Royal Navy Capt. Ian Feasey, skipper of HMS Queen Elizabeth, welcomes attendees to September's Atlantic Future Forum in New York Harbor.

Royal Navy Capt. Ian Feasey, skipper of HMS Queen Elizabeth, welcomes attendees to September's Atlantic Future Forum in New York Harbor. Royal Navy

Sensible Talk Aboard a UK Aircraft Carrier. But Does It Come Too Late?

New poll shows US, UK publics aren’t buying what national-security experts have been selling.

ABOARD THE HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH IN NEW YORK HARBOR — It was unusual fare for a defense conference. First, Britain’s armed forces chief calmly counseled Western allies and their defense industries not to overhype enemies. Rather, after clear successes against a surprisingly poor Russian military in Ukraine, they should be “confident” in the West’s capabilities and prepare for future threats in “a sober way,” said Adm. Sir Tony Radakin.  

Later, technology executives cautioned fearful political leaders not to block foreign workers from their sectors. They urged Western governments to resist cutting off even suspicious countries in Asia or the Middle East from sharing in new tech capabilities and connectivity. Bring them closer, don’t push them away, they argued. 

Even a panel of academics in advanced fields of quantum computing and artificial intelligence scoffed at warnings about Chinese espionage because, they argued, “open science is good.” 

And they said it all aboard the British government’s most advanced aircraft carrier, anchored within sight of New York City’s ground zero.

Squeezed into the hangar deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, this year’s edition of the Atlantic Future Forum offered glimpses of U.S.-UK defense-tech partnerships and unexpected dollops of British stoicism. 

Usually, arms expos and military conferences are hype-fests with doomsday warnings, billion-dollar weapons bazaars punctuated by scareful speeches about the enemies that will kill us and the defense products that will stop them. Generals, politicians, executives, salesmen, and their associations thump their chests, give each other “peace through strength” awards, and declare that more is needed. It’s never subtle. 

Take, for example, this month’s AUSA 2022 convention. The first big post-lockdown gathering of the Association of the U.S. Army drew 35,000 people to the gigantic Washington Convention Center, where glitzy corporate exhibit spaces filled several city blocks with everything from counter-drone kits to the new Abrams tank, sniper rifles, and satellites. Generals on stages sounded tough on Russia and China, and anything else that may come their way. 

But even during AUSA, more nuanced messages emerged. From the White House, Biden officials released their first National Security Strategy, which offered tempered descriptions of China as a “competitor.” On AUSA stages, Army leaders sounded as committed to social-justice efforts as to opposing Russia, pushing back on bow-tie-wearing TV talkers who allege the American military is getting soft because soldiers are learning to not be racists, extremists, or science deniers. The top general for Army recruitment rejected partisan-fueled allegations that “wokeism” is keeping America’s youth from enlisting. 

Meanwhile, defense industry giants like General Motors were highlighting greener—and tactically smarter—electric vehicles. While right-wing politicians were slamming military attention to climate change, Stephen duMont, president of GM Defense and a former attack helicopter pilot, was boasting that his EVs are harder to spot than the fossil-fueled vehicles that used to light up his Apache’s targeting screens.

“All five companies bidding to replace the four-decade-old Bradley fighting vehicle have proposed new troop carriers with hybrid electric engines, according to Army officials,” reported Defense One global business editor Marcus Weisgerber. 

Two weeks earlier on the Queen Elizabeth, organizers played a taped speech by BP’s CEO Bernard Looney, who touts his company’s pursuit of renewable energy

What I took away from these two conferences—staged after 20 years of counterterrorism wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, amid a nuclear-shadowed war in Europe and a menacing standoff around Taiwan—is that a growing number of leaders in defense, technology, and academia are openly defying political leaders in new ways. They are saying out loud that the future is complicated and the threats to our societies are not as clear as many leading politicians want voters to believe

Angela McLean—chief scientific adviser to the British defense ministry—described how colleagues at a recent dinner of synthetic biology leaders in Boston scoffed at warnings about Chinese espionage: “The academics around the room thought the whole thing was incredibly funny. They said, ‘Oh, the government keeps coming to my lab and all they ever say is “China is bad, China is bad”’—and they were laughing.” McLean said her work in the government has given her a new perspective: “Gosh, these people have no idea,” she said aboard the Queen Elizabeth. “There is an enormous education job to be done.” 

