Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Defence priorities

It seems to me that, in his speech to the Commons yesterday, Rory Stewart, chair of the Defence Committee, had the right priorities. In calling for this and coming governments to honour David Cameron's pledge to the NATO conference in Newport of 2% of GDP to be spent on defence, he only touched on "boy's toys" such as Trident. His analysis is practical - as one would expect from his background - and worrying. It is worth reading the speech in full, but a few things stand out:

The House of Commons Defence Committee’s report focuses on two things: the conventional threat posed by Russia, and the threat that we describe as next generation warfare, ambiguous warfare or the asymmetric threat posed by Russia. Although those two things are related, it is worth analysing them separately.
On the conventional threat posed by Russia, the report argues that, through its Zapad exercise in 2013, Russia showed its ability to deploy almost 70,000 troops at 72 hours’ notice. The current estimate is that it would take NATO almost six months to deploy that number of troops.
we have not been focused on Russia, and the United States certainly has more capacity, but it is striking that even the US significantly reduced its capacity to deal with an adversary such as Russia. [...] Britain has got rid of a lot of our Russian analysis capacity. One thing my Committee’s report pointed out is that we got rid of the Advanced Research and Assessment Group, which did the basic Russian analysis, we sacked our Ukraine desk officer and the defence intelligence service reduced its Russian analysis.
It is true that, ultimately, the theoretical NATO capacity dwarfs that of Russia, but a lot of this stuff is extremely difficult to deploy; many nations are very reluctant to pay the money required to exercise; a lot of this money is absorbed in pension schemes; and our problem is that we are defending an enormous, multi-thousand-mile border, where Russia could, should it wish, cause trouble all the way from the Baltic to the Caucasus. We have to deal with that entire area, which may be very difficult to do, even with the 3.3 million troops we currently have in NATO.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman referred to Estonia. Clearly, under article 5 of the NATO treaty all the other 27 member states would have an obligation to respond to an armed attack on Estonia, but there is a level of ambiguity, given the hybrid warfare that the Russians are engaged in and have been engaged in—cyber-attacks and others. Given that Putin does not necessarily wish to invoke a major military conflict, how does NATO deal with those hybrid attacks?
Rory Stewart: The hybrid attacks are exactly what I was getting on to: the asymmetric and next-generation warfare attacks. As the Labour former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee has just pointed out, the conventional attack is a low-probability, high-impact event. Much more probable is this asymmetric, hybrid warfare. In other words, we are more likely to find cyber-attacks of the kind we saw in Estonia in 2007, and separatists popping up claiming that they are being abused or that minority rights are being abused in places such as Narva, in eastern Estonia. As we saw, 45% of the Russian population of Latvia supported the Russian occupation of Crimea in a survey at that time. So what are we supposed to do? The answer is: it is really difficult and we absolutely need to raise our game in three areas. As has been indicated, those are cyber, information warfare and special forces operations.
Crucially, very few of us in this House—I certainly include myself in this—understand cyber in detail. We are taking it on faith that we are developing a significant cyber-capacity. It is extremely difficult for us to be confident about what we are doing in this regard. I have two questions on cyber that I would like to put to the Minister. One is to do with NATO’s cyber-capacity. The members of the Committee visited the cyber-centre in Estonia and discovered that there were only two UK personnel posted to that site. It was very difficult to be confident about what deterrent effect that kind of cyber would involve.
My second question is to do with doctrine. Are we prepared to threaten a cyber response as a way of deterring a Russian cyber-attack? In other words, if Russia were to mount a cyber-attack against a NATO member state, would we respond with a cyber-attack in kind?
The second issue is around information operations. It is very clear that the basic problem for Russian minorities in the Baltic states is the fact that they watch Moscow television. We need to ensure that we have the ability to project television into the Baltic states in the Russian language that is entertaining and engaging, that the minorities in those areas are prepared to watch, and that counters propaganda not with propaganda but with the truth. Such broadcasts must provide an objective, truthful and honest conversation about what is going on in the world and, above all, that is able to draw attention to the things that Putin is doing. That means that centrally we must invest in the BBC World Service. We spend a lot of time talking about this, about Russian-language television, but the reality is that we have yet to see the evidence from this Government, or from the United States, that the real investment is being made to create a genuinely watchable, attractive Russian language service that could be watched by Russian minorities around the edge of NATO.
NATO with its explicit backbone of nuclear weaponry is supported by both Labour and Conservatives as a deterrent of global warfare. They dispute the contention that the latter threat is now illusory, but must surely recognise that it has not served to deter Russia's push for Lebensraum. NATO may in theory be committed to defend its members, but it seems ill-equipped to repel any attack from the East, the nature of which is bound to come as a surprise as things stand.

We also need "soft" deterrence. The border states which have inherited Russian-speaking minorities must abandon any vindictive oppression, understandable to those with memories of life under Stalin though that may be. That is acting only as a breeding-ground for Russia-leaning radicalisation and sheltering "little green men".

Also, liberal democracies need to consider how our message is getting across to monoglot Russians on our side of the redrawn Iron Curtain. BBC World Service has abandoned its radio and TV broadcasts in favour of an internet-only Russian service, but one wonders how much of the relatively unsophisticated population of former Soviet states this reaches. I suggest that it is also in the interests of al-Jazeera - who can well afford it - to launch a Russian-language service.

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