Neil O’Brien: Here are three urgent responses to China’s growing power – which we will soon have an opportunity to make

19 Oct

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Are we, in fact, losing the competition with China?

Consider current events. The IMF predicts China will be the only country with a positive growth rate this year. Since 2004 the UK’s share of world manufacturing halved from four per cent to two per cent, while China’s rose from nine per cent to 28 per cent.

Being a surveillance state has proved handy in the crisis: detecting a dozen Coronavirus cases, the Chinese city of Qingdao is testing its entire population of nine million people for Covid-19 over a period of five days.

Whether it’s the holographic windows on the Beijing subway, or the scary videos of the People’s Liberation Army showing off its new mobile drone swarms, the sense that we are being overtaken is palpable.

So is the increasingly authoritarian and militaristic nature of the Chinese regime. Every day the Chinese press is full of two things. First, ever more lavish praise for Xi Jinping, now officially elevated to “People’s Leader”, and increasingly exercising one-man rule. Second, increasingly dire threats to other countries that dare to cross China.

This week it was the turn of Canada, which was warned not to accept refugees from Hong Hong on pain of having more Canadian citizens arrested in China. There’s a steadily louder drumbeat of threats to crush Taiwan: the other day Xi called on troops to “focus all [your] minds and energy on preparing for war”, and Taiwan revealed it had been forced to scramble jets 2,972 times against Chinese aircraft incursions this year.

A new and not very friendly superpower is emerging.  How should we respond?

In the next month or two we should see the publication of the Integrated Review.  This is a big improvement on previous Strategic Defence Reviews in that it goes wider, to think about economic competition, not just military rivalry.

The Review is a big deal, and in a world with no virus it would be headline news.

Other countries are considering the same issues. The EU now officially describes China as a “systemic rival” and “strategic competitor”, while the US is taking a huge amount of actions (on a cross party basis) to protect its interests from China.

While we’ve had less debate in the UK, we face exactly the same challenge.

In a speech last week, the head of MI5 noted that while Beijing’s espionage efforts typically take the form of “hacking commercially sensitive information or commercially sensitive data, and intellectual property”, UK spies have also detected attempts by Chinese counterparts to influence UK politics. China is “changing the climate,” he said:

“Sometimes our role is to spot the hidden State hand in the pursuit of promising UK companies whose acquisition might dent our future prosperity and security. On China, we need expansive teamwork – a broad conversation across government and crucially beyond, to reach wise judgements around how the UK interacts with China on both opportunities and risks.”

This is sensible. So what should the Integrated Review do on China?  For me there are three big things.

First, we need an Australian style counter-influence unit to combat attempts to meddle in our politics

Like the Australian equivalent, it should be empowered to tackle a range of issues. Top London lobbying firms paid by hostile states for starters.  We wouldn’t have let the Soviet Union hire Saatchi & Saatchi in the cold war, so why don’t lobbyists have to declare payments from arms of the Chinese state now?

Universities could use more oversight and guidance too – witness the Chinese cash-for-influence scandal at Jesus College Cambridge. The same issues apply in think tanks, businesses and even the House of Lords. China is quick to snap up ex-permanent secretaries and even ex-spies. We need a coordinated approach.

Second, we need a new partnership with firms and universities to protect our economic and technology security. 

At the moment, we have a completely one-sided relationship, in which China can help itself to whatever university research it wants from the UK, buy up any interesting technology firm and even get our universities to work for branches of their military – an approach described in Beijing as ‘picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China’.

Through coercive joint ventures and corporate espionage, China can perform a sort of supermarket sweep on the intellectual property of the west.  Meanwhile China bans investment in swathes of its economy, locks up people suspected of leaking industrial secrets and has just passed tight new laws on the export of key technologies.

It’s a modern version of the same mercantilism that saw China guard the secrets of silk-making for hundreds of years, but the real question is why we allow a one way transfer of technology?

A new unit in Number Ten or the Treasury should coordinate relationships with industry to help identify who is sniffing around new technologies – perhaps we need a UK version of the US Business Entrepreneurs Networks which help US government build up market intelligence.

We also need greater transparency on who is working with our universities. At present we don’t even collect data on who is funding them from overseas.  Many firms would love help to counter hacking of their secrets or advice on tie-ups with Chinese firms.  There should be an obvious place to turn to in government to get it.

Third, we need an “Office for the Future”.

China’s growing dominance isn’t just built on exploiting naive western countries, but on a relentless focus on research and industrial strategy which we should learn from. However, in government I felt that the different bodies which are currently supposed to help us think about technology add up to less than the sum of their parts.

Collectively the Government Office for Science, the Council for Science and Technology, UKRI, BEIS the Research Councils and learned societies have many brilliant people, but the system lacks a controlling mind or plan.

Some of this is about the wider civil service, and we should learn from Singapore: the world’s best civil service. Some of it is about our growing our pitiful level of investment in R&D, which has sunk over the decades just as China’s grew.

But we also need a plan. We need some part of government to be aware of the significance of new technologies and emerging firms before they have been snaffled and carted of to China or anywhere else. Research funding in government isn’t industrially-focussed enough. We need a unit to think commercially about where we should concentrate research investment, and where we shouldn’t. To work out what we need to do to be ready to catch the wave of new opportunities, in the way that Beijing is so good at.

In a new book, “The Wake-Up Call”, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge sketch out how the virus has exposed the challenges facing the UK and other western countries, and the scale of the challenge we’re facing.

