have made.
The first area I would emphasise is a range of capability that sits under the proponency of Joint Forces Command: primarily C4ISR, SF and cyber related capabilities. A significant increase in UAVs, 20 UK certified MQ 9 Reaper, which we will call Protectors; a £2 billion investment for SF enablement, particularly strategic insertion; additional Shadow aircraft; a new high altitude, long endurance, UAV capability; more modern CIS; a new joint cyber and electromagnetic activities group. Taken together with our ability to sustain a whole range of ISR capability bought as UORs for Afghanistan; this package significantly enhances counter-terrorist strike capability and improves the intelligence and understand function of more conventional operations.
The second area I would emphasise is maritime power projection. We have been able to formalise the commitment to operate both carriers, so that at least one is available 100 % of the time. We can now procure the afloat support shipping for the whole of the maritime enterprise; we can accelerate the purchase of F35Bs into the early 2020s; and we will buy 9 P8 Maritime Patrol aircraft to make good one of the most concerning capability gaps of the last review. Taken together with the commitment to the Type 26 ASW frigate, this really does represent a renaissance in maritime power projection.
And just finally, the third area I would stress in capability terms is a further investment in hard power: here I would start with the commitment to nuclear deterrence through CASD; the commitment to 138 F35s in the lifetime of the JSF programme; the generation of 2 additional Typhoon squadrons; a refocusing of the army back on the divisional level of command and manoeuvre; the upgrade of our Apache and Chinook helicopter fleets; our investment in NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence Architecture; and our ambition to set the deployable Joint Force 2025 at 50,000 servicemen and women: signifying a clean break from an army optimised for enduring campaigns at the Brigade level.
I would say that the capability choices we have made were not random. Nor were they designed to accommodate single service interest or lobby group pressure of which there was very little. They were made in the context of assessing, ameliorating and tolerating risk. In a dangerous world, an appreciation of risk and its management over time is the only sensible gearing mechanism to make difficult choices possible when resources are finite.
But the choices were a careful balance of counter terrorist capability, hard power investment; and a clear recalibration to better meet some of the more diverse challenges of the age.
But, as I said at the start, I do not want to present the outcome of the Review to you in the simplistic terminology of equipment types and numbers. After all, this is a think tank not an arms convention; and I am a soldier not a salesman.
Rather I want to offer you 5 themes which I think better demonstrate the sophistication of the Review’s outcome and how we envisage the character of the future force and the defence organisation that generates it. They are: utility; agility; strategy; innovation and partnership.
These are the distinctive themes of the review and I think they will probably need the greatest levels of energy, leadership, rigour and custodianship to realise. Collectively they are at least part of the response that I would make to the consistent and, I fear, sometimes unimaginative criticism of those who can only judge the competence and capability of armed forces through the input metric of platform and manpower numbers.
Again, I have not chosen these themes randomly. I have chosen them because, each in their own way represent a part of the strategic response to the bespoke security challenges of the age.
My first theme is utility
So, firstly, our security review demands that our forces have greater utility. In a typically UK way we have been spending much of this year (and last and next) in historic commemoration. The Battle of Agincourt 1415; the Battle of Waterloo 1815; Gallipoli 1915; and the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Such national events, when coupled with the recent experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, burn into the public psyche the false idea that armed forces are predominantly about fighting wars.
But in truth armed forces should be much more about avoiding, preventing and deterring war; maintaining the stability of the world order so as to permit the exploitation of opportunity in pursuit of prosperity; whilst mitigating those recurring threats and security related crises which are the inevitable by product of a world in which so many nations feel denied their sense of historic entitlement.
So as a nation we should better imagine ourselves as being in a permanent state of competition, constantly striving to retain or improve our comparative advantage in a challenging world. This, to me, is the context of the moment; and it is going to persist and intensify.
So the review re-imagines the utility of the UK’s armed forces to a considerable extent. Instead of seeing them in a simple construct of either fighting wars or preparing for the next one, we intend to make more productive use of their wide utility. So, in future our armed forces will provide an increased contribution to countering terrorism and building stability overseas. We’ll work with intelligence agencies, Police and the Home Office more closely than ever before, building capacity to strike at terrorists globally before they can attack us, but also building our partners’ capabilities so that they can better deal with terrorism, radicalisation and extremism.
We will play a greater role in UN peace keeping missions, for example in Somalia and South Sudan, in bolstering targeted capacity building, for example in Nigeria; and in making our physical commitment more enduring, for example in the Gulf.
Now many here will say that non-war fighting tasks have always been features of what our armed forces have done. But they have never been organised as a strategic endeavour in the context of achieving our most vital national interests: which have to be security and prosperity.
