It is intended to rival the White House situation room: a £9m control centre surrounded by large flatscreens in a bunker below the Cabinet Office. A technology hub adding cinematic presentation to moments of national crisis.
But military and intelligence experts say that while the plans may be attractive to politicians, they risk being ineffective unless accompanied by an improved emergency response system that was absent at the start of the pandemic.
Due for completion this summer, the situation room is an addition to the underground Cobra briefing rooms, a cramped suite of offices where politicians, military, spy and police chiefs can gather to make decisions in a crisis, ranging from a deadly terror attack to widespread flash-flooding.
Politicians and advisers have long complained about Cobra’s supporting technology. “It’s certainly less glamorous than any Hollywood depiction. There’s the ability to project PowerPoints and you can video conference people in. But that technology doesn’t reliably work. It’s just not state of the art,” a former Downing St adviser said.
Only one picture of a Cobra room exists, showing a windowless boardroom with three digital clocks and a large screen divided into eight. It was enough to form part of a scathing blog from Dominic Cummings, formerly Boris Johnson’s chief aide, written just before he went into government in June 2019.
He contrasted the Cobra room picture with Nasa’s vast mission control room and the one used for Cern’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. “Notice how poor it is compared to Nasa, the LHC etc? There has clearly been no attempt to learn from our best examples about how to use the room as a tool,” he wrote.
Cummings left government abruptly in December, but such sentiments – that bigger screens, interactive maps and large data dashboards can act as a basis for improved decision making – are widespread at senior levels.
At one Cobra meeting during the Ebola crisis several years ago, when David Cameron was in power, it became impossible to hear from either the then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who was in Washington, or the UK’s ambassador on the ground. “Don’t worry,” Cameron quipped, according to one Whitehall veteran. “We’re making lots of great decisions anyway.”
Former senior Whitehall insiders say that while the upgrade has been billed as being at the heart of Boris Johnson’s integrated review of defence and foreign policy, due out on Tuesday, in fact it dates back to decisions taken under Theresa May. “This has been planned for years and been tacked on to the review,” the former official said.
Donald Trump was able to watch the US raid on the compound of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from the White House in 2019, although what was shown to him was overhead surveillance footage with no audio – prompting questions as to how the former president could claim the Isis leader had died “whimpering, crying and screaming all the way.”
Ben Barry, a retired British army brigadier and senior fellow at the Institute of International Strategic Studies, said video was often a distraction. “Having a screen that shows drone footage leads to decision-makers in the room getting overly fixated on the footage, when you want them to sit back and think strategically.”
In the US, special forces no longer supply helmet camera footage in real time to command centres, partly to prevent backseat driving. The UK maintains a distinction between in-principle decisions that are taken by politicians and operational decisions for military, police or other emergency services.
Another question is how good is the information coming into a Cobra meeting, which often takes place when a situation is in flux, particularly during a terror attack. “In the early periods of a crisis, the problem is actually knowing reliably what is happening,” the former Downing Street adviser said.
Part of the situation room upgrade is an enhanced team of “watchkeepers”, whose job it is to monitor, collate and, in a crisis, hand out information about what is happening, culled from a mixture of social media, news reports and other public and private data with the help of special monitoring algorithms.
They create what is known as the Common Recognised Information Picture (CRIP), an agreed statement of facts, used partly to prevent politicians arguing needlessly about what is happening on the ground when key decisions have to be taken, usually in 45 minutes or less.
Barry argued that this too is insufficient if ministers and officials do not engage in regular practice exercises, and if government fails to shift to crisis mode effectively in response to a slow-building crisis, such as an emerging pandemic.
“Last March many parts of government failed to respond properly. A proper situation room may well be good thing, but it is a stool on one leg if ministers are not well drilled to act and government is not geared up to respond,” the former solider said.