Intervention: Why, When and How? - Defence Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.  We note that the Ministry of Defence defined intervention "as the projection of military force (augmented by other agencies as required) outside UK sovereign territory to achieve an effect in securing, protecting or promoting UK national interests through the use or threat of force". However this definition seems to us to be very narrow, as it takes minimal account of the UK's wider responsibilities as a UN Security Council member or as a member of NATO or other alliances where national interests might have to be balanced by wider global responsibilities. We also note that several of our witnesses have referred to humanitarian intervention which does not appear to fit within the Government's definition. We call on the Government to develop definitions of the terms "intervention" and "humanitarian intervention" which can be used across Government Departments and be included in the next iterations of the National Security Strategy and the Defence and Security Review. (Paragraph 7)

Strategic rationale for intervention

2.  A strategic and well-articulated vision of the UK's position in the world would lead to more rational decisions on whether or not to intervene as well as a better public understanding of the rationale for any future decision. It would also assist in identifying the strategic objective of such operations, contributing to a more coherent UK foreign, defence and security policy. (Paragraph 21)

3.  We remain concerned about the lack of realism in the Government's assertion that there will be no shrinkage of UK influence when resources are still being reduced. We call on the Government to set out in the next National Security Strategy whether it still maintains this assertion and, if so, how it could be achieved. (Paragraph 22)

4.   The next National Security Strategy should consider the case for the UK developing a regional strategic focus, particularly in light of new or re-emerging threats to European defence and security. We acknowledge that there will be times when the UK would have to act beyond this regional focus. The next National Security Strategy and the next Defence and Security Review should also include a discussion on the UK's future role in NATO and its resourcing by its members. (Paragraph 23)

5.  We continue to support the Government's adoption of an "adaptable posture" in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. The threats to UK national security remain uncertain and unpredictable and it is important that the Government and UK Armed Forces retain the flexibility to deal with them. The 2010 National Security Strategy said that the national security apparatus had focused on non-state actors and that the current main national security threat was from international terrorism. We agree that these threats remain, but call on the Government to ensure that the next National Security Strategy gives due weight to the likelihood of a return to an increased threat of state versus state conflict and that the force structure, manpower, equipment and capability decisions in the next Defence and Security Review ensure that UK Armed Forces are able to meet all these threats. (Paragraph 24)

6.  We agree that intervention in its many forms has an important role to play in the UK's national security and maintaining the national interest. We note the MoD's statement that military intervention remains an option of last resort in the UK's national security strategy and should only be considered when other means have failed. Unfortunately, but understandably, the last resort is often seen by the public as the first resort due to the Government's failure to communicate the other means it has employed prior to a decision to intervene. In addressing this perception, the Government should set out how it determines that other means have failed and that intervention is the best option. The Government should consider building on the so-called "Chicago doctrine" from 1999 by including in the next National Security Strategy a statement of the criteria for when and whether to intervene. (Paragraph 31)

7.  We call on the Government to include in the next National Security Strategy (NSS) and the next Defence and Security Review a description of interventions that it regards as non-discretionary and the rationale behind this view. This would give a good indication of UK intent in terms of its national security interests. We note that the Ministry of Defence recognises that some interventions can be regarded as discretionary. While we understand that the Government will need to be selective in undertaking discretionary interventions, it should consider developing a base criteria for these types of interventions to be included in the next NSS. Such criteria would assist the Government in deciding whether an intervention was in the UK's national interest and also assist in communicating and engaging with the public on intervention decisions. The next NSS should also detail what types of discretionary intervention operations the Government envisages the UK would be able to undertake on its own and those which it would undertake with allies. (Paragraph 32)

8.  We have welcomed the establishment of the National Security Council (NSC) and support its attempts to bring greater coordination and focus across Government on security matters to lead to greater operational effectiveness. National security requires a whole government joined up approach. However, we are concerned that the NSC becomes too involved in operational matters and short-term imperatives rather than giving the strategic lead on questions such as intervention policy. (Paragraph 34)

9.  The legal justification for military intervention will continue to be controversial. We note the Government's statement that when there is no UN Security Council Resolution for action, there is a legal basis available under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention which would permit the UK under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate a humanitarian catastrophe providing certain conditions are met. We question whether the Government's position is generally accepted by the international community or the British public. The Government should set out in detail in the next iterations of the National Security Strategy and the Defence and Security Review the principles of its legal position, including its relationship with the UN Charter, international law and the concept of the Responsibility to Protect, on the deployment of UK Armed Forces for intervention operations. This would assist with providing the public with greater information on, and understanding of, the Government's position on the use of UK Armed Forces rather than waiting to the heat of debate immediately prior to a potential deployment. (Paragraph 49)