It reminds me a bit of the late 1970s, when Helmut Schmidt, then West Germany’s Chancellor, declared: “England is no longer a developed country,” and Nick Henderson’s famous leaked telegram highlighted our rapid descent.  Eventually we get angry enough to do something about it, and elected Margaret Thatcher.

This time the problems are different and we are already in government. But the urgency is just the same. Let us hope that the Integrated Review can be part of the wake-up call we need.

Eleonora Harwich: What must be done to bolster our cyber security – and save lives

18 Oct

Eleonora Harwich is the Director of Research and Head of Tech Innovation at Reform.

Last month, a woman in Germany died as a result of a cyber attack. Hackers disabled the IT system at Düsseldorf University Hospital and the patient, who was supposed to receive a lifesaving treatment, could not be transferred to a different hospital in time to save her. The German police has opened a homicide investigation – the first known to be the result of a hack.

This incident in Germany serves as a reminder of the horrifying consequences that a cyber attack can have in a hospital setting. Yet too much of our public sector remains highly vulnerable.

Last week, the London Borough of Hackney suffered a serious cyber attack which halted many of its services. This example is part of a long list of attacks experienced by local councils and public services in recent months.

One of the key risks has been the massive uptick since March in people working from home. Covid-19 has led to almost 50 per cent of the UK workforce doing some form of remote working, including most civil servants and many others employed by the public sector.

A sizeable proportion are unlikely to be adhering to basic security protocols like two-factor authentication, and many may be using personal devices as opposed to office equipment. This significantly increases the risk of cyberattacks.

joint paper from the UK National Centre for Cyber Security and the equivalent body in the United States Department of Homeland Security warned in April that “malicious cyber actors are exploiting the current Covid-19 pandemic”, and in particular the vulnerabilities in home working. Interpol has reported an increase in cybercrime targeted at governments and critical health infrastructure since the start of the pandemic.

As was the case in Germany, these attacks can have very serious consequences for people’s lives. They can also be extremely costly for the public finances. In February, Redcar and Cleveland local authority suffered from a serious ransomware attack costing the council more than £10 million. The infamous WannaCry attack in the 2017, which led to around 19,000 appointments being cancelled, cost the NHS an eye-watering £92 million. Thankfully no deaths occurred as a result of the attack, but we may not be so fortunate in the future.

As the public sector increasingly digitises and collects more data about citizens, cyber security can no longer be seen as an add-on; it must be a core component of service delivery.

The UK is seen as a world leader in cyber security with its National Cyber Security Centre, two National Cyber Security Strategies and the Secure by Design guidance published by the the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

However, there is a gap between the available guidance and expertise held within these central bodies and what cyber security policies and practices actually look like on the ground.

Two years on from the ‘WannaCry attack’ last summer, over a million hospital computers were still running Windows 7, an operating system released a decade ago and no longer supported by Microsoft.

By July this year, following an offer of centrally funded Windows 10, 846,000 NHS computers had been fully upgraded. This suggests that there are still about 150,000 computers in the NHS which are using outdated and unsupported systems, and are therefore extremely vulnerable to hacks.

Dealing with legacy IT is only one of the challenges the public sector faces when it comes to cyber security.  Reform’s latest reportResilient public services in the age of cyber threats, highlights that skills, procurement and imbalances in knowledge sharing and communication between central and local levels of government are undermining cyber resilience.

According to the DCMS, 27 per cent of public sector organisations outside of central government departments, have a basic technical cyber security skills gap. Yet, a quarter of cyber leads do not even feel confident providing training materials or sessions to upskill their workforce.

The next National Cyber Security Strategy is due in 2021, and must have a strong focus on addressing this skills gap. It must also place a greater emphasis on basic cyber hygiene skills for all public sector professionals.

Reform recommends that the National Cyber Security Centre should increase the capacity of, and mandate attendance to, their cyber security training courses to anyone working in the public sector handling sensitive information. This would go some way in reducing the skills gap and ensure that data held by public sector bodies is handled securely.

Increasing the resilience of public services in the face of cyber threats also means adopting technology that has security built in. Yet it is currently very difficult for those procuring tech to know if what they are purchasing complies with the right security standards. A kitemark – akin to that used for food safety – would enable commissioners to purchase products confident that they meet government’s ‘secure by design’ guidelines.

Covid-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of public services – a positive legacy of this terrible crisis. But this also means that our public sector infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to those who wish to hack it – whether for financial gain or nation-state destabilisation.

Failing to act now to enhance cybersecurity and protect our essential services – from the NHS to the benefits system, prisons to social services – will come at a high cost. We do not want the second homicide investigation stemming from a cyber attack to be in the UK.

Eleonora Harwich: What must be done to bolster our cyber security – and save lives

18 Oct

Eleonora Harwich is the Director of Research and Head of Tech Innovation at Reform.

Last month, a woman in Germany died as a result of a cyber attack. Hackers disabled the IT system at Düsseldorf University Hospital and the patient, who was supposed to receive a lifesaving treatment, could not be transferred to a different hospital in time to save her. The German police has opened a homicide investigation – the first known to be the result of a hack.

This incident in Germany serves as a reminder of the horrifying consequences that a cyber attack can have in a hospital setting. Yet too much of our public sector remains highly vulnerable.

Last week, the London Borough of Hackney suffered a serious cyber attack which halted many of its services. This example is part of a long list of attacks experienced by local councils and public services in recent months.

