- The UK government’s National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 gave additional prominence to the concept of ‘defence engagement’: the imperative that British military capabilities be used to build political relationships with other countries for security, diplomatic or economic reasons. Specifically, it called for the UK to ‘work more closely with the private sector and allies to increase our innovation and strengthen its contribution to our national security’, and promised to make defence engagement a funded, core MOD [Ministry of Defence] task for the first time.
- Until 2015, defence engagement had been somewhat neglected by the MOD. Although it had featured in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) – the forerunner of the government’s 2015 policy paper – and a 2013 strategy document, it was not at the time a mandated task for the British Army. With defence engagement only recently elevated to priority status, the MOD still lacks policy to address the latest guidance.
- Heightened commitment to defence engagement has resourcing implications. The numbers of military personnel and civilian support staff have been declining and seem unlikely to increase. There is thus a gap between the government’s aspiration to implement its new priorities and its ability to do so quickly. The private sector stands ready to fill that gap: indeed private firms are arguably better placed in some cases than the military to perform defence engagement functions.
- Strategic thinking on defence engagement developed under the David Cameron-led Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. Pressures on the MOD’s budget seem likely to continue under the minority Conservative government elected in 2017. Certainly, another review of Britain’s military and counterterrorism capability has started and the arguments presented in this paper are increasingly relevant.
- HM Treasury rules and the general effects of fiscal austerity have made it hard for policymakers to balance political and commercial interests. This paper argues that despite such challenges, defence engagement could contribute more towards prosperity than it does at present – and that the private sector is key to this. The UK could learn from the experiences of France and the US, whose approaches to collaboration between the military and industry have differed in notable respects from that of the UK, with mixed results.
- Increasing the private sector’s role in defence engagement brings certain risks. Political, operational and reputational tolerances may be tested. A shift in approach will need to go hand in hand with ensuring contractors’ probity and adherence to the ethical and reputational standards expected of those operating on the government’s behalf. Nonetheless, private-sector UK firms definitively stand ready to assist the UK government and military in achieving goals that would otherwise require existing tasks to be reprioritized or personnel to be diverted from other duties.