Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Professor Gwyn Prins (ST 15)

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs)

1. It is plain that, as Winston Churchill might have put it, we are at the end of the beginning of the resolution of the long-brewed crisis in British defence and security. The SDSR review deepened rather than relieved that crisis in the opinion of Parliament’s two ranking select committees, those on Public Administration and on Defence. In particular, the finding of PASC in its 2010 study on strategy-making has been confirmed by events. The Government regards the Libyan episode as a vindication of the SDSR. Most professional and much foreign opinion does not agree.1

2. However, what is fundamentally at issue is nothing as transient as the review of one or another operation. The first order issue is that as PASC found in its 2010 report, there is a profound structural problem about strategic thinking in Britain today. Specifically it is about procedures which present an illusion of scientific objectivity and precision, but actually possess neither. “Horizon scanning” and the like have proliferated, especially over the last 15 years, and are presented as strategic thinking in Government. But they are no such thing. As PASC reported in 2010, one dimension of the problem is that we did not know who does strategic thinking. It has concluded that no-one does. But of even greater consequence is to answer the logically prior question, which is the focus of the 2011 Inquiry: what strategic thinking “fit for purpose” in the 21st century, actually is. That is the subject of this Proof of Evidence.

3. I will:

first explain the current “levels of analysis” problem in Government strategic assessment relating to defence and security;

then identify the three vital characteristics of Britain’s contemporary strategic context that any assessment process that is “fit for purpose” must be able to engage; and finally

propose the methodological essentials, and a detailed institutional possibility, for how this could be done.

4. The same concern about both the process and the nature of current strategic assessment that the Select Committees raised about the SDSR may be deduced and illustrated from the reception to the essay that Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham and I published in the RUSI Journal last year, entitled, “Why Things Don’t Happen: Silent Principles of National Security”.2

5. Following Sun Tzu’s advice, we recommended how, by paying for the right sort of defence forces to exist and (ideally) do nothing while being constantly capable of many potently active and undefined “somethings”, we may help ensure that bad things don’t happen. In stark contrast stands a sunnier assumption. Peace is the new default. It underpins the views of those—which, judging by its actions, appears to include the higher circle of the present Government—who see “soft” power as a more civilised and powerful substitute for “hard” power. Subscribers to this view feel that “hard” power can therefore be reduced safely. We disagree. We understand that without the aura of power that hard power alone confers, soft power is merely limp. The presence of a broad and competent spectrum of capability, and perception of a clear will to employ it, are the vital ingredients of credible conventional deterrence. Together—and only together—they both increase our influence through all other (non-military) means and reduce the likelihood that we will have to use that force in anger.

6. Therefore it follows that a “bare bones” capability and evident lack of will to use force, conversely increase the likelihood of use. It is a bitter but familiar paradox of war and peace. Si vis pacem para bellum.

7. This being so, then it further follows that a critical mass of force, both in total and in its component parts, must be preserved, as the Defence Select Committee recommended. It is an elementary requirement known to any commander, and should be the essential force-sizing criterion. It is therefore both surprising and alarming to read in the Government’s response to the August 2011 Defence Select Committee report on the SDSR that “We do not agree that developing the concept of “critical mass” for our Armed Forces would be valuable. We do not use this as a concept in Defence planning …”3 That is indeed so; and it contributes to the present crisis.

8. Critical mass is the indispensible criterion for tactical force shaping. But there is a higher level requirement too. Blackham and I argued that unchanging geopolitical truths of British interests should principally shape our defence priorities. We argued that our defences must again be Palmerstonian—independently capable in order that we may be good allies. Accepting that proposition in turn requires a clean break from Whitehall’s widespread, reflexive misunderstanding of globalisation, that confuses the hope for supranational multilateralism via the EU, UN etc with the reality of their fading powers in a darkening, less policed world. Since we published last summer, the latent crisis of the EU has become unambiguously patent, it’s very continuation threatened by the destructive consequences of the euro single currency. We argued that the forgotten principles of national security are silent non-nuclear deterrence and that their principal expression is naval. The SDSR then made the already fragile maritime and hence core national security situation worse by its three main deletions: of maritime fixed-wing airpower; of long-range maritime patrol platform and capability and—less noticed by the press —by reduction of the scale and safety of Royal Marines amphibious landing capability: the nation’s prime high-readiness force.