One of the key risks has been the massive uptick since March in people working from home. Covid-19 has led to almost 50 per cent of the UK workforce doing some form of remote working, including most civil servants and many others employed by the public sector.

A sizeable proportion are unlikely to be adhering to basic security protocols like two-factor authentication, and many may be using personal devices as opposed to office equipment. This significantly increases the risk of cyberattacks.

joint paper from the UK National Centre for Cyber Security and the equivalent body in the United States Department of Homeland Security warned in April that “malicious cyber actors are exploiting the current Covid-19 pandemic”, and in particular the vulnerabilities in home working. Interpol has reported an increase in cybercrime targeted at governments and critical health infrastructure since the start of the pandemic.

As was the case in Germany, these attacks can have very serious consequences for people’s lives. They can also be extremely costly for the public finances. In February, Redcar and Cleveland local authority suffered from a serious ransomware attack costing the council more than £10 million. The infamous WannaCry attack in the 2017, which led to around 19,000 appointments being cancelled, cost the NHS an eye-watering £92 million. Thankfully no deaths occurred as a result of the attack, but we may not be so fortunate in the future.

As the public sector increasingly digitises and collects more data about citizens, cyber security can no longer be seen as an add-on; it must be a core component of service delivery.

The UK is seen as a world leader in cyber security with its National Cyber Security Centre, two National Cyber Security Strategies and the Secure by Design guidance published by the the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

However, there is a gap between the available guidance and expertise held within these central bodies and what cyber security policies and practices actually look like on the ground.

Two years on from the ‘WannaCry attack’ last summer, over a million hospital computers were still running Windows 7, an operating system released a decade ago and no longer supported by Microsoft.

By July this year, following an offer of centrally funded Windows 10, 846,000 NHS computers had been fully upgraded. This suggests that there are still about 150,000 computers in the NHS which are using outdated and unsupported systems, and are therefore extremely vulnerable to hacks.

Dealing with legacy IT is only one of the challenges the public sector faces when it comes to cyber security.  Reform’s latest reportResilient public services in the age of cyber threats, highlights that skills, procurement and imbalances in knowledge sharing and communication between central and local levels of government are undermining cyber resilience.

According to the DCMS, 27 per cent of public sector organisations outside of central government departments, have a basic technical cyber security skills gap. Yet, a quarter of cyber leads do not even feel confident providing training materials or sessions to upskill their workforce.

The next National Cyber Security Strategy is due in 2021, and must have a strong focus on addressing this skills gap. It must also place a greater emphasis on basic cyber hygiene skills for all public sector professionals.

Reform recommends that the National Cyber Security Centre should increase the capacity of, and mandate attendance to, their cyber security training courses to anyone working in the public sector handling sensitive information. This would go some way in reducing the skills gap and ensure that data held by public sector bodies is handled securely.

Increasing the resilience of public services in the face of cyber threats also means adopting technology that has security built in. Yet it is currently very difficult for those procuring tech to know if what they are purchasing complies with the right security standards. A kitemark – akin to that used for food safety – would enable commissioners to purchase products confident that they meet government’s ‘secure by design’ guidelines.

Covid-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of public services – a positive legacy of this terrible crisis. But this also means that our public sector infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to those who wish to hack it – whether for financial gain or nation-state destabilisation.

Failing to act now to enhance cybersecurity and protect our essential services – from the NHS to the benefits system, prisons to social services – will come at a high cost. We do not want the second homicide investigation stemming from a cyber attack to be in the UK.

Julian Brazier: Helping Lebanon to succeed is in our interests

12 Sep

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

After the horrific explosion in Beirut last month, the dust has cleared and the world has moved on, but Lebanon matters to Britain and the West. It is at a critical junction: on the one hand, offering substantial commercial opportunity, but with the spectre of destabilising an important and dangerous region, on the other. Britain is well-placed to help steer Lebanon on the right path by building on some excellent work already in train.

Why does Lebanon matter? The country is a temporary home to nearly two million Syrian refugees, the largest concentration in the Middle East, and these people will be on the move westward if Lebanon melts down. Thanks to David Cameron, Britain is a lead provider of aid to their camps, but the geo-strategic issues and opportunities go far beyond refugees and aid.

The country sits between the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus, and Israel and Britain’s strategic bases on Cyprus just across the sea. Barely 15 miles north of its border is Russia’s naval base at Tartus, the keystone of Putin’s Mediterranean strategy.

Lebanon is staggering under Syrian destabilisation, government corruption, popular anger, Covid and now this devastating explosion. If the West allows it to go under, others will welcome the opportunity for a takeover with baleful consequences for western interests.

Yet, despite troubles which would have destroyed many nations, Lebanon remains a beacon of diversity and tolerance, with its Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Druze and other peoples. How many other countries in the Middle East have two ex-presidents enjoying retirement, in their former fiefdoms? Its universities and its media are arguably the best in the Middle East.

With its bustling and cosmopolitan capital, Beirut, its spirit of entrepreneurship and worldwide links through its highly-networked commercial diaspora all over the globe, the country offers a gateway to the wider Arab world and far beyond. This all represents an opportunity which others are recognising.

China is financing a $60 million Conservatoire near Beirut. President Macron’s high-profile visit, after the explosion, was a surprise to nobody – yet, despite its short period as a French possession, a growing proportion of Lebanese people look towards the Anglophone world for ties. Lebanon was the first Arab country to sign a post-Brexit trade agreement with the UK. More than ever, now is the time to build on our connections.

