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Plugging the Gap: The SDSR, Covert Action and Special Forces

Written by Rory Cormac.

The landscape surrounding the 2015 SDSR is one of costs, threats, and Britain’s “global role”. The impending review will have to take each into account – and has the unenviable task of finding a balance.

Together, these factors have created a climate in which deniable intervention, through covert action and Special Forces, has become – and will continue to be – increasingly appealing to Cameron’s government.

Successive British governments have sought to maintain the global role. The 2010 SDSR continued along this theme. And the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues have recently spoken out against any decrease in British global ambition. This has been matched by pressure from Washington not to disengage from global commitments.

This desire to maintain a global role has raised concerns amongst those considering the 2015 SDSR. Is it realistic given political, strategic, and particularly economic constraints?

Indeed, economic considerations will continue to temper British ambition. Ahead of the 2015 SDSR, Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, warned that of the need for it to be affordable. Similarly, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Nicholas Houghton, accepted that ‘hard choices on capability options’ had to be made.

The problem, however, is far from new. Britain has been in relative and steady decline since the end of the Second World (at the very latest). Nonetheless, successive governments have continually sought to maintain the global role. This has created a gap between capabilities on the one hand and perceived responsibilities or policy goals on the other.

This gap must be addressed by the SDSR. It is here where attention turns to deniable interventionism.

To plug the gap, successive governments (of both colours) have often looked to covert action and Special Forces. Such means can, rightly or wrongly, be seen as a potential “silver bullet”.

Conditions are ripe for use of such measures in 2015. The climate of ongoing austerity combined with British pretensions as a global power creates such a framework. The 2010 SDSR placed a premium on the role of Special Forces and intelligence. Since then, David Cameron’s government has not been immune from using them.

It is likely that the 2015 SDSR will follow suit. Both Cameron and George Osborne, his Chancellor, have largely protected intelligence and Special Forces from otherwise swingeing cuts on public spending. Instead, they are seen as a cost-effective force-multiplier; a power to be harnessed.

In addition to plugging the economic gap, the threats likely to feature highly in the SDSR invite the use of Special Forces and a more “active” role for the intelligence community. Violent non-state actors cannot be defeated through militarily force alone whilst, given the political ramifications, politicians cannot openly negotiate with terrorist groups either.  This has led to a rise in preventative or ‘disruption’ operations.

Covert action and Special Forces can also be seen as a means of bypassing political constraints.  The public are weary of military interventions and David Cameron has already come unstuck in Parliament attempting to garner support for air strikes in Syria. In contrast, research shows that the public are more likely to support the use of Special Forces instead. Meanwhile, deniable – or undeclared – interventions bypass the problem entirely.

This is not to say that covert action is the way forward. It does not necessarily offer a “silver bullet”. It is however one option in the state’s foreign policy and defence toolkit – and should be treated as such.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the surrounding secrecy, current debates about Britain’s foreign and defence policy have consistently overlooked the issue of covert action. This is important; for it means that an (often controversial) means of British interventionism is going unacknowledged and facing little critique from academics, commentators, and policymakers.

Rory Cormac is an Assistant Professor of International Relations. This articles forms part of the Center for Conflict, Security and Terrorism (CST) coverage of the 2015 Security and Defence Review.  Image credit: CC by ResoluteSupport/Flickr.

Published inSDSR2015

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