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Overview of the 2015 strategy

Three threats to UK national security are particularly highlighted in the 2015 UK NSS: Russia, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and cyber.

The strategy has been distilled into three “National Security Objectives”:

  • Protect our people
  • Project our global influence
  • Promote our prosperity

The strategy sets out four main challenges which “are likely to drive UK security priorities for the coming decade”:

  • The increasing threat posed by terrorism, extremism and instability
  • The resurgence of state-based threats; and intensifying wider state competition
  • The impact of technology, especially cyber threats; and wider technological developments
  • The erosion of the rules-based international order, making it harder to build consensus and tackle global threats

The strategy also sets out a number of other risks “which remain important and need to be addressed”. They are: civil emergencies; major natural disasters overseas; energy security; the global economy; and climate change and resource scarcity.

An Annex to the strategy document summarises the 2015 National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) which has shaped the new strategy. This assessment places the domestic and overseas risks faced by the UK into three tiers, “according to judgement of both likelihood and impact”.

Comparing the 2015 strategy with its 2010 predecessor

The most obvious difference between the two strategies is that fact that, whereas the NSS and SDSR were two separate documents in 2010, in 2015 they have been combined. This suggests that there is better integration between the overarching strategy framework of the NSS and the more policy- and capability-oriented SDSR than there was in 2010.

In terms of their risk assessments, there are many overlaps between the 2010 and 2015 strategy documents. Given that they were published only five years apart, it would be surprising if there were not. But there are a larger number of Tier One and Tier Two risks in the 2015 NSRA than there were in its 2010 counterpart.

Specifically, the 2015 NSRA gives greater weight in Tier One to non-state actors in international military conflict and introduces a wholly new heading, “instability overseas”. This heading was in Tier Two in 2010. In addition, two Tier One risks that were combined in the 2010 NSRA, “public health” and “major natural hazards”, have been given their own headings in the 2015 update.

There are also more Tier Two risks in the 2015 version than there were in 2010. There has been relatively little change between 2010 and 2015 in terms of Tier Three risks. Neither the 2010 nor 2015 risk assessments use the phrase ‘climate change’ in their three Tiers.

Initial reaction to the 2015 strategy

Initial reaction to the 2015 UK strategy document has focused overwhelmingly on the specific policies and capabilities flowing from the overarching strategy. Indeed, the entire exercise has quickly come to be known publicly simply as the SDSR.

For some, the apparent semi-eclipse of the 2015 UK NSS could be interpreted as reflecting a sense that the overarching strategy agreed in 2010 has merely been ‘refreshed’, rather than transformed. For others, it might also flow from a feeling that, having invested considerable energy in debating what strategy is ‘for’ between 2010 and 2015, many politicians and commentators have decided that few solid conclusions arose from that debate.

Analysts have also argued in the past that the British just don’t ‘do’ strategy.

Comparing the 2015 UK strategy with other strategies

Debate has long raged about what a strategy is ‘for’, who should do it and what one should look like. Rather than rehearse such arguments again in this briefing, instead we explore the different approaches that can be taken when designing a national security strategy by undertaking a brief comparison of the 2015 UK strategy document with two other important strategy documents that have been published in the last year or so:

  • Global Strategic Trends – out to 2045, published in June 2014 by the UK Ministry of Defence
  • The US Government’s National Security Strategy, published in February 2015

In doing so, we also compare how the three documents address the ‘threats and opportunities’ posed by two very important countries: Russia and China. There is widespread consensus in security and intelligence circles that Russia and China raise important questions for the national security of Western countries, including the UK. But there is less consensus over the level of threat that they pose. Concern has been expressed in some quarters that, while suitably cautious about Russia, the UK today seems excessively inclined to give China the ‘benefit of the doubt’.

Global Strategic Trends and the 2015 UK strategy

The context and purpose of the two documents is clearly different. The second is an official policy document while the first is not. At the same time, it would be a mistake to view them as unconnected. Global Strategic Trends was one of the main contributions to the policy-making process that culminated in the 2015 UK strategy. Global Strategic Trends also has more to say than the 2015 UK strategy about its methodology.

One issue on which there is considerable overlap between the two documents is climate change; it features regularly as a risk factor in both but is not given headline status in either.

While avoiding any sense that Russia is destined only to be a threat, both documents are relatively pessimistic in emphasis. The emphasis on China is predominantly positive.

For example, Global Strategic Trends does not discuss the issue of Chinese involvement in the building and running of the UK’s critical national infrastructure. The 2015 UK strategy document does briefly refer to China as a security risk in relation to its prospective involvement in the building of the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, but it is quick to reassure that appropriate steps have been taken to mitigate the risk.

Global Strategic Trends does not mention China at any point when talking about cybersecurity threats. The 2015 UK strategy document mentions China and cybersecurity once in the same paragraph, but it does so only to emphasise the improving cooperation on the issue between the two countries.

In neither document is there reference to implications arising from possible political or security crises within China during this period. The word ‘Tibet’ does not feature in either document; Xinjiang features in Global Strategic Trends but only in the context of Uighur terrorism.

The 2015 UK strategy and the 2015 US National Security Strategy

Like the UK, the US government publishes a NSS every five years. However, while there are certainly similarities, there are important differences between their respective 2015 strategies. Overall, the 2015 UK strategy document goes into much greater detail than its US counterpart and the overarching strategy framework is linked within it to a range of specific policies and capabilities.

Unlike the UK strategy, its US counterpart places “national interests” at its heart, carrying these over unchanged from its 2010 incarnation.

The US strategy also identifies eight “top strategic risks” to the country’s interests. While there is plenty of overlap between the 2015 US and UK strategies in terms of the risks they identify, the latter goes into greater detail by setting out three tiers of risk.

There are other differences too: unlike the UK strategy, the US strategy does not explicitly feature cyber as a ‘top risk’; on the other hand, the US strategy does feature climate change as a ‘top risk’, whereas the UK document does not use the phrase in any of its three tiers.

On Russia, there are plenty of points in common between the 2015 UK and US strategies. Both frame the country primarily as a major risk to their security. On China, the tone of the US strategy is less sharp than it is on Russia; nonetheless, it is considerably sharper than that found in the UK strategy.

An explanation put forward for this apparent divergence between the UK and US strategies over China is US determination to protect its current position as the worlds’ only superpower– a status which only China is likely to threaten over the years ahead. The UK, it has been argued, is in a “different strategic situation”, preoccupied as it is mainly with deepening economic ties with China. However, some observers feel that the UK could face tough choices in future if relations between the US and China were to deteriorate seriously.   

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