The Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy - Defence Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 302-343)

General (rtd) Sir Rupert Smith KCB, DSO, OBE, QGM

18 May 2011

Q302 Chair: We now move on to General Sir Rupert Smith. You have not been in front of the Committee for some years, I think, but in any event, welcome back. As you have already spotted, we have a problem with the democratic system and we are going to have to vote from time to time. We did not predict the last vote; we predict one at 4 o'clock, yet some of us are now saying that that might not happen, so we will have to see how it goes.

  Let us start with a general question. What do you think of the National Security Council?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I think the idea of having such a council is good for two reasons. First, we have not got enough money. Secondly, we can no longer understand security on a home-and-away basis. For about 100 years, we have organised ourselves on the basis that we can treat defence and security in parallel as separate activities, and we have been able to understand security on the basis of home-and-away. Accordingly, we had Departments such as the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the Admiralty and the War Office, which is now the Ministry of Defence. We carved out the money and so forth that way.

  As I say, the situation has changed. First, we have not got enough money to do it that way. Secondly, you cannot treat security on a home-and-away basis largely because of the speed, reach and range of global communications. We, of all nations, sit in the centre of the inhabited world, if you see it on a globe, and are utterly dependent in peace and war on our ability to trade. We cannot feed ourselves and we cannot heat ourselves in peace or war unless we trade. We cannot withstand a siege. So it is in our absolute interest to ensure our security on that continuum and not on the basis of home-and-away, as we used to be able to do.

  But there are consequences of this idea, which is that we are now understanding defence and security on a linear basis. We are somewhere on a line between those two activities and therefore this council or whosoever has to be able to decide where we are on that line. You cannot allow events to just tell you. You have got to decide it and anticipate it because you have got to be able to reapportion priorities, resource and maybe demand more resource because of the imperative of the moment. I don't see those necessary consequences of the decision, which I think is a right one, appearing yet.

Q303 Chair: How would you improve the National Security Council?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: So that it could do the following things: to decide more frequently than once every two years where we are on that line between defence and security; to be able to have the authority and responsibility for reassigning the priorities as a consequence of that recognition of where we are; and to allocate resource accordingly. It also has to be able to state the objective at that time rather than the more general ones that appear in the National Security Strategy—no doubt you will ask me about them shortly. The objective has to be rather more concretely stated in the event because one of the consequences of our modern circumstances is that we don't know what the threat is. The whole of the construct for the previous hundred years is that we have had a threat. We have been able to say that this is the threat. We don't know what it is any more and so it is even more important that, in our analysis of where we are between security and defence, we have to identify what the threat is and what is threatened. It must be able to do that sufficiently well to allocate resource and priorities accordingly.

Q304 Mr Brazier: That leads us directly on then. Let's put the question really widely: what did you think about SDSR in general terms?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: In general terms I thought it was an incoherent nonsense.

Q305 Mr Brazier: And more specifically, would you like to give us some for instances?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: To me, it was a mishmash of decisions. I would need to have the bit of paper in front of me to be able to spell it out. But they did not match anything that I read, if I had properly understood it, in the National Security Strategy. I don't see how the two match and if you just took the decisions of the SDSR as a whole, they were incoherent within themselves.

Q306 Mr Brazier: We have had some testimony from other witnesses on this but it would be helpful to know where you see the biggest gaps. You mentioned, first, that we are not addressing the security side—you made that point about wider national security policy. Without a clear identification of the threat, which is difficult, it is difficult to match it up. You have also suggested that there is an internal issue about the way the bits of SDSR hang together. Would you like to expand on that second point?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Yes. Perhaps it would help, at least for my answers, for me to say what I think security and defence mean, because we tend to use those words as synonyms and I don't think they are. Security, in my view, is the prevention of a latent threat becoming patent. You do it in such a way that, should you fail in your prevention of the latent becoming patent, you fail at sufficient distance in time and space that you can now do something about it. This is why your barbed wire fence is that far away: you force the man to cut it in order to come through it, identify himself in time for you to put the lights on and for your reaction force to deal with him. That is security. It is a subjective series of judgments about risk and reward or gain, and you want to be able to identify something for what it is, but the moment security has failed and the threat has appeared you have to defeat it or deter it. It is now an absolute, an objective set of decisions of threatened loss or gain: it is binary.