10.  We welcome the Government's publication of summaries of its legal position on the deployment of UK Armed Forces. We note the Government's view that the confidentiality of the Attorney General's full legal advice needs to be upheld and that legal privilege is an essential component of the UK's legal system. We hope that the publication of summaries of the Government's legal position on the deployment of Armed Forces will continue to be regarded as normal and best practice. We recommend that these notes should always state how this position was formulated and who was consulted. We further recommend that the Government should undertake to continue to publish its legal position on the deployment of the Armed Forces. (Paragraph 51)

11.  The role of Parliament in conflict decisions is a contentious issue. The House of Commons' decision in August 2013 to reject the potential deployment of military force to Syria (despite provisions in the Government's resolution that would have required efforts to secure a UN Security Council Resolution authorising such action and a further vote in the House of Commons on direct UK involvement) has significantly added to the debate on what the role of Parliament should be in conflict decisions and its relationship with the Royal Prerogative on such matters. The Government should intensify its efforts to resolve this matter. We regard Parliament's role as one of a strategic inquisitor on military deployments. As a first step, we call on the Government to clarify its position on whether it wishes to legislate to formalise the requirement to consult Parliament on military action or whether it favours codifying the role of Parliament in a Parliamentary resolution. We do not consider it appropriate for the Government to wait until the next possible military deployment to resolve this issue. We conclude that, wherever possible, Parliament should be consulted prior to the commencement of military action, but recognise that this will not always be possible such as when urgent action is required. We call on the Government to commit to ensuring that a summary of the legal justification on military action is available to Parliament in advance of any such debate. (Paragraph 65)

12.  We understand and acknowledge the current lack of appetite for military operations given the experiences and tensions of the past decade for operations in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. However, it is also necessary to understand and acknowledge that there are consequences to decisions by the UK and the international community not to intervene in humanitarian or non-humanitarian situations. Non-intervention decisions have implications for the UK's place in the world and its influence which are as profound as a decision to undertake an intervention operation. Decisions not to intervene could have wide global implications for efforts to deter hostile actions by other states or non-state actors. The Government should be more forthright in stating the consequences of non-intervention when it proposes intervention actions. The next National Security Strategy and the next Defence and Security Review should also include an indication of how the Government balances and decides between these two choices. (Paragraph 70)

13.  We welcome the Government's intention that any deployment of UK Armed Forces should have a clear strategic aim. While conscious that deployments will differ and some will be of an urgent nature we repeat our call that the Government should develop this concept by undertaking a more detailed, comprehensive and strategic assessment before deciding to intervene. This should address the strategic ends, ways and means, including generating the necessary parliamentary support. We call on the Government to set out in the next Defence and Security Review how it determines and measures success against the strategic aims set for the deployment of UK Armed Forces. We have seen no sign that its approach has resulted in a more strategic use of the Armed Forces since the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. (Paragraph 74)

Interventions: How?

14.  The Government must ensure that the plans and resources for Future Force 2020 enable the Armed Forces to carry out the roles intended for them, including that of undertaking intervention operations. We note the commitment to a 1% real terms increase in the equipment budget from 2015 but this must not be achieved by further manpower cuts. We also note the concepts listed in the 2010 SDSR (readiness, reconstitution, reinforcement, regeneration and dependency) as being central to achieving the optimal effect for Future Force 2020. We will explore the MoD's progress in fulfilling these concepts as part of our forthcoming inquiry into Future Force 2020. (Paragraph 80)

15.  We agree that the UK will be required to work closely with allies and partners in interventions, not just in terms of military capability and force size but as a means of maintaining and demonstrating legitimacy. We note the Ministry of Defence's statement that it may sometimes be necessary to limit or modify the objectives of a possible intervention to achieve the broadest possible support from the international community. However, this must not be at the risk of undermining the strategic aim of the intervention operation. We agree with our witnesses that regional ownership of interventions can on occasions be important and desirable. The next National Security Strategy and the next Defence and Security Review should set out how the Government plans to develop regional partnerships which will help in delivering the UK's national security objectives. (Paragraph 86)

16.  We note the US's stated intention to have a greater strategic focus on the Pacific region. However, the level to which the US will reduce its strategic focus on, and interest in, European affairs is unclear, particularly in the light of recent events in Ukraine. We call on the Government and other European NATO countries to develop a strategy for the future role of NATO and its resourcing that takes this into account. This should include a vision of the leading role to be played by the UK in encouraging European NATO states to take on a greater degree of responsibility in NATO operations. The NATO summit in September 2014 provides an opportunity for consideration of such matters. The summit also provides an opportunity to discuss the role of non-NATO countries in NATO-led operations. We call on the Government, in its response to this Report, to set out how it intends to take these matters forward at the summit. (Paragraph 87)

