Following our exams in June, Exeter University ran a project called Grand Challenges. After two weeks of lounging about on Exmouth beach, I felt that it was time to do something a little more productive so I signed up to be part of the project. The inquiry group I took part in looked into Re-setting the UK National Security Strategy, focusing primarily on issues classified as Tier One threats: terrorism, interstate conflict and cyber security. In this post, I hope to provide an insight into the work we did during Grand Challenges by discussing some of the activities we undertook and the outputs we produced.
The first activity we took part in focused on interstate conflict and, being ever-present in the news, we were asked to look at Syria through an activity called Red Teaming. At the start of the session I thought that I knew my feelings towards Syria, however Sir Paul wanted us to do a deeper analysis of the situation and introduced us to a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). Through the SWOT analysis, we began to look at the situation in a completely different way and it became clear to me that my previous views on Syria were far too simplistic for such a complex scenario. We were split into groups and together formulated a plan of action which we then presented back to the other groups. Luckily my group were broadly in agreement over how we should prioritise the issues that we had identified during the SWOT analysis, and we quickly decided that intervention was simply not an option. Even humanitarian intervention carried far greater risk than reward. As this was a Red Team activity, each presentation was followed by a harsh critique from other groups, and surprisingly each team had decided on a different plan on action. This really demonstrated to me that there was no right answer and that if you put an idea forward, you really had to be willing to defend it tooth and nail among both peers and experts.
One of our key outputs was an open letter to the Prime Minister in which we critiqued the UK’s National Security Strategy (NSS) in terms of its approach to terrorism, interstate war and cyber security. This was an interesting task because, unlike the Red Team activity, we were forced to agree on how the next NSS (to be published in 2015) should be improved. We began by discussing terrorism which turned out to be relatively simple as we all agreed that the main flaw in that section of the NSS was the focus on ‘Islamic terrorism’. By solely focusing on Islamic terrorism, we felt that the NSS ran the risk of exacerbating the isolation often felt by vulnerable societal groups, which can actually contribute rather than prevent home-grown terrorism and radicalisation.
When we moved on to interstate conflict, however, the task became significantly harder. Whilst we all recognised that the wording of the NSS was vague, there was a fifty-fifty split in our group as to whether this was good or bad. Our solution to the group divide was simply to sit in a room for forty minutes and thrash out our dispute and, after a heated debate, we concluded that clarification was necessary for the sake of any future NSS. We proposed that the threat should be divided in two, with one to remain in Tier One and the other to be lowered to Tier Two status. Remaining in Tier One should be situations in which the UK is de jure implicated from the start, and demoted to Tier Two would be situations where Britain is not obliged to intervene, regardless of the amount of pressure being put on us. I really enjoyed being able to argue my views with fellow students and felt that it was incredibly refreshing to be able to decide amongst ourselves which direction we should be taking in our letter.
Finally we discussed the approach taken in the NSS to cyber warfare. Once again we were all in agreement that the document, and subsequent actions based on this document, showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of cyber security. Currently over sixty per cent of the cyber budget is sent to GCHQ and we felt that this completely overlooks the personal level of cyber security. Over eighty per cent of UK households have internet access, with this number rising significantly every year; in a world where your personal device can be hacked and used in a DDoS attack against a business or even one’s own government, all without your knowledge, we should be ensuring that citizens have the knowledge necessary to protect themselves from attack. We decided that investment in education should be the key message of the NSS; computer programming should be taught in every school just as other languages are, and we should be aiming to make British citizens the most secure users of cyberspace, whilst producing world-class programmers to protect our national interest.
The letter to the Prime Minister was one of the most exciting outputs we created because it has the potential to generate tangible impact. We have now received confirmation that our letter to the Prime Minister has been received, read, and will be passed onto the team who will create the 2015 NSS. I am very much looking forward to its publication as it will be interesting to see whether our critique has actually been listened to and acted upon.
In addition to the letter to the Prime Minister, we created a series of podcasts on the topics previously discussed. I was interviewed by one of the lecturers working with us, Dr Danny Steed, about my opinions on cyber warfare and why I thought it was so important to national security. It was a great experience to be able to openly discuss cyber security, a topic I find very interesting, and these podcasts should be available on the SSI website shortly. The final outputs we produced were two presentations: one pitching our group’s findings to the media and the other presenting them to the other Grand Challenges groups. A team member and I created and presented the second presentation, summarising our task and findings. As well as the three key threats, we also discussed Britain’s role in the world and how our legislation in response to the aforementioned threats reflect where we see ourselves on the world stage. Personally I found this task very enjoyable and interesting and I hope that the people watching felt equally as interested.
Grand Challenges proved to be an incredibly interesting and informative two weeks and I can honestly say that the experience has sparked new interests and made me rethink future career paths. I would like to thank everyone involved in Grand Challenges and, in particular, those who helped create and run the programme. Sir Paul Newton, Dr Danny Steed, Ryan Patterson and Atienza Saldaña – thank you.