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The Salisbury attack was a rude awakening from the post-Cold War daydream

4 min read

After Salisbury, the government must re-evaluate the threats we face and ensure we learn the right lessons from previous mistakes, writes Stewart McDonald 

As the origin of the nerve agent used earlier this month in the Salisbury attack became clear, attention quickly shifted onto why the Russian regime considered this the correct timing to undertake such a horrifying attack – less attention was paid to the timing from the Ministry of Defence’s perspective, and it threw the difficulties it faces with the Modernising Defence Programme into sharp relief.

Firstly, because such a blatant and targeted attack was surely calculated to undermine public trust in the MoD’s ability to deter such attacks, and secondly because it seems to be a textbook example of this Russian-style of hybrid attack, along with the now-standard obfuscatory response from the Russian Embassy.

These two points lead us to the rather dismal conclusion that this could be some sort of ‘new normal’, something our Baltic allies have been warning of for a while: where modern warfare takes place in the context of the unattributable, and in the grey zone of actions which do not necessarily merit an Article V response from NATO, putting pressure on alliance credibility.

While the tone was trite, many were justified in pointing out that much of the UK’s expensive and much-heralded capabilities did little to deter this sort of attack (and of course this will have been part of the calculation in undertaking it), much of the debate around modernising defence has been around protecting legacy platforms, often without any sort of rounded thought as to their ultimate utility in 21st century warfare.

The Security Review being undertaken by Mark Sedwill under the aegis of the Cabinet Office is much more important from this perspective. If ‘Modernising Defence’ is to mean anything, it will be about joining the dots on how modern threats are more diffuse, targeting a whole range of civil and military infrastructure, both digital and physical: and while our conventional capabilities have a role to play, there is a certain amount of reimagining that must take place before the UK can confidently face these threats down.

Speaking to the Defence Select Committee last week, the Times’ Defence Correspondent Deborah Haynes talked of the need for those in Main Building to confront ‘sacred cows’, and also how there remains something of a gap in putting forth a better idea of what capabilities, and general defence is for: as Brexit looms, this becomes imperative.

The SNP has a long standing and unshakable belief in the uselessness of maintaining the nuclear deterrent, and so it will come as no surprise that we believe this to be the fattest sacred cow that should be taken to market: though we aren’t expecting many more Tories to be joining Crispin Blunt in voting for its removal.

However, we will be happy to work with the government on other areas we consider to be of vital importance to Scotland and the UK’s security interests. This should start with a revaluation of our security posture in the North Atlantic and High North: our too-long overlooked back yard which has been neglected in consecutive Security Reviews.

SNP colleagues and I have already met with the secretary of state and put this case forward: as the threat level from the North continues to increase, the UK must demonstrate to both friend and foe that it takes its own homeland security seriously.

SNP MPs have continually pointed out the bizarre state of affairs that sees our most Northerly surface warship base being on our Southern coast: and increasing the historically low size of the Royal Navy’s escort fleet would be welcome news for the North Atlantic. So too would be locating NATO’s new North Atlantic command in Scotland, or increasing the currently planned buy of nine Maritime Patrol Aircraft, which many fear is not sufficient.

The Salisbury attack was a rude awakening from the post-Cold War daydream which saw state threats recede. The challenge now for the government is to ensure that it learns the right lessons from its previous mistakes, re-evaluates its view of threats, and comes up with a Modernising Defence Programme worthy of the name: one thing is certain though – the SNP will not allow them to get this wrong again. 


Stewart McDonald is MP for Glasgow South and the SNP’s Defence spokesperson

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