Re-thinking UK Defence and Security Policies

This project aims to stimulate a renewed debate on UK defence and foreign policy through timely, evidence-based interventions. It examines ways in which the UK could act as a responsible global citizen and pursue an international strategy that addresses the root causes of conflict, environmental degradation and social injustice. It aims to support an effective rebalancing of the human, financial and technological resources devoted to diplomatic, development, defence and energy policies in support of more sustainable global peace and security.


Sustainable Security’s flagship project focuses on generating original, evidence-based thinking on how UK policy can be reshaped to face the real threats to people’s security, both in the short and long term.

Dean Acheson’s 1962 statement that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role” is more relevant than ever. “Global Britain” is looking to redefine its trade and security relationships beyond Europe and to reinforce or re-establish a military presence in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. The UK’s ambitions to project power globally simultaneously raise questions about affordability and relevance to the most significant and pressing security threats that we face today. As long as UK policy is locked into a reactive posture that addresses the symptoms rather than the causes of conflict around the world, it will remain ineffective.

The UK’s fifteen-year engagement in Afghanistan has transitioned to less visible and less accountable interventions across the Middle East, North Africa and Sahel. At the same time enormous investments in a like-for-like replacement of the nuclear deterrent and globally deployable conventional strike capabilities have left the UK poorly positioned to meet its obligations to European collective defence. Such investments will also do nothing to address the growing risks associated with a changing climate.

This project continues to highlight this strategic incoherence, arguing instead for a radically different security policy that clearly identifies a narrower set of priorities, adequately articulates the most effective way these may be accomplished, and the actual capabilities needed to achieve this. This policy would move from reactively tackling symptoms to a proactive focus on addressing root causes of insecurity, including marginalisation, militarisation and climate change. It would also embrace the principles of democratic accountability, transparency and a just rules-based international system differentiated from the interests of current and past great powers.      


Publishing reports, briefing papers and primers:

  • The UK Military in the Arabian Peninsula (March 2018) is a primer on the dynamics and details of the British military presence in and off the Gulf States and Yemen, including bases, operations, exercises and arms sales.

  • The UK Military in the Asia-Pacific (February 2018) is a primer on the dynamics and details of the British military presence in East Asia and the Western Pacific, including bases, operations, exercises and arms sales.

  • European Military Integration: Implications for the UK (November 2017) analysed Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and other European Union initiatives to develop and integrate military capabilities from the perspective of the UK and its future security relationships.

  • Capabilities Review: Squaring Naval Ambitions, Priorities and Resources (October 2017) analysed the importance, costs and consequences of amphibious warfare, global maritime power projection and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines in UK military strategy.

  • Global Britain: A Pacific Presence? (September 2017) questioned the growing importance of a naval presence in the Western Pacific within British military discourse as part of strategies to maximise British trade and influence.

  • The case for integrating a Climate Security approach into the National Security Strategy (August 2017) laid out the likely security impact of climate change on the UK and its overseas territories and argued for a cross-government risk management exercise and properly funded strategy to address these risks as an integral part of the next NSS.

  • Towards a New Consensus on National Security (June 2017) looked at the manifestoes of the parties elected to the 2017 House of Commons and traced a marked shift in most towards new ways of providing defence and security.

  • UN Peacekeeping & the 2017 Election (May 2017) traced the rapid rise of UN Peacekeeping within party platforms on defence and identified four potentially big new ideas on the political agenda.

  • Special Measures: Donald Trump and Trans-Atlantic Relations (January 2017) assessed the implications of the Trump presidency for the UK, utilising both sustainable and national security perspectives and proposing four options for Britain’s future alignment.

  • Taking Back Control: The UK, Europe and NATO (September 2016) reviewed contemporary political shifts involving Euro-Atlantic actors within their historical and Brexit contexts, arguing for greater democratisation of UK security relationships and NATO.

  • Brexit and the UK’s Uncertain Nuclear Future (July 2016) assessed how the fall-out from the Brexit vote – financial, constitutional and political – might impact on the British Parliament’s rush to authorise a new generation of nuclear weapons.

  • Brexit: Whither UK Defence and Foreign Policy? (July 2016) analysed the implications of the referendum vote for the UK to leave the EU, and the formation of Theresa May’s initial government, for British defence and foreign policy.

  • Rethinking Security: A Discussion Paper (May 2016) was produced by the Ammerdown Group, in which ORG participates, to explores the security strategies of Western States and propose principles for a more effective approach to security, one which works in the common interest.

  • 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.

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 led other civil society organisations, academics and former military and political leaders in July 2016 in sending an open letter to the Prime Minister urging her not to rush parliament to reach a final decision on the Successor nuclear programme during the post-Brexit political turbulence.

  • Following the 2015 general election, ORG engaged with the Scottish National Party’s new influx of MPs on foreign and security policy, was consulted closely by the Labour Party on its Defence Policy Review, especially alternative options to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in UK defence policy, and contributed to the Lib Dems Policy Consultation on Nuclear Weapons.

  • 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 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy inquiry into the National Security Capability Review: A Changing Security Environment (February 2018).

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry into Department for Exiting the EU Position Paper on Foreign Policy, Defence and Development (January 2018).

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Sub-Committee inquiry into Defence in the Arctic (December 2017).

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry into The indispensable ally? US, NATO and UK Defence relations (March 2017).

  • Written evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy inquiry into the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (March 2016). The Committee cited ORG’s evidence and endorsed many of its recommendations.

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the UK’s relations with Russia (January 2016). ORG’s evidence was cited at length in the Committee’s March 2017 report.

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the UK’s relations with Russia (January 2016).

  • 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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Tim Street

Tim Street has been a Fellow of the Sustainable Security Programme since January 2017, specialising in nuclear security and disarmament issues. From 2015 to December 2016 Tim was Senior Programme...

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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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