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Is the SDSR at risk of failure?

Ahead of the publication of the government's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) this week, a new Chatham House report says the SDSR is at risk of failure if the mismatch between strategy and budget becomes too great.

Strategy in Austerity: The Security and Defence of the United Kingdom argues for a debate on national strategy which explores the full spectrum of security possibilities to establish, first of all, where UK national interest and values will be most urgently and unavoidably engaged.

Paul Cornish, the author of the report, says:

'The task of the SDSR is to implement a national strategic vision and to make operational sense of a defence budget. But national security and defence must always work within budgetary parameters, particularly at a time of deep financial crisis.

'With no more than six months to prepare and publish the White Paper, the 2010 strategy review has been conducted at a very fast pace. With such a brisk timetable, there has been limited time for strategic reflection and ideas. The risk is the outcome could therefore be a review which is driven neither by strategic ideas nor by financial decisions.

'Reviews of UK security and defence strategy usually fail, either because the mismatch between strategy and budget becomes too great, or because of a failure to identify and anticipate security and defence challenges as they evolve. It is unlikely that the 2010 strategy review will be so successful as to entirely disprove this prediction. If the SDSR is to succeed as a strategic plan it should be more than a product of the moment.'

The report says no government should take an untroubled view of the future of international security. A national strategy must engage as fully as possible with a volatile and challenging future, no matter how uncertain and overwhelming it might appear.

A systematic and clinical approach to national strategy would begin with an assessment of the most probable long-term drivers of international insecurity and conflict.

The world should expect further economic upheaval, trade disagreements, inter-state rivalry and conflict, failed states, terrorism and the proliferation of unconventional weapons. There will in all likelihood be several other challenges to consider as well, such as piracy, cyber warfare, border security and organised crime.

Effective national strategy requires a systematic approach which can detect and analyse challenges and threats - the expected and the unexpected - at the earliest possible point.

In some cases the response to these challenges might draw upon national resources, while in others the preference might be for the solidarity and cost efficiency that come from membership of a coalition or politico-military alliance such as NATO.

The most imaginative and effective use should be made of the various 'soft' and 'hard' levers of power and influence to be found in different departments of government.

Notes to Editors

Read Strategy in Austerity: The Security and Defence of the United Kingdom >>

The report is part of the project on Rethinking the UK's Global Ambitions and Choices.

About the author:

Dr Paul Cornish is Head of the International Security Programme at Chatham House and Carrington Professor for International Security.

He is available for comment. To arrange an interview, please contact the Press Office:

Nicola Norton: +44 (0)20 7957 5739 / +44 (0)7917 757 528
Sara Karnas: +44 (0)20 7314 2787 / +44 (0) 7958 669 785

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