The simplest thing is difficult
Does Dominic Cummings know what he doesn’t know about Defence policy?
Defence chiefs unsure what to expect from the approaching defence review are unlikely to have had their sentiments about the exercise much improved by yesterday’s carefully timed leak that Dominic Cummings is touring many of the most sensitive military sites in the country. It comes only two days after The Sunday Times carried a briefing with similar seeming fingerprints suggesting that personnel reductions in the Army of almost a quarter are being mooted, along with other utterly eviscerating cuts. That Cummings is on manoeuvres goes without saying but should that be the concern of more than only the service chiefs?
Sooner or later the question is going to have to be asked ‘what exactly is the point of Cummings?’ and the moment in time in which he has seen fit to start touring special forces bases is probably one of the better points to do so. This is not entirely typical behaviour for Whitehall advisors. While there will presumably have been other more low-profile examples here and there, the only political visit to the SAS in Hereford which comes to mind before this was when Margaret and Denis Thatcher travelled up after the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980. The Thatchers were visiting to offer their congratulations after a difficult operation successfully seen through. It doesn’t seem likely that Cummings is touring the country’s military installations with identical motives. The papers already have one story of a service chief allegedly being ‘shot down in flames’ by the supposedly unanswerable genius of an inbound Cummings. One looks forward to reading similarly well-informed accounts of his trip to Hereford in the none too distant future.
Of the 99% of what armed forces actually end up doing to achieve defence objectives, there is precious little on Cummings’s blog
This is, though, where quiet scepticism about a somewhat hubristic tour of high-profile sites and installations might start to open into a more fundamental question of whether Cummings actually knows enough about military matters to be trusted with the review in the first place.
Although the impression is sometimes given out that Cummings is a longstanding thinker on military questions, particularly with defence technology and innovation in mind, this is more difficult to substantiate than might be expected. On his personal website on which much writing on different subjects is indexed there is surprisingly little relevant material. As always chez Cummings, there is a fascination with the Apollo space programme and with some of the more successful American defence agencies from seventy years ago. Of the 99% of what armed forces actually end up doing to project power and to achieve defence objectives, however, there is precious little.
Digging further, in his 237-page essay on ‘Odyssean Education’, the Summa Theologica of the Cummings cosmology, there are only scattered references to defence matters. Superficially impressive at first, it becomes less so with more careful attention. Many of the references are to a very small number of case studies. The Israeli experience is referenced repeatedly, though that is not obviously a perfect model for an island nation such as this one. Bismarck’s Germany and von Moltke are cited again and again, though this seems to have less to do with the much-vaunted pursuit of cutting-edge ideas than with making the most of his modern history undergraduate degree at Oxford a quarter century back now.
The other case study repeatedly referenced is a small collection of defence technology organisations which arose in the US in the early years of the Cold War, which have clearly exerted an almost mesmerising fascination on Mr Cummings for quite some time already. For a man who has very extensively documented his thinking on a variety of subjects, sometimes at considerable length, the absence of reflection on what force constitutes in military terms and how to exert it effectively is striking.
This intellectual retreat from the realities of warfighting towards the niche world of tech innovation in its defence-facing aspect is concerning for a more pertinent reason. Mr Cummings appears to have convinced himself that it is in these hived-off new creations that defence innovation most importantly occurs.
That this has generally not been the British experience ought to be stressed. Mr Cummings cites at one point the emergence of the Spitfire from a niche programme in the Thirties, which is correct, but overlooks more generally the fact that the Royal Air Force itself evolved organically from the originally existing services. That Churchill was up to his eyes in the early efforts at the Admiralty is a story which has been told before, but it bears emphasis that nobody attempted either to cut or to defund existing capabilities so as to develop air power, nor to pretend that it could successfully be developed except from within the already existing institutional memory and knowledge. Much the same could be said about the SOE and later British special forces, which developed organically from the services which existed already, or indeed of the continuous-at-sea-deterrent. Indeed, allowing Mr Cummings his demonstrated competence in American military history, in which niche agencies play a large part, one could uncharitably but legitimately ask whether he is capable of demonstrating a similar competence in British military history, in which they broadly speaking do not.
For Britain to hold its place as a serious country requires holding on, at the very least, to the resources to exert hard power
Britain’s Armed Forces probably do need to think through some of the scenarios Mr Cummings has in mind. That said, for Britain to hold its place as a serious country and to possess the capacity actually to act as such in the future requires holding on, at the very least, to the resources to exert hard power by land, by sea, and by air, perhaps with large numbers, at distance, over long periods, and conceivably in more than one location at a time. This is what a first rank country is because this is what the elements of hard power are. Particularly ominous in the breakdown of units marked for possible cuts or close is the presence, repeatedly, of those parts of the Armed Forces which give this country expeditionary capacity and that credibility which comes only from possessing the means to coerce and to control at distance from home shores. While Mr Cummings continues his tour of the parts of the British defence landscape which interest him most, the rest of us should take care not to lose sight of what is needed most.
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