Back at the end of October, in the week of my fiftieth birthday, the debate around conscription was re-invigorated in an article by a prominent RUSI colleague, Elisabeth Braw. Elisabeth, a renowned Swedish journalist, has led RUSI’s crusade for an urgent review of Western resilience and modern deterrence for over a year. She has been an eloquent advocate for conscription, speaking to varied audiences across the globe and writing articles for some of the most prominent newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. In this week’s blog I’ll attempt to outline the nature of the threats to the United Kingdom, why conscription is a poor solution to them, and what, I believe, would be a better course of action for a government facing Brexit and limited resources.
Some of you might, like me, have enough winters under your belt to remember the Cold War. I was born only twenty-four years after the end of the Second World War and remember vividly the privations of Britain in the 1970s: national strikes, regular power cuts, drought, and the ever present threat of the Warsaw Pact. Perhaps it was the proximity to Hitler’s War that allowed society to cope with the problems of the three-day week? Certainly I think that the memory and mythology of the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ was useful, as was the widespread experience of National Service, but the key advantage enjoyed by 1970s Britain when comparing then and now was the degree of strategic redundancy within the system. Obviously, I’m not advocating the superiority of an economy based on nationalisation, coal, and high taxation, but it was significantly more resilient than contemporary society, built as it is on just-in-time logistics, the internet, and consumer credit.
The threats to British resilience fall into two camps. First, and I would argue far more likely, and damaging, are the natural threats with which human society has lived, sometimes unwittingly, for millennia. Second, from man-made factors such as competition and what Presentists often frame as ‘hybrid’ or ‘sub-threshold’ warfare. In addition to the very real effects of climate change, such as flooding, we need to be alive to the threat from Space. In 1859 a solar coronal mass ejection hit the Earth inducing the largest geomagnetic storm on record. Known as the Carrington Event it was little more than an atmospheric curiosity to our Victorian forebears, but should a similar event occur in our post-modern world, the electromagnetic pulse created would fry the orbiting satellites upon which our World depends for global positioning, precision timing, and communications and the surface based circuitry and wiring on which we depend for the generation of electricity and its transit. Imagine our World without electricity and everything driven and controlled by it for weeks or months on end!
While climate change and space weather are the most likely threats we are facing, they are not the only threats. In the last fifteen years or so, Europe has been troubled by the perceived threat of a resurgent Russia and the more distant challenge of China, the more pressing of the two has been framed as Putin’s Russia. That Russia has attempted to regain its great power status is undeniable, that it has done so through illegal and often military means is also without argument, but its behaviour is neither novel nor is it something of which the West is entirely blameless. The ‘Grey Zone’, which allows Russian sabotage, espionage, and influence to flourish, is encouraged by both Western political timidity and a failure to address the changing character of war. That is, however, somewhat tangential, Russia’s use of cyber weaponry, military force, political manipulation, and direct action in pursuit of its foreign policy does represent a real danger to countries like the United Kingdom. Arguably, the threat of cyber is somewhat overstated; cyber activity is only effective at a limited, tactical level because to use it at a more strategic level would invite retaliation leading to a kind of spiral reminiscent of the Mutually Assured Destruction of the Cold War. So long as the UK commands a strong offensive cyber capability, it has little to fear from a Russian first strike capability.
If we examine the likely threats to Britain and look at where we need to be more resilient, is there a space for conscription in our defensive arsenal? It is difficult to see how National Service would protect against a Carrington-level event, Russian interference in our democratic processes, or counter-espionage activity on the British mainland. Clearly, the threat of extreme weather events and the damage brought about by low-level cyber activity could benefit from additional manpower, but is a conscript with little effective training really the solution to either of those problems? The UK has little experience of conscription and what experience it does have was far from happy. Those, like Elisabeth Braw, who argue for the re-introduction of conscription in the UK, use the example of the Nordic countries, the Baltic States, and Singapore to demonstrate the utility of national service as a component of ‘Total Defence’. They do so without recognition of the cultural, structural, and political differences between those nations and the UK and, indeed, the nature of the threat faced. The UK is much larger, less homogenous, and more libertarian than the nations which are held up as exemplars.
If the answer to the particular threats to British resilience is not conscription, then what is it? If we quickly review the most likely threats, it is notable that the Armed Forces may not be best placed to answer those problems. Certainly the Ministry of Defence is well placed to provide manpower and engineering, medical, and logistic expertise in light of a natural disaster, but wider expertise would be required in those circumstances, this is the strength of ‘Fusion Doctrine’ – a whole of government approach. Culturally, Britain has always preferred the volunteer to the pressed man or woman; is it not preferable to accept that in a time when our Armed Forces, equipped as they are for a one-shot, precision warfare paradigm, are stretched, that we not only lean on the Reserve to fight natural phenomena, but we give it to them as a raison d’etre? In addition, we should expend our energy in youth organisations and amongst the newly retired to improve national resilience, going with, not against, the flow of national culture. Education is the key to resilience in a UK context, teaching self-reliance, critical analysis, and practical skills such as first aid should be to the fore. Britain needs to become more resilient, but conscription is not the answer to that question.
Thank you for reading all my blogs in 2019, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I’ll be back blogging in 2020.
All the best,