  If we are going to treat security and defence as being along a line, in each case you have to understand where you are—this is what I mean about being there. At some point you are going to go back into defence and there is a time for achieving this. I call this, in my mind, elasticity. If we do what we are doing, we must have some elasticity in our defensive arrangements in order to be able to expand again to handle that particular problem when we have identified it. We have to build the security arrangements—which may well involve the Armed Forces; it is all our capability doing this—and their whole purpose is to identify the threat in time. That is what I do not see in any of this construct.

Q307 Mr Brazier: Right. It would still be helpful if you would follow one strand through, take us through a particular threat scenario and show us where you think that incoherence actually falls; where, somewhere between security and defence, the ball would fall.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: This is as long as a piece of string. We will just imagine something happening. The question I ask is, have we the built-in elasticity to be able to expand to react—which may not be expansion, it may be reallocation of resource—to something happening? I am going to imagine that what is going on at the moment in the Middle East leads to an outbreak of intercommunal strife in Cyprus, such that it threatens the sovereign base areas and our interest in those areas and so forth. Can we react to that today? Have we got the capacity to do what we did in 1974 when the Turks invaded and all those refugees arrived, quite apart from whether our sovereign bases are actually attacked? Could we expand to do that, since they are part of our territories? They are part of the kingdom, as opposed to something we can ignore, and it is where we have interests. They are an outer ring of security, if you like. Could we go to guard those places, defeat anyone who tries to attack them or take them over, and so on? I doubt it.

Q308 Bob Stewart: Could we in 1974?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: We did.

Q309 Bob Stewart: But could we have done it if there was a real, coherent threat—a proper attack?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Yes, we could have done. We went and did it a bit later in the Falklands, which was an even bigger affair. It is a very long time ago, but at the time we certainly sent a whole brigade, at least two other battalions, and so on, and a Headquarters for them.

Q310 Bob Stewart: To Dhekelia and Akrotiri?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Yes.

Q311 Chair: We have asked you what you think of the SDSR, and we have asked you what you think of the National Security Council, but we have not asked you what you think of the National Security Strategy.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: The bit in the middle, if you like. It is rather more policy—declaratory—than a strategy that says how you are going to do something, where your priorities lie, and so on. It states the objectives; you might say two-and-a-half objectives. We are to secure and protect the kingdom—it is not clear whether that is the people or the place—and we are to have a safe, secure context in which to live. Those are very general objectives. It then says that we are to have no diminution of our influence abroad. In the circumstances I find it difficult to understand how we achieve that.

  Chair: We share your view.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Nevertheless, the National Security Strategy states some broad aims. It is much less about how we achieve it, but with what we achieve it. I do not think it gives a very clear statement, as I have done already, of our absolute dependence on the ability to trade and, therefore, to communicate. Whether it is with container traffic or with megabytes of information, it amounts to the same thing.

  I do not think the National Security Strategy makes enough of our inability to act alone, our need to act in concert with others and the circumstances in which we can do so. It says a lot about wanting a rules-based world, and so on. We do not talk about our paucity of resource, which means that it is very difficult for us to act alone, if at all. If that is the case, and our objective is a rules-based world, I would like to see a bit more about where we are going. If I recall correctly, there is a paragraph that says we will work closely with allies, notably NATO, the US, and so on.

Q312 Mr Havard: So we have the strategy, we have the SDSR, which you say is not terribly coherent, and we have the NSC. In a sense, you are saying that, because you cannot play home-and-away, it is all one thing. Didn't you describe Cabinet government when you described the NSC, because all the various Departments should be coming together to address this? So what is the NSC? Is it a war Cabinet? What is its role? Where is the agent? Is it the NSC that actually says, "Yes, we need to expand, or whatever. This is our elasticity. We need to make a decision. All the decision makers are in the room, let's make a decision."? Is that being done in the NSC, and is the Treasury committing money to the NSC? Where does that leave Cabinet government?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: You must correct me if I have misunderstood something.

  In effect it is a Cabinet Committee. Its non-Cabinet members are not members. I think they are called advisers, if you look at the piece of paper. Therefore, that is exactly what it is. That is not what we have said we are doing. We say we are having a cross-departmental homogenous whole. In which case, it must be able to do those things I list, which requires some authoritative body that can alter resource and so forth. At the moment, we seem to have fallen between enlarging a Cabinet Committee more or less, and not addressing the institutional structure—Departments' budgets and so on—beneath that Cabinet. Until we do, I do not see how you can arrive at the answer, if you like, to the conundrum you have posed to me.

Q313 Ms Stuart: In the previous evidence session we asked the three Chiefs of the Services whether, looking at the current capability and ahead to 2015, they would still describe our capability as full spectrum. All three said no. Presumably you would agree with that.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Do we have a full spectrum capability? No, I don't think we do.

