UK Strategic Command: Look East to Understand What it Means

A recent command transformation announced in the UK may have drawn inspiration from an unlikely source: China.

The UK Secretary of State for Defence announced on 18 July that the MoD organisation previously named Joint Forces Command (JFC) will be ‘transformed’ and called ‘Strategic Command’ instead. Penny Mordaunt stated that the Northwood-based organisation will be refocused to challenge threats in the competition space: ‘Faced with the evolving threats posed by grey-zone warfare, our transformed Strategic Command will provide the structure and coordination our Armed Forces need across all five domains’.

But that’s not all UK Strategic Command will do. The Defence Secretary also stated that it is ‘much more than just a name change … this will be a bespoke organisation … supporting Head Office … helping Defence think strategically … assisting our transformation programme … and taking responsibility for a range of strategic and defence-wide capabilities. Combined with its oversight of our global footprint, it will continue enabling our operations and providing critical advice on force development’.

This will be a step change for the new commander, General Patrick Sanders, to deliver.  The announcement made no mention of the new organisation shedding any of the current work undertaken by JFC; it simply added more to the list of deliverables and responsibilities. To a staff already undermanned and overtasked, the idea of becoming the workhouse for MoD policy development might sound like the perfect storm. 

More importantly, developing a Strategic Command might well be signposting the breakup of the ‘blended’ model of MoD head office that was implemented in the 1980s under then Secretary of State Michael Heseltine. This model, unlike those used previously or by other states, merged the roles of a department of state and a military strategic headquarters into a single entity. The Defence Reform report of Lord Levene in 2011 did not point to an alteration of the core roles of the MoD in this way, but it did note the need for adaptation and change.

However, the name of the rebadged organisation itself is liable to cause confusion with allies, most importantly with the US. US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) is one of 10 unified combatant commands in the US Department of Defense that undertakes operations and is directly responsible to the president, through the secretary of defense. USSTRATCOM is responsible for strategic deterrence, delivering global strike and – when ordered – commanding combat forces to deliver decisive effect. It also provides a host of capabilities to support the other combatant commands, including: strategic warning; integrated missile defense; and global C4ISR.

While this sounds remarkably similar to the new UK organisation’s responsibilities, it is completely different in terms of process, governance, command and functionality. UK Strategic Command is more about the integration and coherence of capabilities across all domains as an enabler rather than a provider. 

In this way, the UK organisation is more like the Chinese Strategic Support Force (PLA SFF) than its US namesake. The PLA SSF brigaded a variety of military enablers under one roof – space, cyber and electronic warfare being three key elements – in 2015. According to Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, ‘the major mission of the PLA Strategic Support Force is to give support to the combat operations so that the PLA can gain regional advantages in the astronautic war, space war, network war and electromagnetic space war and ensure smooth operations’. This appears to be the fundamental role of the UK’s version – to support, enable and integrate deployed forces to gain a position of advantage over their adversaries.

The way the UK names organisations and processes doesn’t simply confuse allies and adversaries, it is nonsensical to most rational minds (take, for example, the ‘Fusion Doctrine’ that neither conducts fusion nor is it a doctrine). Yet the fact that Strategic Command won’t command operations – and it is not clear whether it will, in fact, be a grand or even military strategic headquarters – should not detract from the ambition and aspiration of the new changes. Facing the challenges of a much more hostile security environment is essential.  And finding organisational models in competitors rather than Allies is a mature approach.

The remaining UK Front Line Commands of the single services may have just started to normalise business processes with JFC. However, the shift in emphasis will require a further rethink in how they resource, cooperate and work with the new Strategic Command. Both the British Army and the Royal Navy are examining concepts and force designs to work in the ‘grey zone’ (a term already being dropped by leading thinkers), with UK Special Forces, 16 Air Assault Brigade, the Royal Marines, and 6th Infantry Division all looking to provide response options in this new competitive space.

But in Mobilising, Modernising and Transforming simultaneously (these are the major MoD programmes which each seek to make significant changes to the way MoD and commands operate), there is a danger that the MoD will swamp its organisational capacity to change. In this case, the prognosis for defence might well veer from acute to chronic.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

View profile

Explore our related content