I asked McLean why she thinks her colleagues don’t fear China as they’re told. She said, “That’s very straightforward. It’s because open science has been such an enormous force for good.” Scientists, she said, have always valued open information-sharing and distrusted government secrecy, citing the international effort to decode human DNA by sharing data across borders. “Data is incredibly valuable…but it’s way, way more valuable if it is shared. I think that’s really where it comes from.” 

She said most scientists outside of security fields “have lived a working life in which open science was the way forward,” so when security experts warn them suddenly that another group of people are coming to steal their ideas, “that just goes counter to a lifetime of experience.” 

Two seats down on the panel, QinetiQ CEO Steve Wadey put in, with some worry, “It’s a good question.”

Current events are turning some skeptics into believers.  Radakin, the UK defense chief of staff, said the Ukraine war has upended assumptions about Russia’s military strength and the West’s diplomatic weakness. The allies’ quick and coordinated reactions have demonstrated something “very powerful” that should reshape their approach to planning, he said. 

While the West should remain “very cautious” so “we don’t magnify the weaknesses in our potential enemies,” Radakin said, “one of the other lessons is that we tend to underplay our own strengths, and these extraordinary democracies, and the extraordinary power that we have with our militaries, and the breadth of the ingenuity that we can bring to bear.” As the international order faces threats inside and out, in other words, the West should keep calm and carry on.

Radakin’s statement was not far off from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s monotone declaration last year that “China’s not 10 feet tall.” But it is still jarring to hear a senior admiral tell a roomful of defense conference-goers to temper their fears and weapons-buying impulses. If he had tweeted it, imagine the wave of angry right-wing hawks replying about another military officer gone soft. 

The aircraft carrier’s thick hangar bay doors blocked the outside world from listening in, but it’s a shame there were so few American military leaders and no members of Congress aboard to hear the message. National security leaders have a credibility problem, and the British brought recent polls to prove it. Organizers handed out hard copies of an August survey of the American and British public which indicates that voters will follow partisan fearmongers if sensible national security professionals don’t try harder to reach them. 

Half of Americans, or 49 percent, do not “think NATO is a good thing,” despite Russia’s nuclear threats and invasion into Ukraine, according to the poll, conducted by J.L. Partners. Just 59 percent support the same NATO expansion that national security professionals nearly unanimously celebrate. Most Americans do not think the top threat to Western democracy is China or Russia; they are more afraid of themselves. Forty-three percent said the top threat was either Democrats, Republicans, or political polarization. Only 15 percent said “Putin and Russia.” Only 10 percent said “China.” Fewer than 6 percent identified the top threat as climate change, high immigration, radical Islamists, North Korea, or Iran. 

In the UK, twice as many respondents picked “Putin and Russia” as tops, but the rest nearly matched up with the Americans. 

The survey results showed that U.S. and UK voters are not buying all of what their political and security leaders are telling them. The panels aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth showed that even some top military, university, and tech leaders don’t buy the threat warnings, either. And the Army leaders at AUSA showed they’re not buying what partisan extremists are selling. 

The Brits came to New York with a political message about 2022: chill out, take the win, and focus on the reality of the world as it is. It was reassuring to hear amid a sea of others chanting “China, China, China.” But when Americans and Brits fear their countrymen more than they do Beijing, there is no weapon for sale at any arms expo that can change that. To keep their citizens safe and protected, more U.S. and UK security leaders may need to be willing to shoot down political speech as quickly as they can a Russian cruise missile