Q314 Ms Stuart: When would you say we last had that?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Your spectrum is utterly dependent on your opponent or the threat. You never know what you've got until you have an enemy. I want to make the point about capability. This is not an inventory. A capability is not a list of things we have. A capability is measured against your opponent on the day, and he is going to make it difficult for you.

Q315 Ms Stuart: But given that you were happy to say no, there must have been a moment when you could say yes. When would you last have said yes?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I would have thought it could be said that we probably last proved we had a full capability to operate in the Falklands.

Q316 Ms Stuart: That is a pretty long time ago.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I say that as the Commander of the division in the Gulf in 1991. We could not have done that on our own.

Q317 Chair: So, you didn't think that we had full spectrum capability in 1991?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: No, we were dependent in some measure or other on our allies.

Q318 Chair: We had to be, or we chose to be?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: We had to be. We could not have done that on our own.

Q319 Ms Stuart: What is the likelihood of us ever becoming again a full spectrum capability?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: If we are frightened enough. Also, on the basis on which we are conducting this debate at this time, there is not a prospect. You would have to change what we are doing. I am speaking for the Army. In so far as it is a design, we have designed in the SDSR, in the case of a full-blown fight, that we will be capable of fielding a brigade over time, if I remember that correctly. Well, that covers you in terms of defence of a piece of territory of about the distance between Aldershot and Fleet, which from my memory is about five to six kilometres.

  Ms Stuart: Right.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I daresay the Navy and the Air Force could also produce a round figure like that.

Q320 Mr Havard: So, by default it is a list of dependencies that we have described then?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: We cannot operate alone. We don't want to operate alone, do we?

Q321 Mr Havard: We have identified the dependencies as well.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: We are saying that we want a rules-based society. That must mean that you operate with others.

Q322 Ms Stuart: In a sense you have answered my point, because I was about to ask you about something the Chief of the Defence Staff said to us: the National Security Strategy is not a bad objective in terms of our ends, but the ways and means are an area of weakness. I think from what you said earlier that you believe that that only begins to describe the weaknesses of the document. How would you comment?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I would have said that we are saying much the same thing. It is a general statement of policy; it does not tell me how we will strike a balance. Moving away slightly from just the military, in the document there is talk of the problems when the fuel depot to the north of London bursts into flames—I cannot remember the name of the place. Nobody draws a deduction if it caused a complete disruption of avgas supply for two years, but perhaps we should not be dependent on only one. Why is there not the principle in there that we should have two of everything, and that it should be dispersed, and not clustered all around London, or wherever? That seems the sort of thing that we ought to put in our National Security Strategy—that we have dispersion, and that we are capable of expanding our organisations back into a defensive role. That is strategic, in my understanding.

Q323 Ms Stuart: There is much talk of the focus on resilience, but clearly you do not think it is there in practice.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: If we can barely supply our civil aviation with fuel for two years—perhaps we have got away with it—that is hardly resilience, when it is an accident. What happens if some cove actually works out one of these threats and thinks, "I might be a terrorist, but wouldn't it be fun to blow up all their oil?"

Q324 Bob Stewart: I am not sure whether I still have to call you Sir, but I suppose that General will do now. It is nice to see you again.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: It will do.

  Bob Stewart: I think that Sir would do, too.

  When you talked about full spectrum capability, you defined it in a rather straightforward way between Aldershot and Fleet or something. Based on that criterion, the United States doesn't have full spectrum capability either. You might say that you could extend that line to Glasgow—they could defend that sort of area. Under those narrow definitions that you used, the United States would not have full spectrum capability, or have I misunderstood?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Oh, I think—

  Bob Stewart: Would you change the ground rules?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: My description was merely to say what we could do on a more or less full spectrum basis. Before you go much further, how many potential opponents are going to outmatch 5 km as opposed to from here to Glasgow? I was merely using that as an example of what we have actually costed and said that, by 2020, this is what we will be able to sustain. Well, that is not a lot.

Q325 Mr Brazier: Following your logic through, it seems strange that the National Security Strategy says so little about maritime security when we are not only an island, but we have also had the recent example in Mumbai of a land threat coming from the sea.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I would like to see a great deal more concentration on the absolute essential of trade. It says that we require prosperity, and that prosperity comes through trade.

  Mr Brazier: And it has to come through the ports.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: If that logic is there and you want a holistic approach, we have to consider how we do this, who our trading partners are, and so on and so forth. This might be how you start to categorise where you do intervene and where you do not, and where you want to pay attention, because we are certainly not capable of paying attention everywhere. It starts to tell us where our priorities lie.

