And Then it Gets Very Real

Writing about DSEI last month, I was chewing-over the ever-increasing waiting times for coffee and comfort breaks at ExCel and reflecting upon the collegiate and agreeable dinners I had enjoyed with colleagues from across the defence sector. At the same time, in Gaza and elsewhere, plans were being made for a surprise attack into Israel to be executed by Hamas fighters. This shocking terrorist outrage reminds us all that Defence is not trade shows, conferences or dinners but the very stuff of life or death. The Israeli air bombardment, ahead of a probable ground offensive, underscores this in spades, with the significant loss of life diminishing us all.  What happens next might embroil the West still further into a much larger conflagration.  These are hugely problematic geopolitical challenges but they are also significant questions of risk.

The Gaza fence between the strip and Israel had the reputation for being one of the most secure and patrolled borders on the planet. Decision-makers took comfort from its reputation. It was a fallacy. Whilst politicians, an informed citizenship and the military in Israel seemed in conflict amongst themselves, cold eyes watched, evaluated and gave orders to strike. In recent times, a misplaced narrative of security certainty had overtaken a cautious and active management of multiple risks, and we should all take lessons from this. The tragedy is that our opportunity to learn is grounded in the suffering of others.

I thought of this whilst reading the recently released Defence Select Committee’s report on our supposed pivot to the Indo-pacific region. Whilst the report is nuanced and multi-faceted, my take-away was the need to avoid policy statements that seem rhetorical rather than action-centric. The UK force structure needs to enable operations in the Pacific that can be sustained mid-to-long term. This requires the right number of people with the right competencies, training strategies, technological development, strategic investments and a myriad of portfolio practices that are missing. We might be talking a good game, in relation to our security and national interest, but when, inevitably, this is challenged by events the narrative cannot be hollow. I discussed exactly this point with senior MoD officials over dinner at DSEI. I hope we all watched the events of 7 October and drew similar conclusions.

John Louth

Professor John Louth is senior strategic adviser to Redstone Risk. He serves on a number of UK defence boards as either a non-executive director or strategic adviser and sits on the panel of advisers to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. His latest book on UK exports was published this year by Routledge. He is a collaborating professor with the University of South Australia in Adelaide.