The 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (2015 NSS & SDSR) was intended to guide the Government’s approach to the country’s national security until 2020. But in July 2017, the Government launched the National Security Capability Review (NSCR) to ensure that the UK’s investment in national security capabilities is “as joined-up, effective and efficient as possible, to meet current national security challenges”. There is little detailed information in the public domain about the NSCR, though some was provided in response to this inquiry. This is therefore the first of two reports, with some preliminary comments on the process and key issues that the review should address.
There were good reasons for revisiting the 2015 NSS & SDSR so soon after its publication. These included: major changes to the wider security environment (including the election of the Trump Administration in the United States and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union); intensifying and diversifying threats to the UK’s security; and a significant, structural hole in the defence budget.
Of course, process is not as important as the content and outcomes of such reviews. But the format of the NSCR gives some cause for concern. The decision to focus on capabilities does not do justice to the changes to the wider security environment. The NSCR’s ‘cost-neutral’ basis was also ill-advised, given the significant deficit in the defence budget and the intensifying threat picture. The Government’s subsequent launch of the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) in January, to continue the NSCR’s work on defence on a different basis and timeline from the rest of the review, suggests that the NSCR has inadvertently become an uncomfortable ‘halfway house’ between a ‘quick refresh’ of national security capabilities and a full review.
The decision to separate defence from the NSCR—although due, at least in part, to the inadequacy of the defence budget in funding the Government’s current ambitions for military capabilities—also risks undermining the review’s purpose. It raises questions about the extent to which defence and security can be integrated in setting, funding and delivering national security strategy—an ambition of Governments for the past decade or so. The Government must confirm the future of the NSS & SDSR process, including when the next full review will be held and whether it will be run by the Cabinet Office alongside a Spending Review.
Despite our misgivings about the process so far, the NSCR does offer an opportunity to improve specific areas of cross-government security policy. The nature of today’s threats mean that they require a much more closely coordinated response between Departments. We therefore welcome the Government’s apparent focus on deterrence and resilience under the NSCR, and the news that the National Security Adviser has been tasked with reforming how National Security Council decisions are implemented across Government. This is also an opportunity to significantly strengthen the process of ministerial accountability.
The Committee will return to its scrutiny of the NSCR once its outcomes have been published, as this will make it possible to consider its substance in more detail.
Published: 23 March 2018