Q326 Mr Donaldson: And paying attention is important, because the National Security Strategy talks about conflict prevention being one of the key objectives, and if you haven't got full spectrum capability, preventing conflict becomes very important. What is your view of our Armed Forces' capacity to engage in that role at the moment, given our operational commitments that leave us fairly stretched?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I have extreme difficulty with the idea that conflict prevention is caused by fighting. My experience is that if you want to intervene in someone else's fight, you've got to win it, and you might find yourself fighting all of them. Just be quite clear what you're taking on before you start to talk about conflict prevention as an act of your Armed Forces, because you've got to beat the lot, albeit potentially, which was what America found once it was in Iraq.

Q327 Mr Donaldson: But you can use your Armed Forces before you come to conflict. Conflict prevention is not conflict resolution. They are two different things.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Again, the role of your Armed Forces in preventing that armed conflict from coming about has to be very carefully thought through and metered. Are you siding with one side or the other? Are you giving the threat, "If you start a fight, I'll come and stop it"? What are you using that force for? Are you saying, "No, I'll stand between you," in a classic UN way, in which case you have signed a blank cheque on that manpower until the other two parties have sorted themselves out?

Q328 Mr Donaldson: It might actually be training the local forces to deal with a perceived threat.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: In which case, you have joined a side.

Q329 Mr Donaldson: Yes, but we have done that in many places—

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Indeed, and look where it has got us sometimes.

Q330 Mr Donaldson: So you are better staying out and if it becomes—

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I am not saying one is better than the other. You need to enter this with a rather clear-headed view that the "something that must be done" is not necessarily the application of armed force. As others have heard me say, just as you can't be a little bit pregnant, you can't be a little bit interventionist, as we're discovering in Libya at the moment.

Q331 Mr Donaldson: So are you saying that it is really for FCO and DFID to look after conflict prevention?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: No, not necessarily. You might well have the military involved, but be quite clear what you are doing in the mix. Preventing other people having a fight is a big handful of an idea, and by 2020, one brigade of soldiers—and it will always be soldiers who do this; not the Navy and not the Air Force—is not going to go very far.

Q332 Chair: What would you say about the United Nations resolution 1973, then?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Please remind me—

  Chair: About Libya.

  Mr Havard: The duty to protect.

  General Sir Rupert Smith: If I am walking down the street and I hear "Rape!" in the house, I have a clear duty to go and do something about it. In so far as that idea is in the resolution, I would agree with it, but how you go about doing something about it is another matter altogether.

Q333 Mr Havard: I am just interested in what we were saying earlier when you seemed to suggest that we described our dependencies rather than our sovereignty in terms of what we have done so far. What are these greater risks, then, of having done what we've done in the way that we've done it? If you had the opportunity to open up this discussion again, what would be the priority that you would revisit?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: When you talk about risks, are you talking about how we have analysed risks, or are we talking about the risks of going on down the track we have set out on?

Q334 Mr Havard: The Government have said that spending is the priority, so they have come up with a policy which, certainly up until 2015, is one thing—then maybe it recovers. They have prioritised that over some other things: capability and so on. There are risks that come from that—they recognise them; that's fair enough. Given that that is the case, and that there will be a revision anyway before 2015, what is the most important thing that should be revisited?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I would like to see the general idea of treating security and defence as linear—as ideas on a line so that you know where you are—properly developed, as well as the capacity to redirect and alter how we do things. I would like to do the sorts of things I have listed already.

  Secondly, I would like us to understand—this is my own word for it—that if we are, because of our circumstances, going down this road, there is no point breaking the bank to have a super-insurance policy and then destroying everything else. I am quite clear that we have not got enough money and that we have to think this through differently, but we therefore need to recognise that the structures of how we thought about these things—where we have been able to identify the threat in advance, prepare against it and so forth—are gone. They are finished, so our thinking should not be to try to have, for example, all the right kit in advance. Our whole understanding of what we are doing is to identify the problem or threat coming at us in time to acquire the kit.

  You are actually turning the thought process. Along with changing from this parallel activity of defence and security, and an identifiable threat, you follow the logic through so that you do not go around spending huge amounts of money. What you do is prepare so that you have what I call "kernel defence"—a play on words; kernel as in nut or seed—so that you build the critical mass into your structures, which I do not find as a result of the SDSR, and so that you have the capacity to expand and to react to the particular, which may not be expansionary but about altering direction into a particular area. That is a big, big change. It is long on thinking and about having the right people in the right place, making decisions early and not waiting until the last minute. There are all sorts of factors that come into that, but that is where I think, in logic, the decisions that we have made already are taking us.