Liverpool Docks has a stake in the Port of Beirut and the programme to rebuild it will offer opportunities for our construction sector. Two hundred infrastructure projects were planned, before the explosion, utilising $11.6 billion in assistance from international donors; as they come forward, British companies should be bidding for them. On a larger scale, Lebanese ports will be central to the long-delayed programme to rebuild Syria after the destruction in its civil war; infrastructure companies from around the world are waiting for. to this.

Lebanon has a considerable confirmed off-shore oil and gas reserves yet to be exploited, offering yet another opportunity. Tourism and transport offer openings too. The national carrier, Middle East Airlines, placed a large order for Rolls Royce engines last year.

So, the opportunities are there. What is our government’s current role and what else should we be doing?

Since Cameron’s victory in 2010, Britain has recognised the importance of Lebanon and has been providing the kind of high quality, low-cost help which is as valuable as the aid to its refugee camps. Our military mission of just 30 ex-soldiers provide training for the Lebanese Army, one of the few genuinely national institutions drawing from all confessional groups. Ministry of Defence unearthed some pre-packed border strongpoints, designed for Ulster but never used, which have been installed on the Lebanese border and now play a critical role in keeping the horrors of the Syrian Civil War out of Lebanon.

We also set up the Lebanese British Tech Hub which grows small, dynamic tech start-ups to the benefit of both countries. Recently Lord Risby (Richard Spring, the former Foreign Office Minister) has been appointed as our first Lebanese trade envoy and both countries are well served with able ambassadors, Chris Rampling in Beirut, and Rami Mortada in London.

So, when the explosion devastated Beirut, it was appropriate that, in the words of Lebanon’s world famous singer, Shiraz:

“Britain was the first to arrive on the scene of the devastation, and then set a template for other countries to copy.”

With all the goodwill towards Britain, it is time for us to pull together the strands of our assistance to Lebanon and provide additional help in ways which would have a value far beyond any modest cost. This will be made easier by the welcome decision to merge the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development.

I believe that the greatest single requirement in Lebanon is assistance in making the transition to responsible, accountable democracy after a generation of corrupt leadership. The Lebanese Parliament has a finance committee led by the energetic and respected Ibrahim Kanaan. Could we send someone from the National Audit Office to help set up an organisation to assist them?

The Lebanese Central Bank has largely avoided the corruption in government but is struggling with inflation and debt. Could we lend an official to advise them and help with rebuilding the Finance ministry which is in much worse shape? Advice from HMRC on rebuilding the tax base would be valuable too. Lebanon’s Police are not respected in the way their Army is. Seconding a senior British Police officer could do disproportionate good.

Not all initiatives need to be government led. A small group of us have been trying to set up a Lebanese British Business Council, independent of government, hopefully to be resuscitated after Covid.

In summary, the multiple crises in Lebanon represent both a critical threat to Middle Eastern stability and an opportunity for Britain to build on its established programmes to promote our strategic and economic interests. What is needed is not vast sums of money but the kind of joined-up thinking which this government is instilling throughout Whitehall. The Government is undertaking the largest review to its foreign and defence policy since the end of the Cold War, against the backdrop of Brexit. Lebanon should be recognised as a key country in its region and should become a platform for western influence in the Middle East.

Daniel Hannan: Does the army really still need tanks? Or the navy aircraft carriers? Or the rest of us, the Trident system?

2 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

My late father commanded a tank in Italy in 1944. He rarely mentioned it (except, somewhat illogically, when reassuring my mother during car journeys that she could trust his navigation skills) but I always thought it must have been a wonderful thing to do. What a privilege to direct that mighty mass of metal, that extraordinary combination of armour, mobility and firepower.

So my immediate reaction on hearing that tanks might be phased out was one of grumpy and nostalgic scepticism. Tanks were declared obsolete after both world wars, yet they turned out to be vital to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. They played a role in subduing Fallujah in 2004, and have been used more recently in the Russia-Ukraine war. Are we truly prepared to dispense with what, for a hundred years, has been the best way to hold (or seize) ground?

The question needs to be put. We are, as a species, irrationally change-averse, and never more so than when we work for a state bureaucracy. Some of the most inexcusable wastes of money in British history happened because generals, defence contractors and Ministry of Defence officials were unwilling to admit that a shiny new project was already passé.

Think, for example, of the Eurofighter, designed to dogfight Soviet MiGs over the skies of West Germany, and already redundant many years before the first wings were welded. Again and again, that white elephant came up for review – and, each time, the Defence Secretary of the day took the politically easier decision to throw good money after bad.

A Minister who suggests phasing out any part of our established capability will get a reputation for being too clever by half and ignoring the professionals. It is no use pointing out that Ministers are there precisely to resist producer-capture. In any argument between a politician and a craggy-faced retired general, the public will always back the general.

Still, it is the politician’s job to ensure that a necessarily limited defence budget translates into maximum force. So let’s ask the question directly. In an age of irregular warfare and increasingly powerful guided missiles, do we need manned armoured mobile guns?

Iraq and eastern Ukraine were exceptional in that their terrain happened to be ideal for tank warfare – respectively desert and steppe. Tanks are of less value in cluttered or inhabited lands. They may be (as both the exceptions again demonstrate) useful against other tanks. But how useful are they against advanced missile systems? Or, indeed, against low-tech guerrilla forces?

Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 exposed the tank’s limitations. Expensive Israeli armour was hammered by cheap IEDs and low-tech missiles. Israeli generals have absorbed the lessons of that campaign. Have their British counterparts?

