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UK policy-makers need to understand the rhythm and rhyme of covert techniques

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We live in an uncertain, dangerous and complex time. The UK faces a new era of constant “systemic competition” with hostile states; an era of blurred lines between war and peace, between domestic and international threats. The UK now has to operate persistently and proactively “below the threshold of open conflict”.

This is the thrust of the UK government’s Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper released in March 2021. Dubbed the most important reviews since the end of the Cold War, they outline how the UK must adapt to meet new realities. Special operations, offensive cyber and intelligence actors will acquire key roles to disrupt, degrade and influence adversaries.

Except these realities are not new. We do live in uncertain, dangerous and complex times, but so too did our parents and grandparents. The line between war and peace has long blurred. The line between domestic and international threats has been eroding since the nineteenth century.

Back in the 1950s, British planners talked of a new era of “competitive co-existence” with the Soviets. In 1951, diplomats recommended “positive action” to “disrupt Russia”. “We have decided”, they wrote four years later, that “in light of the new threat, that counter-subversion, i.e., clandestine activities whether by propaganda or by special operations, will have an increasing part to play in support of foreign policy”.

This all feels remarkably current. Of course, there are crucial differences, both in the international system and in technology, but recent history involving the use and management of covert intervention is highly relevant to current debates. Here, I offer three insights drawn from British attempts to grapple with these issues since 1945.

First, a proactive approach can be beneficial: cyberspace cannot go uncontested. The government is rightly at pains to emphasise its defensive posture. The UK of course should not be the aggressor here; it is more appropriate for special operations and covert interventions, including offensive cyber capabilities, to be used as a counterattack. But there is a trade-off. A defensive counterattack can lead to a reactive approach which more resembles a fairground game of whack-a-mole than a coherent strategy.

It is therefore positive news that so-called “persistent engagement” lies at the heart of current government thinking. A consistent and coordinated approach pays dividends. Back in the 1960s for example, the government secretly developed clear frameworks to guide covert interventions in Yemen and Indonesia. The result was a marked improvement in terms of management, coordination and consistency from the early Cold War when planners had little idea of what they were allowed to be doing – and even who was doing what. At one point in the late 1940s, diplomats painstakingly combed through government speeches to try to decipher a strategy.

Publicising “persistent engagement”, the role of special operations, and the National Cyber Force is good for transparency. Whether it will deter the adversary is another matter though. In highlighting these capabilities, the UK could end up generating paranoia amongst adversaries. Such paranoia can certainly be helpful when disrupting their counterintelligence services, but it can be damaging so if the adversary ends up seeing a British hand behind every domestic dissident. The late intelligence studies scholar Michael Herman once argued covert interventionism hardens the adversarial image of each side and prolonged tensions in the Cold War. Importantly, however, little historical evidence exists suggesting that covert interventionism will escalate to open conflict. In fact, recent research shows the opposite is true.

Second, the means must match the ends. Disruption and degrading the adversary – whether a hostile state or terrorist group – can only achieve so much. Caution is a hallmark of the British approach, and this certainly brings benefits. But many failures occurred when low-key disruption did not match the objectives. Disrupting a terrorist group will never lead to their downfall. Putting pressure on a regime like that of Assad in Syria will not overthrow it. Disrupting President Nasser’s forces during the 1960s Yemen civil war could never compel him to withdraw from the conflict: covert action could only be attritional.

This begs the question of what “persistent engagement” hopes to achieve. How much disrupting, denying, degrading and deterring constitutes success? Disrupting Russia is not going to remove the threat. The goals in the reviews are incredibly vague.

Likewise, refusal to back special operations and countersubversion with force led to failure. The British learnt early on that stoking rebellion and sponsoring partners would end in tears if they did not back it with conventional force if required. It is perhaps therefore positive that the various reviews commit the UK to “accompanying partners” as well as merely training and encouraging them. This will be done through a new Ranger Regiment capable of conducting special operations, thereby reducing pressure on the UK’s Special Forces.

At the same time though, any historian of proxy wars will attest that accompanying partners is easier said than done. Selecting and managing appropriate partners is incredibly difficult. Are they reliable? Do they have a chance of winning? Back in the so-called Arab Spring, David Cameron was mocked for his claim that tens of thousands of moderate rebel fighters were ready to overthrow Assad. Meanwhile, one of his ministers naively talked of separating the “good guys” from the “bad guys” when working out which rebels to partner in Libya.

Third, covert intervention and special operations work best when integrated into foreign and defence policy planning. Too often in the past, Special Forces leaders had to lobby hard for a role and were treated as an afterthought in many conflicts. They did not get a seat on broader Whitehall covert intervention planning until the 1970s. As late 2003, Special Forces leaders had to lobby hard to be involved in post-Saddam Iraq. It is therefore positive to see both Special Forces integrated into current planning and a healthy amount of coordination between military, intelligence and diplomatic actors.

A key issue though is how this will work out in practice. Britain has tried to increase coordination before, but quickly descended into unseemly bureaucratic squabbling over ownership and jurisdiction. The Foreign Office and military were particularly hostile. On more than one occasion in the 1950s and 1960s, the diplomats invited the military onto fake committees merely to shut them up. Diplomats then took the real decisions elsewhere! Interdepartmental cooperation does seem to be much more developed now compared to previous decades, but there will always be turf wars.

Although cyber capabilities have undeniably transformed the world, policymakers should not forget everything that came before. The rhythm and rhyme of covert intervention is timeless and can offer very useful insight.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
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