Sir General Nick Carter, Britain’s highest-ranking officer, yesterday (Wednesday, 30 October) outlined his plans to transform the UK’s military priorities in a long and ambitious speech that was dubbed the ‘Integrated Operating Concept’.
Citing China and Russia in particular, the Chief of the Defence Staff said the two superpowers were “already engaged in an intense form of conflict that is predominantly political rather than kinetic.”
He added: “Their way of warfare is strategic, it is synchronized and systematic – and our response must be too.”
The transformation of Britain’s warfighting, hailed as the most significant for more than 30 years, appears to live up to its billing. Combined with the Defence Secretary’s, Ben Wallace, hints of ‘nimbler’ forces, General Carter’s words yesterday described future action that will, by his own admission, “test the traditional limits of statecraft”.
But here’s why it’s concerning.
Special Forces deployments spell trouble for accountability
A shift to “forward deployed” units has been proposed. This will mean military personnel stationed in dozens of locations around the world, ready to “escalate and deescalate up and down multiple [figurative] ladders.”
In other words, the UK military looks set to rely more on what we would traditionally call Special Forces. Small, highly-trained units who carry out oftentimes covert operations.
The covert is concerning. Britain’s use of special forces is already an area of opacity and contention, and one where recent political pressure appears to have suppressed investigation into war crimes.
In August this year, The Sunday Times uncovered a cache of emails suggesting that members of UK special forces executed unarmed civilians on several occasions in Afghanistan during the early 2010s. Senior officers became suspicious in 2011 when every soldier who is alleged to have participated in the operations appeared to be affected by “collective amnesia”.
The MOD responded that the claims were not new and had been investigated by Operation Northmoor, an investigation set up in 2014 to examine allegations of executions by British Special Forces. But serious doubt has since been thrown over that investigation’s integrity. One military detective told BBC Panorama: “The MOD had no intention of prosecuting any soldier of whatever rank he was unless it was absolutely necessary, and they couldn’t wriggle their way out of it.”
Even with the best intentions, investigators would have struggled to probe any case as Northmoor’s remit of cases was cut by 90%. The decision, by then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, meant that several accusations had to be dropped due to lack of resources.
Stories about the special forces are always met by a wall of silence; the MOD always responds: “It is our longstanding policy that we don’t comment on Special Forces operations.”
And when MP Yasmin Quereshi raised the idea, in 2016, of establishing an oversight committee into the use of special forces, Fallon bluntly replied: “No.”
The presumption of secrecy may seem uncontroversial to some – special forces often rely on espionage and secrecy after all. But the current level of oversight puts the UK well behind allies such as the US, France, Denmark, Norway and Australia.
According to the Oxford Research Group’s Remote Warfare Programme, other nations have made moves toward legislative scrutiny over special forces operations. They point to France’s constitutional reforms in 2008 that allowed MPs to review and hold hearings on special forces deployments. France, a comparatively similar political and military power to Britain, has far more transparency around special forces than the UK does.
An appetite for such oversight is, however, growing. Earlier this year, Westminster’s parliamentarians voiced concerns that “Britain’s growing military capabilities and commitments are far outpacing the existing procedures for parliamentary scrutiny.”
The message coming from the MOD strongly suggests that those commitments are only set to expand. A new Future Commando Force of the Royal Marines looks likely to be permanently deployed at various outposts abroad. Personnel will work in “small, versatile teams”, delivering “a more agile and lethal capability”, according to Major General Matt Holmes, Commandant General Royal Marines.
So the future of the UK’s military seems to be one of smaller, covert forces stationed in outposts around the world, operating without easy scrutiny of either parliament or press. It paints a disconcerting picture.
Global Britain for hire?
Many of these outposts may lie in South-East Asia, according to the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith.
“We think there is a market for a more persistent presence from the British Army [in the Far East],” he said earlier this week.
It chimes with General Carter’s speech, who mentioned extending Britain’s military reach to all corners of the map. But why Britain needs to be so active thousands of miles away from our shores has yet to be interrogated fully.
Carleton-Smith’s use of the word ‘market’ is of interest. With MOD budgets slashed over the past few years, a likely recession looming, a pandemic raging and a hard-Brexit possible, it’s unclear how Britain plans to afford such expansion.
What we do know is that Britain has frequently used its military to develop relationships with other Asian nations in recent years.
The middle-Eastern country of Qatar, for instance, is to be Britain’s partner in the first Joint Squadron in the RAF since the Battle of Britain in the Second World War. In a symbolic show of friendship, UK and Qatar Typhoon jets are to be based in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.
Such red-carpet treatment might, some say, be the reward for the Qatari government’s £5.1billion aircraft order from BAE Systems.
It does appear, then, that economic dividends are in danger of outweighing humanitarian concerns when it comes to Qatar – an authoritarian state, where major human rights abuses centre around media freedom, migrant workers’ rights and the treatment of detainees, who reportedly are subject to beatings and cruel treatment.
This does not, then, bode well for the expansion plans. Many countries are seeking to flex their muscles in the South China Sea dispute, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines included. Is Britain seeking to exchange military support for generous future arms contracts?
The grand statements and visions of the future from military chiefs in the past few weeks have all been but a prelude to the Integrated Review – a reappraisal of the budgetary priorities for Britain’s military and foreign policy. But serious questions have been raised about the manner in which this has been conducted.
Firstly, the decision to go forward with such a revolutionary review amid a world-changing pandemic has raised eyebrows. The process was delayed back in April but was quickly restarted in July.
Others have criticised the lack of serious engagement with civil society. A call for evidence lasted less than a month, and the consultation was “significantly worse” than previous government security reviews, according to Richard Reeve, coordinator of Rethinking Security, a network of NGOs focused on peacebuilding and security. There are claims that even the heads of parliamentary committees have been kept in the dark on developments.
Similar concerns have been made consistently about Dominic Cummings, who has been heading up the review. His role and philosophies have yet to be scrutinised, despite receiving two invitations to give evidence at the Defence Select Committee. In July it was revealed that he had visited five of the UK’s most highly classified security sites: the Special Boat Service in Poole, the SAS headquarters in Hereford, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, the Rapid Capabilities Office at Farnborough and the Defence Intelligence Unit at Wyton. This is unprecedented access for a political adviser.
John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, accused the Ministry of Defence of being a “bystander” to the decision-making, adding that “plans for Britain’s future defence and security should not be in the hands of a political adviser.”
Whether it’s the formulation process, the overall geopolitical intentions or the practical operations, the Integrated Review raises deep concerns for both transparency and accountability. These concerns have been repeatedly voiced to AOAV by serving and recently retired members of the military and of those involved in the Integrated Review itself; they do not speak out, however, because of a fear that to do so will harm careers and prospects.
General Carter said yesterday: “Attacks on our way of life from authoritarian rivals and extremist ideologies are remarkably difficult to defeat without undermining the very freedoms we want to protect. We are exposed through our openness.” If the MOD seeks to limit exposure by shutting down transparency, we endanger damaging the very democracy that our forces are tasked to protect. And this should worry moderates as much as it might do extremists.
Did you find this story interesting? Please support AOAV's work and donate.