9. We have heard that many inside MoD and Whitehall read this essay as “a naval case”. But despite my co-author’s distinguished past service career, the RN was not its principal subject at all. Our essay aimed to erect grand strategic criteria grounded in principles external to the SDSR against which its eventual product could be scored—and was, and failed. The “tribal” response illustrated the pervasive tendency to confuse first order (strategic) national security ends with second order (tactical) means. Indeed, it interprets “strategy” in the sense that business uses it, as a means to execute a prescribed plan. This is the “levels of analysis” category mistake that current structures and assumptions of thinking actually stimulate, which vitiates most government “strategy” that I encounter, and not only in MoD. It results reliably in unintended consequences. Eyes are closed and minds are closed. The problems are increasingly “wicked” but the analysis is “tame”—a distinction to which I return below.

10. However, since the SDSR, not all has gone as badly as with our force levels, structures and total spectrum of capability. In particular, one of the core defects that the Select Committees noted has begun to be addressed. In a speech to the Foreign Affairs forum in May, the Chief of the Defence Staff set out definitions of grand strategy and operational strategy so that both might better help inform policy-making. These meanings were further explored and given substance in my study The British Way of Strategy-Making.4 The figure summarises the main characteristics and the creative energy of interaction between the points of the triangle.

11. What must this clarified, simplified and strengthened framework of strategic and policy thinking be able to do? I suggest that it has to be capable of engaging comfortably with three vital features of the modern world order.

(a)The Geopolitics of the British national interest. Geopolitics is about the relative physical positions and interactions on the globe of the major powers, their cultures and economies; and it is like the weather. It presents in many forms but it is still the weather. It is an inevitable but recently forgotten foundation of grand strategic thinking that needs to be recalled to mind. Contrary to some expectations, the internet age has no more abolished geopolitics than the nation-state. It is mainly about things that are, by their nature, beyond the powers of any government to control.

(b)The “wickedness” of most major looming problems. But if eternal verities take new forms, many of our most pressing national security challenges do have new “wicked” forms. “Wicked” problems are open system issues, incompletely understood with no bounded data set, no stopping rule for research, no possibility for iterative experimentation and notorious for producing perverse, unintended consequences when governments try to act on them.5 But the challenge of “wickedness” is barely yet registering in British officialdom and not at all in its assessment methodologies which remain “tame” (where those conditions are met).6 That is not the case elsewhere. Australia and Sweden are both actively grappling with this challenge.7

(c)The relationships between risks and threats. Combine loss or denial of national identity with unrealistically transformative expectations of globalisation, an inability to understand “wickedness” in strategic challenges, excessive belief in the ability of government to achieve predictable outcomes and the bureaucratic momentum of “tame” methods of threat assessment. The result is an inability to see that risk environments may strengthen in consequence, and can incubate threats (as with unconditional terrorism).8 But noticing these vulnerabilities is predicated upon assessing the prior two areas mentioned.

12. Why are current official methods not competent to assess these three vital issues? The reasons are deeply embedded in our cultural assumptions about the nature of knowledge.

13. Current methods are not effective because they fail to distinguish four forms of knowledge and, therefore, cannot choose which to use, when, and how they can support each other. Dazzled by the world-altering powers of Enlightenment science, it assumes that all significant problems are tractable to one type of knowledge and to scientific solution. This fallacy underpins the recent proliferation of Scientific Advisers across departments. It also makes it appear shameful for civil servants to admit to ignorance or to say that nothing can be done (or should be done) by Government.

14. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes three forms of knowledge. There is techné—masterful “know how” knowledge which changes things; and there is epistemé—reproducible, theoretical knowledge which is normative. Both these are powerful in “tame” contexts, although the complexity of modern life decreases the purchase of each individual’s techné and epistemé.9 But the third knowledge is essential for human affairs (says Aristotle), as well as for all “wicked” problems. This is phronesis—practical wisdom which must guide when we face the unknown.

