Last week there were reports in the media that the UK is considering using text messages to provide warning of imminent attack by ballistic missiles. The idea attracted a mixture of scorn and ridicule, with people seeing it as the new version of the ‘four minute warning’ and wondering what possible difference it could make. In fact the idea has a lot of quite interesting potential benefits and is worth considering further.
Theso-called ‘four minute warning’
dates back to the Cold War when as early warning radar systems came on line, the ability to gain advanced warning of an incoming attack grew. In practical terms there was never a guarantee about the actual time people would have got, but the hope was that there would be at least four minutes notice.
While this doesn’t sound a lot, it is worth remembering that ballistic missiles fired at the UK from the Soviet Union would only be airborne for a relatively short time due to their speed and flight distance, so the reality is there would only ever be a short window of warning time.
It is also largely forgotten these days that the Cold War plans did not assume, for the most part, that there would be a ‘bolt from the blue’ and that the Soviets would fire out of nowhere an overwhelming attack with just four minutes notice. Rather the assumption was broadly that any attack would follow a period of transition, with a deteriorating international situation combined with mobilisation measures and transition to war beginning.
In this event, the attack would have come at a period when the population would have been alert to the risks, and probably commencing some form of preparation at home, so when the alarms sounded, it would have potentially given a reasonable number of people the chance to take cover. Whether it would have made any difference though is an entirely different question.
The link between this and the military was that the RAF would have used a variety of radars situated at Fylingdales, a station which continues to play a critical role in national defence to this day, combined with the work of the UK Warning and Monitoring Organisation
, and civilians in the Royal Observer Corps
, volunteers who helped collate warning information, and post attack fallout dispersal and disseminate it to the appropriate authorities. The result was that there was a good chance that in the event of an attack, it could have been communicated quickly to people across the nation, hopefully helping to save life.
The various reporting systems and air raid siren networks were all switched off in the early 1990s. To this day you can still see remnants of it, for example in London there are still orphan air raid sirens rotting quietly away – there is one just outside Waterloo station. At the same time the BBC stepped away from providing a national warning function via the Wartime Broadcasting Service, and the general apparatus of warning about Armageddon was abandoned and left to rot.
This matters because today the world is moving to a significantly more volatile and unstable environment where the threat of ballistic missile attack has increased. Events in Iraq in early January show that the Iranians are willing to fire, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, missiles towards other nations, and as users proliferate and ranges increase, the risk to the UK and other NATO nations increases.
As the risk increases, so to does the need to consider what to do about it and perhaps more widely, what should the armed forces do about it? The adoption of a text based warning system reflects a fairly low cost but sensible approach to being able to notify as many people as possible of imminent risk, but potentially at the risk of panic if it goes wrong.
In the Cold War there was a complex network of warning systems to get a message of attack disseminated quickly involving everything from air raid sirens to pub landlords firing maroons out on the village green. There was no guarantee it could have worked, or that it could have reached many people. By contrast text messages are a particularly good way to reach tens of millions of users quickly because the mobile phone has become so ubiquitous in public life.
If you wanted a cast iron way of being able to warn as many people as possible, then the phone is an ideal way to do it. It is also cheaper and less manpower intensive than relying on a network of volunteers like the Royal Observer Corps and can hopefully spread messages quickly.
The other advantage of a text-based system is that it can be used to scale up or down depending on the situation in a way that the previous systems could not. As long as the network remains active, it is possible to send messages warning of floods, disasters and other issues and send updates and advice. While the nuclear warning is by far the least likely to be used, it is helpful to have a national reporting system that can proactively advise people on potential emergencies.
Many commentators have mocked or been cynical about the idea, citing the mass panic that would likely ensue, or the potential for things to go wrong. The example in Hawaii a few years ago where there was an inadvertent release of a message suggesting, wrongly, that a North Korean nuclear attack was inbound, was a good example of what can go wrong. Others worry that cyber attacks may disable the networks or cause it to play up.
