US vs China. Photo: pxfuel US vs China. Photo: pxfuel

As competition increases for defence funding, Cummings’ involvement has reignited concerns over the UK’s defence strategy, argues Terina Hine

The government’s defence review has been relaunched after a four month hiatus caused by the coronavirus crisis. The integrated review into Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy is intended to be the biggest review since the Cold War and, to the consternation of the much of the defence and security establishment, has come to the attention of Boris Johnson’s maverick adviser, Dominic Cummings.

The purpose of the review is to define the UK’s role in the world. It will consider the long-term strategic objectives for both the military and security services. All indications point to the review being a wholesale reassessment of British foreign and security policy in line with the government’s dream of leaving behind our “vassal” status and embracing “global Britain”.

Cummings, and Johnson’s wider team, are certainly no isolationists – fully prepared to back the US’s aggressive pivot towards China and known to be keen to invest in cyber and drone technology. All indications are that Global Britain looks set to continue holding hands with whomever is in the White House, and will follow wherever they lead.

Since the Second World War each major defence review has focussed on a topical theme. The early 1990s review was concerned with the collapse of the Soviet Union, while the review at the end of the twentieth century saw a shift in focus towards expeditionary operations, preparing the ground for the disastrous foreign interventions that followed. In 2010 the review was in part a response to the economic crash of 2008, and in 2015 the focus was on ‘state deterrence’ in response to Russian action in Ukraine.

Now, in 2020, we are faced with a new set of challenges. Politically we have Brexit, growing competition between major powers – the US, China, Russia and India – and of course Covid-19. At the operational level, with resources under pressure, the review will be forced to decide whether future defence systems should focus on cyber and space and other information-based operations rather than more traditional forms.

In a rather dramatic speech, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, stated “we are in a period of phenomenal change – more widespread, rapid and profound than humanity has experienced outside of world war.” He said that we are entering an era which will be defined by “political warfare…. designed to undermine cohesion, erode economic, political and social resilience, and challenge our strategic position in key regions of the world.”

With this in mind it is not surprising that hackles have been raised in military and security circles by the news that Dominic Cummings will play an influential role in the review. According to a report, leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald, Cummings will be engaging on a tour of some of the country’s most classified national security sites, including SAS headquarters in Hereford and the Porton Down Science and Technology Lab which researches chemical weapons. It also revealed that he has twice visited the security services MI5 and MI6.

As each section of the defence and security establishment presents their case and bids for funds, the presence of Cummings in the mix has reignited concerns over the direction of both the UK’s defence strategy and its operation.

Adding fuel to the fire, the heads of the armed forces were informed in no uncertain terms by defence committee member and Tory MP Mark Francois, that Cummings would “sort you out”, adding threateningly and “you won’t like it!”

Cummings, known to have a special interest in reforming Whitehall bureaucracy and to have little patience with the military’s profligate grand projects, has hinted of deep cuts to military spending.

Writing at length about his exasperation with extravagant military procurements, Cummings accused the military of squandering billions of pounds, citing expenditure on useless military platforms that, according to Cummings, a teenager in his bedroom could bring down with a smartphone.

Leaked reports of swingeing cuts to the armed forces are ruffling feathers within military quarters. Defence Minister Ben Wallace has strongly denied that cuts to army personnel will be anything like as bold as has been suggested. He may be right. Such leaks are often designed to test the water and make actual cuts appear less dramatic. However, it is apparent that change is afoot, and the knowledge that the coronavirus pandemic will severely hamper the tax revenue on which defence budgets depend will have an impact. Choices will need to be made.

Possibly with this in mind the Navy announced last week that it was about to deploy a few hundred Royal Marine commandos east of Suez as part of a rapid response force, with the stated aim of protecting our interests in the South China Sea. The navy high command further announced the need for new, sophisticated weaponry and drone technology to prevent our two aircraft carriers from becoming obsolete – making it clear that a projection of power in the region is thought necessary even if direct conflict unlikely.

At last week’s defence strategy summit, held at the Tower of London, and attended by ministers, civil servants, the heads of the army, navy and airforce, as well as Strategic Command and Defence Intelligence, the dilemma of where Britain’s loyalties should lie was discussed. Despite escalating tensions with Russia, threatening noises around Iran and the unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, the attention of our military masters has moved further east, beyond traditional foes and our allies in Nato.

Britain’s new-found ‘sovereignty’ outside the EU is seen by Johnson and co as an opportunity for the country to reach out beyond the confines of Europe and forge a new path as ‘global Britain’. Back in 2016, the then Conservative government viewed China as the UK’s new ‘best friend’ in the west. Europe represented the past and China the bright new future. Cameron and Osborne duly opened up Britain’s nuclear energy and communications sector to Chinese investors.

The past few months has seen a dramatic shift in this policy, culminating this week with the severing of Huawei in the development of our 5G network. But as Philip Stephens so eloquently stated in his Financial Times opinion piece, this move was “not so much a declaration of independence from China as a kowtow to a White House set on provoking open conflict with Beijing.”

The truth is that the break with Beijing is based on Britain choosing sides in an international power game. Our true ‘best friend’ will remain the United States, and as the US advances discord with China, the risks posed by ‘Chinese assertiveness’ will dominate our strategic thinking and foreign policy decision making for the foreseeable future.

Unsurprisingly, the strategy summit concluded that the UK should build closer ties with our Asian allies – notably South Korea, Japan, and India – as well as with Australia; that we should invest in greater use of artificial intelligence and deploy more troops east of Suez – all to counter the growing influence of China.

This emphasis on the threat from China reinforces the PM’s own plan, code named ‘Project Defend’. Established in the light of Covid-19 to end the UK’s dependence on China for vital medical supplies and strategic imports – the project is led by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and is seen as an integral part of the national security review.

A key focus of Project Defend is to investigate the use of artificial intelligence to protect data and networks. The main danger from China is perceived to be cyber and hybrid warfare – a combination of political and economic aggression with cyber attacks -  rather than traditional armed conflict.

Significant competition over resources, with a fight between old and new technologies, will dominate the defence review. In the post-Covid world tensions and rivalries will most likely play out through coercion, cyber warfare and espionage rather than a 1930s style arms race. It appears that Johnson and Cummings will back a reallocation of resources towards cyber and space technology. Britain’s future foreign adventures will, again, be closely aligned to those of the US. Britain has chosen whose side it is on, and rather than taking an independent, nuanced approach in this multipolar world, is falling into line with the US making containment of China its central security project for the 2020s.

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