UK Strategy For The 21st Century

…nor is strategy – despite the beliefs of George Bush and Jack Straw to the contrary – a synonym for policy.” (Professor Sir Hew Strachan, page 27, ‘On the Direction of War’ Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Does the UK have an articulated grand strategy? The Prime Minister (PM) recently gave his view to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (PJCNSS)…“To me, strategy is about setting out a very clear series of goals that you want to meet and then making sure that you have sensible means for achieving those goals…it is to make sure that we do this right across government…not just the Foreign Office fighting for us abroad but every single bit of government working together.”

This statement helps clarify the PMs version but strategy is more than just goals and a policy guide. It is an indispensable articulation of national interests and principles leading to the formulation of policy for all of government to follow. It is the focal point for ministers to determine their plans and associated resourcing and budgeting. Moreover, having set the strategy, the Cabinet must have something against which to measure implementation that is observable, measurable and above all, verifiable. The risk of not having a Strategy is that the roads travelled will diverge rather than meet at the intended destination, if known.

DefenceSynergia (DS), like so many informed analysts, politicians and academics is exasperated at having to wait for such an articulation. Therefore, we set out below the DS view on how a UK Strategy should be formulated and what it should say based on the analysis provided by Professor Gwyn Prins:

Grand Strategy – studies all geopolitical factors that impact upon the British national interests as both risks and threats and which are, by definition, beyond the power of any government to control. It is also about how best the national interest is protected.

Operational Strategy – is both subordinate to and different in function to grand strategy. It is about the best marshalling of ways and means to deliver ends expressed in specific instructions from ministers to HM Armed Forces.

Policy – What is to be done. The most difficult but essential step is, having acquired operational strategy, to engage grand strategic and operational strategic insight in ways that can materially inform and shape as well as execute policy.”

Prof Prins goes on to say… “the problem today is the failure of the current national security strategy methodologies to effect a reliable and credible introduction of grand and strategic insights into ministerial policy making. There is unique value in a combined grand and operational strategic study which is militarily literate and conducted independently, without fear or favour to any party or to any transient issue and without reference to finance, leading to force structure recommendations. It should be a specially convened expert study for which, at present, there is no suitable institutional frame. It should be provided to, but not conducted by, the National Security Council in its present form. Only when the study is complete should financial considerations be introduced. This is the way to bring “ways and means” into correct alignment with “ends”. 

This explains quite clearly why a Grand Strategy is required and what it should or should not look like. DS has drawn upon this work and that of Professor Sir Hew Strachan in producing the following evaluation.

Strategic Terminology

To assist in the formulation of a UK Grand Strategy DS began by analysing the terms commonly used by the PM and others (indeed Prof Prins himself) – ways, means, ends, plan and policy – and how they relate to strategy. However, to be meaningful when being applied to higher-level concepts such as Grand Strategy these terms require fleshing out as follows:

Ends:  Desired Outcomes, Benefits & Interests
Ways: Commitment & Leadership, Operational Strategy Policies
Means: Budgets, Facilities & Systems, Resources, People, Training

Looked at in this way Ends are the Grand Strategic destination HMG wants to maintain, reach or defend to meet desired national outcomes and benefits – ie national interests. Ways are the leadership and commitment to set and direct Operational Strategy – national Policy – to underpin the Plans necessary to reach the desired end game. The Ends and Ways in turn quantify and drive the Means,- perhaps better described as the policy enablers of budgets, facilities, resources and administration – that are essential to ensure that Operational Strategies, policies and plans are capable of achieving HMG’s strategic Ends.

Determining Destination – The Crucial First Step

Establishing higher-level strategic aims and interests is key to determining UK Grand Strategy, thus, articulating at the outset of the process the geopolitical position that UK wishes to hold is crucial. Is the extant geopolitical position of the UK as a global player holding permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and other international institutions the start point or is a less ambitious international role all that is desired or achievable?

The DS position on UK’s place in the world is; UK is one of the top ten leading industrialised democracies and its interests are well served by this historically established international place at the top table. Therefore, if UK is to continue to benefit from this leading position – punch above its notional weight in world affairs – it must accept the responsibility that such a position demands.

It follows that UK cannot disengage from international responsibility yet nor should it blindly follow the path set by other nations. UK must have confidence and accept that its values are widely admired, especially in support of international standards of jurisprudence. When exercising hard and soft power policy, UK’s national interests are paramount and, provided UK’s values are promoted and not compromised – as they arguably were in Iraq – there is no contradiction in this position. Therefore, the lesson of Iraq 2003 is clear; British diplomatic positioning and the commitment of armed force must always be based on UK values led interests and not those of other nations who will always prioritise their own interests ahead of the UK.

