National Security Capability Review: A changing security environment Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The National Security Capability Review process

1.There were good reasons for revisiting the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review less than two years after it was published. These included: major changes to the wider security environment, including the prospect of a significant shift in the UK’s relationship with the EU and the election of the Trump Administration; intensifying and diversifying threats to the UK; and a significant, structural hole in the defence budget. The flaws in the 2015 NSS & SDSR, which have in part necessitated the National Security Capability Review, demonstrate the importance of a robust and coherent process in setting national security strategy. (Paragraph 32)

2.There are growing pressures across the national security budget, including in relation to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, cyber security and the security and intelligence agencies. The defence budget is also now under extreme strain. (Paragraph 33)

3.In relation to defence, the 2015 NSS & SDSR perpetuated a longstanding failure to match ambition with capabilities and funding, relying instead on unrealistic promises of efficiencies and reduced contingency funding. It has been strongly argued that spending 2% of GDP on defence is not sufficient to meet today’s threats, or to meet the Government’s current ambitions for defence capabilities. But spending more on defence is only part of the answer. An honest conversation is needed about what is affordable, how the armed forces should best be structured to meet future threats, and how they might be enabled to take better advantage of technological innovation. This should also include how UK capabilities are designed to fit with and supplement those of our allies. The Government must get a grip on these issues. (Paragraph 34)

4.While the Committee accepts that the decision to hold a further review of national security capabilities only two years after the 2015 NSS & SDSR was justified in this instance, we are concerned that the Government might use frequent, more limited reviews as a substitute for the strategically-informed decisions needed to put defence and security on a sustainable footing. (Paragraph 35)

5.The decision to limit the current exercise to a review of capabilities does not do justice to the changes to the wider security environment. Moreover, we are concerned that the Government’s focus on capabilities in the National Security Capability Review runs the risk of the ‘tail wagging the dog’, with decisions on capabilities driving strategy and policy without due and deliberate consideration. When the Government reports the outcomes of the NSCR and Modernising Defence Programme, it must set out precisely what changes, if any, have been made to the 2015 National Security Strategy and related policy. It should also highlight and explain any changes to the 89 commitments made in the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review. (Paragraph 40)

6.Although it is necessary to inject some fiscal discipline into such processes, the decision to hold a cost-neutral review of national security capabilities was ill-advised given the significant deficit in the defence budget and the intensifying threat picture. Until the Modernising Defence Programme was announced, this approach left the Government facing an unwelcome choice between making significant cuts to defence capabilities, to other security capabilities, or to both, to stay within budget. (Paragraph 44)

7.The National Security Capability Review was commissioned as a “quick refresh” of capabilities but nine months since it began—and with defence now being considered separately and over a longer timeframe—it is apparent that the NSCR has inadvertently become an uncomfortable ‘halfway house’ between a refresh and a full review. (Paragraph 48)

8.The process is not as important as the content and the outcome of such reviews. However, the nation’s security capabilities are too important to be allowed to evolve without clear thought and direction. There are costs to such confusion, including to the UK’s reputation as a reliable security actor. Even if the NSCR and MDP ultimately prove effective in terms of their conclusions, it appears that the process has been far from smooth, and there will be lessons for Ministers and officials alike, especially if the next full NSS & SDSR is to avoid perpetuating the flaws of the 2015 exercise. (Paragraph 49)

9.Defence is only one part of the UK’s wider national security strategy and it should be considered firmly within this context. As such, the Government’s decision to separate the defence strand from the rest of the National Security Capability Review runs the risk of undermining the purpose and coherence of the wider review. However, it is at least in part a consequence of the argument that the defence budget cannot fund the range of military capabilities prescribed by the 2015 NSS & SDSR. The Government should use its report on the National Security Capability Review to:

a)provide reassurance that the Cabinet Office will remain closely involved in the Modernising Defence Programme; and

b)set out in detail the steps it is taking to ensure coherence between the NSCR and the MDP—for example, in relation to domestic security, cyber and modern deterrence.

