The forthcoming Integrated Review (IR) of Foreign Policy, Defence, Security and International Development is the best opportunity in a generation to create a step-change in our approach to national security.
In the five years since the last Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) the global security environment has shifted significantly. The approaches of state and non-state adversaries are stretching our traditional security apparatus beyond their original purpose; political and societal tensions are testing long standing alliances and unions; environmental degradation is biting, with larger segments of society now demanding action; and, between them, Russia and China pose multiple ideological, economic and geopolitical questions.
While the UK’s Fusion approach, launched as part of the 2018 National Security Capability Review, anticipated some of these shifts, progress has been limited. Inertia and competing demands, from EU Exit to COVID-19, have pushed its implementation to the margins.
But now is not the time to pause. Incremental adjustments to our national security posture aren’t enough to keep pace with fast-changing threats. And the response to the pandemic has ignited a renewed imperative to become more purpose-led, adaptive and collaborative. The opportunity to break the impasse through bold and rapid change is now.
It calls for boldness and pace an order of magnitude greater than we’ve seen this century. Before the moment and momentum is lost, leaders can seize the opportunity through three actions:
Rethink the way we collectively respond to a broader security landscape
Given the amorphous nature of the challenges we face and the emergence of new priorities such as addressing the human-security opportunities embodied-in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the forthcoming integrated review will need to rethink the scope of our national security enterprise. This requires a new, collective strategy across the national security landscape and a renewed focus on how joint response teams can form to provide an adaptive response.
In our new reality it’s inconceivable that a single national security entity can operate independently. No one organisation, in isolation, has all the levers required or the necessary expertise to enact whole system change. Instead, every challenge will call a revolving cast of respondents to the table. For instance, the recent COVID-19 response has required input from traditional players like the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence, as well as health-tech firms, technology consultancies and Formula One engineering teams, among many others.
This adaptive, multiskilled community should be tasked with the delivery of four pillars: protecting our people, projecting our influence, promoting our prosperity – and preserving our planet. This final, new pillar will ensure the entire security ecosystem takes sufficient notice of the ultimate existential questions we face.
Adaptiveness won’t simply happen. It’ll call for designed-in principles of openness, intentional provisions that make it simpler to expand or modify the system at a later date, and a focus on organisational interoperability and connectivity for both government and non-governmental organisations. All of this will enable purpose-led joint teams to assemble quickly and collaborate effectively.
This approach calls for a joined-up pan-security approach rather than a series of separate strategies. Focused on investment in national skills and incentivising specialist capabilities, this approach can link directly to regional prosperity and development goals, seeking to pursue the benefits of more innovative and open commercial approaches. Achieving this requires government to rebuild its role as both an integrator and coordinator, strengthening key skills lost through decades of reliance on a small number of prime systems integrators.
Reimagine how information can drive collaboration, insights and priorities
The UK is a world leader in foreign intelligence and insight but has struggled to leverage this information advantage domestically, where the large number of interfaces between contributing organisations and differing legal and policy frameworks present significant barriers to collaboration. It’s time for those across the national security ecosystem to recognise information as the critical enabler – freeing up scarce human resources to apply their experience, insight and wisdom on the most complex challenges.
As we operate at increased pace in line with the threats we face, a common understanding will be key to make the best of data. This demands better sharing of data and information assets and more integrated exploitation of the data, analytical tools and analyst skills we possess. The UK should focus on simplifying and then leveraging the ability to generate and share domestic insight, investing to grow the skills and capabilities of the future.
One common error is imagining that this calls for large-scale technology deployment. Instead, it means pursuing a framework of interfaces and protocols that enable agile technology development based on open standards. And, where organisations need to retain ownership of specialised information assets, these need to contribute to shared situational awareness, developed from the ability to plug-into common and shared platforms.
Establish a new model for security leadership
Establishing new organisations and headquarters can be costly, politically-charged and slow, especially as the number of partners rises. We should resist the traditional tendency to add complexity through additional leadership and governance structures , instead orchestrating partnerships through a wider range of appropriate collaboration models.
In the first instance there needs to be consensus on a purpose-led national ambition and vision, with a shared understanding of the relative priorities for different strategic capabilities and missions. We should track progress and incentivise public and private organisations to take the initiative to contribute within the bounds of this new security framework. This will help build the trust and respect between teams and organisations that is essential to encourage sharing and reduce policy and technology friction at the interfaces.
In tandem, we need to create a leadership environment that encourages and stimulates diverse, multiskilled and exceptional national security leaders capable of operating in environments of extreme breadth, complexity and ambiguity. Rather than defaulting to positional authority or succumbing to groupthink, these leaders need to be capable of breaking down silos to bring the best ideas together and advocate for disruptive, unpopular but crucial counterpoints. This new national security community also needs to make best use of informal leaders who are recognised for their influence, whether or not they hold senior leadership grades.
As well as having a ‘do-learn-adapt-do’ mindset, they’ll need ongoing support to develop in non-traditional security topics such as assimilating new technologies, data science, prediction and human behavioural analysis. These skills are in great demand and hard to secure.
To make rapid, short-term progress the community will need to make bold, targeted appointments through both internal and external recruitment. Concurrently we should establish an ‘attitude and aptitude’-based approach to hiring and assessment, accessing and developing people with great potential from the widest possible pool.
The forthcoming integrated review is a singular opportunity for UK national security leaders to propel us forward and prepare for the world ahead of us. Acting with purpose and pace is required to get us there.
Our collective response to COVID-19 has served as an understandable distraction but also as a reminder of what can be achieved through collective action behind a strong purpose. It’s time to seize this renewed imperative to become more purpose-led, adaptive and collaborative.
How the public sector can become more purpose-led, adaptive and collaborative