In this light DS assesses that UK’s principal strategic ends can be broadly stated in the list below as further explained in the text that follows:

  • Retain a Continual At Sea Deterrent (CASD) Trident based independent nuclear deterrent.
  • To act internationally only when UK’s interests are at stake; objectives always further UK interests; that there is a clearly articulated and achievable end-game to meet one or more of the following criteria:-
    ◦ To take all measures that maintain Britain’s economic strength through sound financial and monetary measures allied to the maintenance of free international trade.
    ◦ To make full and proportionate contributions to those alliances that contribute to and ensure world peace; most particularly, the UK’s seat on the UN Security Council must be retained and supported by a judicious mix of hard, soft and flexible (smart) power.
    ◦ To maintain and, where necessary, improve the living standards of all UK’s people and make a valid contribution to the well-being of the underprivileged in the wider world.
    ◦ To make a leading contribution to the search for the very best use of the world’s energy and raw material resources.

Strategic Direction to meet the Grand Strategic Destinations

Nuclear Weapon Policy. Overarching but not restricting UK national, foreign and defence policy is the possession of CASD. In a nuclear armed and arming world – China, Russia, North Korea, India, Iran, Israel and Pakistan are non-aligned – only France and the United States of America (USA) share long-term alliance interests with the UK. With the exception of the years 1946 to 1958 – covering the period of the US Congress McMahon act – the USA and UK have maintained the mutual free flow of nuclear weapons data since the ‘Quebec Agreement’ signed by Prime Minister (PM) Churchill and President Roosevelt on 19th August 1943.

Although the UK nuclear deterrent is assigned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) the authority to use nuclear weapons is held solely by the British PM. The 1958 Mutual Defence Purposes Agreement and the 1963 Polaris Sales Agreement (PSA) allow the UK independently to operate US missile systems. The 1963 PSA was amended in 1980 to facilitate purchase of the Trident I (C4) missile (never invoked) and again in 1982 to authorise purchase of the more advanced Trident II (D5). In return, under the terms of the 1962 Nassau Agreement signed by President John F Kennedy and PM Harold Macmillan the UK agreed to formally assign its nuclear forces to the defence of NATO, except in an extreme national emergency. [Source data – Lord Hennessy, ‘Cabinets And The Bomb’ – The British Academy published by Oxford University Press 2007]

The possession and retention by UK of an independent nuclear deterrent is vital to UK’s diplomatic and defensive interests. Ultimately, when other arguments have been exhausted, retention of the independent Trident system offers the UK the assurance that if all alliances fail the UK still has the capability to deter a nuclear armed belligerent nation state wherever it is situated globally. [Note: Strategies for the containment of – and defence against – nuclear-armed-non-state actors must be intelligence and diplomacy led and cannot be covered by CASD]

Beyond existential threats to life and property in UK – the Resource dilemma. Dependency upon resources coupled to limited economic resilience of the nation is a key strategic vulnerability. Whilst the UK is variably endowed with some self sustaining resources much has to be imported. Not least – with steadily reducing North Sea production – is the essential requirement to import oil, liquid natural gas (LNG), liquid petroleum gas (LPG), coal and coke worldwide. A trend that is compounded by the UK’s requirement to import minerals, ores, metals, chemicals, raw materials and agricultural products to supplement vibrant but by no means self sufficient UK industrial and farming sectors. Between 50-60% of trade is conducted through the EU leaving 40-50% to transit globally. Most of these imports (90-95%) travel by sea through 9 vulnerable choke points as do UK exports; a market upon which a vibrant economy and a strong balance of payments rely.

To ensure economic security and prosperity – to be able to trade, create wealth and assist other less fortunate nations and people – protection of UK trade and investment must be considered a vital UK Interest. Therefore, a fully funded operational strategy focused on a maritime/air defence policy consistent with maintaining international free movement of goods, services, people, capital and information is also vital.

The place of UK in the front rank of international players. Diplomacy is always preferable to war and the use of British Soft-Power resources to alleviate suffering, improve living standards and assist following disasters has always, rightly, formed some element of the UK’s Foreign policy objectives – now largely exercised through the Department for International Development (DFiD). And UK is a major UN contributor in addition to assigning 0.7% of GDP to DfID. However, it would be naïve to imagine that a belligerent dictatorship will metamorphose into a benign democracy simply because it had been assisted following a famine or tsunami. Indeed, the evidence indicates that despotic rulers willingly accept financial aid but, without external audit, control or pressure very little reaches the needy population. Whilst conflict prevention is an admirable aspiration there is little hard evidence that ‘Soft Power’ alone is able to achieved this, yet the deterrent or coercive effect of strong conventional forces is progressively being ignored as a ‘conflict preventer’.

