The importance of a robust and coherent process in setting the National Security Strategy (NSS) has been underlined by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (JCNSS) with the publication of its first report on the National Security Capability Review (NSCR).
Last year, the Government launched the NSCR as a ‘quick refresh’ of national security capabilities in the light of changing security challenges. The NSCR is still underway, but the Joint Committee’s report offers preliminary comments on the process and key issues that the review process should address.
The election of the Trump administration in the United States, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, intensifying threats to the UK’s national security and a significant structural hole in the defence budget all presented real reasons to revisit the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review before the next expected review process is conducted in 2020.
However, according to the JCNSS, the decision to focus on capabilities, and not the underlying strategy, doesn’t do justice to the changes to the wider security environment.
The announcement in January of the Modernising Defence Programme puts work on defence on a different basis and timeline from the rest of the NSCR.
Opportunity to improve cross-Government security policy
The Joint Committee states: “It appears that the NSCR has inadvertently become an uncomfortable ‘halfway house’ between a ‘quick refresh’ of national security capabilities and a full review. An honest conversation on defence spending is required if the Government is to match its ambitions for national security with the realities of the UK’s capabilities and funding.”
Nonetheless, the NSCR offers an opportunity to improve cross-Government security policy and the Joint Committee welcomes the Government’s apparent focus on deterrence and resilience as a way of achieving this.
In particular, the Committee calls on the Government to focus on deterring threats that fall short of an act of war.
The Joint Committee also calls on the Conservative Government to confirm the future of the NSS and the Strategic Defence and Security Review process, including when the next full review will be held and whether or not it will be run by the Cabinet Office alongside a Spending Review.
Dame Margaret Beckett MP, chair of the JCNSS, observed: “There were good reasons for the Government to revisit the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review just two years after it was published in light of changes to the security environment. Some of these were unpredictable, but others, such as the structural hole in the defence budget, have revealed flaws in the Government’s original document.”
Beckett continued: “The Joint Committee has cause for concern about the format of this Capability Review. It has unexpectedly grown from being a quick and contained refresh of all national security capabilities into a lengthier process, and one that will now consider defence and security separately. Although justified in this case, we’re concerned that this could represent a backwards step at a time when the changing threats to the UK’s security require much greater co-ordination between Government Departments in terms of the response.”
In conclusion, Beckett stated: “The nation’s security capabilities are far too important to be allowed to evolve without proper thought or direction from ministers.”