Published On: February 16, 2023

In the first of a series of interviews with NPC Commissioners, Elisabeth Braw joins NPC Exec Director Katie Barnes to explore grey-zone aggression techniques and the importance of encouraging citizens to participate in national preparedness.

Elisabeth Braw is a Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and is the former Director of the Modern Deterrence Project at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Her work focuses on how countries defend against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and grey-zone threats, in the context of the globalised economy. She joined NPC as a Commissioner at the NPC’s inception.

We asked Elisabeth to tell us about her personal interest in national preparedness and resilience, and why it matters:

Elisabeth’s work focusses on liberal democracies and how they defend against a range of new threats. She points to trends in international security where countries use additional means to cause harm to other countries, beyond using military aggression – known as “grey-zone” aggression. This type of non-military aggression sits in the “grey zone” between war and peace. Since it is not a military form of aggression, countries are not able to respond using military defences. Instead, these threats focus on targeting the openness of liberal society to cause maximum disruption and inconvenience to business and everyday life.

It is not just other states using these tactics but also sub-state groups, such as activists and terrorists. This makes our society vulnerable to grey-zone aggression regardless of who or what originates it. It poses a problem for liberal  democracies because here, the focus is on having strong armed forces and military defences; but this does not defend us against grey zone aggression, and we are not thinking about the best ways to actually defend us against this.

This is at the core of Elisabeth’s interest in national resilience because it concerns all of us: “these forms of aggression target our daily life, for example through hostile and subversive investments, disinformation and cyber-aggression, and weaponising refugees -anything another country can use as a tool of aggression below the threshold of military violence. Everybody should be concerned about it. Unlike military defence, societal resilience is something everyone can have a role in .”

We asked Elisabeth what we can do about this grey zone aggression, given the threat it poses to our society:

Building societal resilience is key to this. The UK Government’s Resilience Framework, published December 2022, advocates for a “whole society” approach, yet it failed to mention the public; and for Elisabeth this represents a major missed opportunity. She emphasises how there is enthusiasm on the part of the UK public to be more involved. The Covid-19 pandemic saw people step forward to support themselves and their local communities. However, there is a lack of coherence and co-ordination to provide people with the support, structures and resources to maximise that willingness to help, and to organise this in advance of when it is actually needed: “the NHS army was amazing; but what if we had prepared for it in advance?”

Keeping people informed about potential threats and how they can be more prepared to deal with a crisis when it unfolds can make a big difference and quickly. Current skills levels in, e.g., basic first aid and preparedness planning are low across the UK, but these are not difficult skills to learn. Elisabeth lived in San Francisco, US between 2004 and 2009, and recalls the regular awareness campaigns run by the city council to ensure people were adequately aware and prepared for the region’s earthquake risk, including how to prepare and what sort of items to have available. This is the kind of regular reminder that Elisabeth thinks needs to be embedded in the public consciousness here in the UK.

She points to Sweden as an example of where this level of public preparedness is successfully woven into everyday life. The Swedish government posted a highly effective leaflet to every household in 2018 explaining the sort of crisis that could occur, how people will know it is happening, and how they can prepare. This basic information was indispensable for the public so they knew not to panic in the event of an actual crisis. Elisabeth recalls concern amongst UK government colleagues that issuing a similar leaflet in the UK would cause people to panic; but by early 2020, people responded to the arrival of Covid-19 in the UK by panic-buying and stockpiling supplies such as toilet paper, because they did not know what to do. It is important people are made more aware of potential threats so they can be more prepared to respond. For example, September is national preparedness month in the UK, but there is a general lack of awareness about this and the activities it promotes.

The NPC’s response to the government’s Resilience Framework also identified the lack of mention of the public and noted a lack of integration of voluntary and community sector capacity to build local resilience. We asked Elisabeth for any examples and models for adding capacity and scale at this local level to build local resilience:

We know that people in the UK are willing to get involved but it is important to integrate them into existing organisations and structures so they can be most useful and add scale and capacity to what already exists: “we see time again that people are willing to help, but if they do not know what to do this can actually cause more harm than good.” Channelling people’s willingness coupled with building structures for them to be involved ahead of a crisis means we will always have people ready to help when we need it. This also helps build social cohesion with all cohorts of society becoming involved, as opposed to a narrow age bracket. There are few, if any, forums or organisations that are able to engage this wide diversity of people, and there is an issue with social fragmentation. “Building local and national preparedness is an opportunity to bring people together from all parts of our society.”

One excellent UK example of building local resilience skills is the Duke of Edinburgh (DoE) award scheme. This is an amazing resource for young people and perhaps this model could be replicated and extended to include other age groups by amending the curriculum. DoE was actually the best prepared to respond locally to Covid-19, because of their focus on building resilience skills. “We saw thousands of young people from DoE become community helpers, not because anyone had asked them to do so, but because they already had the skills and capacity.”  

