Intervention: When, Why and How?

Written Evidence from the Ministry Of Defence

1. This paper is intended to inform HCDC work in the lead in to SDSR 15. It seeks to outline how HMG decides when and where to intervene with military force and how force might be used in future. Much of the detailed design work for future intervention forces is ongoing as part of the preparatory work for SDSR 15.

Intervention within UK national security strategy

2. In the context of this memorandum, intervention is defined 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.

3. Since the mid-1990s, British Armed Forces have been involved in a number of military interventions including: in Bosnia (1992), Kosovo (1999), Sierra Leone (2000), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Libya (2011) and Mali (2012).

4. Any military intervention in a sovereign state is likely to be controversial. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter [1] prohibits the use of force in international relations and it is well-established international law that States are prohibited from intervening in the internal matters of another state. There are well accepted exceptions to that general rule: a state’s inherent right to individual or collective self-defence, as recognised by Article 51 of the UN Charter, and the right of the UN Security Council to authorise the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security under Chapter VII of the UN Charter A number of states, including Russia and China, both of whom have the power of veto within the UN Security Council, are reluctant to allow the international community to exercise its powers under Chapter VII where it would involve intervention in a third state.

5. If there is no UN Security Council Resolution for action, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate a humanitarian catastrophe. The UK’s position is that such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, provided three conditions are met:

a. there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;

b. it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and

c. the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).

6. In 2005, the United Nations World Summit’s outcome document agreed the concept of a ‘responsibility to protect’, which has subsequently been re-affirmed by UN Security Council Resolution 1674. The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ asserts that all States have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. And that where a State is manifestly unable or unwilling to do this, that the international community has a responsibility, on a case-by-case basis, to protect those populations. This could entail the use of coercive measures, such as sanctions, or the use of force authorised by the Security Council. The responsibility to protect did not alter international law governing the use of force.

7. Military intervention therefore remains in specific cases contentious and contested. The UK Government, in the 2010 National Security Strategy, is nevertheless clear that the concept of intervention has an important role to play where other means of dealing with threats have failed:

"We will work with others to seek to prevent such crises developing, to deter malign forces and, in the last resort, to intervene militarily. We therefore need preventative and stabilisation activity, including diplomatic action and strategic intelligence capability, the ability to deter, and the ability and will to intervene militarily where absolutely necessary."

8. To this end, one of the UK's eight National Security Tasks specified within the 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) is to: "Help resolve conflicts and contribute to stability. Where necessary, intervene overseas, including the legal use of coercive force in support of the UK’s vital interests, and to protect our overseas territories and people." From the perspective of the Armed Forces, the ability to intervene is encapsulated in Military Task 6: "Defending our interests by projecting power."

9. It is important to note 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. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) emphasises a strong preference against intervention, and stresses that the Armed Forces "will focus more on tackling risks before they escalate, and on exerting UK influence, as part of a better coordinated overall national security response." This includes the concept of deterrence, which is addressed in a separate memorandum. The 2010 NSS makes clear that intervention should only be undertaken in support of the UK's national security interests. The NSS refers to this principle as one of "enlightened national interest":

"Our strategic interests and responsibilities overseas could in some circumstances justify the threat or use of military force. There will also be occasions when it is in our interests to take part in humanitarian interventions. Each situation will be different and these judgements will not necessarily be easy."

10. The 2010 SDSR set out five principles that would govern the use of the UK's Armed Forces:

"We will be more selective in our use of the Armed Forces, deploying them decisively at the right time but only where key UK national interests are at stake; where we have a clear strategic aim; where the likely political, economic and human costs are in proportion to the likely benefits; where we have a viable exit strategy; and where justifiable under international law."

11. These principles are particularly applicable to military action which might be termed ‘discretionary’ – in other words, where there is a political choice about whether or not to intervene, in what way and to what extent. At the same time, military intervention could in some circumstances be deemed ‘non-discretionary’, for example when justified under Article 51 of the UN Charter, which confirms the inherent right of states to collective or individual self-defence. Examples of non-discretionary interventions might include action to protect the UK’s Overseas Territories, such as the Falkland Islands, from armed attack, or the conduct of non-combatant evacuations operations (NEOs) to protect British citizens abroad. Similarly, our treaty obligations, such as our commitment to the collective defence of NATO Allies under Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty, may in some circumstances require us to take military action in collective self- defence. To this end, as the 2010 NSS makes clear, the UK maintains "the defensive and offensive capabilities needed to deploy armed force to protect UK territory and its citizens from the full range of threats from hostile action and to meet our commitments to our allies."

12. It is important to stress, as the NSS does, that the Armed Forces represent just one of the tools available to the UK Government in support of its national security interests and objectives, and will rarely be used in isolation. A cardinal principle of the NSS is to "draw together, and use, all the instruments of national power, so that the sum of the British effort is much bigger than its component parts."

Decision Making and Governance

13. The Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) and the International Defence Engagement Strategy (IDES) set out the UK Government’s approach to setting priorities and taking steps to ensure coherence across its conflict prevention activities, including through the use of joint funding mechanisms such as the Conflict Pool. BSOS is built around three mutually-supporting pillars: early warning of fragility and conflict; effective rapid response; and upstream prevention of fragility and conflict. It recognises the value of early intervention where necessary and lawful, in order to prevent a conflict from escalating. The focus on indicators and warnings within countries at risk of instability is an important means not just of prioritising upstream prevention activity, but also of ensuring that the Armed Forces, amongst others prepare for potential future military operations.