And critically the active demonstration of our increased utility and capability will also enhance our deterrent value. After all if a nation’s assumed willingness to commit to the use of force is only ever in the face of national survival, then we risk encouraging rather than deterring revisionist states and their own ambitions.
My second theme is agility
In order to service the demands of greater utility we also need to be more agile. We need agility of mind, of structure and of capabilities. We need this in order to manage the diversity of threats we face: from existential to insidious; from state sponsored asymmetry… the hybrid or new age warfare of Russia, to the sort of abhorrent terrorism we saw in Paris and Mali. From the threat of mass migration to the emerging threats of cyber war.
So our new Joint Force 2025 will require both flexibility and agility to operate across domains and threat diversity. At one end of the scale we need the demonstrable ability to deal with large scale conflict in order to fight or deter the most demanding scenarios. Hence a potent expeditionary force of around 50,000 personnel; based on a land division, a maritime task group and an expeditionary air group. And a better considered methodology for re-generation.
But within that force structure we also need to be able to deploy more quickly to manage a greater variety of threats or crises at smaller scale.
What the last few years has shown us is that governments increasingly want to have military options to a wide range of problems, both domestic and international. Not only are the military the security managers of last resort, we are often the first port of call for international rescue and domestic crisis.
Whether it is fighting Ebola, guarding the Olympics, providing options for multiple terrorist attacks domestically or searching for downed aircraft; governments want military options and they want them quickly.
So the force structure has to have inherent agility; the ability to meet multiple concurrency whilst being able to concentrate to generate capability at genuine scale.
This inherent requirement for agility of employment will place a significant demand on training, leadership and force generation. But the force structure has to be more productive rather than simply contingent.
And I also believe that the force structure needs to be able to draw on a far more diverse set of skills and competencies, many of which are not found in people who would ordinarily volunteer for the rigours of military service.
Hence we need to be a lot more sophisticated in how we use reserves and contractors to bring wider skills to the whole force. And in this context we plan to review the nature and flexibility of the terms and conditions of military service that we offer to the next generation of servicemen and women.
My third theme is strategic
This is shorthand for an understanding that, more often than not, even the most modest use of military capability sits in a strategic context and we increasingly need to accept that most of the threats we face cannot be resolved by military action alone, certainly not decisively. The idea that there are elements of military activity, for example the domain of operational art, which can remain hermetically sealed from wider government engagement and involvement, to me does not survive close scrutiny. Terrorism, hybrid war, compound threats, war in the information age, all require sophisticated all-of-government approaches.
Military activity has to be concerted with all the levers of national power at the strategic level. Sometimes economic sanctions will be better at coercive effect than military deployments. Diplomacy, development aid and strategic information must all be harmonised in national and regional strategies that promote security, national interest and prosperity.
We must better recognise the power of a potent narrative. In the information age almost all acts of physical violence come with an online component, exploiting social networks to manipulate opinion and perception. The tactics employed by Russia in Ukraine, Estonia and Georgia for example, include combinations of information warfare, cyber activity, counter-intelligence, espionage, economic warfare and the sponsorship of proxies.
Daesh uses Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in 23 different languages, to prosecute its narrative. And our adversaries can act unconstrained by western policy, ethical and legal codes, to exploit and assault our vulnerabilities.
So across government, we need to organise even better to provide a harmonised response to the threats we face and the techniques of the age. And not always simply a response, but a pro-active element as well. The review seeks to help provide that comprehensive instrument of full spectrum effects and capabilities.
My fourth theme is that of innovation
The exponential advance and proliferation of technology now allows nations to develop anti-access and area denial capabilities which threaten our technical advantage. We must have disruptive technologies to counter such threats. More widely, only through technical innovation, which properly harnesses the potential of robotics, micro processing, novel materials and unmanned flight, to name but the most obvious, will we be able to maintain technological advantage.
So the review sees us shifting capability into new areas: Special Forces; cyber defence and offence; intelligence increasingly based on the exploitation of big data and social media. We will continue to prioritise science and technology by maintaining investment at a minimum of 1.2% of the defence budget. We will also draw on expertise from private and academic sectors to develop new, potentially game changing, technologies. And we have found room to allocate up to £800m of new money purely for innovative propositions, ones which are truly transformative and which offer us the possibility of delivering future military capabilities in radically more effective and efficient way. Maintaining a decisive edge, whilst starting to break us out of the simple pattern of life cycle replacement and capability emulation: a pattern we have followed for too long.
But, of course, our approach to innovation must be more than just technical. We also need to transform the culture of defence itself in a variety of ways, making it more agile and adaptive and helping to develop the talents of our people in the practical exploitation of science and technology. And, importantly, as I mentioned earlier, finding ways to bring a greater range of talented and innovative individuals to the service of the nation.
