UK Strategic Command’s Strategy: Between Responsibility and Authority

Courtesy of Harland Quarrington / Defence Imagery / OGL v1.0

While UK Strategic Command’s new strategy offers high levels of ambition, its authority to deliver its vision of integration is lacking.

Following the Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper published earlier in 2021, UK Strategic Command has now published its strategy. This is a crucial document given Strategic Command’s raison d’être is to deliver the integration the earlier papers emphasised. Indeed, the strategy asserts Strategic Command’s intellectual ownership of Integrated Force 2030. A short document, it nevertheless offers a comprehensible and communicable vision of what Integrated Force 2030 might do; and while not fundamentally different to Joint Force 2025, which it supersedes, some of the subtle shifts in priority are becoming clear.

Consistent with the Integrated Review and Command Paper, Strategic Command’s level of ambition is high – its vision is to be ‘the transformative command … the driving force behind integration and the enabling foundation for Defence’s enhanced global posture’. In doing so, it asserts itself as the leading player in the transformation of Defence, and positions its permanent overseas bases (Cyprus, Diego Garcia, Gibraltar and the South Atlantic Islands) as central to persistent engagement. The strategy then describes, in high-level terms, four critical capabilities needed to accelerate Defence’s ability to respond to threats. These are described as: authority; people; data and technology. Collectively, the four capabilities are expected to result in five strategic outcomes: integrated capabilities; orchestrated activity and effects; improved understanding; enhanced global reach; and disruptive capabilities. These are all worthy deductions, even if the flow among the levels is not always clear in such a short document.

Despite the merit in the vision, critical capabilities and strategic outcomes, the strategy remains light on the detail needed for Defence to deliver integration, and glosses over the challenges Strategic Command faces in its mission. Like the earlier papers, the strategy offers a vision of integration, but it is not a plan for delivery; this is a deliberate choice by the Command, perhaps reflecting what could be achieved in the eight months since the Command Paper was published, but detailed plans are needed soon. Some parts of the programme – those that pre-date the Command Paper – have their own plans, but others are not quite ready. With the next scheduled major review of defence and security likely to be in 2024/25, time is running out to turn the rhetoric and lofty ambition into programmes and projects that deliver meaningful change before the next course correction. It may be possible to start the programme for delivery in the 2022/23 financial year, but that only gives three years before the next review, and finding flexibility in funding is always most difficult in the early years. There is a danger that the 2020 Spending Review’s extra investment in Defence will not deliver the transformation promised in the Command Paper unless the department moves fast – an issue wider than Strategic Command itself, because there are still details that have to be settled from the Command Paper.

Sheer will alone will not deliver success, despite the military’s cultural belief in the importance of the moral component for battlefield victory

The strategy assigns responsibility for the plan to integrate Defence to the Strategic Command Executive Committee. This, however, is unlikely to deliver transformation across the whole of Defence given the Command’s currently weak levels of authority. Surprisingly, therefore, the strategy does not address the need for proper authority or clarity on the ambiguous role Strategic Command plays in Defence. The current Defence Operating Model has elements of Strategic Command in every one of Defence’s four major functions (Direct, Enable, Generate and Operate); it is unique in this. Clearly not part of Head Office, Strategic Command nevertheless needs the ability to direct the Services, and indeed elements of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) Head Office, towards integration if it is to be ‘the driving force behind integration’. However, it does not have the control over the budget, procurement, people or processes to be able to deliver effectively. The strategy does not address the question of Strategic Command’s explicit authority, either in respect of its relationship with the MoD Head Office or with the Services. A legitimate defence against this charge is that Strategic Command cannot dictate this in its own strategy – that is a Head Office task. Yet the Head Office could have done so in the Command Paper but did not, and Strategic Command’s strategy does not argue for the next review of the Defence Operating Model (apparently already underway) to ensure greater authority. It is difficult to see how Strategic Command can deliver without such a change.

With such a high level of ambition for integration and its prominence, it is surprising that a sign of Strategic Command’s success is when ‘Defence’s senior leadership is championing integration and agility as a matter of routine’. If it is not happening now, then something is clearly wrong: the Integrated Operating Concept was published in September 2020, and integration was central to the Integrated Review, the Command Paper and Strategic Command’s own conferences in 2020 and 2021. A better measure of success might be when Defence’s senior leadership is aligning its plans to deliver integration, although to do this it needs not just intent, but specificity from a resourced Strategic Command plan to deliver multi-domain integration. One of the things this needs is greater clarity on the scope and depth of integration – a stopping rule for integration – so that the pursuit of integration does not undermine agility. At the moment, there is a risk that, unchecked, integration will require sacrificing the conventional capabilities and mass that are needed to allow the UK to ‘constrain […] adversaries by presenting multiple dilemmas’.

On the people capability, the strategy rightly references how improving diversity and inclusion is essential to attracting and retaining the talent needed, most especially for the data and technology skills that will underpin the transformation envisaged. But herein lies a problem: Strategic Command owns very few people. Military personnel remain members of their Service, even if their career is likely to be in areas managed by Strategic Command. Unified career management is being trialled for cyber and medical specialists, but these represent a tiny fraction of the Defence workforce and, while career management may be unified, the Services still set entry and initial and generic training standards, and control the broadening appointments that are needed outside professional specialisation to grow people to the senior ranks of Defence. The potential of unified career management, much like Strategic Command itself, has been talked up, but is in fact in danger of falling between two stools. They both either need to be matured through greater authority, or have their ambition reduced to what the authority can actually deliver.

The strategy’s focus on data and technology is right, welcome and more closely aligned to Strategic Command’s authority, but still seems a little Panglossian. The human, technical, cultural and financial challenges will need to be described and mitigated in greater detail in the plan. Sheer will alone will not deliver success, despite the military’s cultural belief in the importance of the moral component for battlefield victory – as Napoleon claimed, ‘the moral is to the physical as three is to one’. It is less certain that this equation works as well in Defence’s ‘business space’, especially where there is such a dependency on effective commercial relationships, which have been elusive in the past.

The time has come to move beyond visions and into a comprehensive set of detailed plans that direct tangible action, moving Defence closer to the desired outcomes

The five strategic outcomes are also logical, and any plan will need to have more detail – including how to get appropriately ranked staff officers in the National Security Advisor’s organisation, to ensure an appropriate military voice in central government decision-making who can also bring Defence into alignment with the civilian agenda. We must wait and see if the plan delivers.

Overall, insofar as it goes, the strategy is a reasonable attempt at communicating what the Command is trying to achieve and offering focus to a hugely diverse constituency so that its disparate parts can cohere their effort. It follows from an increased budget for Strategic Command’s owned outputs, and also a stronger representation in cross-Defence management, such as the Joint Requirements Oversight Committee and Investment Approvals Board, where it can influence decisions on matters outside its authority. There are, however, two major problems. First, although it is aimed internally, Strategic Command needs action to be taken by other actors not governed by the strategy and over whom it lacks proper authority. Second, it remains a high-level statement of intent; the time has come to move beyond visions and into a comprehensive set of detailed plans that direct tangible action, moving Defence closer to the desired outcomes.

Created by executive fiat, the time has come to ensure the right structures, processes, powers and rewards are in place to support Strategic Command’s responsibilities, or to return it to being the home of strategic enablers and leave strategic integration to MoD Head Office – or disband it altogether. The question of authority needs to consider Strategic Command’s role and authorities in relation to MoD Head Office and the Services. Without proper alignment of responsibility and authority, delivery will be impossible, only frustrating good people doing their best to deliver. A strategy that called for this would have been a better step towards delivering integration than a description of what the world will look like when integration is achieved by an as yet unknown plan. It does, however, look as though this may happen, at least concerning MoD Head Office: the new Chief of the Defence Staff has suggested a possibly leaner Head Office and greater reliance on frontline commands. This may provide the clarity that Defence and Strategic Command need to deliver on the worthy ambitions.

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

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Paul O’Neill

Senior Research Fellow

Military Sciences

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