Q335 Mr Havard: What are the capabilities we are losing, or the areas in which we are seeing diminishing capabilities in terms of intelligence, surveillance and being able to see—in a general sense?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: It is all that, plus our ability to operate in such a way that we learn.

Q336 Mr Havard: So do you think there is too much change going on, in a sense, and that what the MoD is being asked, with the organisational restructuring and all this rearrangement, is too much, too quickly? What do you say about the pacing and sequencing of these events?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I have been out of the MoD for so long that I am not sure.

Q337 Mr Havard: But do you think the pace and the sequencing should be different?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: No, I don't see why we cannot change. If people cannot change in the Armed Forces, they are not fit for purpose. The whole of battle/war is change.

Q338 Mr Brazier: You have given us a very clear picture of what, in your view, we should have been trying to do in SDSR: producing a more flexible structure. If there were one really major change that you could make in the outcomes in order to deliver the clear goals that you have set out for us, what would it be? What really big thing would have been different in terms of where you would have prioritised?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I am not only talking about the SDSR. We must not bring this just straight down to the Armed Forces. If we are doing this all together—on the same line—you have to understand the whole. That said, this probably lies across a number of things. It does not go into neat bits of equipment—whether we have aeroplanes or something like that. It is to do with the capacity to learn. It is intelligence in the broadest sense of the word. It is not just the secret stuff, and it is not just having the right radar. It is the capacity to operate and learn as a whole, and I do not see that there in large measure.

Q339 Penny Mordaunt: What do you think are the implications for UK security policy and the next SDSR if the Prime Minister's ambition to have a larger defence budget by 2015 is not realised?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: If the economy can stand it at the time and we stay on our current course, I imagine that we will find ourselves scrambling to fill in spaces that have been left by the current set of decisions. Unless we build in this capacity of what I have called elasticity, we will find it extremely difficult to use more money usefully, except to add a bit here and a bit there. We need a structure that is coherent and to a purpose on which to spend the extra money to make it that much better.

Q340 Penny Mordaunt: You have touched on planning and procurement, but what other big, fundamental things need to be addressed and changed?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I do not know that they are, but I hope that the relationships with defence industries are being addressed. Of course we want value for money—we do not want to pay huge sums of money—but, in the end, what is on this island is the strategic base from which we operate. As I have said, we operate in conjunction with others. Unless we have the basis of something there, and industry is involved in this construct, we won't have that elasticity. They cannot do it if the production line or the design is not there. That does not require a Soviet-style demand for 1,000 tanks a year just to keep the industry going—that is not my point. The research and development, the possibility that this is of value in time, the concept demonstrators and those sorts of ideas need to be thought through and banked against the future, so that when you identify your threat, you have some capacity to deal with it.

Q341 Mr Havard: Do you see that running also to the structures of the military—for example the balance between reserve forces and standing forces—and also maybe in the security area as well?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Yes. We have Armed Forces that are reduced from something that my grandfather would recognise, in circumstances that my grandfather would not recognise, so I have no trouble with changing the structures.

Q342 Chair: Let us assume that we are writing the next SDSR in 2015. What three things would you say to us to ensure that we got that review right?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: Sort out the top hamper so that you have the decision-making capacity to recognise a threat for what it is when it appears and in time to deal with it; alter, or be thoroughly aware of, the way in which you are judging risk; and build a defence structure that is capable of—I called this elasticity—not only expansion, but also moving in another direction. Those would be my three.

  We have not discussed the middle one much. We have arrived at a methodology that is not, in itself, wrong, but it is a recognition of our vulnerabilities—it is about our vulnerabilities within the strategic base as opposed to out there, where, as you have said, half our objectives are. In the methodology, it assumes a threat and it assumes a context, but we do not know what the threats are. We acknowledge in the National Security Strategy that we have to manage the context, so we cannot be sure of what that is either. Those two sets of assumptions are likely to be ignored, particularly if we are going to address our risk assessment only every two years, which I think is very dodgy in a volatile world.

Q343 Chair: Is there anything else you would like to say about this?

  General Sir Rupert Smith: I could go on for a long time.

  Chair: Well, you have been utterly fascinating and we could go on listening to you for a long time, but we ought to allow you to go. Thank you very much indeed for your evidence; we are most grateful.

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