SDSR and the Return of Deterrence


The National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 has brought deterrence back to centre stage for the United Kingdom more than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. The primary context for this in SDSR 2015 is the resurgence of state based threats. This is both understandable and unsurprising given Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Moreover, the UK’s increased emphasis on deterrence was presaged, most notably in the Prime Minister’s priorities ahead of the NATO Wales Summit in September 2014:

6 months after Russia illegally violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of her neighbour Ukraine, we must agree on long-term measures to strengthen our ability to respond quickly to any threat, to reassure those allies who fear for their own country’s security and to deter any Russian aggression.

The nature of Russia’s confrontational approach places the deterrence challenge in stark relief. Through its ‘hybrid’ methods – as typified in Crimea and eastern Ukraine – Moscow has sought to prosecute its strategic objectives through a combination of conventional and unconventional means, wrapped in a targeted and effective information campaign, and which has sought to camouflage its direct involvement and complicate deterrence efforts against it. Moscow’s nuclear sabre rattling – which has taken many forms, including the concept of potentially using nuclear weapons to de-escalate conflicts – has added a menacing element to the challenge facing the UK and allied defence planners.

The SDSR’s answer to this challenge is to place an emphasis on using ‘the full spectrum of our capabilities – armed force including, ultimately, our nuclear deterrent, diplomacy, law enforcement, economic policy, offensive cyber, and covert means – to deter adversaries and to deny them opportunities to attack us’. Full-spectrum deterrence is certainly not a new concept, far from it. But it has been a key topic of discussion in UK defence and security circles over the past 18 months, and rightly so.

Developing a credible full-spectrum posture, however, is no straightforward task. It will require in-depth knowledge and understanding of potential adversaries (their strategic intent and their domestic political imperatives), including but not confined to Russia, in order to ensure that the requisite deterrence capacities are in place, that they are shaped into a coherent whole and their application is effectively coordinated across government agencies and with allies.

One of the main challenges here is that – outside of a very small community of military and civil service personnel, as well as a few academics and think tanks – for a quarter of a century, little serious and systematic thinking has been applied to the role of deterrence as a British approach to conflict prevention and international security management. Most recent post-Cold War thinking prior to SDSR 2015 has been limited and primarily focused around the rationale for retaining the nuclear deterrent in the long-term. This general lack of attention is not a challenge unique to the UK of course and it is shared with other NATO allies.

There are clearly some intellectual requirements that flow from SDSR 2015’s renewed emphasis on deterrence:

First, there is a need to ensure that personnel at all levels across government and the armed forces are given the opportunity and the time to relearn deterrence: its core tenets, how it has been applied in the past, how things are different now and the challenges of developing a full-spectrum approach and effectively communicating this to potential opponents.

Second, there is a requirement to reinvigorate thinking, research and debate around deterrence as a tool the UK can apply for security management and conflict prevention. What should the balance be between punishment/retaliatory and denial-based approaches to deterrence? Many non-western countries, for example, have increasingly focused on denial-based approaches in recent years. China’s anti-access and area denial (A2AD) approach to deterring external intervention in a regional contingency is one prominent example.

Third, the full spectrum approach will require new and innovative deterrence thinking particularly in terms of cross-domain linkages and interactions. Addressing specific challenges such as attributing attacks in the cyber domain further demonstrates the complexities involved.

SDSR 2015 states that within NATO the UK will ‘lead a renewed focus on deterrence to address current and future threats’. Addressing these intellectual challenges should be at the heart of Britain’s leadership push in this area.

Wyn Bowen is author of ‘Deterrence and Asymmetry’, Contemporary Security Policy, 25 (April 2004) and co-author with Jasper Pandza of ‘Radiological Terrorism: Is There a Role for Deterrence?’ in Andreas Wegner and Alex Wilner (eds), Deterring Terrorism: Theory and Practice (Stanford University Press, 2012).

Image: A Trident II D5 missile is fired from HM Submarine Vanguard during tests in the Western Atlantic in 2005. Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons.

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