SSU Forum with Sir Richard Barrons

Date: Tuesday, November 1 2016, 10:30-12:00
Venue: Conference Room610, 6th Floor, Administration Bureau Bldg. 2
Subject: Technology and the Transformation of British Defence for the 21st Century.
Lecture: Sir Richard Barrons, Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute(RUSI) / Retired Commander of Joint Forces Command General
Language: English
Hosted by: Graduate School of Public Policy, the University of Tokyo
Co-hosted by: Security Studies Unit, Policy Alternatives Research Institute, the University of Tokyo

The Security Studies Unit (SSU) of the Policy Alternatives Research Institute was delighted to host General Sir Richard Barrons, former Commander of the Joint Forces Command UK, entitled “Technology and the Transformation of British Defence for the 21st Century”. General Barrons is also Senior Associate Fellow at the prestigious Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a leading think tank for defence and strategy.

The session was chaired by Chiyuki Aoi, Professor of International Relations at the University of Tokyo. She introduced the speaker as a very distinguished officer of the British Armed Forces, and one of highest ranking commanders, with a vast experience of command in operative areas as the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

General Barrons thanked the organisers of the event, and immediately proceeded to illustrate the content of his talk, whose key point consists in a rather bleak vision of British defence in the present and immediate future, but also in the idea that a change in direction is possible, particularly with the integration of technological resources from the civil society, and indeed necessary.

General Barrons started his analysis by articulating the view that the structure and functioning of the British Armed Forces is rooted in its history. The two world wars and the Cold War were a period of intense geopolitical confrontation, when the task of the UK military was to be ready to fight a large scale conflict, a true existential threat to the nation itself. With the end of the Cold War a new era was unleashed, one where existential threats disappeared, and the Armed Forces became an instrument of global policing through their deployment in low-intensity conflicts amidst a large reduction of its budget. In the past few decades after 1989, there has been a shift in political culture whereby the common perception is now that “war only happens abroad” and that however, war can no longer happen in the form of a cataclysmic struggle for the defence of the country’s international interests, but only in the form of very limited operations, ideally with zero casualties.

Furthermore, particularly after the financial crisis of 2008, the British government is facing an era of important budget constraints, and because of political dynamics it is much easier to reduce spending on defence, rather than on other voices of the budget, particularly those related to welfare. This leaves the British defence in a very difficult and potentially dangerous situation of relative unpreparedness vis-à-vis the new threats that are rising against the country.

Indeed one can no longer assume that the future will resemble the recent past of limited security threats. On the contrary, even the UK 2015 National Security Strategy review has highlighted the need to strengthen preparedness not only against possible terrorist attacks, but against inter-state war and large scale conflicts. The British Armed Forces must be prepared to face enemies far more powerful than the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

General Barrons then reviewed the various geopolitical flashpoints, paying particular attention to the crisis in Crimea/Ukraine, the Mediterranean, and the South China Sea. He emphasised how powers like Russia and China are massively investing in hard power capabilities, which can have a significant impact on conventional forces worldwide, particularly because of the development of new anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, which may have the potential to deny access by Western forces to certain geographic areas, and invalidate the perceived Western superiority in the air and on the sea. Besides new advanced weapons systems, particularly Russia appears to be developing a new concept of warfare (hybrid war), systematically blurring the boundaries between military and civilian targets, whose most threatening part is now constituted by cyber-warfare.

We are in a changing world of rapidly changing threats to national security, and this requires a new organisation of defence forces. General Barrons advocated in the last part of his talk a shift in the way defence is perceived: it shall no longer be only a matter of the military, but the best elements of the society, particularly when it comes to the use of key strategic technologies, ought to be mobilised and co-opted in defence structures and institutions, especially the most talented researchers and specialists in academia. Furthermore, as the UK needs to rely systematically on some kind of alliance system, it is vital for Britain to include interoperability of its systems as a top priority in designing national defence.

Finally General Barrons concluded that in the absence of a turn in strategic planning, there is a high risk of being caught in some kind of acute military crisis without the necessary preparation, facing the perspective of radical, abrupt policies for national defence at very high costs for the society at large.