But this shouldn’t mean that we should automatically write off the technology as pointless. Part of the challenge is investing in good training and education to understand how not to issue a text message by error. Another is to try to reassure on the cyber bogeyman and ask how real the threat is?
While cyber is an extremely challenging and potentially game changing domain for operations in wartime, it has to be asked if the peacetime threat of meddling is credible. We are still in the early stages of defining the ‘rules of the game’ when it comes to cyber operations, but it is clear that if cyber-attacks have occurred, then if detected and attributed they carry a high political cost – for example the calling out and public attribution of China for its use of various cyber campaigns against the UK and other nations.
The question a potential adversary must consider is whether it has the accesses needed to disrupt this sort of technology, and if it does, is it worth exposing both its access to the system and the potential tricks it could deploy? The risk of discovery is high, and the wider question is why blow your cover and expose your capabilities in peacetime without very good reason? To that end, the risk of cyber meddling is probably lower than some may think.
What this issue does illustrate though is the way that slowly and subconsciously the UK mainland is quietly becoming a potential target for military operations again. After decades of adopting an expeditionary approach, and the attitude that ‘wars happen in other places’ this sort of thinking helps highlight the risks to the homeland itself.
While war is hopefully unlikely, it is good to be reminded that many of our potential foes do possess and have the willingness to employ long range ballistic missiles. Similarly, the debate about the vulnerability of warning systems to cyber attack equally highlights that the UK is potentially vulnerable to some forms of electronic attack as well which could cause significant impact.
What this means is we need to ask for the first time in 30 years, what is the role of the armed forces in homeland defence, and does the threat require a military response? The big capability gap would seem to be some kind of ballistic missile defence capability, but is this something that is feasible or affordable?
The RAF has continued to maintain its defence of UK airspace since WW2 and through RAF Fylingdales
, maintained a watchful eye on ballistic missile threats as well. Similarly the Royal Navy has shown that its Type 45 destroyers can use their impressive Sampson radars to provide some form of detection capability against missiles too. The question is perhaps whether more investment is needed in the defence of the homebase to harden against these sorts of risks?
The UK population have spent many decades assuming that wars happen elsewhere, so the impact of a ballistic missile hitting a UK target would be enormous. There would rightly be questions and demands to know why the Government hadn’t invested in appropriate ways of stopping the threat. But to fund the ability to counter the threat would be considerable and raises serious questions about whether the armed forces exist for expeditionary warfare or to provide a ‘fortress Britain’ safe from harm.
To defend against the threat of attack probably requires the ability to find and effectively strike launch sites in the nation that is threatening us. This requires the ability to invest in, or have access to good intelligence and timely information about where the sites are. In turn this requires the ability to either strike from the air, or the ground, using appropriate assets to do so.
This is a very expensive set of capabilities, as it would require investment in airpower, such as F35 or Typhoon and supporting enablers like the Voyager and air transport fleet, as well as ISTAR platforms to be certain of successfully entering the airspace and destroying the sites. It would also require investment in helicopter platforms and expensive special forces equipment if a ground-based option was preferred.
Perhaps most importantly it requires the maintenance of diplomatic relations and engagement globally to ensure that the UK can create the circumstances where the international community tacitly support any strikes, and that it can find a host nation prepared to provide the basing facilities to enable it to occur (the constant challenge being finding a third party country happy to let you launch combat operations against a neighbour from).
This requires the maintenance of global presence and capabilities that are expensive and perhaps raise the question about whether by involving ourselves in some regions, we in turn make the problem worse?
By contrast the adoption of a more ‘fortress Britain’ approach would probably require bigger investment in good ballistic missile countermeasures, so more warning radars and probably some form of interceptor capability. The challenge here is that this sort of capability is expensive and may reduce the ability of the military to do other jobs.