I say this because I want the armed forces to be an exemplar of diversity and inclusivity; but I want this not simply for its own sake, but so that we can exploit the talent of all elements of our society.
So, for example, our innovative instincts should embrace new understanding such as the wider UK work as a global leader on women, peace and security. The review highlighted that this work will continue to be a priority for the government and so defence will continue its investment in this area over the coming years.
After all armed conflicts around the world create a wave of destruction impacting on the lives of innocent civilians, often disproportionately affecting women and children. Sexual violence is still a commonly used weapon of war.
So, we are actively reviewing doctrine and policy to ensure that women, peace, and security principles are embedded at every level of operational planning and implementation. We are reviewing basic and pre-deployment training to ensure it is effective; and we are building on our pool of gender expertise. We need to use the skills, experience, and knowledge of women in novel ways to resolve and prevent conflict. And we have already deployed gender advisors and experts, through our overseas training establishments, to deliver relevant training in Iraq, Afghanistan, and numerous countries in Africa.
So, innovation, will become a part of Defence’s culture, in all that we do.
My final theme is partnership
If, so far, this has all sounded a bit too self-confident and hubristic can I now inject a huge amount of humility. The review recognises that there is only so much security that any one nation can achieve alone. The importance of achieving collective security through alliances remains vital, particularly to any enterprise that needs to be conducted at scale. Partnerships are fundamental to our ability to manage security risk in a context in which we cannot afford a national inventory to face all threats. Particularly if one of those threats is a more general challenge to the rules based world as we know it.
In the past the UK has been what you might describe as international-by-instinct. We did it because we’d always done it, but there was not always a clear strategy behind it. Now we plan to be international-by-design. So our Review reaffirms that NATO remains at the heart of British defence. Not just through the 2% GDP commitment but through capability contributions, for example, to the enhanced NATO Response Force and more widely in our capability choices.
We are at the heart of NATO’s Readiness Action Plan to improve both reassurance and deterrence; recognising that deterrence has to deal with a more hybrid threat.
We are also committed to other multi-lateral arrangements. We have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with our Baltic, Danish, Dutch and Norwegian friends for them to be a part of our national Joint Expeditionary Force, the force which is the foundation of our return to contingency.
Separately in the Gulf Region we are committed to developing a series of permanent bases, for example our Naval Base in Bahrain, in order to enhance the wider support and reassurance we can give to the region.
And our bilateral-relationships are as close as ever. With the French, we have just completed the initial validation phase of the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force.
And with the Americans we continue to share a remarkably intimate military relationship, of equipment, technology, innovation, nuclear development, special forces, intelligence and, increasingly, cooperation in the global alignment of force deployments, particularly in the maritime domain and in the allocation of precious ISR capabilities.
Well, I think I have probably said enough. What I wanted to achieve is a shared understanding that the review was, to defence and the armed forces, far more than an opportunity to spend more money on kit.
There is logic to our capability choices and they will influence future force development. But the more fundamental implications of the review on the armed forces, if properly managed, are on the character of the force. It is a future force of greater utility and agility; one that by being integrated in a national endeavour is more routinely strategic in purpose; and it is a future force which aspires to be innovative in nature; and international by design.
So by way of conclusion
The National Security Strategy and SDSR in combination are an appropriate response to what I consider to be the grand strategic security challenge of the age. Namely how to accommodate the change which is inevitable, whilst maintaining stability; the stability from which we derive our international authority, our relative prosperity and our wonderful open society. And to do so at a time of ever more diverse threats and ever greater complexity in international relations.
The review is not a panacea, but it does offer a blueprint for how the United Kingdom aspires to retain national advantage in a competitive and dangerous world. And we have recognised we cannot do it alone, by chance, nor through the simple evolution of previous capability and practice.
The “Interesting times” which formed the context for the review are set to continue. There is simply too much change in the world borne of demographic, economic and societal challenge to the status quo.
But let me just finish with the other element of “Interesting times” which formed the context for the review. This was the wholly appropriate and far greater questioning, by parliament and society, of the utility of military force in managing the security challenges of the age.
We have been reminded that, in the most developed of democracies, there is inevitability a far greater challenge to the utility and, therefore, employment of force and it certainly cannot be taken as a given.
I believe, therefore, that we have a strong public duty to help to educate and inform our society, that the freedoms we enjoy are not a free good. We constantly need to protect them, to project our influence to help preserve and enhance them, and, by being prepared to fight for them, hope that we don’t have to, at least too often.
Thankyou all very much; a heartfelt thankyou for all who work in defence; and as quiet a Christmas as you deserve.