The Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on the urgent need to bolster our defence capabilitiesby Jay Elwes / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
“It was very striking when the Russia crisis broke out for example that there were only two people left [in the Defence Intelligence unit] working on Russia.” “There was no Crimea desk officer,” in the service, which provides strategic defence intelligence to the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces. “The Crimea desk officer had to be moved across from the South Caucasus—and the Russian analysis section had been closed in 2010.”
Rory Stewart, the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border and Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, has told Prospect that Britain is suffering from a serious shortfall in foreign policy expertise and analytical capability, which hinders its ability to cope with the multiple foreign policy threats it now faces.
In an interview with Prospect, Stewart set out the challenge posed to Britain by Islamic State extremists in the Middle East and the military adventurism of Vladimir Putin, saying that: “What’s really lacking in all these theatres is sufficient people who are deep experts on the language and the region to actually produce the options to ministers.”
There is no argument about the extent of the threat posed by the Islamic State group, Stewart says. It must be confronted. A more uncertain question is whether Britain can contribute to the development of a regional solution. This can only be done, says Stewart, “by having large, knowledgeable, energised teams on the ground working through these issues minute by minute.” Such teams, says Stewart, do not currently exist.
“In the Foreign [and Commonwealth] Office, for 16 years, the focus has been on management and corporate management skills and promotions. And people have not been rewarded for developing deep country expertise, or deep linguistic knowledge… “They’re being asked to be project managers, trade and commerce representatives,” says Stewart. “Often, diplomats who try to focus exclusively on producing very high quality reporting—contacting locals—find that they struggle to get promoted into the senior management stream.”
This has been accompanied by a loss of capacity. “Within the Ministry of Defence,” says Stewart, there has been a “hollowing out…