Intelligence Based Strategy. Whether the UK is exercising ‘Hard’ or ‘Soft’ power the requirement to stay one step ahead of a potential enemy, indeed, to know who the enemy is and what his intentions might be falls to a matrix of services and departments generically referred to as ‘Intelligence’. For this essential requirement to be met the ‘ways and means’ to capture, distil, analyse and act are all required to ensure the process is effective. However, UK intelligence enablers are unravelling as money is transferred from international effort to fund domestic security and welfare policy. The Foreign Office (diplomatic service) and armed forces (RAF and RN) are suffering budget cuts leading to a smaller embassy presence which reduces the potential for human intelligence at source whilst reductions in aircraft, ships and submarines with sensor technology has had a detrimental effect on the collection of electronic based intelligence.

Cyberspace. One unifying factor which draws together national wealth generation, intelligence and global defence is ‘Cyberspace’. The use of interconnected (networked) computer systems for good or ill has provided a step change in communications leading to a revolution in the speed, availability and control of information. This has opened a ‘Pandora’s box’ of security issues in which the UK is well placed diplomatically, technically and academically to play a leading role formulating new international laws and defence doctrine that are badly needed to counteract the pernicious and dangerous aspects of this phenomenon. Attacks using ‘cyber’ techniques have already occurred putting information at risk and all manner of networked industrial processes and essential infrastructure, the loss of which could be life threatening. Nuclear power plants, electrical generation, air traffic services, hospitals, transport systems and government agencies, a few areas at greatest risk, increasingly rely upon networked computer systems to operate.

All of which are national strategic interests that require plans and Operational Strategy to be adopted that strengthens UK’s diplomatic, defence, intelligence and Cyber security policies. In doing so the emphasis must be on a judicious mix of soft and hard power working seamlessly – acknowledging that soft power, without hard power to back it up, can be a dangerous illusion.


The UK is a respected key international player and must continue to engage at every level of international diplomacy – UN, NATO, EU et al through a strengthened diplomatic service. The UK’s influence, which has been earned over centuries, must not be allowed to wane. Outside the USA, only the UK and France are long established stable industrialised democracies within the Security Council of the UN, Russia and China, not sharing the same values, still having to establish and earn international confidence and trust.

The UK’s close relationship with the USA must continue to provide a balancing–voice in major international affairs as an interface with the EU and Commonwealth thereby counterbalancing future transfers of power from West to East that threaten UK’s vital interests. As a long term special partner of the US in the field of intelligence the UK must ensure that its capabilities are able to integrate and reciprocate on a military and civil level so that threats to UK interests can be flagged ahead of time.

To retain international credibility, a permanent seat on the UNSC and as a defender of last resort, the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent must be retained alongside strong conventional forces that are supplied by a vibrant R&D intensive industrial base with protected lines of communication.

The UK must press for international law to be revised, especially in definitions of combatants, rules of engagement and jurisdiction in respect of terrorists and pirates. With the threat to ‘cyberspace’ security in all its guises increasing exponentially it is essential to define the legality of such threats or attacks in relation to the current law of armed conflict and the status of nations and individuals who sponsor or carry out ‘cyber-attacks’.

The UK must nurture and protect a strong and vibrant domestic high-technology industrial base capable of exporting and importing world wide without interference. These industries and the general public at large rely upon imports of food, raw materials, oils, gas and minerals all of which are vulnerable to interruption of supply as the UK does not have more than 3 weeks storage on average. As populations grow and climate change takes effect the severity of these issues and the problems they engender can only worsen – water and food riots, disputes over exploration rights, piracy, human trafficking, gun running and terrorism are already on the increase.

Therefore, the UK requires a hierarchy of Strategies that supply guidance to Government and their departments and enable a maritime/air/Cyber-centric Hard Power defence strategy supported by funded enablers to underpin diplomatic Soft Power policies. The completion of this work will enable long term goals to be set and worked towards for SDSR 2015 and beyond. It will also prevent ill-conceived ‘political’ judgements leading to more expense and less security.

Strategic Policy Enablers to meet direction once written?

November 2014
for DefenceSynergia