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


1.In July 2017, the Government launched the National Security Capability Review (NSCR). The review’s objective was to ensure that the UK’s investment in national security capabilities, as set out in the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (NSS & SDSR), was “as joined-up, effective and efficient as possible, to address current national security challenges”.1

2.The National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, told us in December 2017 that the NSCR did not involve a full review of the 2015 NSS & SDSR or the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA). He also said that the review was intended to be “fiscally neutral”—that is, no new money would be made available to departments or agencies with national security responsibilities;2 instead, the purpose of the NSCR was “to see if the money that is already allocated is allocated in the right way”.3 The total spent across Government on national security that financial year (2016/17) was £56 billion, of which more than 60% was allocated to defence.4

3.The NSCR originally comprised 12 ‘strands’:5

In January 2018, however, the Government announced that it was separating the ‘defence’ strand from the rest of the NSCR. It established the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) to continue this work, with the stated intention “to deliver better military capability and value for money in a sustainable and affordable way”.7 The MDP was to be completed on a longer timeline than the NSCR. It was also conducted on a different budgetary basis, in that it was not intended to be “fiscally neutral” from the outset. A total of £1.8 billion in additional funding was eventually allocated to defence for 2018/19 and 2019/20.8 The Government published its report on the NSCR in March 2018 and its report on the MDP in December 2018.9

4.In January 2018, we launched a two-part inquiry into the NSCR.10 Our March 2018 report, National Security Capability Review: A changing security environment, marked the completion of the first stage and was published just before the Government produced its own report on the NSCR. Our report concluded that there “were good reasons for [the Government] revisiting the 2015 NSS & SDSR less than two years after it was published”. These included: the prospect of a significant shift in the UK’s relationship with the EU and the advent of the Trump Administration; intensifying and diversifying threats to the UK; and a significant, structural hole in the defence budget.11

5.However, we also concluded that the decision to limit the exercise to a review of capabilities did not do justice to the changes to the wider security environment since 2015. In addition, we expressed concern about the separation of defence from the wider review. We found that this had rendered the NSCR an “uncomfortable ‘halfway house’” between a refresh of national security capabilities and a full review. It also exposed a long-term fault line in Whitehall between defence and other security-related departments and policies, which, we concluded, would remain until challenges relating to the defence budget were properly addressed. Finally, we reiterated the need for all such reviews of national security strategy and capabilities to be a joined-up process led by the Cabinet Office.12 This was made more important by the growing need for cross-government responses to national security threats, such as building resilience at home and stability overseas—policy areas that our first report on the NSCR explored.13

6.In our March 2018 report we committed to return to the subject of the NSCR and MDP once both processes were complete, which we did earlier this year. While our first report explored key points the NSCR should address as well as offering some preliminary comments on the process, this follow-up report considers the substance of the NSCR and MDP reports as well as wider challenges to UK national security strategy-making. It should be read in the context of our first report on the NSCR.

7.We would like to thank all those who submitted written evidence to both parts of our inquiry on the NSCR and MDP, and all the witnesses who gave oral evidence.14 15 We also thank our Specialist Advisers, Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Professor Michael Clarke and Professor Sir Hew Strachan, for their input.16

1 “Strategic Defence and Security Review Implementation, Cabinet Office news release, 20 July 2017

2 Sir Mark Sedwill told us in January 2019 that, although the Government had approached the NSCR this way, it was not ultimately “fiscally neutral”. He said: “additional resources were found in several areas as new pressures and requirements were identified. There was an uplift for counterterrorism work … We found a relatively small amount, certainly by the standards of defence, to beef up strategic communications capability. We reallocated money to create the National Economic Crime Centre.” Oral evidence taken on 28 January 2019, HC (2017–19) 625, Q38

3 Oral evidence taken on 18 December 2017, HC (2017–19) 625, Q4

4 Cabinet Office (MDP0031)

5 The NSCR incorporated several policy areas that were already under review at the time of its launch in July 2017. These were: defence; counter-terrorism; cyber; serious and organised and economic crime; ports and borders; and national resilience. HM Government, National Security Capability Review, March 2018, p. 12

6 The Committee explored separately in 2018 some of the implications of the NSCR for cyber security and cross-government funds (see paragraphs 63–66). Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, Third Report of Session 2017–19, Cyber Security of Critical National Infrastructure, HL Paper 222, HC 1708; oral evidence taken on 19 November 2018, HC (2017–19) 1483

7 HC Deb, 25 January 2018, col 423ff. [Commons Chamber]

10 The terms of reference and call for evidence for the first part of our inquiry can be found on the Committee website.

11 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, First Report of Session 2017–19, National Security Capability Review: A changing security environment, HL Paper 104, HC 756, para 32

12 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, First Report of Session 2017–19, National Security Capability Review: A changing security environment, HL Paper 104, HC 756, paras 40, 48, 59

13 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, First Report of Session 2017–19, National Security Capability Review: A changing security environment, HL Paper 104, HC 756, paras 72–90

14 In March 2019, during the second part of our inquiry, we held an informal discussion with: Tom McKane (RUSI and former Director General for Strategy and Director General for Security Policy, Ministry of Defence, 2008−14); Baroness Neville-Jones (former Minister of State for Security and Counter Terrorism, 2010−11); Lord Robertson of Port Ellen (Chatham House, former Secretary General, NATO, 1999−2003, and former UK Defence Secretary, 1997−99); and Dr Kori Schake (International Institute for Strategic Studies). The note of this informal discussion is available on the inquiry webpage. We also took oral evidence on the NSCR and MDP from the National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, in December 2017 and January 2019, as part of our inquiry on the Work of the National Security Adviser.

15 Baroness Neville-Jones attended the informal discussion held with the Committee on the NSCR and MDP in March 2019 before she was appointed as a Member of the Committee by the House of Lords on 4 July 2019.

16 Professor Malcolm Chalmers declared the following interests relating to this inquiry on 18 December 2017: Deputy Director-General, Royal United Services Institute. Professor Michael Clarke declared the following interests relating to this inquiry on 18 December 2017: Specialist Adviser to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee (unpaid); honorary professorship at King’s College London (Department of War Studies) (unpaid); honorary professorship at University of Exeter (unpaid); member of the Chief of Defence Staff’s Advisory Panel (unpaid). Professor Sir Hew Strachan declared the following interests relating to this inquiry on 18 December 2017 and 1 July 2019: Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews; a member of the Strategic Advisory Panel of the Chief of Defence Staff; Defence Academy Advisory Board (until 2018); external member, Armed Forces Covenant Reference Group; Comité scientifique, Laboratoire de Recherche sur la Défense, IFRI, Paris; Consultant for the Global Strategic Partnership (a consortium led by RAND Europe), commissioned by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, Ministry of Defence.

Published: 21 July 2019