Actually, yes – at least, to a degree that many will find surprising. Overall, our Armed Forces are in the world’s top five; but, measured by number of battle tanks, we barely scrape into the top 50, well behind Greece, Jordan, Morocco, Romania and the UAE. It makes sense. We are an island nation which has traditionally relied on sea-and air-power. When we do engage on the ground, it is often out-of-area and asymmetric.

So what should we do with our tanks? We can’t put the question off. Whether or not tanks as a concept are outmoded, there is no question that our own main battle tank, the Challenger 2, is showing its age. Since it went into service in 1998, the Americans and the Germans have completed two major upgrades, the Russians five. Our chief armoured vehicle, the Warrior, is even rustier, essentially unaltered since the Cold War.

Given that big changes are overdue, now is the moment to ask whether tanks give us a decent bang for our buck. If we decide that they do – if there is felt to be no other credible way of holding territory – then we should think radically about what the new version might be.

Might we, for example, make a substantially lighter vehicle, easier to airlift and deploy at distance? Might we, in doing so, reduce the manning requirement – or even remove it altogether, relying instead on remote guidance?

I have picked tanks because leaks suggest that they are up for review, but the same logic applies across the board. The most expensive items in our conventional repertoire are our two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. They cost around £6 billion to build, with a similar price tag for their aircraft.

What else might we have done with such a colossal sum? Instead of floating runways which launch manned planes which in turn launch missiles, might it be more cost effective to cut out the aircraft, and simply launch the missiles (or the reconnaissance drones) directly from the ship? Obviously that would imply some diminution in capability, but did we properly consider what else we could have done with the savings, or were we, as with the Eurofighter, beguiled by the sheer vastness of the thing?

Again, simply to raise the issue is to invite an angry reaction from good and patriotic Service personnel whose job is to consider capacity rather than opportunity cost. So politicians rarely do it. Still, any defence review worth the name needs to put hard questions. Do we need a parachute regiment, for example? There are occasions when we need to drop special forces, but how likely are we to need to make a mass airborne deployment?

And, since I’m deliberately raising the most difficult and provocative issues, how about Enoch Powell’s objection to the nuclear deterrent – namely that, since we would never actually use it, it was money down the drain? Paradoxically, more limited nuclear weapons, capable of battlefield use, might be a more credible deterrent.

There may be good arguments, in all these cases, for sticking with something close to the status quo. But let’s hear those arguments without preconditions. Let’s have a no-holds-barred strategic review which sets out to ask how Britain can best defend its interests given the vertiginous acceleration of military technology.

Many of our postwar strategic assumptions are overturned by hypersonic missiles, weapons of extraordinary stealth and destructive power. At the moment of impact, a hypersonic missile is travelling at 1200 miles per hour, and its kinetic force is equivalent to three tons of TNT. Russia, China and the United States are engaged in a hypersonic arms race which makes a nonsense of much of what we used to think about air superiority, armour and the defence of naval vessels. A total overhaul, in short, is both necessary and urgent.

We should, in reassessing our defence needs, look at our allies’ capacity. It seems likely, for example, that in any major engagement, we would be on the same side as the United States and other Anglosphere nations. It makes sense to co-ordinate our procurement, while still ensuring that we can act independently in a Falklands-type situation. What we can’t afford is to cling to current practice for reasons of political convenience.

My father’s regiment, the North Irish Horse, was reduced, between the wars, to a single officer. It rapidly expanded after 1939 to deploy in Tunisia and later in Italy. It exists today only as a squadron in the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry. That is what I call flexibility. Our Armed Forces are extraordinarily good at preserving traditions, but they are also supremely adaptable. It is this second quality, in the end, that wins war

If you back CANZUK, you should also support the D10 – an alliance of democracies

28 Aug

If by CANZUK you mean new trade deals, four of the five eyes, and stronger cultural links with some of what Churchill called “the English-speaking peoples”, we’re all for it.

If by CANZUK you mean free movement, a NATO-type defence union and a single Joe Chamberlain-style economic bloc, our advice is to lie down until the feeling goes away.

The subject is topical because Erin O’Toole, the new Conservative Party leader in Canada, sees CANZUK as “a top priority”.  His version is somewhere between the two sketched above.

The first would sit comfortably with another idea whose time has come – the D10, about which James Rogers of the Henry Jackson Society wrote recently on this site, and which Boris Johnson’s Downing Street is rather keen on.  Expect it to feature in the Defence and Security Review.

Where NATO is a hard power alliance, the orientation of which is still to confront Russia by military means if necessary, the D10 would be a soft power one, aimed at countering the influence of China.

“You might say that, we couldn’t comment,” a Government insider told ConHome, adding that “the idea is being picked up by a broad listenership, which includes Canada and Australia.”

“There’s some interest in Bidenland.  And for the medium-sized powers, there’s security in numbers.  The idea’s in the ether, but it could materialise.”

The UK chairs the G7 next year, so the stage is set for the idea to get a push then, after the Defence and Security Review sets the scene.

So: who would be in the D10?  CANZUK enthusiasts should note that three of the four potential members would be in it: Canada, Australia and the UK.  New Zealand leans towards a different foreign policy orientation.

Then turn to the G7, of which the UK and Canada are already members.  Add Australia and South Korea to the United States, Japan, and the three EU country members – France, Germany and Italy – and you have a total of nine.