14. In non-humanitarian cases, the Armed Forces are likely to be involved, alongside others, in efforts to deter conflict or to coerce those who pose a potential threat to UK national interests in ways designed to avoid conflict. These activities are explained in more detail in the accompanying memorandum on deterrence, but the broad aim is to affect the decision-making of a potential adversary, persuading him that the risks of action or inaction, in the case of deterrence and coercion respectively, outweigh the potential benefits. To this end, the concept of coercive diplomacy can involve a sophisticated blend of political and economic measures, such as sanctions, backed by credible military force in the event of non-compliance.

15. In constitutional terms, the decision on whether or not to intervene militarily is the responsibility of the Cabinet. Following its establishment in 2010, the National Security Council (NSC), a Cabinet sub-committee, plays an important role in advising the Cabinet, but does not have executive authority over the decision to use force. This Government has stated that it will observe the existing convention that, before UK troops are committed to conflict, the House of Commons should have the opportunity to debate the matter, except where there was an emergency and such action would not be appropriate. The Government has furthermore reflected the existing convention in The Cabinet Manual.

16. The Secretary of State for Defence, as a member of the Cabinet shares responsibility for the political decision whether the Armed Forces should be deployed. He is the political head of the MOD as a Department of State with responsibilities for making provision for defence and the armed forces. As chairman of the Defence Council, he has a role in the giving of commands to the armed forces. It is the Defence Council, comprising Ministers, and the most senior members of the armed forces and MOD civil servants, which exercises the ultimate powers of command under the Sovereign over the Armed Forces, and accordingly has the ultimate authority under the Sovereign for military (as distinct from political) decision-making in the conduct of operations. This includes the imposition of any constraints on the use of force, such as through Rules of Engagement. The powers of command of the Defence Council are given by Letters Patent. The Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament for the decisions of the MOD and the Defence Council. He also reports to the NSC and the Cabinet.

17. In the lead-up to an intervention, it is the role of the MOD to inform and support strategic decision-making at the political level through the provision of expert military advice to shape the development of viable policy options, in conjunction with other Government Departments. As required by the Law of Armed Conflict, all military options will be designed to be consistent with the principles of military necessity, distinction and proportionality. The MOD has a dual function: as a Department of State and as the UK’s strategic headquarters. In the latter role, it is supported by the Permanent Joint Headquarters, which is responsible, upon direction from the Chief of the Defence Staff, both for detailed planning, and operational command of UK forces, in overseas joint and combined operations. As a Department of State, the MOD continues to play a role supporting Ministers in the exercise of civilian, democratic control of the Armed Forces and in the political direction and oversight of the campaign at the strategic level.

18. The SDSR makes clear that the UK’s Armed Forces will rarely act alone. In general, we will seek to work closely with allies and partners. Whether in formal alliance or in ‘coalitions of the willing’, this is important both as a means of supplementing the UK’s Armed Forces both in capability and mass, and often as a means of demonstrating and maintaining legitimacy. For example, it was important to the UK that the 2011 intervention in Libya was conducted not only alongside France, European and other allies, but also with support from the Arab League. It may sometimes be necessary to limit or modify the objectives of a potential intervention in order to achieve the broadest possible support from within the international community. The need to work effectively with other nations will become a larger feature of future interventions and forms a key part of planning activity.

Future Interventions

19. In advance of the 2010 SDSR, the MOD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) published a paper entitled "The Future Character of Conflict" (FCOC) which examined the context within which the UK’s Armed Forces would be operating out to 2029. FCOC underlined that the context in which military intervention might take place in future was highly uncertain and would pose significant challenges. It stressed that the operating environment of the future would be "congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained", with the UK becoming increasingly reliant upon allies and partners and, as a result of the pace and proliferation of technology, fighting in some cases from a position of near-parity or even relative disadvantage. The recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular will shape the behaviour of future adversaries, who may be less constrained than the UK in legal and ethical terms, and who will in future embrace novel approaches, including through asymmetric means. As the West’s traditional technological advantage is eroded or negated, military intervention may in future be harder to do successfully. At the same time, it is possible that the drivers of conflict may actually increase, as demographic pressures and climate change increase competition for access to natural resources, and as emerging powers increase influence over the free movement of goods and people on the high seas and in international airspace.

20. A further challenge is the growing range of actors involved in conflict. Conflict between states is widely understood and subject to a substantial body of international law. Intervention against non-state actors is potentially much more problematic with the international law relating to non international armed conflicts being both scarcer and more opaque in a number of important aspects (e.g. detention). As well as determining the need to use force against a non-state actor, there will be a need to ensure diplomatic and communication efforts in the host country are well calibrated in a potentially much more confusing political landscape.

21. As we approach the next NSS and SDSR in 2015, we will review the findings of FCOC and will aim to adapt the Future Force to take into account new evidence and analysis. As the UK’s Armed Forces draw down in Afghanistan, the UK will aim to regenerate its contingent capability for future interventions after more than a decade of counter-insurgency operations. Preparations for the SDSR will include analysis of the balance of effort and investment between the Military Tasks, in order to ensure that, wherever possible, the Armed Forces are able to contribute to the prevention or deterrence of conflict but, where necessary, to intervene in a timely, precise, intelligent and decisive manner.

Learning from Experience

22. Capturing best practice is a vital part of improving the force. The Ministry of Defence, Joint Force Command and Front Line Commands all have a role to play in Mission Knowledge Exploitation and the MOD works with other Government Departments in capturing best practice. Afghanistan has been a good example of the forces learning from experience. Formal debriefs of commanders, presentations to successors and a host of ‘best practice’ guides have all helped to make responses ever more coherent. The challenge is in ensuring that the same open feedback continues in an era where UK armed forces are not constantly engaged in major operations. Joint Force Command leads on the lessons process and is working to refine further the mechanism the forces use for learning from experience. This knowledge will be key in ensuring defence is well set for future tasks.

7 Oct 2013

[1] Article 2(4) "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations."


Prepared 28th November 2013