Re-thinking UK Defence and Security Policies

The threat analysis contained in the UK National Security Strategy points to a complex world in which the interconnected nature of ‘mega trends’ create unprecedented security challenges for the UK in the years to come. Responding to this will require a fundamental re-think of old assumptions and practices in defence and security policy. This project is aimed at promoting a re-framed UK defence debate and providing useful interventions in policy discussions. 

The present combination of a constrained defence budget and an increasingly complex global security environment presents an important opportunity to re-think the UK’s defence and security policies. A revised National Security Strategy (NSS) and a comprehensive Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) are expected by end of 2015; major constraints on public spending have sharpened questions about how money is spent on national security objectives and what ‘national security’ means. At the same time, Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Baltic, the end of NATO operations in Afghanistan and a renewed bombing campaign in Iraq as part of the so-called 'war on terror', the UK's response to the 'Arab uprisings' in countries such as Libya and Syria, and the current focus on extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa, all raise difficult issues to be addressed in the next SDSR.

The development of the phenomenon of what is now termed ‘hybrid warfare’ (a potent mix of traditional conflict, terrorism and insurgency) presents an enormous challenge to the armed forces and civilian defence planners over the appropriateness of conventional ideas about the use of force. The spread of deadly technology, from the materials and knowledge used to produce nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction to delivery systems such as remotely piloted vehicles, also constitutes a clear danger to British citizens both here and abroad.

Yet, if countering such threats is to be the guiding objective of British defence and security policy, then a concerted effort to refocus efforts away from simply responding to today’s crises and towards addressing the underlying trends which produce these threats over the long-term must be made a top priority. Such an approach would prioritise addressing the underlying drivers of insecurity and conflict, which, while being largely global in nature, directly threaten the UK’s national interests. ORG identifies these drivers as climate change, increasing competition for resources, a dangerously widening gap between the rich ‘minority world’ and the poor and marginalised ‘majority world’, and the ever increasing spread of deadly technology.

Sustainable Security’s flagship project focuses on generating new yet practical thinking on how UK defence and security policies can best be recalibrated to face the real threats to global security over the coming decades. Specific project activities since 2010 have included:

Publishing reports and briefing papers:

  • SDSR 2015: Continuity, Control and Crisis in UK Defence Policy (January 2016) explored some of the key structures defining current and historic UK security policy, considering areas of continuity and change including strategic dependence on the US, maritime security, growing energy insecurity and the commitment to further militarising the Middle East.

  • The 2015 SDSR: The Strategic Issues (November 2015) summarised the key issues which the Review must address if it is to present a strategic and sustainable approach to improving UK, regional and international security.

    The Politics of British Nuclear Disarmament (October 2015) examined recent debates on nuclear disarmament and argued that the UK’s role in NATO and close relationship with the US are often overlooked but essential elements of the discussion.

  • We Need to Talk About NATO (September 2015) posed questions around NATO’s role, expansion, and spending commitments, considering how these might be brought into British public discourse in the context of intra-Labour Party and national policy debates during the 2015-2020 parliament.

  • Beyond Deterrence: Rethinking UK Security Doctrine (July 2015) argued the case that the greatest barrier to improved UK security is the continued role of nuclear deterrence in British security thinking, assessing the counter-productive effects of deterrence doctrine, its opportunity costs, and alternatives to it.

  • Conservative Defence Policy: Five Knowns and Ten Unknowns (July 2015) examined the trajectory of UK defence policy under the new Conservative government as the SDSR began, highlighting deficiencies of strategy, transparency and accountability, and growing Scottish opposition to Trident renewal.

  • Cutting the Cloth: Ambition, Austerity and the Case for Rethinking UK Military Spending (May 2015) looked at UK military spending in the context of NATO, Europe, global democracies and current security threats. Ahead of the 2015 SDSR it made five recommendations for rebalancing UK security spending and putting conflict prevention at the heart of British foreign policy.

  • East of Suez, West from Helmand: British Expeditionary Force and the Next SDSR (January 2015) analysed the trend in UK defence policy towards relocating equipment withdrawn from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa as an integral part of the expeditionary forces concept that dominated the 2010 SDSR.

  • Beyond Crime and Punishment: UK Non-Military Options in Syria (August 2013) assessed the ways short of military intervention in which the UK government could usefully respond to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

  • Reviewing Britain’s Security (May 2010) analysed the transition between the Labour and Coalition governments in relation to the UK’s National Security Strategy as well as discussing options for the three controversial issues of Trident replacement, the aircraft carriers and procurement policy.

Holding policy workshops and conferences:

  • ORG supported the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on its work on the international diplomacy around climate and resource security, including the major conference held in March 2012.

  • With the support of the Network for Social Change, ORG held a workshop on 13 September 2011 on the role of the UK defence and security community (including policymakers, analysts and journalists) in responding to the security implications of climate change.

  • With the support of the Dulverton Trust, ORG held a workshop on 16 September 2010 that brought together senior figures from the civil service, the military, industry, academia, think tanks and NGOs to engage in creative but focused thinking on how the concept of sustainable security can begin to be operationalized in UK defence and security policies.

Engaging and advocating with political parties, politicians and special advisors:

  • ORG engaged with the major political parties during review processes of party defence policy between 2010 and 2015 and was invited to input to the Labour Party Shadow Defence Review (2013) and the Green Party election manifesto (2015).

  • ORG joined other civil society organisations in April 2014 in sending an open letter to the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats calling for a rethink of the way that the next NSS and SDSR were conducted.

  • Sessions of ORG’s UK Policy Group were held in the lead-up to the release of the NSS and SDSR (July 2010) and in the aftermath of the first nine months of the Arab uprisings (September 2011).

Submitting written and oral evidence to parliamentary enquiries:

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry into UK military operations in Syria and Iraq (January 2016).
  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry on Iraq, Syria and ISIS (November 2014).

  • Written evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (September 2014). The Committee’s report supported several of ORG’s recommendations.

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry on Future Force 2020 (September 2014).

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry on Intervention: Why, When and How? (October 2013). The Committee endorsed many of ORG's recommendations.

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry into preparations for the next SDSR (May 2013). The committee specifically endorsed several of ORG’s recommendations in its report.

  • Written and oral evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry on the UK's response to extremism in North and West Africa (April 2013).

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry on the NSS and the SDSR (September 2010).

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry on the SDSR (September 2010).



Richard Reeve

Richard Reeve is the Director of Oxford Research Group's (ORG) Sustainable Security Programme and ORG Coordinator. Richard has particular expertise in Sub-Saharan Africa, peace and...

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Professor Paul Rogers

Paul Rogers is Oxford Research Group's (ORG) Global Security Consultant. He has worked in the field of international security, arms control and political violence for over 30 years.


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Dr Benjamin Zala

Benjamin Zala is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester, UK, where his works focuses on great power diplomacy, rising powers in the global order and global security...

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