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Former Strategy Director at the UK Ministry of Defence Will Jessett CBE discusses strategic defence and security planning

At the end of 2019, the British government announced that it would be conducting ‘the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.’ This article considers why the government has embarked on this Integrated Review now and the UK’s recent experience of conducting reviews on this scale.  In doing so, it sets out the broad approach the UK and many of our allies follow during the conduct of such reviews.  It focuses of the defence aspects of reviews, which always tend to be the focus of these exercises.


Three sets of circumstances usually trigger major defence and security reviews: significant changes in the international strategic context, such as the end of the Cold War, which make major changes of policy and plans necessary or possible; the determination of governments to substantially reset the direction of foreign, security and defence policy; and significant financial challenges, such as the financial crash in 2008, which require major reductions in defence and wider national security budgets.

The start of most major reviews often coincides with changes of national leadership and government. The significant shifts in the international strategic context since the last major UK review in 2015 and the new government’s determination to forge a new, more upbeat foreign and security policy as the UK exits the EU, mean that the first two boxes above were ticked.  When the Integrated Review was launched, no-one foresaw a Coronavirus epidemic that would have an economic impact like the crash in 2008.  It remains to be seen how much of an impact this will have on the current Review.


The UK has undertaken four major defence and security reviews since 1990.  Options for Change (1990/91) marked the progressive move away from planning for major conflict in Europe and resulted in significant downsizing of the armed forces and a substantial ‘peace dividend’, as defence spending fell from 5 per cent to 2.8 per cent of GDP.

In the Strategic Defence Review (1997/98) foreign and defence policy embraced ‘responsibility to protect,’ and defence policy and planning underwent a major reset towards an expeditionary approach and capabilities.

The Strategic Defence and Security Review (2010) was the UK’s first attempt at a wider review based on a comprehensive national security strategy.  It is memorable for reducing defence planning assumptions, the defence budget and creating significant capability gaps.

The second Strategic Defence and Security Review (2015) stabilised defence spending.  It’s central planning assumption was the development of a ‘highly capable expeditionary force of around 50,000’ to be available by 2025 – this remains the target towards which the MOD is building.

These major reviews, which were interspersed with around a dozen minor or thematic reviews during the period since 1990, are the main means by which defence policy and the size and shape of the UK armed forces have been transformed over the past 30 years. The 2020 Integrated Review will set the course for the decade ahead.


The best defence and security reviews are systematic.  The six-phase approach we use in the UK, which is followed by many of our allies, is typical.

Strategic reviews usually commence with an assessment of the strategic context over two time periods. Long-term horizon scanning (out to 20+ years) examines likely global changes in the balance of political, economic and military power, demographics, how societies will develop and where they will live, the impact of climate change, developments in technology and medicine – and what this will all mean for the future character of crises involving use of the armed forces.   Shorter-term (5-10 years) analysis covers the more immediate risks, threats and opportunities against which to plan.

The next phase considers the questions that will inform and shape defence and wider national security policy and plans. These might include:

  • What sort of operations are the country’s armed forces likely to be involved in during the decade ahead, and at what scale?
  • How are changes in technology in the defence and civil sectors likely to impact the capabilities and operational approaches of allies and potential adversaries?
  • What international defence relationships should the government prioritise and work to strengthen?
  • Are current defence and national security plans affordable, sustainable and deliverable?


The first two phases pave the way for setting the goals or objectives of national security and defence strategy.  These objectives tend to be framed in broad terms, to provide a top-level framework to guide the development of policy, activities, capabilities and plans.

The fifth phase involves working out the activities and tasks that will need to be undertaken by the armed forces to deliver these goals then using the tasks to inform the capabilities MOD will need to invest in to turn the strategy into practice. This links policy objectives to strategy and should inform the government’s defence and wider national security investment priorities.

The fifth stage involves an objective analysis of the force structure and capabilities required to deliver the defence tasks. It is an approach by which force structure plans can be validated and misfits between policy and plans can be exposed.

The final, programming and costing reviews are crucial.  Effective defence planning involves striking a balance between investing in force structure (manpower), new equipment, maintaining existing equipment and the costs of organisation, operations and other activities.  In most countries, (including the UK), the policy and capability ambitions of defence departments consistently outstrip available resources. Preventing this imbalance from becoming acute requires active management. Clear and realistic implementation plans then need to be developed to give effect to the strategy.  Progress needs to be kept under close review to prevent gaps opening between intentions and outcomes.


All defence and security reviews face similar challenges and dilemmas.  Should they be policy-led or resource-driven?  Threat-based or capabilities-based?  Open or closed? National or international?  Focused on maintaining current capabilities or investing in new ones?  In practice, reviews need to strike a balance on these questions.

In the UK and elsewhere, defence strategists and planners have tried a wide range of approaches to re-set the size and shape of the armed forces: downsizing; greater ‘jointery’ between the armed services; stronger international coordination; better coordination with other national security forces; technology-led modernisation and wider innovation; smarter acquisition, and the pursuit of ‘efficiency’ throughout defence, including through privatisation and outsourcing.  The common aims of all these approaches has been improving the operational effectiveness, efficiency and affordability of the UK armed forces.

The key goal of all the reviews described above, in the UK and among our allies, is achieving the right balance between the objectives of national security policy, operational commitments, forward plans and programmes and budgets. Another article later this year will assess the results of the Integrated Review against this yardstick.



Universal Defence and Security Solutions Ltd provides policy, strategy and operational solutions for governments, businesses and commercial organisations on a global basis. UDSS has the broadest and deepest membership of former British Armed Forces personnel, both regular and reserve from SNCO to 4 star as well as former MoD civil servants. This enables UDSS to provide the very best expertise in the major defence and security challenges of today including: defence policy, strategy and reviews; leading in contemporary military hard power capability; hybrid or political confrontation; information operations and cyber warfare; peace support; constabulary operations; health, humanitarian and disaster relief.




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