The most likely platform to host a BMD capability, at least in the short term, would be the Type 45 destroyer. The class is ideally suited to this sort of role and could probably be upgraded with relative ease – for example HMS DARING participated in BMD trials in the Pacific a few years ago and other trials have occurred since (see this article by ‘Save The Royal Navy’ for a good update
The bigger question though is less about the specific package of weapons and radars you want to fit to the ship and more one of asking about what impact such a move would have on the Royal Navy.
The six strong Type 45 class can get 2-3 ships to sea on a routine basis, and those that are available are increasingly intended to operate as part of the Carrier Strike Group. If the decision were taken to move to a BMD role for the class, this would necessitate some very difficult decisions on how best to deploy them and how you could maintain a credible BMD capability.
Would it, for example, mean keeping the force on patrol at sea able to fire if required, essentially maintaining a conventional deterrent that would require 100% uptime, or would it be an occasional role that ships could slip in and out of as required. Also, where would the patrol areas be, and what impact would this have on generating ships to escort the Carrier?
The potential challenges are significant because policy makers will need to make a deliberate decision between providing ships to do a credible ballistic missile defence, or providing ships to escort the carrier – there is little point in having one do both if your BMD platform is needed at home, but is deployed in the far East.
More widely, what impact would assigning Type 45 hulls to BMD patrol have – to do it effectively requires being on patrol in specific areas to be able to intercept missiles. The US Navy already does this and essentially has a force of ships that do nothing but steam in circles around a patrol area. It is a retention killer and the wider people impact could be very harmful.
This is the sort of question that has to be looked at because if people are serious about mounting a credible form of BMD capability then it needs to be adopted with the same mentality and resource support as mounting the deterrent, and not just as an additional rather nice to have capability.
It would come at the cost of taking ships away from wider naval presence, and probably forcing difficult decisions on what else to invest in as a result. The balance that needs to be struck is between that of mounting a credible defence at home, and abroad as required – and this is not easy.
Another question which must be considered is what role does the armed forces play versus civilians in the future defence of the homeland? As noted much of the likely threat in a conflict to the UK could come from some form of cyber-attack which could cause disruption to infrastructure and the economy. Is the military the right place to invest in to house the sort of skill sets needed to defend against this threat, or is it better to look more at investing in civilians via GCHQ and other organisations?
While the Armed Forces talk about wanting to gain more people skilled in cyber areas, and able to take on the digital threats we face, do these people actually want to join the armed forces? The sort of person who is instinctively a ‘cyber ninja’ is not necessarily the sort of person who wants to join the military, or who fits with the lifestyle and requirements asked of them.
|Cyber hacker or friendly forces?
A big challenge that the armed forces need to adapt to is reconfiguring their recruiting processes to make it easier to bring in highly skilled coders and other cyber warriors and give them the rank and reward to be credible. Many would not pass the standard commissioning interviews, or would fail on medical grounds, so is it better to adapt the standards and admit them – or to step back from cyber and let the civilian agencies, who are not hamstrung by the tradition of only employing people who can prove a leadership ability to use some ropes and barrels to get across a water obstacle, to take the lead here?
This sort of debate is going to be central to how the SDSR is likely to be carried out – a much bigger and much more extensive focus on not just defence, but also how defence is done and who is best placed to do this. As the threats evolve and change, the answer may not necessarily always be ‘send for the military’.
Already we are seeing the military evolve and talk about future operating environments – the move by the RAF this week to appoint a 2* to lead space capability
highlight the way that the Air Force is already looking to evolve into an air and space force. Similarly it is likely that the RN and Army will also look to wider evolution too, trying to focus on investing in future and emerging technology areas and how they can be involved in it.
What this means though is SDSR is likely to be as much about looking at questions like ‘fortress Britain’ versus overseas engagement as it is about where the best place to put capabilities is. As the UK homeland itself looks to be increasingly a target, this SDSR will be critical in trying to set up the necessary measures required to tackle this and help keep the UK population safe. The challenge for the military may well be though that the answers the review arrives at do not involve the armed forces at all…
Thin Pinstriped Line source|articles