National Security Capability Review: what is ‘full spectrum’ national security?

Mar 28, 2018

The UK Government has released the findings of its 2018 National Security Capability Review (NSCR). With the focus shifting from defence to security, we sat down with our defence and security expert Nick Newman to get his take on this latest review.


What is the National Security Capability Review?

Every five years, the UK Government conducts a strategic review of the UK’s defence and security needs. Historically, these reviews have been dominated by military capabilities and budgets, and until now there has been little serious attempt to address the totality of the UK’s ‘full spectrum’ national security needs.

In July last year, the Cabinet Office commissioned the NSCR to support the ongoing implementation of the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review. It represents the first time the UK’s increasingly complex, interconnected and expensive security capabilities have been considered as a whole.

Why is it important to take a broader view of national security now?

Given new risks from increasingly hostile nations, the digital world and domestic terrorism, the NSCR is accelerating steps to improve collaboration and interoperability between departments. The goal is to achieve a more comprehensive approach to the UK’s defence and national security needs.

However, the affordability of the defence programme, with its severe implications for army personnel numbers and amphibious capabilities in particular, clearly needs to be addressed urgently. So defence will be considered by the separate Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) review, which is expected to reach its conclusions by this summer.

In that context, the government's decision to take the defence elements out of the NSCR feels like a necessary but disappointing missed opportunity.

In any case, the overall budget needs to address changing priorities to improve cyber defences; keep pace with evolving domestic terrorism; and ensure the UK’s national security advantages are maintained in a post-Brexit world.

There’s only one ‘pot of gold’ and it needs to be spread ever-thinner to meet the complementary, but often competing, demands for investment in deterrence, diplomacy, strategic intelligence, hard military power, domestic counter-terrorism, counter-extremism and de-radicalisation, serious organised crime, and policing.

How will the whole system approach work?

With such a range of capabilities to balance, the NSCR emphasises a ‘fusion doctrine’ for the UK’s extended national security and defence capabilities – stressing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. With the response to new challenges constrained by budgetary pressures, the UK needs to leverage its intelligence, defence and security capabilities synergistically to achieve more with the resources we have. 

This team ethos is most visible during high-intensity military or humanitarian operations, and when the military and civil authorities co-operate in activities such as the response to the Salisbury nerve gas attack and severe weather.

But the NSCR needs to strike a difficult balance of investment between the defence capabilities required for overseas operations and the security capabilities needed to protect the homeland. These include beefed up cyber defences to protect the UK’s critical infrastructure and economic prosperity, and improved digital intelligence to help prevent terrorism and serious crime. 

Embracing the contributions of industry and civil society organisations - such as the role of charities in de-radicalising violent extremists - will also become increasingly important.

What are the challenges to putting this approach in place?

We don’t underestimate the task to balance the books across this complex national security landscape. The challenges span global to local issues. National security means having robust military power with adequate protection from cyber and terror threats. It also requires adequate deterrence, with nuclear capabilities supported by the resources to sustain a full-spectrum conventional escalation. Making these ends meet, while keeping the nation safe, is the unique security challenge of our age.

You can read the full findings of the NSCR here.

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