“Global Britain” must think the unthinkable

Our societies are now the battlefield; people, not kit, should drive national security thinking

Hopes are high for the security, defence and foreign policy review now underway. Still, much of the national conversation has been about equipment and technology—a familiar rut. The more adventurous speak of deploying more hackers, or recruiting civilians differently to boost reserve capabilities, but people are largely an afterthought. Yet with our minds and societies now battlefields, people, not kit, should drive national security thinking. Technology requires the right people, with the right skills, in the right place, at the right time.

The review should test long-held beliefs. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, says Britain already questions one: whether it will always fight wars in American-led coalitions. A more critical assumption to question is that Nato will last (as General Sir Richard Barrons explores).

The review must see Britain and the world as they really are, and not as some would like them to be. This means seeking clear-eyed insights into mindsets, strengths and weaknesses; and resourcing security, defence and foreign policy properly. Threats and the strategies to defeat them should guide spending, not the other way around. Beyond more familiar topics, the review should also consider economic warfare, outsourcing and education.

Britain should set up a National Economic Security Council, or at least a new National Security Council sub-committee dedicated to economic security. This body would bring together ministers and proven experts from and outside government. Informed by improved economic intelligence capabilities, members would refine Britain’s understanding of and ability to anticipate global economic warfare trends, co-ordinating rapid action for fullest advantage.

France promotes just this kind of economic security culture. The Economic Warfare School and others have long trained top civil servants, corporate officers and university graduates in information warfare and economic intelligence. But it was actually Britain that before 1914 pioneered thinking on economic warfare, to target “systems supporting [German] society’s lifestyle, rather than the society itself”, writes Nicholas Lambert. Britain’s 2018 whole-of-government “Fusion doctrine” does mention economic security but more in a reactive way. As authoritarian states ramp up whole-of-society attacks on Western economies we need to rediscover this offensive art.

The doctrine’s success will depend on better public-private partnerships. But past decisions to outsource national security functions (especially vetting and recruitment) have also introduced severe risks. Governments outsource to save money on pension and other costs. Yet public- and private-sector mindsets—service versus profit—are at odds, often causing friction. “Cultural” issues are tricky too. Contractors with no national security experience often dismiss the unique demands of this environment. Having mobiles on in sensitive work areas or during confidential conversations; turning off mobiles despite knowing that an operational requirement could arise; sending sensitive information over open e-mail: for many contractors, a national security role is just another job.

Such attitudes to security, the “poor relative” even in government, are shockingly negligent. The recent bankruptcy of a British company doing security vetting made some wonder if a previous private-sector disaster across the Atlantic could happen here. From 2008 to 2012, senior managers and employees at USIS, then the largest private contractor carrying out vetting in America, forged 665,000 government investigations to earn the company millions in performance bonuses. The firm vetted Edward Snowden in 2011 but denied that his was one of the falsified cases—which only served to highlight wider USIS incompetence.

Good vetting is a real art; few people can instinctively “read” others well enough to vet properly. With never enough vetters to go around anyway, the process has become a technology-driven tick-box exercise, with little built-in flexibility. Result: security clearances can often take 12 to 18 months or longer. Add to this the profit imperative for contractors—USIS only got paid for any vetting investigation certified as “complete”—and it is easy to see how fraud can happen.

Here, Capita has botched the army’s £1.4 billion Recruiting Partnering Project, admitting to “chasing revenue”. The online portal was over four years late at triple the initial cost, with an obsolete IT system that missed recruitment targets every year from 2013 to 2019. In 2017-18, the army was 7,000 recruits short. A Public Accounts Committee report last year called Capita’s performance “abysmal” but also criticised the army’s naïve approach to this complex project. Another Commons document noted improvement in government commercial management, though “from a low base”. Concerns remain over commercial officers’ narrow skills and knowledge.

High-quality education and “best practice” learning and development are the solution, yet Britain is not producing enough top talent to meet national security needs. For example, a 2018 report by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy identified critical shortages of cyber expertise, blasting the government for its inaction. The new National Cyber Force and other specialist units compete with one another, and with the rest of government and the private sector, for a relatively small pool of real experts who meet national security vetting and other requirements. As Jennifer Arcuri writes, we need to dig deeper and think differently about how to find and nurture talent early on.

“Global Britain” has a one-off opportunity to transform national security by thinking about people, not kit, first. Creating a body dedicated to economic security; re-thinking outsourcing of key national security functions; building a first-rate national education system. Bold? Yes. Challenging? Definitely. But essential. Otherwise, all else will be built on shifting sands. Britain may get by in the near term but in the long run, the current situation is unsustainable. This is a strategic challenge that we cannot afford to duck.

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