Finally, there’s India.  That’s ten major democracies with different military orientations and economies – but shared democratic values.

One could seek to draw other countries in – such as Spain, for example.  But what is being looked for here is a group big enough to work, but not so big as to be unwieldy.

During the Cold War, America and western Europe tended to speak with one voice.  Post-war progress, wealth and stability was built on this alliance – expressed in its security dimension by NATO.

That organisation is still adjusting to the collapse of communism – with two members, Greece and Turkey, at loggerheads, and others, such as Turkey and Hungary, moving closer to Russia.

Which imperils NATO’s integrity – but even were it functioning seamlessly, the organisation isn’t shaped to deal with China, not only because of where it sits but because of what it does.

A soft power D10 wouldn’t be a rival to a military alliance.  It would differ in purpose to the G20, which contains not just China but Russia too, plus the entire EU.  It would take in most of CANZUK, as noted.

At a time when China is expanding its interests through the Belt and Road Initiative, the D10 would offer a counterweight, in terms of investment, capacity-building, aid and the promotion of democratic values.

It could also begin to speak with a common voice at the United Nations, and there would be an obvious crossover with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the UK is keen to join, as our columnist Stephen Booth has reported.

Downsides?  The EU countries are not on the same page as America on China – or, to strike a very topical note, on Iran, over which Britain is sticking with the EU position rather than moving towards the American one, having voted recently the former at the UN.

Doubtless part of the diplomatic thinking is the calcuation that Donald Trump may not be in place after November – which may be wrong.

Elsewhere, Narendra Modi is taking India in a different direction from its secular heritage. And it is hard to see how this alliance could conjure up a quick alternative provider to Huawei.

But if you believe that the great post-war alliance between America and western Europe was of value, you will smile on a new means of creating a modern version for a different purpose.

Tory MPs, Downing Street and the Treasury are ready to clash over plans to cut the army to 60,000. Who will win out?

21 Jul

In Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s White Flag, their books about Britain’s defence capability, there is a chapter on “Operation Tethered Goat”, which looks at the army’s presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.

Part of it describes the 800-strong NATO UK-led Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), as it is called, stationed in an encampment “at the end of a dusty road an hour’s drive from the Estonian capital of Tallinn”.  The authors go on to identify how it was originally intended to be provided with 18 Challenger tanks.  It got ten.

The RAND corporation reported that however they war-gamed a Russian invasion involving conventional armed forces, these reached Tallinn and Riga within 60 hours.  “This is why some in the armed forces privately call the EFP in Estonia ‘Operation Tethered Goat’ “, write Oakeshott and our proprietor.

If Downing Street puts its plans for defence spending into effect, expect the prospects of what the authors refer to as “a small but fierce battalion of UK troops”, from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, to be fiercely debated, along with those of an entire division of the British Army – and our defence strategy as a whole.

The background is well known.  Dominic Cummings has long had an interest in revisiting defence spending.  “He believes that the British state is wasteful; that the most wasteful part of the British state is the Ministry of Defence, and that the most wasteful part of the Ministry of Defence is its procurement function”, as one Tory MP puts it.

Not that this well-placed participant in defence debates believes that Cummings is necessarily wrong.  He has read Boris Johnson’s adviser’s profuse and splenetic blogs on defence, which also cover the Pentagon’s use of artificial intelligence, the history of modern weapons development, drone swarms, equipment safety and (topically) China.

A section on Government procurement is sub-headed, Apolalypse Now-style, “the horror, the horror”.  This would also be a fair description of the reaction when it was reported that Cummings has been given permission “to tour some of Britain’s most highly classified national security sites as part of his plan to radically shake up the military”.

There will be much more to his scheme, and to the defence, security and foreign policy review, than the future of Ministry of Defence procurement – or even of the army.  It must weigh the future of the navy, internal security, cyber and the air force, not to mention the security threats posed by China, radical Islam and Russia, plus others.

But the prospects for the EFP in Estonia, and indeed those of the Third (United Kingdom) Division are at stake.  It is, the Army declares, “the only division at continual operational readiness in the UK” – in other words, the only one of three prepared for action in Eastern Europe.

The word on the defence street is that Downing Street has a proposal to cut the army to 60,000 – not the first time that this figure has been deployed.  How can it possibly make sense?  “It depends what your objective is,” one backbench source told ConservativeHome.

“If your defence effort is concentrated against Islamist terror in Britain, you don’t need nearly that many.  If you want to fight in Estonia, it isn’t enough – you need as many as you can get.  For the Middle East, you’d want something in between”.

The review itself is already the subject of swirling internal spats and, as noted above, this isn’t the first time that a cut to 60,000 has been mooted.  Or that army numbers themselves have been reduced.  On paper, its “establishment strength” has come down to 82,500.  In practice, that means a real capacity of about 74,000 regulars.

“It’s been 15 per cent or so beneath strength for years,” another defence-minded MP said.  “The generals get their budget, complain about the army being downsized – and pocket savings for kit”.  So it has been since the Levene Review years, he said.  “We haven’t done badly on reserves; the real hole is in the regulars.”

The army has already reorganised itself in the wake of recent defence and security reviews – see the emergence of “Strike” – and optimists argue that more kit all round can substitute for boots on the ground.  That Apache attack helicopters, for example, can assail more tanks at once – or that robots will eventually replace men almost entirely.