Sweden has used an approach based on “Total Defence” exercises, which were used to build national resilience in Sweden during the Cold War. After the end of the Cold War Sweden abolished these exercises, but in 2020 it resurrected the model. The exercises involve bringing together the armed forces with businesses, voluntary groups and other auxiliary defence organisations to help them learn skills for keeping communities and the country safe. Sweden has also developed an innovative and popular television format to bring resilience to a wider audience. Each episode of “Societal Collapse” focuses on a particular crisis, which is the subject of a war-game by real-life experts and genuine government agency personnel. As an excellent example of public education, the TV show provides people with an accessible platform for gaining insight into the likely chain of events that could lead up to a crisis, what events could transpire and what information decision-makers use to respond, as a form of entertainment. One recent episode involved the impact of a disruption to credit and financial systems. It invites people to consider their own scenario and what they would do in such circumstances, helping them to explore and evaluate their own preparedness, and potentially improve it. This TV format could easily transfer to a UK context.

We asked Elisabeth what role businesses and the private sector has in building whole society resilience and meeting the risks and challenges we face in the UK:

For Elisabeth, “the UK has the potential to be a source of excellence in resilience that other countries can learn from”. As a key economic hub it is important to engage the private sector to keep the UK safe. The  UK National Resilience Framework makes reference to the private sector but it does not outline private sector involvement clearly enough. This is despite the UK private sector being a clear target for grey-zone aggression and suffering from its impacts. UK companies are effectively on the frontline of geopolitical competition by the nature of business being conducted outside the UK; however, they are not able to defend against grey-zone aggression beyond any cyber protection that they might have. We have seen that countries are able to retaliate through economic policies designed to constrain or prevent business activities; for example, Australian winemakers lost 96% of their exports to China when the Chinese government imposed punitive tariffs in response to the Australian government questioning the origins of Covid-19.

Better means of exchanging risk information between businesses and government are needed to better understand how risks are evolving. This is because by nature of conducting businesses outside the UK, they are inherently more rooted and present in other countries than our government can be. While the government gets its information from embassies based in the capital, businesses operating engage their workforce locally within the respective country, and embed themselves within local populations, making them more integrated into society and everyday life in said country. This enables access to highly relevant and valuable local intelligence, yet we only think about involving businesses in terms of their assets, processes and supply lines.

A new approach in the Czech Republic, which stemmed from Elisabeth’s own ideas around engaging the private sector in defending against grey-zone threats, has yielded positive results. The exercises are conducted by the Czech Ministry of Defence, which invited businesses and other government departments to participate in grey zone defence exercises. The response to the call for participation from the private sector was strong and demonstrated the willingness and enthusiasm to be involved. The Czech Republic is now taking a sector-based approach and using different types and severity of grey zone threat. This approach goes beyond corporate business continuity and emergency planning exercises, which focuses on threats specific to the company conducting the exercise. The Czech-model exercise offers the opportunity to bring businesses, government departments and agencies together to understand how they need to work together and prepare for a grey-zone threat.

One excellent example of where there is engagement with the private sector to support UK national resilience is the General Staff Corps. This is a totally unique part of the British Army staffed by business leaders commissioned as reserve officers who are devoted to helping the British Army and government develop positive relationships with the private sector and establish the contacts and resources they need. The Staff Corps played a critical role in helping government to access and mobilise supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic. This demonstrates the possibility and potential of positive engagement between the government and the private sector to support our national resilience. The model points to how this enabling layer provided by the General Staff Corps could be what is currently missing between government and the private sector.

We asked Elisabeth if we she thought we were well positioned in the UK to take a similar whole society approach, or what would be stopping us from doing this?

For Elisabeth, what is stopping the UK from building whole society resilience is having a whole society mindset and the activities that support it. “It has been so long since the UK public was asked to act. We know that the public are willing to be involved and we admire the generation that lived through World War II for how people mobilised to support a nationwide war effort. In post-war years successive governments have been reluctant to ask people to help, contribute and participate because they believe people are neither able to or need to. Conservative governments are especially reluctant to ask people to contribute.”

This means there has been an effective de-skilling of the general public because there is a tendency amongst the public to assume “the centre will provide”. It makes building national resilience skills also a question of building life skills. Given government has stopped asking for public involvement, there is lacks an overarching view of what is possible or available to support better public involvement. We are left in a position where we have a general public that is willing and capable of learning resilience skills but they are left without agency and are made passive in the event of a crisis. For example, how better prepared could we be if a critical mass of people had first aid skills?

Finally, we asked Elisabeth what her key lessons are for building greater national and local resilience:

The main lesson is to recognise that the public is a valuable source of resilience and the government should treat citizens as a capable and willing participants in societal resilience. So many of us are willing and ready to be involved and to look after those around us. This also provides an opportunity for people to engage with other people in communities and wider society. As a liberal democracy, we need to establish greater and stronger social capital because our society has become more atomised. These issues were identified in Robert Putnam’s seminal work, “Bowling Alone” (2000). This social fragmentation poses a vulnerability to our society, for example the diminishing role that networks such as churches and trade unions have in connecting communities. Supporting greater connection and social capital can help us become a safer and more resilient society as well as a healthier one too.

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