The Fusion Doctrine is steadily reshaping the UK's approach to strategy.
The end of this month marks the first anniversary of the UK’s Fusion Doctrine. Launched as a central component of last year’s National Security and Capability Review (NSCR), Fusion Doctrine is Mark Sedwill’s National Security Council (NSC) initiative to fuse capabilities, across ‘economic, security, social and the rest’, to deliver strategy-led design of policy and planning. The latest conceptual evolution of the old administrative coordination doctrine, Fusion’s aim should not be a surprise given Sedwill’s diplomatic and economic background.
To improve decision-making, the NSC has appointed three-star Senior Responsible Owners (SRO) taken from across government departments to lead National Security Strategy and Implementation Groups. The individual groups focus on clearly defined thematic/regional areas of interest and risks, while recognising that the different areas will have some intersecting commonalities. The developing structure drives cross-department engagement, inputs and leadership to examine the multifaceted NSC priorities. It also requires agility to rapidly adapt as the UK’s strategic context evolves. In short, Sedwill is leading a mindset change across understanding, accountability, interdepartmental practices and capability decisions. This is a significant improvement on previous sofa government deliberations.
Still, is this all just management speak? Possibly, but almost certainly essential to counter the complex world in which the NSC operates. Traditional linear government processes are increasingly challenged by the dynamic security environment, and this effort is a very positive, and visible, step toward breaking down organisational boundaries. The cross-cutting networks, linking domestic and overseas interests, will force national ambition to be balanced against resource realities and will ensure SROs only elevate appropriate issues to the NSC. The fact that the prioritised areas are now subject to an annual review should also enable earlier identification of emergent shocks.
What about Defence?
TheMinistry of Defence (MoD) is abuzz with Fusion Doctrine, but history should be a caution, for this must not become a rigid pursuit of the new. The department will be heavily involved in Fusion Doctrine, especially defence policy staff in Whitehall and those involved in developing the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP), but it must remain conceptually clear on exactly what it is required to do and where, across every level.
At an operational/tactical level, the MoD should consider whether the existing integrated approach concept actually needs to be replaced. Sedwill, reflecting on his Afghanistan experience, acknowledged that the MoD was well versed in coordinating diplomatic, military and economic considerations on operations. However, he concluded that Fusion Doctrine represented a qualitative development at the strategic decision level. This observation perhaps means that only an evolution of existing processes and – importantly – wording is required at lower organisational levels. This is not novel, so why confuse people, including partners, with a new vocabulary? Clarity across each level of the MoD, and all other departments, will help implement the NSCR’s year-old fuzzy vision.
Is the Fusion Doctrine a Success?
Possibly, it has achieved early momentum and there is an increased understanding across government. The UK’s response, including with international partners, to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal demonstrated a well-coordinated reaction to a priority security issue. However, the NSC must not become a magnet for cross-department wicked problems or morph into a crisis management focal point. This is the role of Cabinet Office Briefing Room. The NSC must not deviate from its intended purpose of delivering a longer-term strategic focus that enables more effective national security decision-making. Additionally, in a media-permeated world, strategic communication's caution should be used in the developing Fusion Doctrine narrative. One observer has already noted that Fusion Doctrine’s wording shares similarities with those used to describe hybrid warfare. This may ultimately force a Fusion Doctrine wording revision, not least the use of influence as a distinct lever of power. Hard and soft power must not become confused, including between departments.
Finally, one could argue that the really hard work lies ahead as the government attempts to encompass private and third sector partnerships while simultaneously inculcating Fusion Doctrine deeper within individual departmental cultures. However, this also creates future employment opportunities. John Manzoni recently spoke about establishing career anchors and new training initiatives within the civil service. Fusion Doctrine, or certainly its underlying principles, should become an anchor from early in a person’s career. This must balance generalist skills development with building deep knowledge. Encouraging people to broaden their experience across a number of departments or the private and third sectors before returning to the government’s Fusion anchor would add significant momentum at the heart of the NSC.
So the end-of-year report reads that Fusion Doctrine has made a promising start but caution must be maintained. Sedwill proposes that agility is required to ensure the UK is ready for the future. An example of which is the current combining of the Cabinet Secretary and National Security roles, albeit prompted by a ‘compelling, tragic reason’. Despite recent reporting, Sedwill has hinted that this linking of positions is a temporary move as roles need to flex to ‘suit the circumstances of the time’. This fluidity has sound logic but, once the Brexit dust settles, Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy wishes to see a role separation reintroduced. This would create a scrutiny firewall and enable additional strategic capacity within the NSC to support impending Global Britain resource versus ambition considerations. Significant work remains as Fusion Doctrine starts to come to life but the first anniversary should be a moment of positivity. The NSCR’s procedural and accountability innovations have started to reintroduce strategy to the heart of the UK’s national security.
William McKeran is studying at the UK Defence Academy and King’s College London. He is undertaking a Masters by Research that is using Complexity Theory to analyse the UK’s National Security Council, Fusion Doctrine and the Russian Federation.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.