Conservative MPs are unlikely to be among them.  Forty-five members of Parliament have served in the armed forces as regulars or reservists.  No fewer than 41 of them are Tories, most of whom are ex-army.  Off the top of our heads, we name two senior Select Committee chairs by way of example: Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood.

Boris Johnson cannot simply impose a cut to 60,000 on Parliament.  For a start, there is Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, to consider, if he survives any coming reshuffle.  Then there is the legislature itself.  There are questions, debates, bills that could be creatively amended – not to mention the defence estimates.

Today, Mark Francois will release the second part of his report into army recruitment (he wrote about the first part on this site three years ago) – a reminder that interest in the armed forces on the Tory benches blooms perenially.  There are three possible outcomes to the future of the army when the reviews make their recommendations.

The first is the most likely: namely that, in the manner of previous defence reviews, there is a decision to muddle through.  Cummings and others get the cyber investment they want; the army’s headline number settles down at roughly the real figure it is now.  No-one is exactly happy but no-one is very unhappy either.

The second is that the army is reduced to 60,000 people.  This is almost certain not to happen – because Conservative MPs would kill it.  If a band of perhaps 20 can force Minister to turn tail on Huawei, 40 or so can easily do so on such cuts to the army.

The third that Cummings and company get their cyber; that the army stays at 80,000; that the other services are also shielded from economies.  Given Boris Johnson’s inclination to spend spend spend as well as build build build, one would have thought this a runner.

Except that Rishi Sunak is already keeping the economy afloat on a tide of borrowed money, and this site is told that he and the Treasury team are getting very restive.  They will be well aware of the Ministry of Defence’s unreformed history over procurement.

It looks from here as though a political pile-up is coming, and it’s impossible to say who will emerged from it least damaged.  Meanwhile, in Estonia, our soldiers watch and wait for the Russian conventional assault that will, God willing, not come. Cummings and the strategic review, by contrast, are knocking at the door.

Tory MPs, Downing Street and the Treasury are ready to clash over plans to cut the army to 60,000. Who will win out?

21 Jul

In Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s White Flag, their books about Britain’s defence capability, there is a chapter on “Operation Tethered Goat”, which looks at the army’s presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.

Part of it describes the 800-strong NATO UK-led Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), as it is called, stationed in an encampment “at the end of a dusty road an hour’s drive from the Estonian capital of Tallinn”.  The authors go on to identify how it was originally intended to be provided with 18 Challenger tanks.  It got ten.

The RAND corporation reported that however they war-gamed a Russian invasion involving conventional armed forces, these reached Tallinn and Riga within 60 hours.  “This is why some in the armed forces privately call the EFP in Estonia ‘Operation Tethered Goat’ “, write Oakeshott and our proprietor.

If Downing Street puts its plans for defence spending into effect, expect the prospects of what the authors refer to as “a small but fierce battalion of UK troops”, from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, to be fiercely debated, along with those of an entire division of the British Army – and our defence strategy as a whole.

The background is well known.  Dominic Cummings has long had an interest in revisiting defence spending.  “He believes that the British state is wasteful; that the most wasteful part of the British state is the Ministry of Defence, and that the most wasteful part of the Ministry of Defence is its procurement function”, as one Tory MP puts it.

Not that this well-placed participant in defence debates believes that Cummings is necessarily wrong.  He has read Boris Johnson’s adviser’s profuse and splenetic blogs on defence, which also cover the Pentagon’s use of artificial intelligence, the history of modern weapons development, drone swarms, equipment safety and (topically) China.

A section on Government procurement is sub-headed, Apolalypse Now-style, “the horror, the horror”.  This would also be a fair description of the reaction when it was reported that Cummings has been given permission “to tour some of Britain’s most highly classified national security sites as part of his plan to radically shake up the military”.

There will be much more to his scheme, and to the defence, security and foreign policy review, than the future of Ministry of Defence procurement – or even of the army.  It must weigh the future of the navy, internal security, cyber and the air force, not to mention the security threats posed by China, radical Islam and Russia, plus others.

But the prospects for the EFP in Estonia, and indeed those of the Third (United Kingdom) Division are at stake.  It is, the Army declares, “the only division at continual operational readiness in the UK” – in other words, the only one of three prepared for action in Eastern Europe.

The word on the defence street is that Downing Street has a proposal to cut the army to 60,000 – not the first time that this figure has been deployed.  How can it possibly make sense?  “It depends what your objective is,” one backbench source told ConservativeHome.

“If your defence effort is concentrated against Islamist terror in Britain, you don’t need nearly that many.  If you want to fight in Estonia, it isn’t enough – you need as many as you can get.  For the Middle East, you’d want something in between”.

The review itself is already the subject of swirling internal spats and, as noted above, this isn’t the first time that a cut to 60,000 has been mooted.  Or that army numbers themselves have been reduced.  On paper, its “establishment strength” has come down to 82,500.  In practice, that means a real capacity of about 74,000 regulars.

“It’s been 15 per cent or so beneath strength for years,” another defence-minded MP said.  “The generals get their budget, complain about the army being downsized – and pocket savings for kit”.  So it has been since the Levene Review years, he said.  “We haven’t done badly on reserves; the real hole is in the regulars.”

The army has already reorganised itself in the wake of recent defence and security reviews – see the emergence of “Strike” – and optimists argue that more kit all round can substitute for boots on the ground.  That Apache attack helicopters, for example, can assail more tanks at once – or that robots will eventually replace men almost entirely.

