Security Strategy fails to address failed states and nuclear proliferation

Britain’s new National Security Strategy clearly lays out the paradigms within which the Army must conceptualise future conflicts, writes Capt. Patrick Bury.

Patrick Bury is a former Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment who served in Sangin, Afghanistan; a memoir of his experiences ‘Callsign Hades’, described as ‘the first great book of the Afghan war’, is out now

Yesterday’s publication of Britain’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) clearly laid out the paradigms within which the Armed Forces must conceptualise future conflicts. Thus, it must be seen to go hand in hand with today’s publication of the Strategic Defence Review (SDR), and, perhaps more importantly, tomorrow’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

The NSS is to be welcomed in that it addresses and prioritises threats to the UK in a way that previous SDRs had failed to do. In addressing this issue it marks a move toward the rebirth of strategy within UK foreign and defence policy, which had been notably absent since the increasingly fast and widespread impacts of globalisation began to be felt in the 1990s and beyond.

Strategy relies on an inherent understanding of interest and capability, of knowing what matters to the state and using the state’s resources to achieve certain goals. The 2010 NSS marks a departure from the ‘swamped’ NSSs of 2008 and 2009, which were simply profiling and attempting to react to the multitude of threats associated with a globalised world, by prioritising and ranking certain threats. This is the first step toward creating a coherent strategy, and therefore must be seen as a step in the right direction. But questions still remain.

Most glaringly, the NSS places relatively little emphasis on two recent critical security concerns: fragile or failed states and nuclear proliferation. Iran still remains a top US defence concern, yet the NSS ranks it with organised crime. This may well be because, as the document admits, it is explicitly shaped by the need to deal with the UK’s fiscal deficit. Thus its language seems to prepare the ground for a more limited approach to costly interventions, more of which should become apparent when the SDR announces the full scale of cuts to Britain’s Armed Forces.

The SDR itself will be interesting for a number of strategic reasons. Firstly, does it reflect a strategic view? Does it prioritise threats and then allocate capabilities accordingly? If it fails to do this it will become more of an operational plan than a strategic one. A key part to look for in it is the future role of the navy.

According to a recent report, 95 per cent of UK trade by volume and 90 per cent by value is carried by sea. Most of this has to be transported through eight critical maritime choke points (Gibraltar, Malacca etc). Not only this, but some 20 per cent of the world’s oil passes through the strait of Hormuz every day, and in the future the dependence on Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) to transport goods, and in particular energy, is set to increase. Therefore, the long term strategic view must take into account the UK’s dependence on SLOCs for it to continue to function.

So we come to the aircraft carriers. Projecting force may not now be a priority if fiscal constraints and experience caution against foreign intervention, but the capability of aircraft carriers to protect SLOCs should not be underestimated, given the increased range air platforms give in reconnaissance and interdiction operations. Retiring the Ark Royal, a short range Harrier jump jet aircraft carrier, thus fits neatly into the NSS and SDR views on force projection, but does not help in protecting vital SLOCs.

Despite the myriad of threats rightly detailed and prioritised in the NSS, one of the key factors in protecting the UK over the next 20 years will be the availability of low-tech surface ships to protect SLOCs. Look to what happens in this area of the SDR to get an idea of just how strategic it indeed is.

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