Part three about the relaunched Contest strategy for countering terrorism and the no longer unthinkable possibility of Britain as a member of NATO deploying as much of its military as it’s able against Russian sabre-rattling or worse. It prompts the question of where the private security sector could or should stand, given that the British state would be under extreme pressure – and presumably pressed for time as during covid, writes Mark Rowe.
While the Security Industry Authority’s badging of contract security officers was a visible staging post on private security’s road to respectability, arguably more important was the separate work begun in the mid-2000s in the City of London around Project Griffin where (as yet unbadged) security officers were trained for deploying on cordons in the event of a 7-7-like incident, to release police for other work in the emergency.
If a major incident happened in the City, security officers would be well placed to share info with the police, besides evacuating or locking down people in their own buildings. The City Security Council (CSC), a group of guarding companies, and police know each other, to pick up the phone to one another. One strand of the CSC’s work is training on major incident responses, including use of JESIP principles, so that security officers, police, ambulance and so on use the same words, and (not the same thing and not something to take for granted) have the same understanding of what the words mean.
But in that broader scenario of the British state wanting to metaphorically pick up the phone to the UK private security sector, for the security industry to take on public-facing tasks to ‘back-fill’ if the armed forces were going abroad, who would the state ring? We can better answer what might be the serious enough scenarios to require such extraordinary action. The official national risk register lays out what the UK might face, such as ‘severe space weather’ that knocks out telecoms; a widespread electricity failure; or chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) attack, whether by a ‘hostile state’ or terrorists.
The UK Government’s national resilience framework, published in December, speaks of the military as ‘an ultimate guarantor of national security and resilience in emergencies’. As for the private sector and resilience, the document speaks of ‘a joint endeavour’, and the UK Government proposes to do more, ‘through consultation with businesses, to set standards, and share guidance and information’. Going back further to the Integrated Review of defence and security, published in spring 2021, it advocated a ‘whole of society’ response to resilience, and promised that ‘we will combine hard and soft power, harness the public and private sector, and deploy British expertise from inside and outside government in pursuit of national objectives’.
For all these fine words about strategy, in case of various risks that might well stretch the state and private industry alike, what of the no longer unthinkable possibility that UK armed forces might deploy on the Continent as part of a larger NATO force in ‘eastern Europe’ (to be no more precise), among other things including reservists, some whose day jobs are in private security? Isn’t the private security sector of about half a million an obvious place for the state to turn?
The British state’s most recent expeditions to Iraq and Afghanistan saw much use of the ‘private military’ sector, largely staffed by former military people, whether training local troops, guarding embassies, or providing close protection to diplomats. Also, non-security civilians did, or at least assisted with, tasks that troops might otherwise have to do, such as drive lorries or erect bases. Even though the state was shy of using contractors, the sheer need for more hands than the military could provide meant work for the likes of Control Risks, Gardaworld and G4S. Where western states have the edge over the likes of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State is in tech; again, states have to draw on private industry for night-sights (hardware), and intelligence-gathering tools (software).
Towards the end of his book about the Army during and after the (unsuccessful) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Changing of the Guard, Simon Akam noted a further factor that makes for more calls on private industry by the state; that gone are the days when Army officers (as in the police) sign up for 20 or more years’ service, as a life choice. Instead after university the Army may be somewhere you serve for three or six years, and then you enter private industry, to earn more.
That not only means the state is bleeding expertise and has to work harder on training, and maintaining institutional memory; but that the private sector gains from those incomers (who come with ready-made skills – which does bring the temptation that the private sector gives its people the minimum of training, trusting that recruits come ready-trained). Much of the UK’s CNI is run by and protected by the private sector already; an exception being the 100pc armed Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC). On the cyber side of security in particular, the state acknowledges that it cannot afford to match private sector pay; which implies that the state would have to draw on private cyber firms, for example for OSINT (open source intelligence). In an April speech, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden told the CyberUK event in Belfast:
people who work for Government will always be motivated by public service. But a cyber specialist knows they can earn five to seven times, if not more, for the same role in the private sector. And the government needs to break through its own glass ceiling … So I am also examining what more we can do to improve salaries and other parts of our offer, so that we can continue to attract the very best cyber experts into the civil service. These are people protecting the systems and public services that millions of people across the country rely on every day, so we should want the very best people in charge of them.
Two separate sorts of conversations are implied. At the moment of crisis, as during the pandemic, the state at extremely short notice looking to procure ‘capability’ – during covid, for example, consultancy for scoping security of vaccination centres, and security officers to protect vaccines; if the Army was deploying abroad, maybe a ‘surge capacity’ of private security alongside Border Force. But ideally earlier should come discussions over policy, so that private security can understand what the state wants, and can inform the state what a tender ought to read like (and what price is sensible).
The state’s servants still have a residual suspicion of the private sector in general. Besides civil servants and the Army (with good manners) telling private industry that they know best, the state’s agents will understandably be shy of engaging with business people due to a fear of being seen to favour one over another, which might lead to accusations of corruption. At any tender by the state for security services, all but the successful bidder will not get the work; disappointment (or a stronger reaction) is inevitable.
Even if a non-commercial representative of the industry or a member of the umbrella group the Security Commonwealth seeks to influence policy (and they have, only to be knocked back), who’s the right person to speak to? A minister, or civil servant, or SPAD (special political adviser)? Even if industry does find the right one, they may well move department, or the SPAD and their minister may be out of office next year, and the work of building a relationship has to start again. Besides, government is siloed – the Home Office, Ministry of Defence and the security service MI5 each have something to do with protective security, and face the same difficulty in keeping up relationships, even within their own departments, let alone beyond.
Photo by Mark Rowe, Bradwell nuclear power station, Essex; foreground, Second World War era anti-invasion defences.