With another Strategic Defence and Security Review due in the coming months this article intends to break down the SDSR process to gain an understanding of what an SDSR aims to achieve and how they are likely to be structured. But a good first step is to understand what is meant by ‘strategy’?

The term strategy is derived from strategia ­which is an ancient Greek meaning to express ‘Generalship’. Yet an understanding of strategy emerged far earlier and is first documented within the infamous classic book by Sun Tzu; The Art of War, written around 500 years BC.

Many consider strategy as ‘elusive’ due to it being both conceptual and subjective to the environment or situation to which a strategy is formed and applied. However, there are indeed structured ways of thinking which can enable us to understand the concept of strategy more logically and methodically.

Strategy can be applied and take various forms: Defence Strategy, Security Strategy, Maritime Security Strategy, Ground Force Strategy, etc. Yet despite strategy having its roots firmly within the military, it has also played a key part in the world of businesses too: Corporate Strategy, International Strategy, Group Strategy, Financial Strategy, Operational Strategy, Globalisation Strategy etc. and indeed one of the most popular books amongst business leaders is in fact Sun Tzu’; The Art of War.

But no matter what environment strategy is applied or what era we can research successful strategy being applied to, there are three key elements or ‘themes’ common to the planning of successful strategy’s according to Robert S. Grant [1], a renowned specialist in strategy:

  1. Successful strategies are always planned around attaining ‘Simple and consistent long-term goals’.
  2. The planning of a successful strategy will always include a thorough understanding and consideration for the environment to which the organisation implementing the strategy is intending to compete within.
  3. Successful strategies are planned to utilise the strengths and reduce exposure of the weaknesses within the resources available to the organisation implementing the strategy.

Essentially, strategy is a path to success born from a systematic analysis with the outcome being a strategic plan. In the case of an SDSR it is likely to consist of three key steps, as follows:

  1. Identification of what the intended / desired outcome is.

For defence and security this will usually take the lead from the national and international policies which are currently in place to give guidance as to what our nation is looking to achieve. Two of the strongest example we have here are Defence Policy and Foreign Policy; as these will usually be strong influencers in providing this ‘vision’ of what success looks like, from a political standpoint.

  1. Analysis of the competitive environment

Once the desired outcome is established the next step is to follow on and to perform an analysis of the forces which will pose an impact on your efforts in attaining the desired outcome / end result.

For defence and security this is also a very complex matter. Despite strategy having its roots in the military and being adopted into business, it is at this point of the competitive analysis where business can take the lead to better explain how a competitive analysis is structured by using the Porter’s Five Forces Model [2]. The model is a structured way to understand how an organisation can analyse the environment in which it intends to compete within by five influential factors known as ‘forces’, those are:

  1. Threat of substitutes – this is an assessment of what substitutes there are available to whatever our nation has to offer which encourages countries or organisations to develop relationships with the UK and / or to trade and invest with the UK? The answer to this question would result in identifying which nations, countries or organisations we are competing with to gain that trade and relationships with, and how would we go about beating them to it?
  2. Threat of new entrants – in defence and security this means identifying organisations that are likely to emerge who could pose a threat upon our government’s ability to maintain our defences and keep our nation secure in upholding law and order? This part of the analysis will help identify emerging, small and medium sized terror organisations and activist parties whom could cause disruption.
  3. Rivalry between established competition – the analysis in this part is geared around building an understanding of the motivations, intentions and impacts known countries, nations and organisations have against the home and international interests of the UK.
  4. Bargaining power of buyers – this is an analysis of the influence which purchasers of British goods and services have over dictating terms and conditions. This will largely be in the form of an analysis of international policies which could impact foreign trade and investment along with foreign relations with the UK.
  5. Bargaining power of suppliers – this is an analysis of the influence which providers to the UK have over dictating terms and conditions. This fifth part of the analysis will be a look at what the UK consumes from abroad and looking ahead at how the UK needs will not fall into the mercy of the suppliers. Natural resources are a great example: as when a country is running low of its ability to supply it has an ability to increase the price of its product. So if gas being supplied by Russia were to be in high demand with low availability than the Russian supplying company could increase its prices.

       3.   Appraisal of resources

With a thorough understanding of the desired outcome or ‘end game’ looks like, along with the information obtained from analysing the forces which could influence our country’s ability to achieve the desired outcome, the next step is to assess the resources and capabilities the UK possesses in being able to manage those threats in a coherent manner. Any shortfalls in the capabilities or additional / excess resources will be identified and plans put into place to downsize and or increase the resources available according to the priorities of both the end game and the threats which pose an impact.

The result of these three steps is a forecast which enables the government to look ahead at the short, medium and longer-term future of UK defence and security in terms of the role defence and security currently plays, the role it needs to play and identifying the resources required to be effective.

Out of this it is likely there emerges a series of ‘operational requirements’ needed to defend and keep the UK safe and secure. These requirements are then split into a series of ‘Operational Capabilities’ which are assigned to various organisations which conduct the activities required to defend and keep the UK secure, such as the Royal Navy, Army, Royal Air Force, GCHQ, MI5 and SIS. The top management are then held to account for delivering against their individual operational requirements. However, running these organisations, bringing in new resources and phasing out old ones all costs money, which is distributed amongst the organisations. Each of these organisations, must work closely with government (or ‘head office’, the board of directors etc.) should they wish to secure the funding required to manage their resources and be able to deliver to the requirements of their operational capabilities.

In summary, an SDSR looks to forecast the future operational capability requirements of the UK defence and security organisations, and identify the resources required to meet those requirements. It is not an easy task to plan, execute and articulate any strategic review, especially a large-scale one spanning national and international influences and interests. However, having taken a very broad view of strategy by identifying three common characteristics associated with successful strategy we have been able to identify that essentially; strategy is a path to success born from a systematic analysis of three core elements – 1) identifying a desired outcome or ‘end game’, 2) analysing the competitive environment in which the organisation (in this case the UK) operates within and 3) appraising the resources available and resources required to manage the risks which pose an impact on disrupting the UK’s chances of meeting its desired outcome.

[1] Grant R (2010) Contemporary Strategy Analysis, 7th edition, John Wiley & Sons.

[2] M. Porter, Competitive Advantage (New York: Free Press, 1985).

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Rod Williams
Rod Williams
6 years ago

This is a very old-fashioned and overly theoretical view of what strategy is and how a SDSR is undertaken. The application of Porter’s Five Forces is not very appropriate for national Defence and Security. While I agree that the UK Government has been poor at strategy and strategic planning over several decades, I can provide you with a far superior ‘primer’ than this on strategic planning in Defence and Security.

Christopher Nash
Christopher Nash
5 years ago
Reply to  Rod Williams

I would certainly welcome sight of this superior primer.