Preliminary RUSI Briefing: The National Security Strategy 2010

Now in its third year, the National Security Strategy is even more important as it is a precursor to tomorrow's Strategic Defence and Security Review. The Strategy is an honest attempt to think afresh about British security, with a focus on terrorism and cyber-security. However, it ignores the difficult real-world decisions that must be made to create an effective strategic review.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director, RUSI

Analysis of the Defence Review available at

The National Security Strategy

The National Security Strategy is in its third year now and is bedding down in the structure of governmental thinking. It represents a whole of government approach to everything that can be deemed a security threat, from nuclear attack to floods and natural pandemics.

It is most notable in that it has turned the traditional conception of security on its head. What is to be defended, it says, is not so much the territory of Britain or even the organs of the British state, so much as the way of life of the people of Britain; their ability to go about their business here and in the rest of the world 'freely and with confidence'. It is explicitly a 'post-modern security strategy'. It tries to define security for a small, prosperous country in a relatively safe neighbourhood of the world, but a country that is nevertheless very global in its interests and outlook and has a powerful stake in political stability in other regions way beyond Europe.

It can certainly be commended for this. It is an honest attempt to think afresh about British security and as time goes on, and with the establishment this year of a National Security Council, it can make its presence felt more and more throughout Whitehall.

The problem with it, as it presently exists, is that it is not really a strategy as such, but a methodology for a strategy. It does not make hard choices between real things - which is what strategists have to do.  It creates all the right boxes and describes how we should fit them together - who should lead in this or that area, who else should be involved, and so on - but it doesn't put anything specific enough into the boxes. Of course, government ministers have to make the hard choices between real things all the time. But as we have seen in the last week, when the Prime Minister had to make a personal judgement between the analysis of his Chancellor as opposed to the analysis of his Defence Minister, these genuinely strategic decisions come down to a personal instinct. It is not clear that the National Security Strategy has yet gained enough political weight to inform, still less to shape, those personal instincts.  


Commentators have reported that the Government has put terrorism at 'the top of the list' of national security threats. This is not quite what the Government means. The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) rates terrorism as 'the most pressing' problem of national security, which certainly does not make it the greatest; only the most immediate.

The National Security Secretariat rated a number of possible threats against their plausibility, their possible impact on our society, and their immediate likelihood. On this basis, terrorism is what ministers need to focus on for the immediate future. But for all the horror of their mass murderer instincts, terrorists can only hurt our society if we let them. There are much greater challenges out there, less immediate but far more serious in the longer term, to which our security policy has got to pay close attention.

The prospect of destabilising wars in places that matter to us; the loss of political influence in regions from which we buy our energy; the prospect of renewed military competition - after an interregnum of about 30 years - between the great and emerging powers of the world, where Britain will have to decide on its loyalties: all these are plausible risks to our security that would have much greater impact on us than anything jihadi terrorists, let alone IRA splinter groups, could do. They are not as immediate -'as pressing' - as terrorism, but they would certainly be more serious and bear on our national strategy in a fundamental way that terrorism does not.

Cyber Threats

There is a widespread suspicion that the attention being given to cyber threats in the National Security Strategy is an old-fashioned bit of media manipulation to highlight a scary story - and an 'up-arrow' in what we are now doing about it - to distract everyone from the painful cuts to be announced a bit later on. This may be partly true, and when we see the actual cash to be spent on countering cyber threats we will have a sense of how committed the Government really is to dealing with this phenomenon.

But the Government is not wrong to point to the fact that cyber threats now have to be taken very seriously. A few years ago cyber crime was limited to spotty adolescent hackers making mischief, and then to some potentially serious industrial espionage. Then there was a cyber dimension to terrorist challenges to Britain; the worry that terrorists might be able to use cyber techniques to gain valuable intelligence or to create panic and confusion. All this was true but not a game-changer. Now however, with the dramatic growth in state-sponsored cyber attacks on all major western governments, we are entering an era where a massive, state-on-state cyber attack is entirely feasible. It has already happened in lesser form against Estonia and Georgia. Now, it would be possible for one state to damage another in such a way that it would constitute an act of war.

This is a new dimension of conflict. Britain and the United States are, of course, as interested in using the technique as an offensive weapon themselves as much as they need to defend against it. That is what happens when a new conflict dimension opens up. Today's announcement is a recognition of that fact, albeit with a politically savvy emphasis on the 'up-arrows'.

The domestic context

Not least as interesting is the fact that what was last week envisaged as a single document of nine chapters, now seems to have been split up into two separate documents to be launched on different days. Today is the narrative part of the strategy; tomorrow is the nitty gritty of the numbers and the planned expenditure.

The official reasoning is that these elements are better absorbed by the public in two separate presentations: story today, numbers tomorrow. But it is hard to avoid the feeling that the reason the story and the numbers are being kept apart is that they don't fit together as well as ministers and officials hoped they would. Perhaps they hoped that journalists and analysts would be less inclined to put the two halves together if they appeared separately. In truth, that's an irresistible urge for everyone in the defence business.


Explore our related content