Before it took office, both parties in the current British government promised to conduct a new Strategic Defense Review. These are a traditional once-a-decade assessment of what Britain's national interests are, and how best to defend them in the coming years.
Over the course of the Cold War and in its aftermath, the threats to Britain's security changed but their nature remained broadly similar: traditional interstate warfare, threats to trade routes, nuclear proliferation amongst states, threats to Britain's overseas territories such as the Falkland Islands, and terrorism, particularly from the IRA.
I believe that the preeminent overarching trend in the coming decades will be the changing nature of security itself. The twelve years since the previous Strategic Defense Review has seen Britain retain its ability to project conventional force around the globe, and this ability will remain important. But it has also seen the emergence of real threats against which conventional force are not appropriate. These are likely to grow in importance over the coming decades as technology improves and becomes cheaper and thus more widely available to non-state groups and individuals.
Threats to critical infrastructure
Terrorism. Terrorism, (including chemical and biological terrorism) is likely to continue to become cheaper and more attractive as a tool for manipulating mass opinion, as mass media continues to penetrate poorer regions. However, the spike in homegrown terrorists witnessed in the immediate post 9-11 period is likely to abate as a number of trends combine: the improvement of policing methods (as lessons are learned about how best to engage the Muslim community, gather actionable intelligence, and improved trust leads to better feedback loops); a complete withdrawal from Iraq; and the decline in appeal of radical Islamist narratives globally. The events of the last decade show a correlation between the incidence of terrorism and provocative UK foreign policy. If this lesson is factored into future deployment decisions, terrorism will remain a potential but not actual threat.
Cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is likely to overtake terrorism as the number one threat to the UK's critical infrastructure over the coming decades, even if lags behind terrorism as a threat in the public mind. This is because of the rise in access to computers and computer literacy around the globe, the relative ease and anonymity of conducting a cyber attack on critical infrastructure, the reduced risk to the protagonist compared to other forms of attack, and the fact that protagonists can attack more flexibly, quickly, and with minimal institutional preparation or a shorter decision-making process than states or formalized terrorist groups require.
Cyberattacks blur the line between national security threats by a foreign government, military, or individuals or groups acting without links to any state organization, for three reasons. Firstly, given the ability to mask the origin of attacks, there is often no way to identify it with certainty, making such distinctions all but irrelevant. Secondly, it would likely be in the interest of a government to make use of individuals or groups to conduct the attack. And thirdly, the difference in capability between a state-sanctioned and independent attack is narrowing, as such know-how disperses.
Another factor is that the grievance which triggers such an attack can be perceived as well as real. The fact that the opinions of foreign citizens can, if determined enough, now translate into cyber attacks on UK critical infrastructure, means that defense against such an amorphous threat must make use of public and cultural diplomacy to reduce the motivation to attack in the first place. States such as Estonia have already fallen victim to devastating cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, and Chinese hackers have already gained access to sensitive information from the Indian government, including NATO deployment plans and the Dalai Lama's personal emails.
Threats to resources
The next few decades are likely to see unprecedented pressure on global resources as the global population rises (current projections for 2050 are between 8 and 10.5 billion people), climate change leads to desertification and the resulting population movements, and a declining supply of fossil fuels and increasing demand for western-style diets. These are all likely to result in increasing resource pressure, which could play out as either conflict or increased cooperation, according to global leadership. However, it is also likely to raise new grievances and discontent in those parts of the world which are affected. Britain, at the intersection of the EU, NATO, the UN, and the Commonwealth, is particularly well-placed to play a leading role in forming a global institutional architecture to address such pressures equitably. Handled well, the threat to resources will not necessarily lead to a threat to the UK's national security, however the necessity for leadership to ensure the necessary global cooperation should be regarded through the prism of heading off a potential national security threat, and thus handled with some urgency.
The danger of traditional proliferation has not diminished, although the danger of a rogue state using their nuclear weapons remains low. However, the danger of rogue elements in nuclear-armed regimes passing on weapons and know-how to non-state actors is likely to increase. The first decade of the twenty-first century saw this becoming more prevalent, with various elements, particularly from Pakistan being accused of passing weapons and know-how to both North Korea and Iran. As the number of nuclear states rises, the potential for the transfer of know-how for private profit or ideological reasons increases accordingly. This is not helped by the breakdown of the previous non-proliferation regime, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, under which non-nuclear signatory countries promised not to acquire nuclear weapons, in exchange for help to develop nuclear energy, since when Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have all developed nuclear weapons. There is also likely to be considerable risk from "virtual nuclear weapons states" - states which attain the capability to produce plutonium or highly enriched uranium and have the know-how to make warheads, but who stop just short of assembling a weapon, thus remaining technically compliant with the NPT while being within a couple of months of deploying and using a nuclear weapon.
In considering how to best prepare the UK against future security threats, the next Strategic Defense Review will be inadequate if it restricts itself to the traditional purview of the Ministry of Defense. The new British government has a lot to think about.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.