It should also use its later report on the MDP to show how it was moulded by the NSCR, by directly demonstrating the links between the two processes and their findings. (Paragraph 55)

10.We understand that the challenges posed by the hole in the defence budget—and the inability of the MOD to address these on the timetable set for the National Security Capability Review—made it necessary on this occasion to separate defence from the wider review. Nevertheless, we are concerned that such financial constraints are distorting the UK’s national security. We are further concerned that this short-term political fix once again exposes a long-term fault line in Whitehall between defence and other security-related Departments and policies, which leaves the Government unable to bring them together coherently in setting and delivering its national security strategy. This will likely remain the case until the inadequate level of the defence budget is resolved. We reiterate our view that all such reviews of national security strategy and capabilities should be a joined-up process led by the Cabinet Office. (Paragraph 59)

11.Since 2010, reviews of the UK’s national security strategy and capabilities have been held alongside Spending Reviews at the start of a new Parliament. The 2017 general election has thrown this regular, five-year pattern into doubt. The decision to commission the National Security Capability Review two years after the 2015 NSS & SDSR has only added to this uncertainty. Without knowing when the next NSS & SDSR and Spending Review will be held, it will be impossible for us, and for others, to assess the outcomes of the NSCR and MDP within their intended context. It is also unclear to what extent these outcomes will be provisional, pending the next Spending Review and the completion of negotiations with the EU. (Paragraph 63)

12.When the Government publishes its report on the National Security Capability Review, it must clarify what the current review means for the expectation that an NSS & SDSR will be held every five years, alongside a Spending Review. Specifically, the Government should set out:

13.We consider there to be insufficient parliamentary oversight of the work of the National Security Adviser, and the Ministers to whom he reports—in marked contrast to the scrutiny which Parliament can and does give to departmental officials and Ministers. The Government should provide the Committee with evidence of the NSC’s oversight of the National Security Capability Review and the Modernising Defence Programme, including by providing details and papers of relevant NSC meetings, in confidence. (Paragraph 67)

14.While some details of the National Security Capability Review may be confidential, it is not clear to us why the process of the review has been shrouded in such secrecy, and this has added to concerns and frustration about it. The Government should commit to making any announcements about the NSCR to Parliament and the Committee before they are made public or, at the very least, at the same time. (Paragraph 71)

Improving cross-government responses to national security challenges

15.The National Security Capability Review is an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate that tackling instability overseas remains a priority. The Government should at least consider limited options for improving its current approach. These include implementing DFID’s up-to-date policy guidance on stabilisation across Government, and ensuring that money spent in fragile states more directly targets the causes of conflict and instability. (Paragraph 79)

16.We expect the National Security Capability Review to outline an updated policy of deterrence that covers the full range of threats to the UK—from nuclear and military threats, to unconventional threats such as cyber attacks and subversion. This should include any new tools available to the Government under the policy of modern deterrence, and how it plans to utilise them. In updating its policy on deterrence, the Government should focus on how it can deter threats that fall short of an act of war, but which are nevertheless damaging to the health of the UK’s political system, economy and society. It should also provide more detail about the new National Security Communications Unit when it publishes the NSCR. This includes information about:

17.We welcome the Government’s apparent focus on building national resilience as part of the National Security Capability Review. The Government must do all it can to inform the British public about the threats we face as a country, and to empower them to contribute to the Government’s response when appropriate. The Government should set out its plans to develop community and societal resilience to the range of threats that may arise. It should also set out in its response to this report its plans for future crisis management exercises, as well as information about the types of scenarios being tested and the participants involved. (Paragraph 90)

18.The nature of today’s security threats mean that they require a much more closely coordinated response by Departments to be effective. We therefore welcome the news that the National Security Adviser has been tasked with reforming how National Security Council decisions are implemented across the Government. We look forward to seeing his proposals for improving the implementation of cross-government national security policy, and for ensuring a strong line of accountability within Government, and of ministerial accountability in particular. (Paragraph 94)

Published: 23 March 2018