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Strategy not Emotion: Regaining Confidence in the Strategic Defence and Security Review

Commentary, 5 October 2010
Defence Policy, UK Defence, Europe
There is now a consensus that the Strategic Defence and Security Review is being conducted too fast and without due consideration to strategy. The UK’s Defence and Security cannot be left to one ministry; it is time we empower a Cabinet-level leader to enable defence and security reform across government.

There is now a consensus that the Strategic Defence and Security Review is being conducted too fast and without due consideration to strategy. The UK's Defence and Security cannot be left to one ministry; it is time we empower a Cabinet-level leader to enable defence and security reform across government.

By General Tim Cross and Brigadier Nigel Hall for

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It was proving difficult, even before Defence Secretary Liam Fox's letter to the Prime Minister, to find a single security commentator who is positive about the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) process. Many say that it has exceeded their most pessimistic expectations, and the unanimous view is that it has been driven by cuts - not policy; that it has been rushed; and that is has been anything but strategic. All in all, it is clear that the coalition government will struggle to take the nation with it this month when it publishes its SDSR and announces very painful cuts. What can be done?

This SDSR was always going to be a challenge. The sacrifice of young British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the UK's dire credit crisis - the worst debt in our peacetime history - has only compounded hostility towards defence cuts. These challenges can be overcome however. The coalition government needs to get strategic; appoint, above all, the right person to take charge of the delivery stage; and adapt Whitehall in order to better manage the new twenty-first century 'security-economy.' Whitehall must be able to rapidly shift its best brains and funding between departments in a way previously achievable only in wartime.

Most people understand that we face increasing uncertainty and complex security risks.  But not everyone has grasped that the most pressing security priority is the need to ensure a prospering twenty-first century economy to pay for our security in an ever more interconnected and interdependent world. It is important to re-iterate that this review is not just about defence. It is about our overall security and it requires strategic and coherent direction and management across the whole 'security-economy'. It must therefore go deeper and wider than we have experienced for generations.

Once the inevitable emotional hiatus over Trident, aircraft carriers, aircraft, and tanks settles, the Coalition will need to demonstrate that it is the Whitehall central government machine itself which needs changing. This is the centre of gravity, and a big-hitting senior and respected figure of stature will need to be brought into the cabinet to implement the SDSR and deliver the whole-of-government changes required.

High level ownership of SDSR implementation and its development by this heavyweight, on behalf of the prime minister and the National Security Council (NSC), is critical - critical to set the right priorities and deliver results; critical to conduct rigorous stress testing; and critical to get Whitehall leaders focused on the wider interest.  Whitehall needs much better risk and situation awareness, enhanced scientific and research underpinning, a savvier balancing of soft and hard power instruments and resources, and significantly more agility and adaptability across departments, decision-making bodies, and force structures - particularly in the military and emergency services, especially the police.

Three key issues will need tackling.

First, a body of eminent radical thinkers should review recent leadership, principally in the Ministry of Defence at secretary of state, senior official and senior military levels, and assess the decision making processes applied since the Falklands War.  This will be resisted, but it is essential if we are to learn lessons from the recent gross mismanagement of defence. This would complement the work of the Defence Reform Unit headed by Peter Levine, which is already heavily loaded.

Secondly, research, innovation, and education directly associated with a prospering twenty-first century 'security-economy' must be better funded and directed. It cannot, for example, be right for the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, to be headlining 'Research - More For Less' as he did in a recent keynote speech. The marked decline in UK research spending and filed patents is an important strategic warning and indicator of our future security. To counter this, a percentage target of gross domestic product should be set for research, innovation, and education, akin to the Cold War defence spending target.

Third, and notwithstanding many encouraging cyber security developments, we need to turbo charge effort and resources into cyber and e-crime.  Cyber is now like air, the medium in which and through which most of our daily life takes place.  A major disruption would quickly undermine the fabric of the nation and soon lead to serious unrest. E-Crime is big and growing, already costing up to £40 billion a year in the UK.  Our cyber space must be made more secure if we are to retain economic advantage, and we certainly need a civilian command and control system as robust as the military's to ensure it. Clarity in who has overarching responsibility for cyber security, accountable to the prime minister and with a seat on the NSC, is essential.

Another security priority includes delivering overdue operational and economic efficiencies across the police. It is fundamental to strike the right balance of effort and resources between the regional and national level organised crime and counter terrorism activities, and the local level policing soon to be placed under the newly established Police and Crime Commissioners.  We must reinforce our ability to take on the 30,000 already engaged in organised crime, and we must enhance our high impact event emergency services extremis capabilities with a reserve cadre and mutual aid agreements with key European allies.

If the outcomes of the SDSR are to stand any chance of success the coalition government must get truly strategic. With the right person in charge it must put its own house, Whitehall, in order and deliver the radical change necessary.  The nation will only support painful cuts for the right, forward-looking strategy and associated priorities. It will not support an incoherent bottom-up cuts exercise.   

General Tim Cross and Brigadier Nigel Hall both retired recently from the British Army.

To see the authors memo, Strategic Defence and Security Review: Ensuring Delivery and Traction, click here

The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the RUSI.

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