Revisiting the UK’s national security strategy: The National Security Capability Review and the Modernising Defence Programme Contents


The Government has become accustomed to talking a better game than it plays on national security, despite efforts to improve how it makes and delivers strategy under the National Security Council. National security strategy-making is about making choices, and the Government must now steel itself to make the difficult choices that it has sidestepped for too long. This is essential if the ‘Global Britain’ concept is to be turned into a meaningful strategy backed by the necessary diplomatic and military resources.

The UK will have to chart a more nuanced course in the coming years, as the direction and influence of key countries such as the US and China change unpredictably, and following its departure from the European Union. It will also have to respond to fast-changing and increasingly complex security threats, as described in our March 2018 report on the National Security Capability Review (NSCR). This will require stronger direction from the centre of Government and a more agile approach to national security. The Fusion Doctrine and posture reviews introduced by the Government’s 2018 NSCR report are therefore to be welcomed, at least in principle.

The 2015 plan for the future of defence was never affordable. It is not enough to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Yet Ministry of Defence (MoD) expenditure fell to 1.8% of GDP in 2017/18 from 2.4% in 2010/11, while overall (cross-government) defence spending under the NATO definition fell to 2.1% of GDP in 2017/18 from 2.5% in 2010/11.

The NSCR and Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) processes have shown that the funding model for defence is broken: the Treasury persists in not funding the Government’s defence ambitions properly, while the MoD has repeatedly struggled to manage its budget efficiently and effectively. The defence budget is also dominated by so-called ‘legacy’ capabilities and lacks the flexibility to respond to changing threats and technology. In short, the MDP raised more questions than it answered, leaving the MoD in a ‘holding pattern’ until the next Spending Review.

The new Prime Minister must immediately set about addressing policy and budgetary decisions that have been left hanging by the NSCR and especially by the MDP.

At the same time, he should begin an honest conversation at the national level about the extent of the Government’s ambition for the UK as a significant global player, the risks it is willing to take in relation to national security, and the resources it is willing to commit to these ends.

Published: 21 July 2019