In the face of increasing global insecurities, it is vital that the UK continues to be a strong voice in the world whilst ensuring that our citizens are safe at home.
Although there are emerging threats particularly when it comes to cyber security, to assume that the time of traditional state- state confict or conventional threats from non-state actors has passed and refocus our Forces based on that would be a strategic error. Similarly, there are roles for our Armed Forces to play in emerging situations related to environmental, health and energy security.
At present, there seems to be a vacuum of strategic thinking in the Government that has led to confusion over what the Armed Forces are for and what they should be able to do, leading to a gap between aims and capabilities that needs to be addressed.
That’s why I believe we need a new and weightier National Security Strategy (NSS) that should be a distinct document from the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). In 2008, Gordon Brown’s Government released the UK’s first National Security Strategy to create an overall approach to national security across departments and agencies. The NSS and SDSR were combined into a single document in 2015 which led to a greater deal of focus being put on the specific policies with less attention on the strategic aspect.
The NSS should be distinct and set out the guiding principles and aims of British defence policy so there is clarity about what we’re trying to achieve and so we can match up our Forces with our objectives. For example, the problem with personnel numbers is derived from the gap between aims and capabilities. Plans for the future shape and structure of the Forces have been made around the notion that there would be a certain number of personnel and so the Government either needs to get a serious grip on the retention and recruitment crisis or re- examine their plans.
The strategy would provide a greater overarching view that serves as a backdrop for a new SDSR, the guidance against which we test our capabilities. It should be grounded in the realities we face today; a resurgent Russia, continued threats from non- state terrorist groups, increased cyber and hybrid warfare, instability and huge numbers of displaced people, and the ongoing efects of climate change to name a few.
It’s a big question to answer, how do we maximise the impact of our Armed Forces to enhance our national security and what do we want our Armed Forces to do? But it’s a question that is worth asking and coming to a clear answer on so that we can use it to inform how we shape and structure the Armed Forces and individual services moving forward.
There are also practical implications for having a clear vision of what we want to achieve with our defence policy. It can help us to ascertain our equipment needs better and to use this to inform a defence industrial strategy which takes into account the obvious wider benefts of using UK manufacturers, such as fostering cutting edge skills and creating employment. There is considerable economic and strategic value in a strong onshore defence manufacturing capability but the Government has not done enough to support this industry with their “of the shelf” approach.
Our nation’s security is not enhanced by simply having more, better equipment or a greater number of personnel; our nation’s security is enhanced in the way that our Armed Forces are deployed, how, where and to what end.
The UK’s security is furthered by stability around the world, which is why we should be looking to increase our contribution to NATO and UN peacekeeping. Our Armed Forces have expertise and knowledge that is unrivalled and invaluable and can be significant in supporting the ongoing work of the international institutions and partner countries both during and post conflict.
Of course, it’s not to say that there won’t be challenges that emerge in unexpected ways or places but if we continue to take a strategic approach grounded in risk assessments then it puts us in the strongest possible position to protect our citizens.
In order to combat the greatest range of international threats we need a holistic approach that links FCO, MoD and DfID closely together. Our Armed Forces are just one element of that, we need a clear security strategy that outlines the role that diplomacy and development will play in order to complement defence.
This article first appeared in the conference special edition of Politics First