In this article we explore the suitability of Defence Policy in the 21st Century by considering its design, application and relevance in the modern era.

But before we begin it is worth considering what Policy actually is and what is means for organisations? Policy, according to the Oxford English dictionary is; ‘A course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organisation or individual’ – very succinct and well put. In the case of businesses Policy could be expressed as ‘rules and principles which guide an organisations activities’.

Policy is implemented everyday throughout the armed services and should be inherent within everything the armed services does; like a stick of seaside rock the ‘rules and principles’ which guide our armed services should run through all of their activities and be present at any point throughout the various segments of the organisation as Policy should be inherent in everything and anything we do. In corporations and businesses, Policy is the byproduct of the senior management teams’ analysis of the organisations external environment and internal situation.

What we mean by this (in a nutshell) is that those in the most senior positions would assess the future of the organisation by identifying where the future of the organisation lies (according to market needs and future trends) and then reflect upon the organisation’ internal factors such as its personnel (quantity, skill-sets, demographics, experiences etc.) along with the existing processes (the various activities the organisation conducts along with the methods it adopts to exercise its actions) and its equipment, systems and past performance. The characteristics of these ‘internal’ factors are then assessed against the aforementioned future needs of the organisation. This results in what is known as ‘Strategy’ being developed which details how the particular organisation is going to utilise and / or amend its internal factors (people, processes, system etc.) in order to continue meeting its current needs whilst also adapting to meet expected future needs.

However, as history has proved; we can have the best Strategy in the world but without good Policy our people can often misplace their efforts – hence the need to have those all-important principles which guide the actions of our organisation on a day-to-day basis throughout its entire structure – like the stick of seaside rock!

But, taking us back into the MOD and armed services; Policy in the Defence industry is often identified in a cyclic, pre-determined period. For example; in the case of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review a series of principles and guiding actions / intentions were identified for the coming five years (i.e. the Defence Policy) as a byproduct of the ‘Strategic’ review of our nations Defence and Security needs.

However, is a Policy lasting five years suitable in the 21st century?  Let’s consider some factors which could influence Defence Policy on an emergent, daily basis: Politics – not just national politics, but international politics. With so many political uncertainties across the globe the emerging and changing needs of our capabilities to protect and secure our national assets and international interests will continually evolve.

And how about society and the continually changing opinions of people in the 21st century – information is so readily available via so many means that ideas can be readily shared and opinions easily influenced on a global scale. One only has to be reminded of the widely available web-content which influences people to join terror organisations. And of course there is technology – with its continual advancement providing various enhancements and capabilities, not just for Great Britain or it allies but also our existing and emerging threats whom will adapt and modify the use of technologies on a continual basis, thus continually evolving their capabilities and the threat they pose to the Defence and Security of our nation. An example here would be the continual research and development of certain nations or regimes chemical and biological weapons programs resulting in new found methods for their application and enhancing the effects of exposure.

The question is; does a five (or so) year Policy really enable due consideration for factors such as these to be taken aboard and adequately considered in the Defence Policy making process? And how would such a resulting Policy enable our armed forces to effectively and efficiently manage such uncertainties and emerging threats? One solution is to identify, create and implement a Defence Policy which enables a greater degree of flexibility so as not to restrict or narrow the perspective of emerging threats and thus cater for uncertainties and eventualities.

Though this approach would also rely upon a large degree of autonomy in the decision making of our top brass and the availability of equipment, personnel and other resources being readily available to enable our armed services to deal with such threats. However, one of the significant risks associated with such an approach is the lack of clearly defined principles and guidance which underpins Policy which would likely result in poorly coordinated effort across the armed services at various levels due to the lack of understanding and coordinated approach to exercising Policy on a day-to-day basis.

Another potential solution would be to revise Policy more frequently as appears to be happening now. However, this answer doesn’t seem practical because as discussed earlier; Policy is coupled with organisational Strategy which is the byproduct of an assessment of the internal people, processes and equipment required to meet current requirements and adapt to meeting future needs. Therefore, how could the MOD manage such rapid organisational change to suit rapid Policy change? The answer is that it couldn’t effectively do so, and neither could any other organisation I know of which is of comparative size and complexity as that of the MOD and armed forces. This potential solution would most definitely be a struggle to manage the balance required to successfully maintain both current and future operational capability requirements, and no amount of money would be able to provide an adequate fix to enable this solution to be effective.

The answer is that we need to identify a suitable balance between the two options, which is what our country’s Strategic Defence and Security Reviews aim to achieve. In the 21st century, almost any organisation faces the rapid emerging changes to its political, technological, sociological or financial (etc.) influences and the MOD and armed services are no exception.

The only differences are the obvious considerations such as the MOD and armed services not being profit making organisations and serving a vast array of unique purposes in theatres across the world on a parallel basis whereas not every organisation is required to perform such breadth and depth of activities. Therefore, one must assume that the key to ensuring the effectiveness in future UK Defence Policy is to identify a Policy which enables a degree of flexibility balanced with clearly defined principles and guidance – which is a tall order indeed! And also, to ensure the future and emerging needs of the MOD and armed services are well identified and assessed, as without the Strategy being right; the Policy isn’t either, and without the Policy being right; the Strategy is ill-fated.