15. To phronesis we should add metisconjectural knowledge (sometimes translated as “cunning”): the learned capacity for handling complexity that combines flair, wisdom, forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance, and opportunism. It can provide the ability to anticipate, modify and influence the shape of events. It makes one comfortable with the absence of precision in a “wicked” world but also be able to deploy human ingenuity.

16. Phronesis and metis are the forms of knowledge which equip us to recognise the entirely new for what it is and to make choices in the face of uncertainty. Knowing only white swans, to recognise a black one, nonetheless. The diagram below locates current Government assessment methods on a matrix framed by our eyes and our minds, open and closed. What are needed, and what I with others have long been developing, are methods which can be “routinised” and yet allow us to cope with the unknown.

17. Assessment staff trained in such ways of analysis and thinking should have two standing roles. In respect of their routine assessment of the three key characteristics:

(a)responsive—to report on the correctness of “fit” of any departmental strategic analysis to its subject; and

(b)pro-active—to issue “open minds/open eyes” challenges to any departments.

18. How can this be done efficiently? In 2010, the Public Administration Select Committee called for a special new capacity to be developed. In my view and in line with the normal way that successful new capabilities evolve in the British constitution, the most secure route would be one that employs well tried and tested procedures and adapts them to the needs of the task just explained.

19. That function becomes one of a Commissioner for Strategic Analysis who is tasked to test the “fit” of method and data to problem as just indicated. Such tests are a form of Assay. Since 1282, annually the Queen’s (or King’s) Remembrancer has empanelled a jury of goldsmiths for the Trial of the Pyx to test the (physical) goodness of the currency independent of the Royal Mint. By analogy, such tests are now required for Government Strategic Assessment. How should this Assay be conducted, where placed and how supervised? These are not new questions.

Eyes and Minds10

20. If established at arm’s length from executive organs, there is the risk of its work being ignored. Such was the fate of Ivan Bloch, a founder of modern Operational Research and adviser to the Last Tsar, who funded his own laboratories and who predicted the nature of the Great War with terrible precision in the 1890s. He wrote in The Future of War (1898) that “...the nations may endeavour to prove that I am wrong, but you will see what will happen.” We did. He was not.11

21. Therefore better be inside the belly of the whale. In 1904, the Prime Minister of the day, A.J.Balfour, established the Committee of Imperial Defence to combat the ad hoc nature of defence and security decision-making. The Committee was established at a level above that of the officials. Balfour’s words when introducing the Committee in the Commons on 5 March 1903 are apposite in this case: The CID would “... survey as a whole the strategical needs [of the Empire], to deal with the complicated questions which are all essential elements in that general problem and to revise from time to time their previous decisions, so that the Cabinet shall always be informed …” The great test of the CID method of strategic analysis came in 1933–35 and is recounted in my recent study, which also identifies the two vital lessons for our time, arising.12

22. Balfour’s point was that political leadership is an art, not a science. The modern entrancement with “science as salvation” has been deeply disruptive. It is not necessary for Whitehall to control everything directly for strong and effective government to be possible. The truth of experience is in fact the reverse: attainment of the latter state always requires oversight and usually requires strict control of the executive and its agents; and there are proven ways in which technical expertise can be brought to bear alongside democratic control.

23. After a period of excessive executive power and commensurate enfeeblement of Parliament, oversight of the new assessment unit should therefore properly be under primarily Parliamentary rather than Executive control. Therefore, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Strategic Analysis (PCSA) might be modelled closely upon that of the existing and highly effective Parliamentary Commissi0ner for Administration (PCA) and her staff. The following description refers to the PCA’s original brief before it was extended to embrace Heath Service matters also.

24. Established in 1967, the PCA is a servant of Parliament with the privileges of an officer of the House and appointed by the Queen under Letters Patent. The office is modelled on that of Comptroller and Auditor General which provided precedent for an outside authority to carry out investigations within government departments. However, the powers of the PCA are greater. They are the same as the High Court with respect to attendance, examination of witnesses and production of documents. Wilful obstruction of the PCA or her staff is punishable as contempt of court. Her reports on investigations are privileged and she reports to a Select Committee.

