The growing scope and intensity of threats – from climate change through to the actions of adversaries – have highlighted the need to modernise the UK’s approach to national resilience. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (the Integrated Review) highlights how the rules-based international system has evolved. In doing so, it makes the case that national resilience is a key component of the UK’s aspiration to ‘shape the open international order of the future’, with resilience featuring throughout the review’s Strategic Framework.
The diversification of threats to national resilience, and increased scope and impact of these, has been growing clearer for the last decade, particularly as society and the international order becomes increasingly complex and interconnected. Along with many countries, COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of the systems underpinning the UK’s way of life and identified new ‘critical national capabilities’ – from broadband to supermarket logistics. The fragility of these systems, and the potential severity and breadth of impact of future emergencies, provides the UK’s adversaries (whether state, terrorist, or serious and organised crime groups) with multiple attack vectors, alongside vulnerability to natural hazards and emergencies.
While the Integrated Review demonstrates the ambition of the UK on the world stage and some key enablers for resilience, the scale of the challenge to improve national resilience is understated. There should be a clear owner and practical steps that could be coordinated by government using new ‘resilience partners’. This would provide a deep, pre-emptive and integrated resilience that could also act as a deterrent to adversaries and enhance the UK’s collective response to natural hazards.
In practice this means the UK needs to focus on three areas.
Successfully generating resilience in depth requires everyone to have a role across Government, first responders, local authorities, industry and the voluntary sector. These partners need to come together outside of emergency situations to build trust, understand each other’s goals and capabilities, and ensure they develop capabilities that are complementary rather than competing. Trust should be built though regular exercising so that when there is a crisis, relationships are already established, with the full spectrum of public and private sector capabilities brought to bear.
This should yield a clear structure in which central government is responsible for developing an understanding of emerging threats and their 2nd or 3rd order impacts. Local resilience forums would be given operational autonomy within a clear national strategic framework, with accountability for managing preparations and response at a local level. And individual citizens would have a clear understanding of their role too. In this latter case there are two lessons to be learned from the Nordics. First, by making first aid and basic cyber awareness part of the resilience curriculum in schools. Second, through the creation of a national resilience force, where the skills of local volunteers are accounted for and ready to support when required.
Next, there is a need to improve the use of the data government and partners possess. Greater data integration across central and local government, industry partners and the voluntary sector should be leveraged to detect emerging and cross-sector threats and ensure that resources, whether in prevention or response, can be directed to the right places. Investment in science and technology provides an opportunity here for Government to generate a digital twin of the UK as a system. This would allow indicators and warnings of potential emergencies to be identified, which could drive pre-emptive actions. Getting this investment right will help the UK meet its ambition of being a global leader in the identification and defence against systemic and significant threats.
Finally, there is a need to ensure the UK has the capacity to maintain resilience against sustained challenges. Given the threats faced may be more sustained and have a broader impact, the UK’s ability to respond also needs to be sustainable and cover greater scope. Partnerships are key to this and need to be expanded to include businesses and individuals that represent the UK’s new critical national capabilities, in addition to the traditional partners such as central and local government, emergency services, the British Armed Forces and utility companies. In doing this, the UK should also build on the amazing efforts of the voluntary sector that have been seen during the pandemic, and harness this in a consistent framework.
If the UK is to be successful in building resilience at home and overseas it must establish the ‘whole of society’ approach called for in the Integrated Review. That means bringing together partners from public and private sectors to generate resilience in depth, building the capacity to respond to sustained challenges, and harnessing and integrating data to better identify and respond to emergencies. It must do all of this in a coordinated way to ensure that trust is built and that a coherent set of capabilities is developed and maintained.