17.  The development of new capabilities, such as the ability to take offensive cyber action, has profound implications for the way the UK intervenes. Although these capabilities bring with them advantages, in terms of not putting UK Armed Forces personnel in harm's way, their use also raises a number of questions. The next National Security Strategy and the next Defence and Security Review should consider the implications of these capabilities and their use in future interventions. (Paragraph 89)

18.  We welcome the Government's commitment to a "Comprehensive Approach". We also welcome the emphasis on conflict prevention envisaged in Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) and the International Defence Engagement Strategy (IDES) and the involvement of UK Armed Forces with other agencies. It is important that the Armed Forces and other actors understand the context in the countries in which these activities are taking place, including the development of the language skills required for effective engagement with the local population and authorities. The Government should also outline the metrics it has developed to measure the effectiveness of both the BSOS and the IDES. In interventions where the purpose is not for humanitarian reasons, care must be taken to ensure that the coercive or deterrent action taken is proportionate and that the risks are fully assessed. (Paragraph 96)

19.  Strategic communications are vital for intervention operations. The perceptions of local populations affected by such operations are crucial to the success of these missions. Success also requires the strategic aims and objectives of the mission to be understood by the public in the UK. We call on the Government to develop coherent and understandable meanings for the terms used across Government Departments for its intervention policy and defence engagement strategy. It should also develop methods to increase public understanding of them as this will assist in improving public understanding and perceptions of the use of the Armed Forces. (Paragraph 101)

20.  We welcome the intention to plan for viable exit strategies for deployed UK Armed Forces although we recognise that this risks sending signals to adversaries that intervention is bound in time, space, military force or desired effect. However, it is vital that consideration of an exit strategy should commence at an early stage, perhaps even prior to deployment. (Paragraph 108)

21.  Interventions bring with them responsibilities in respect of exit strategies and end states and these will invariably take longer than anticipated. Securing the peace is as important an objective as winning the war. The Government should set out in the next National Security Strategy and the next Defence and Security Review how it defines and assesses successful exit strategies and end states, including how long they should take for each of the actors involved and how it measures the success of the transition from exit strategies to the desired end state. Exit strategies must also ensure safety of Armed Forces personnel remaining in country and that of other UK agencies such as DFID. (Paragraph 109)

22.  Lessons learned from military deployments are vital and the Government must ensure they take place in a timely manner. We note that the Ministry of Defence says it works with other Government Departments in capturing best practice. The Government must ensure that a unified vocabulary is used across Government. As well as ensuring the capture of good practice, the lessons learned process must capture mistakes so that future operations can be appropriately informed and planned. The Government should outline what steps it is taking to engender a culture of openness and willingness to share mistakes and the lessons learned from them across the various participants involved in such operations. (Paragraph 117)

23.  We welcome the Government's use of Global Strategic Trends and the Future Character of Conflict as part of the work on the next National Security Strategy (NSS) and the next Defence and Security Review (DSR). We call on the Government to include in the next NSS and the next DSR an outline of the contribution of this work to improvements in the UK's national security. In response to our Report, the Government should set out the use it has made of external academic and research resources as part of its analysis of future global trends and national security requirements. (Paragraph 119)


24.  Intervention policy and decisions have the potential to be controversial and to polarise opinion. This Report is intended to assist the articulation of the rationale for an intervention strategy in the next National Security Strategy and the next Defence and Security Review which might make for better decision making by Government and assist in alleviating some of the controversy on decisions to intervene. (Paragraph 120)

25.  As a starting point the Government must articulate a realistic vision of the UK's place in the world, its level of strategic influence and the way the world is changing as well as the identification and prioritisation of the risks to it. The next Defence and Security Review should then translate this vision into defence planning assumptions and the development of the appropriate force structure. This would assist more strategic decisions on why, when and how to intervene. (Paragraph 121)

26.  The next National Security Strategy (NSS) and the next Defence and Security Review (DSR) should define and communicate the circumstances in which the UK might intervene and the role of interventions, and set out the legal basis for the UK's interventions. The NSS and the DSR should also set out what interventions the Government regards as non-discretionary and those which are discretionary. The Government should also outline the different approaches it might use such as defence engagement, conflict prevention and the projection of military force and how it ensures coordination and unity of purpose between the different Government Departments and agencies and ensures that appropriate lessons are learned from previous interventions. This will lead to more effective intervention operations in the future. (Paragraph 122)

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Prepared 28 April 2014