The UK National Security Capability Review and the Fusion Doctrine

Main Image Credit The Ministry of Defence in London. Courtesy of ArildV/Wikimedia

As Parliament rose for the Easter recess, Prime Minister Theresa May issued a statement announcing the release of the National Security Capability Review.

The National Security Capability Review (NSCR), initiated after the 2017 election, was based on the view that the frameworks contained in the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 remained valid.

However, enough had changed in the international security environment (not least a looming Brexit) that it was timely to consider how to focus the broad range of available capabilities into delivering the maximum collective effort in pursuit of national security objectives.

Prime Minister Theresa May suggested that the security challenges the UK faced were increasingly complex and intertwined, and outlined a series of measures which were designed to ensure that Britain’s national security effort was fit to address these challenges.

While defence has been allowed to delay its contribution to the review and to conduct its own Modernising Defence Programme, May was able to identify a series of measures which will deliver over the rest of this Parliament.

These include a new counterterrorism strategy, a National Economic Crime Centre, growth in the National Security Communications Team and the expansion and deepening of the UK’s diplomatic network.

Yet, at its heart was arguably something more strategically significant: a plan to improve accountability and efficiency through a new national security doctrine, the Fusion Doctrine.

Although this doctrine is limited to one line towards the end in the NSCR, it tallies with the government’s vision and values, providing the context for the subsequent detailed description of the specific initiatives proposed within the Review.

As such, it is designed to improve the collective whole-of-government approach to national security, building from the creation of the National Security Council (NSC) in 2010. It apparently seeks to embrace the lessons and recommendations identified in the Report of the Iraq Inquiry (the Chilcot Report) and embed these in routine government national security business.

And it appears to be the direct descendent of the series of approaches which arose from the early 2000s, from the Comprehensive Approach, through the Integrated Approach, to the Full Spectrum Approach, all of which sought to improve the ways in which the different departments and ministries of the British government worked together.

The current report highlights security, economic and influence capabilities as levers of power echoing the strategic framework DIME (diplomatic, information, military and economic), which has been used in military planning for at least the past 20 years and divorcing them from specific departments.

The label of doctrine ­– rather than the more modest concept of simply an ‘approach’ – is undoubtedly deliberate and seeks to give it a more mandatory and less optional feel. Yet, what is new here?

Arguably, there are two key themes: prioritisation and responsibility. The NSCR highlights the importance of good strategy being the key to ensuring that limited resources are matched to realistic objectives.

Parliament has in the recent past commented on the difficulty of achieving this, even with the establishment of the NSC, but a key element of the doctrine is that, having identified these strategies, there will be an annual review process which will prioritise matters in order to focus government efforts and inform departmental plans.

It is recognised that many key capabilities in delivering national security objectives lie outside the traditional departments with, for example, those otherwise engaged in social reform having a key role in reducing the vulnerability of individuals to violent extremism, the sort of input into security concerns not previous envisaged. The new doctrine  also recognises the key role for the private and third sectors in delivering the necessary inputs.

To deliver these complex prioritised strategies, the Fusion Doctrine focuses on identifying individual officials as Senior Responsible Officers (SROs). This implies that previous efforts at cultural change have been relatively unsuccessful, and that allocating clearer responsibilities will drive changes in incentives and behaviours.

With the NSC having conducted the annual posture review to identify the strategic priorities, the SROs will then be expected to consider the context – based on robust analysis – and then identify options for ‘catalytic contributions’ to the NSC, while ensuring that plans are implemented across the relevant departments.

Given the classified nature of the NSCs strategic priorities it is difficult assess the scale of this task, but the National Security Risk Assessment identified four in the so-called Tier 1 priorities in 2015, as well as a further 11 in Tiers 2 and 3. Although these numbers might not map precisely on to the SRO tasks, it is likely that the additional responsibilities of the Fusion Doctrine will be a significant burden on already busy officials.

Overall, it is unclear to what extent the Fusion Doctrine can deliver the improvements in national security outcomes to which it aspires. It is undoubtedly a significant change to move efforts to improve cross-government working from frameworks and encouragement of cultural change to something more mandatory.

It is recognition, perhaps, that cultural changes are generally slow and that the national security challenges facing the UK require a more rapid response. The need to prioritise the use of limited resources is clear, but it will be interesting to see to what extent an annual review process allows for adjustment within a broad strategy or becomes a vehicle which encourages an inefficient regular switching of effort?

The role for SROs in driving individual prioritised strategies is an interesting approach to bringing together departmental efforts more coherently, but the challenge will be in ensuring that those officials have the capacity to deliver.

As such, the Fusion Doctrine clearly has the potential to both fuse national security efforts and bring them more focus but the challenges of moving from doctrine to delivery should not be underestimated.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Ewan Lawson

Associate Fellow

View profile


Explore our related content