Conservative MPs are unlikely to be among them.  Forty-five members of Parliament have served in the armed forces as regulars or reservists.  No fewer than 41 of them are Tories, most of whom are ex-army.  Off the top of our heads, we name two senior Select Committee chairs by way of example: Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood.

Boris Johnson cannot simply impose a cut to 60,000 on Parliament.  For a start, there is Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, to consider, if he survives any coming reshuffle.  Then there is the legislature itself.  There are questions, debates, bills that could be creatively amended – not to mention the defence estimates.

Today, Mark Francois will release the second part of his report into army recruitment (he wrote about the first part on this site three years ago) – a reminder that interest in the armed forces on the Tory benches blooms perenially.  There are three possible outcomes to the future of the army when the reviews make their recommendations.

The first is the most likely: namely that, in the manner of previous defence reviews, there is a decision to muddle through.  Cummings and others get the cyber investment they want; the army’s headline number settles down at roughly the real figure it is now.  No-one is exactly happy but no-one is very unhappy either.

The second is that the army is reduced to 60,000 people.  This is almost certain not to happen – because Conservative MPs would kill it.  If a band of perhaps 20 can force Minister to turn tail on Huawei, 40 or so can easily do so on such cuts to the army.

The third that Cummings and company get their cyber; that the army stays at 80,000; that the other services are also shielded from economies.  Given Boris Johnson’s inclination to spend spend spend as well as build build build, one would have thought this a runner.

Except that Rishi Sunak is already keeping the economy afloat on a tide of borrowed money, and this site is told that he and the Treasury team are getting very restive.  They will be well aware of the Ministry of Defence’s unreformed history over procurement.

It looks from here as though a political pile-up is coming, and it’s impossible to say who will emerged from it least damaged.  Meanwhile, in Estonia, our soldiers watch and wait for the Russian conventional assault that will, God willing, not come. Cummings and the strategic review, by contrast, are knocking at the door.

Richard Holden: Three opportunities that open for us in an Australian trade deal

20 Jul

Maddisons Coffee Shop, Front Street, Consett

On Saturday, I did my sixth “Lockdown Litterpick”, around the beautiful Bollihope Common. A group of us bagged up five bin bags full of cans, bottles, pizza boxes and the general detritus that had been dumped in one the most beautiful spots in my constituency.

While chatting to my Association Chairman as the rubbish was collected, one of the volunteers revealed that she had emigrated from Canada to marry a Brit almost 40 years ago. Later that afternoon, I spoke with an old friend who had worked with me when I was a Special Adviser, before getting married and returning ‘down under’ to work for the Australian Government.

And later that afternoon still, on my way to my constituency office, I listened with interest to Times Radio as one of their correspondents gave an update on the New Zealand election – where the newly-elected National Party leader, Judith Collins, seems to be clipping the wings of Jacinda Ardern in an election that had until a couple of weeks ago looked as though it was shaping up to be a Labour landslide.

I mention these things because they to remind us that the ties that bind the United Kingdom with Canada, Australia and especially New Zealand are incredibly strong. Yes, they’re linguistic and historic, but they’re also based on families and friendships, and shared mature democratic systems of government underpinned by the rule of law.

As has been seen in recent years in both Australia and the United Kingdom, our Parliaments are more powerful than their premiers and the people aren’t afraid of switching out either if they’re not getting what they want. While Britain has spent the last few decades concerned over and trying to reform the nature of our relationship with the EU (which in 1980 made up 30 per cent of global GDP, but has shrunk to just under 15 per cent today) our CANZUK allies have been reaching out into the world.

I am very aware of how much with the grain some of these thoughts are in traditional conservative circles. But it’s increasingly clear to me that the opportunities presented by closer bonds with our Commonwealth allies are not some nostalgic pipe dream, but instead absolutely central to our future global ambitions, as well as the fillip our post-Coronavirus economy will need.

Our trade deal with Australia looks a though it might be one of the most comprehensive of the ones currently on the table, and there are three aspects of it that I’d like to flag.

First, Australia currently has a 20 per cent tariff on imports of luxury cars. Like the UK, the country is also right-hand drive. With our Range Rovers, Aston Martins and other top marques, surely this must be top target for negotiations.

Second, we’re much more understanding of Australians who want to come and work in the UK than the other way around. As we end our open borders with the EU and look at our Australian-style points-based immigration system, more mutual measures with our cousins in this regard must be a basis of future agreements.

Finally, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are all very developed service sector economies, but even our biggest companies are dwarfed by those of our American cousins. By opening our services sectors up to each other, we’ll drive competition, lower prices, increase productivity and, crucially, enable the formation of global firms with the diversity and reach across the globe.

That’s not to mention the new security integrations between our counties as the power structures of the globe tip towards the Pacific more generally and in which Canada, New Zealand and Australia all have a massive stake. We should be looking to leverage our foreign, defence and international assistance policies more generally on these security and international arrangements, as well as looking to build closer ties with an old ally of manufacturing in the North East of England – Japan.

China’s recent actions towards Hong Kong, the Pacific island nations, the South China Sea and, domestically, to its ethnic minority populations should give us all pause for thought. At the forefront of the minds of our allies across Asia and the Pacific is Chinese outward expansionism, control and internal repression

For Britain, out into the world is our call now. The tectonic plates of geo-politics have shifted to the Pacific; away from Europe to the wider globe. The world, not just the continent, is where Britain is at home. Now we’ve got to make the most of the opportunities on our global doorstep – and that starts with building our relationships with our old allies facing a new world on the Pacific rim.