The Royal United Services Institute has been at the heart of military and security thinking for over 190 years. The Duke of Wellington and a number of other senior military commanders established the Institute in 1831, and some of the most influential thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries worked or spoke at RUSI.
RUSI has been at the centre of policymaking and thinking on defence and security from the rise of the British Empire to its transformation and dissolution, through both World Wars and the Cold War. The Institute is now documenting the ‘new disorder’ of the contemporary world, and it remains an intrinsic part of the research and debate that surrounds military and security thinking.
The Duke of Wellington's support was instrumental in the Institute’s creation, beginning in 1831 when the Naval and Military Museum was founded. It was renamed as the United Services Institution in 1839, and although royal patronage was assured from the start, this was formally granted though an Act of Parliament in 1860 as a mark of the Institute’s growing importance.
RUSI's influence continued to grow as a result of developments in the latter half of the 19th century. British complacency in security and defence policy was gravely exposed by strategic developments during this period, including wars in Europe, the Russian expansion into Central Asia, and developments in naval technology. RUSI would serve as the prime platform for debates in the field of defence and technological innovation. As early as the Crimean War, a lecture at the Institute envisaged a future age in which observation balloons would be able to take pictures of the enemy’s positions on a battlefield and send these to commanders in the field in real time.
Role in the 19th Century
Throughout the 19th century, RUSI stimulated and maintained a vigorous military membership who saw it as a forum – indeed, the only forum – where military policy could be discussed and questioned among fellow professionals, regardless of rank or title. It provided an important thread of military history and, as its role developed, an understanding of British defence and security policy in the international arena.
RUSI was the model for similar institutes across the world, creating an international network of scholars and members who all saw the concept of a united services institute as an important part of their professional milieu.
20th and 21st Century Developments
A minimal in-house staff ensured that until the mid-20th century, the driving force within the Institute came from active members, who were usually junior officers. In the 1960s, a group of such officers, in a letter to The Times, publicly argued for an independent think tank for the academic study of national defence. This initiative, which caught the attention of Lord Mountbatten and elicited his support, marked the beginning of a slow but sure expansion of the Institute's activities.
The early 1990s saw a marked expansion of RUSI’s professional activities. The Institute’s building benefited from much-needed repairs and refurbishment, and it developed an extensive programme of events to complement its research activities. An evolving structure saw the studies section first split into two departments in the mid-1990s (Military Sciences and International Security Studies) and then, in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, a third department was introduced to focus on issues of Homeland Security and Resilience.
From the late 2000s, RUSI re-orientated itself to become a fully-fledged think tank, with research at the heart of its activities and income base. RUSI’s research agenda diversified further, analysing the urgent security questions of our age. In 2015, the Institute took the historic step of appointing its first woman and first American Director-General, Dr Karin von Hippel. Since then, RUSI’s research portfolio has expanded even further, covering financial crime, nuclear proliferation and cyber security.
Throughout its over 190 years of existence, the Institute has remained faithful to its heritage and founding principles, continuing in its mission to generate evidence-based and independent debate on issues of security and defence.
RUSI is recognised as one of the top global think tanks on security, and in 2020 it was named ‘Think Tank of the Year’ by Prospect magazine.