25. Indeed, just as I hope may be the case for work—especially for controversial work—from the PCSA, PCA reports can end up in debate on the floor of the House. Both her occupational pensions report and that on civilian internees of the Japanese during the Second World War (“A Debt of Honour?”) were so debated, for both were Section 10(3) reports under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act—meaning that the Government did not accept them. It was noteworthy that in answer to the Chairman’s questioning on the scope of her office, in her testimony before PASC on Tuesday 29 November 2011, it was to the “Debt of Honour” report that Ms Abraham chose to refer.

26. There have only been four such Section 10(3) reports since 1967, two occurring since 1997. Of course the consequences of the defiance of her findings on the prudential regulation of Equitable Life by the previous government (a Section 10(4) report) are instructive also, and constitutionally encouraging for this model. The First Report of the Select Committee on the PCA, 1990–91, observed that the PCA had established himself as, “an invaluable aid to the individual and a constructive critic of the executive” and as, “part of the fabric of the United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution”. So this is a good and operative example which can offer a proven template for the new strategic assessment functions here recommended.

27. The product of the new Commissioner’s office would become a vital part of assuring the product of the National Security Council. Passing quality assurance by the PCSA ought to be mandatory for all NSC output and would therefore help support the emergent role of that body in ways which could help ensure that never again does the country fall victim to so poorly conceived and executed a review of the nation’s defence and security as ambushed us in 2010.

December 2011

1 House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, “Who does UK national strategy?” First Report of Session 2010-11, HC 435, 18 October 2010; House of Commons Defence Committee, “The Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy,” Sixth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 761, 3 August 2011.

2 August/September 2010, Vol 155 (4) pp 14–22.

3 The Strategic Defence & Security Review and the national Security Strategy: Government response to the Committee’s Sixth Report of Session 2010–12, HC 1639, 10 November 2011, HMSO, response in Para 37, p 23.

4 G Prins, The British Way of Strategy-Making, Occasional Paper October 2011, RUSI with the Humanities Research Institute, University of Buckingham, p 4.

5 HW J Rittel & M M Webber, “Dilemmas in the general theory of planning”, Policy Sciences, 4(2), June 1973, pp 155–69.

6 This is detailed in fn 4 p 22 of Blackham & Prins, “Why things Don’t Happen...”.

7 Australian Public Service Commission, Tackling Wicked Problems, Commonwealth of Australia, 2007. Peter Shergold, former Cabinet Secretary, was instrumental in welcoming such work. Qv P.Shergold, “Lackeys, careerists, political stooges? Personal reflections on the current state of public service leadership,” Australian Journal of Public Administration, 63 (4),December 2004.

8 G Prins & R Salisbury, “Risk, threat and security: the case of the United Kingdom”, RUSI Journal, 153 (1) Feb 2008, pp 22–27.

9 This is, of course, the spring-board insight for F Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, Routledge, 1960.

10 This diagram is taken from joint and on-going work with several state and non-state parties by Dr Lorraine Dodd, Professor Gwyn Prins and Professor Gillian Stamp to develop and trial techniques for staged appreciation of strategic options in a “wicked” world 2007. It, in turn, exploits the results of an extensive programme of development by experimentation to trial a Strategic Assessment Method for MoD led by Professor Prins as Visiting Senior Fellow to DERA, 1997–002. Elements of SAM became operational successfully, including in classified contexts, before losing momentum in the break-up of DERA. S Davies & M Purvis, “SAM combined progress and validation report (U)” DERA/CDA/HLS/ 990148/2.0, March 2000.

11 (eds) G Prins & HTromp, The Future of War, Kluwer Law International, 2000 (papers arising from the centenary conference of the first Hague Peace Conference of 1899, held in St Petersburg in 1999), see pp 19–58 for Bloch’s uncanny predictions of the physical nature of the Great War.

12 Prins, The British Way ... pp 7–11.

Prepared 20th April 2012