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We need a new, human approach to security strategy. Will the MoD listen?

OPINION: The Ministry of Defence is seeking policy input, but may not be willing to tackle the real roots of conflict

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 April 2023, 4.09pm
Time for a new UK defence strategy?
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Last month the Ministry of Defence (MoD) unexpectedly issued a “call for submissions to shape the next Defence Command Paper due out in June or July”. It aimed to “generate fresh thinking to shape the way that Defence thinks, operates, conducts business, and fights”, promising to seek solutions for “every problem identified” across “all aspects of Defence”.

Suggestions offered should be “in line with the national strategy laid out in the Integrated Review Refresh of 2023”, the MoD said. Set up primarily because of the war in Ukraine, the Integrated Review Refresh updates government policy priorities ahead of a more comprehensive defence review due later this year.

The call for submissions – put out by the Secretary of State’s Office of New Assessment and Challenge (SONAC), a department established last year to provide a challenge to MoD thinking – is new and, on paper at least, very welcome.

Even more welcome is the sentence: “No one will be permitted to sanitise or ‘staff’ the work once submitted, as the aim is to speak truth to power.”

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But the sheer openness, especially striking coming from a defence ministry, was then dented by the department’s request that submissions, which can be up to 3,000 words, answer any one of just three questions, with a deadline given of barely three weeks:

  1. How could UK Defence build on the last Defence Command Paper (2021) and the Integrated Review Refresh (2023) to deliver enhanced strategic value for itself and its allies?
  2. To what extent should we adhere to the same priorities in UK Defence as those of the past, and what must we change?
  3. In what ways could Defence increase ‘delivery’ at greater speed and with greater effectiveness?

Despite these restrictions, and if we take the request at face value, it is well worth those in the field responding to the call, especially those who approach the whole issue of international security from a perspective that isn’t dominated by the culture of the military-industrial complex.

Since the time allowed for a submission is so short, the initiative is best seen as an opening stage of something that might be more fundamental. The MoD may be expecting inputs mainly from traditional sources, such as strategic studies centres, academics in the defence field, and from within the defence industry, but there is no reason why more innovative thinking from other organisations should be excluded.

For example, Richard Reeve and his associates at Rethinking Security a network of organisations, academics and activists that works for peace by addressing underlying causes of conflict have submitted evidence. It draws partly on Reeve’s recent article that argues that the UK is currently “placing three big, long bets in its Integrated Review Refresh, with major consequences and opportunity costs for tackling the environmental and social crises that threaten us all”.

The ‘bets’ are firstly that the UK stays embedded and critically dependent on the US as its security patron; secondly that the the national strategy puts heavy emphasis on nuclear – and at a price, with the 11 currently planned nuclear-powered submarines expected to cost around £53bn; and finally that the the UK will achieve “technology superpower” status.

On the latter, Reeve writes: “This is a tough call given that not one UK company appears among the top 100 tech firms by market capitalisation.”

The current call for external thinking is welcome, but only if the defence ministry is willing to embrace some very different approaches

As the Ministry of Defence’s stated aim with the call is to find solutions in line with an already decided national strategy, the whole exercise may just be one of business as usual, but it could just possibly be open to new ideas.

If that is the case, then it is worth putting forward a more realistic view. The second question in the call for submissions asks whether we stick to current priorities or change them. This seems an obvious opportunity to argue that we face two global security challenges.

One is accelerating climate change, leading to progressive climate breakdown. This is already apparent, with record temperatures, more weather extremes and increasing impacts on human health and wellbeing. The evidence has been around for many decades, certainly since the 1970s, but is now overwhelming, with the physical changes increasingly happening before our eyes.

It isn’t all bad news, however. The welcome progress in electricity from renewable resources means it would still be possible to keep the worldwide temperature increase down to 1.5°C by 2030, but it requires a 10% per annum reduction in carbon emissions for the rest of the decade. This will not happen without a transformation in political decision-making.

The second is runaway wealth – the concentration of wealth in the hands of the already wealthy, paralleled by the relative marginalisation of billions of people. This situation is down to the dedicated emphasis on market fundamentalism over the past 40 years, which continues to be seen as the only economic model in town, whatever minor changes governments may have made to their policies.

This is leading to more intense revolts from the margins, as well as increasing bitterness, frustration, anger and violence. Marginalisation has made for easy recruiting into both violent extremism and right-wing populism.

There may be other challenges, too, including AI and a renewed nuclear risk, and there is no guarantee that Covid-19 will not reinvent itself. But an environmentally constrained and divided world overshadows these as a dead certainty without a radical change in thinking.

Where these considerations become difficult in matters of defence is that the security culture is all about controlling threats, with early recourse to force all too frequently the chosen option. Military think tanks such as the UK’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre may publish relevant analysis on matters such as climate breakdown, but the context from the MoD’s perspective is too often simply one of the defence the realm from future threats, not taking the action essential to preventing the threats from arising in the first place.

This perspective will do nothing for climate breakdown, nor for revolts from the margins, and that is what must change. The current call for external thinking is welcome, but only if the defence ministry is willing to embrace some very different approaches. The MoD’s department – SONAC – is titled the “Office of New Assessment and Challenge”. That challenge could start with looking seriously at a human security approach.

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