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RUSI: The British Way of Strategy-Making: Vital Lessons For Our Times

The UK can no longer make effective national defence strategy as it once did, and the National Security Council (NSC) currently lacks the method and institutional frame to address future security threats, warns a new paper published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in partnership with the new Humanities Research Institute (HRI) at the University of Buckingham.

'The British Way of Strategy-Making: Vital Lessons For Our Times', is written by Gwyn Prins, research professor of the London School of Economics and also a visiting professor at the HRI. He argues that muddling of military and civilian roles in the higher management of defence has increasingly blurred a correct and precise understanding of the different but complementary roles of grand strategy, operational strategy and government policy. The progressive loss of clarity during the post-war years has led to the present day malaise.

Reflecting on the damning verdicts on the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and National Security Strategy from the House of Commons' Public Administration and Defence Select Committees, Prins suggests the NSC does not yet have established suitable methods for analysis to provide our security in the face of epic geopolitical uncertainties.

'Neither committee thinks that Britain has a robust national security strategy today. Neither committee thinks that this problem can be fixed by marginal adjustment. They believe that the international departments of state have poor maps and compasses with which to plot their detailed courses and dispositions,' writes Prins.

The paper stresses the importance of independent, specially convened expert studies conducted without regard to financial considerations: in the first instance at least, the analysis would be provided to, but not conducted by, the NSC. According to Prins such studies, 'free of financial constraints, not hobbled by formulaic procedures, nor curbed by pre-ordained constraints on thinking, nor by 'conventional wisdom'', would offer true strategic oversight. They would also introduce a 'slim buffer' to ensure that the NSC is neither shackled to specific scenarios nor driven entirely by events.

Using fresh research from the National Archives, Prins recollects the success of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) in just that task during the inter-war years. The CID conducted coherent strategic analysis and facilitated re-armament in the mid-1930s - in the nick of time enabling Britain to fight alone in 1940 - in spite of the harsh economic backdrop. The paper draws striking comparisons with today and maintains that past lessons from the CID model are vital to helping resolve the current crisis in British Defence and Security.

'The failure to effect a reliable and credible introduction of grand and operational strategic insights into ministerial policy-making, has left the Ministry of Defence without secure guidelines...'

'There is unique value in a combined grand and operational strategic study which is militarily literate and conducted independently, without fear or favour to any party or to any transient issue and without reference to finance, leading to force structure recommendations,' Prins proposes.

'Only when the study is complete should financial considerations be introduced to it, as was done in 1935. Doubtless, the Treasury would resent and resist this now as it did in 1935. But as then, so now, it is important that this opposition is overcome. At the point when money is brought into the discussion, the government of the day would be forced to face - and be unable to avoid - an informed understanding of what it could not do because it chose not to fund the capability or, alternatively, had to do and therefore had to fund the capability.'

Describing key future innovations which could abolish the weaknesses in current strategy-making identified by Parliament's select committees, Prins shows how policy-making and strategy-making can regain harmony. The paper re-states tried and tested understandings of the core concepts of grand and operational strategy, and of policy.

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  • To view a copy of 'The British Way of Strategy-Making; Vital Lessons For Our Times' please visit
  • Gwyn Prins is a research professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Director of the LSE's Mackinder Programme for the Study of Long Wave Events. He is also a visiting professor in War Studies at the Humanities Research Institute, University of Buckingham.
  • The publication of this paper is jointly sponsored by the University of Buckingham's new Humanities Research Institute, where its author is a Visiting Professor.
  • RUSI is an independent think-tank for defence and security. RUSI is a unique institution; founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, it embodies nearly two centuries of forward thinking, free discussion and careful reflection on defence and security matters.


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