How best to combine regular forces with industry capacity to increase overall defence capability? This is a question which spans back to the age of Ancient Egypt, but is of equal importance to modern states.
Increased terrorism, growing cyber threats, and the erosion of the rules-based international order make for an unstable security environment. Couple this with new demands on military forces such as supporting communities during the pandemic, add in new autonomous and artificial intelligence technologies, increasing budget pressures, and this leaves the challenge facing the military seeming almost insurmountable.
Too often, the involvement of business in defence is associated with the clandestine and the nefarious. Think Russia’s mobilisation of paramilitary organization, the Wagner Group, or Simon Mann’s infamous attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea.
Such adventures do not come under the Whole Force banner. It is a term that refers to a simple idea – how does the entire defence community work together to deliver increased capacity and resilience for the military?
Defence has always relied on a mix of regular forces, reserves, civilians, and contractors. The Whole Force approach is the realisation and delivery of this reality – to stop the siloed approach and make sure that every element of this supply chain works together to keep the nation-state safe and well-protected.
The most immediate examples result from the demands of new technology, whether this is in cyber, autonomous systems or Artificial Intelligence. To keep citizens safe, defence must harness the extraordinary knowledge and skills available in the private sector.
The Whole Force concept has formally existed in the UK for a decade, but despite much talk, there has been less tangible progress. The UK’s ongoing 2020 Integrated Security and Defence Review is a long-awaited opportunity to put this right.
How then, can Whole Force go from policy to practice? The Serco Institute’s and King’s College London’s Centre for Defence Studies timely new report seeks to answer this question, providing a list of real-world recommendations.
The running theme through all of the recommendations is ‘partnership’. Despite longstanding operational engagement, business and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) often regard each other with an element of quiet reserve. That said, Senior military figures have readily embraced the need for Whole Force. Former Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter said in 2015, the Whole Force Approach “should probably be exploited in most areas of our endeavour”.
This view was echoed at the launch of the report. The panel of leaders from the military, academia, and charity, all emphasised the importance of realising Whole Force. In equal measure, each referred to how the cultural friction between defence and industry is the main hurdle to this being accomplished.
However, Whole Force is more than simply formalising the relationship between the armed forces and industry. Realising it has real human outcomes.
In the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the staff of many companies supplying services found themselves in the line of fire. Many were unprepared. We prepare territorial reserves for a combat situation, why not do the same for a civilian engineer? Preparing non-regular military workers for a combat situation requires genuine partnership between the armed forces and business. The Ministry of Defence needs to sponsor the scheme, businesses need to expend the necessary resource. Such a goal can only be achieved if the whole of the defence sector works in partnership.
Successful partnerships are built on mutual trust. A valuable commodity not always prevalent in dealings between the public sector and business. The private sector should have more understanding of the MoD’s unique sensitivities. For its part, the MoD needs to respect that business is there to offer genuine support, not simply fill their coffers and both sides need to match commercial aspirations to deliver new contracting approaches.
With trust comes flexibility. The private sector needs to have a flexible understanding of the MoD’s procurement process. The MoD needs to be flexible in its engagement of business, accepting that to achieve cutting edge results, an element of risk will be present in contracts with industry.
The UK has a highly resourced and technologically advanced defence sector and armed forces. Infuse it with a culture of partnership between all elements of the defence landscape, and the UK is well-placed to make Whole Force a reality.
If the Ancient Egyptians can do it, why can’t we?