A great deal of planning, consideration and a structured approach is needed to identify, design and implement effective Strategy and Defence Policy, and to get these right; we must take our time not to rush the process. If there was any ‘hard and fast’ way to identify, design and implement Defence Policy than I am certain it would be costly in the medium to long-term due to the unsustainability of the solutions the Policy would provide. And let’s face reality: Defence is an issue not to be taken lightly, and the decision making processes associated with identifying, designing and implementing our nations Defence Policy shouldn’t be rushed to satisfy any short-term needs, whether they be of operational or financial in nature.


  1. Policies will change with politicians and Governments, this has been and will always be the case in a democracy. In my opinion what we need is some kind of doctrine which outlines what a minimum national defence force looks like – and I mean defence rather than power projection. Number of fast jet squadrons, size of the frigate and SSN fleet should really be decided upon, sourced, then legislated to stop meddling by the next Govt without a vote.

    Power projection assets i.e. carriers, amphib, much of the army will then naturally be shaped by the political landscape and available budget at the time.

    Might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it would at least ensure our nation is defended properly whereas at the moment we are woefully short in key areas i.e. MPA, SSN.

  2. “Number of fast jet squadrons, size of the frigate and SSN fleet should really be decided upon, sourced, then legislated to stop meddling by the next Govt without a vote.”

    That’s pretty key. The constant changes of direction and new governments feeling the need to change previous government’s plans sometimes seemingly purely on the basis it was someone else’s plan and not their own makes it so hard to plan and resource in any coherent way.

    One problem with legislating though is that governments can change legislation. If it was really a rock-solid guarantee then people here had better shut up about reducing the aid budget because the 0.7% is enshrined in law ( Of course we all know that the law could be changed or repealed completely which is why we (including me) do keep talking about it.

    So, having expressed scepticism about going the legislative route, what to do? Some independent overseer a bit like the Bank of England? Or maybe just do the carrier trick and sign new contracts with such horrible penalty clauses that it becomes more expensive to cancel than to complete the build and then place orders for the full numbers but long timescales, e.g. place all 8 T26 orders but with a longer term schedule for stage payments and delivery dates? That might stop future governments unwinding previous governments’ plans. Bit of an ugly bodge to protect us from our own politicians though.

    • I can’t think of anything that isn’t an ugly bodge or a legal route. Maybe the best way is to create public pressure, with the armed forces doing far more to tell Joe public what they do and how it benefits us. We have to change the “No votes in defence” mantra of governments. The legal route is a better short term fix though.

      • “can’t think of anything, then goes to on to suggest something in the same post…………… well it is Monday!

          • As soon as you legislate for defence our enemies will have clarity over how to overcome that defence. At least the present muddle keeps adversaries guessing! Muddling through is unavoidable because none of us, individually or even institutionally agree on the what, when, where and how. Theres also events, Iraq and Afghanistan almost completely derailed the sdsr. Finally nobody is going to agree what to deprioritise. There’s no right answer, only options with consequences.

  3. They need to mandate the minimum requirements for the armed forces which will be determined by what the government needs them to do. Depending on who is in power this may range from a pea shooter to nuclear weapons. Somewhere in the middle is probably where we will end up (hopefully).

  4. Unfortunately this point is all moot. The reason is Commissar Corbyn, as soon as he is elected to PM there will be yet another defence review and the MOD will be ruled by committee. Firstly there will be an overseas review of our territories, so goodbye Falklands, Gibraltar, Diego Garcia, Cyprus etc. Next the teeth would be pulled from Trident, then the carriers sold off and we would become a de-facto home defence force and forced in to a European Defence Force.
    There must be a way where all political parties are made to agree to a defence policy and stick to it! Too many times does the new Government waste money by unraveling what the previous Government has put in place. The knee jerk reaction to policy making causes more harm and wastes money. If we decide that we need a home defence force then so be it but at least make it a force to be reckoned with. The same with expeditionary forces and NATO support. By at least planning for both home, expeditionary and NATO it gives the military options and more importantly flexibility.
    But we also need the senior ranks to admit that the Government has made a poor decision and have the balls to speak out about it. Rather than waffling and hiding the facts from the Defence Committee who should also be given teeth to put not only the MOD to task but also Government. How many times have we heard the First Sea Lord saying we can cope with the present number of Destroyers etc, when clearly there’s not enough?

  5. The issue with using “home” Defence needs as the basis are they are hard to determine as the Uk faces virtually no threat at home. We are an island with nuclear weapons surrounded by friendly stable countries. For the UK to be prodominantly thinking about Defence of the home islands is typically a failure for us. Keeping countries like lativia and Estonia safe or Qatar and the UAE keeps us safe at home. Prevents anyone from basing forces any where near us and protects vital imports. The UK faces zero threat of invasion or direct Attack beyond a nuclear strike, subversive state or terrorist Attack. Non of these really need MPA, Frigates or SSN’s to deal with them. The only two conceivable countries that could ever even consider posing a credible threat to the UK are Russia or China and neither is in any position to do so short of annexing Ireland. They lack the location in China’s case and the ability in Russia’s. If the British military is unable to send large forces far from home then it’s not worth the £40 billion a year spent on it. Also in a blue water environment once the Queen Elizabeth class come on line the RN is quite unmatched by any other navy in the world with the exclusion of the USN. Factor in giant airbases in the middle of every ocean except the pacific and the UK would not loose to anyone at sea.


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