The Regulatory Policy Institute Research Group

UK Defence Policy – ‘seeing’ the whole terrain

The human brain has evolved over eons into a hemispheric structure, allowing a lateralisation of attention to our surroundings. The right-hemisphere (RH) ‘presences’ the world like a radar; a broad, sustained, flowing attention, on the look-out for dangers and opportunities revealed by patterns and changes in the terrain. The left-hemisphere (LH) ‘re-presents’ this world like a military map; a narrow, static, digitalised, analytical attention, allowing us to develop routines to control the territory. Limited interconnection between the two hemispheres prevents inter-hemispheric distraction. When continuously and simultaneously working, the two ‘halves’ help us to survive and thrive. If not, trouble lurks: for example, a RH stroke can lead to serious brain malfunction, including delusion.

Unsurprisingly for a branch of government whose primary role is to ensure survival, the organisation of defence has not been blind to the advantages of lateralisation in decision-making. In an earlier blog (Old spectacles for myopic governments: monasteries and speculae – Regulatory Policy Institute (rpieurope.org) we highlighted how Roman forts integrated the specula (watchtower) into their architecture, allowing attention to be paid to the ‘unseen’ background. This wider and deeper perspective (RH), undistracted by LH routines of fort life, facilitated the detection of emergent risks.

The operation of our security services in WW2 was a more sophisticated adaptation of the defence ‘brain’ in action. Churchill devoted time to cutting out excessively slow processing of vital intelligence information, commenting that he was “astounded at the vast congregation that are invited to study these matters.” Messages picked up at scanning stations (RH) were immediately sent for specialised Bletchley Park analysis (LH), with the results then passed to him directly, in locked boxes to which he alone had the key, for RH synthesis and decision-making.

In organising the nerve-centre of the UK’s defence in this way, Churchill intuited various aspects to effective system decision-making: wide scanning in information discovery to discern the ‘unseen’; specialist analysis and processing to examine results; and strictly limited ‘noise’ to ensure that distraction does not crowd out the insights of both types of attention as inputs to synthesized decision making. This saved Allied lives, and later brought positive spin-offs for the global computer industry.

Today’s UK political leaders could do worse than reflect on the lessons from the country’s defence past. The good news is that GCHQ (that spawned from Bletchley Park) preserves an architecture favouring wide surveillance. Its main mission areas are counter-terrorism, cyber security, threats from hostile states, serious organised crime, and support to the broader defence industry (safety of personnel etc.,). Even here, the headquarters’ mandate may need to evolve further to ensure its mission to “stay one step ahead of those who are looking to cause our nation and its people harm.” Any siloed vision of national defence threats is itself a risk to overall national security. RH attention is a disposition to the world that is constantly on the look-out for what it does not know.

But the real challenges for the UK ‘defence ‘brain’ lie beyond GCHQ, in the political realm. For Confucius, government had three foundations: weapons, food and trust. Any ruler unable to hold on to all three should give up weapons first and food next. Trust should be preserved to the end for “without trust we cannot stand.” The bad news is that trust in our political masters is now in short supply. A new “vast congregation” has appeared. Legions of politicians endlessly shift their attention to and fro, as they seek to exploit immediate news for narrowly-focussed political advantage. Trust in the overall system is lost, manifested in strategic thinking anchored in experiences of past conflicts and adversaries, departmental silos within the security apparatus fighting for limited resources, and weaknesses in dealing with uncertainty when assessing and preparing for future threats.

Defence, in particular, with its intangible but unseen collective benefits, has suffered asymmetrically from this. UK defence spending absorbed over 10% of GDP in 1954. Today, the figure is just over 2%. Is this visionary? Or, have we just shut our eyes to the changing terrain, falling back on an out-dated ‘friend or foe’ Cold War map, assuming that deterrence will always prevent a nuclear Armageddon and that we can safely ignore the rest? This old map ignores vital features of the terrain today: its newly-appearing ‘neither friend nor foe’ sub-set of countries, expanding regional conflicts, huge technological advances including the mind-boggling possibilities of artificial intelligence, and more besides.

While our defence sector exhibits a range of problems of its own, procurement being another example, it also signals a path forward for more effective government decision making. The best starting point is to understand how our brains work. The deciding factor in any battle is likely to boil down to using them wisely, and escaping the distraction trap is key to that.

Further reading:

Sir Martin Gilbert CBE – Churchill and Intelligence – Golden Eggs: The Secret War 1940-45.

Dr Iain McGilchrist – The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World.

Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn