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Deterrence in the twenty-first century

UK Armed Forces need to retain a credible deterrent capability against new threats, says Defence Committee in its 11th Report.

Events in Crimea prove need for UK Armed Forces to retain a credible deterrent capability against new threats, says Defence Committee.

The MoD’s financial settlement in the next Comprehensive Spending Review must be made in the light of the need to retain a credible deterrent capacity in the country’s Armed Forces, says the Defence Committee in its report, published today, on Deterrence.

The deterrent strength of the UK armed forces against conventional military threats is reliant on the credibility of the Armed Forces to project military power. Chairman of the Committee, the Rt Hon James Arbuthnot, says:

"Deterrence must be credible to be effective: Britain has to show the capacity and the will to respond proportionately and effectively to threats at every level. Recent events in Ukraine illustrate the speed with which new threats, and indeed the reappearance of old threats, can manifest themselves."

The Committee is concerned that recent comments by Robert Gates, former US Defence Secretary, about the UK’s value as a military partner for the US in the wake of defence cuts, illustrate a deterioration in perceptions abroad of the UK’s military capabilities.  The Rt Hon James Arbuthnot says:

"Any proposed reductions in our conventional capabilities must be considered in the light of the effect it has on our allies – and others - rather than the purely financial."

The Committee welcomes the emphasis that the Government places on the importance of cyber defence and the commitment of resources to a new cyber strike capability. But the difficulty in identifying actors in a cyber attack makes the ability to deter that much harder. Similar questions arise in deterrence against the asymmetrical threat of terrorism as it is difficult to identify interests and groups against which a response can be legitimately targeted. The Committee is calling on the MoD to set out how it can make clear that both cyber and terrorist attack will elicit an appropriate and determined response.

Looking at the nuclear deterrent, the Committee points out that the UK’s ability to effect a nuclear response is not credible in dealing with all threats, and so strong conventional deterrence is also required. And given the importance of communication to the concept of deterrence, investment in diplomatic and intelligence assets must be integral to the UK’s security apparatus.

The Committee concludes that it would be naive to assume that a decision not to invest in the nuclear deterrent would release substantial funds for investment in other forms of security. The Committee believes that the decision on the retention of the nuclear deterrent, should be made on its own merits, rather than on the basis of what else could be bought with the money saved.

Deterrence, both nuclear and conventional, has an important place in the defence philosophy of the UK. 

"But nuclear deterrence must not form the be-all and end-all of our defence posture.  There may be times when it fails, and an attack succeeds.  Deterrence needs to take its place alongside a greater emphasis to be placed on resilience and recovery.  As the world becomes more multi-polar and less stable and where the certainties of identifying an aggressor may be reduced, we shall increasingly need a more complex security strategy."

James Arbuthnot says:

"Strong conventional forces provide the UK with a contingency against the unexpected threats that may emerge. In a rapidly changing global environment, we may have little warning.  Events might require the reconstitution of conventional forces, but once cut back they will be very difficult to rebuild."

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