Expert Insights: Understanding the Value of Defence

What is the value of defence? RAND Europe Defence, Security and Infrastructure director Ruth Harris and Research Leader James Black examine the ‘value proposition’ of UK defence, to provide a better understanding of why defence exists and explore how the value it brings to the nation can be better articulated across government, to partners and to the wider public.


Jack Jakins

Hello and welcome to Expert Insights with RAND Europe, a brief conversation between our analysts who will be discussing our latest research and looking more in depth at some of the pressing policy issues of the day. This session, we will examine a recent study on understanding the value of defence in the UK. Ruth Harris, director of our Defence, Security and Infrastructure team and co-author of the study will be in conversation with Research Leader and fellow co-author James Black to provide expert insights into the importance of their findings to policy debates.

James Black

What is the value of defence? In some ways you would think this would be an obvious question, one that has been addressed many times over the years. Providing defence is in many ways the foundational responsibility of the government. Ultimately, keeping people safe is the first responsibility and the most important. It's an issue that really is often taken for granted and hasn't been looked into perhaps in the detail that one might think.

As such, the UK ministry of Defence's internal think tank, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, commissioned a recent study for the Global Strategic Partnership to try and better understand the different ways in which defence provides value to the UK's government, to the nation at-large, society, and to the individual members of the public.

This piece of work was delivered through the Global Strategic Partnership, which is a research consortium led by RAND Europe, also including University of Exeter and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Ruth, I know this is an issue that you've been looking at in the past. You obviously served in the military yourself. It would be interesting to hear your perspective on why it is that it's so hard for defence to answer this age-old question.

Ruth Harris

Thanks, James. You're right. It has been a challenge and it's not just a new challenge. It's one that's been in existence for a long time. And it's worth taking a moment I think, as we do in the report, to reflect on exactly why this is. So if one, for example, thinks about the private sector and the output of services, you can value and understand what it's worth in terms of price. You can see it's something you can touch. It is tangible. That's not the case with defence. I mean, the idea, of course, there is you don't need it until you really need it and you shouldn't need it. It should be something that sits in the background if all is going well. But actually, it's the issue of deterrence. You don't need it until the insurance policy is required.

But there's additional difficulties, I think, as well. And there are some public services that are really, I think, as we described, stubbornly difficult to measure. And I think that's the point. We try to grasp it, but it just won't be measured. So how much value does one put on peace and stability? How much does that mean to you at that point in your life? So it's a challenge to continuously involve the public and have them understand, because at one point in a generation, you will understand your life shifts and you move on and you have a different understanding of that level of value. I suppose what we would describe it as is an idea of a logic model that looks at inputs and outputs and benefits, immediate benefits, the end benefits, and the impact that it might have.

James Black

What's interesting is this is an area where UK government has been trying to get a lot better in recent years. So it's had something called the Green Book, which the Treasury produces, which is a document that guides how government understands the costs, the benefits, and the ultimate return on investment and value for money of different aspects of public expenditure. And that's always been quite hard to do. It's been something that many departments have struggled with over the years, but many of them have been getting a lot better in recent years. And they've introduced something called a public value framework, which is supposed to guide how civil servants and policymakers make decisions so that they can make sure that if they've got multiple things that they could be spending their money on, their limited resources, they're going to spend it on those different interventions or initiatives that will give the most benefit to society.

Defence really struggles there because what should it measure? Should it measure the number of tanks or aircraft? But how do you do that when the tanks and aircraft that you have may be available in smaller numbers than in previous decades, but they might individually be much more capable? And they might be more or less useful in different types of scenarios. So you're going into a situation like Afghanistan, for example, and doing counterinsurgency operations requires a very different set of kit, a very different set of tactics and concepts of operations to the sorts of operations that we might expect in the future in other parts of the world.

So how can you quantify how useful any of your outputs are? And how can you also really understand and quantify the benefits in terms of the ultimate outcomes? So how can we say that because the UK military did X, Y, or Z, that necessarily the UK economy is better off, UK is safer in the long term, UK foreign policy goals have gone in the direction they should have? There are so many external variables to consider in terms of other actors, what they're doing, whether they are deterred by the actions the UK is taking, whether our allies are reassured by the steps that the UK military takes.

So given all of these uncertainties, it's very hard to come to a kind of simple, clear definition of the ultimate value of defence. So what we were asked to do for DCDC in the Ministry of Defence was to come up with what they called a defence value proposition.

Now, the idea of value proposition comes from the private sector, and it's something that a lot of companies will come up with when they're developing a new product. So they'll be thinking about a particular product or service that they might want to take to market. They'll look out at what the different customers are, the different markets for that product or service, and they'll try and understand what people's wants, needs, and fears are. What is it, what is the problem that they can solve with this new particular offering? And how does whatever they are offering differ from potential competitors on the market who might have an alternative way of doing things.

Now in defence it's slightly different because clearly there's only one military in each country. There's only one government. So there isn't competition in the same way. But there is competition from other parts of the public sector — the education, health, transport — for finite public resources. So it's similarly important to kind of apply the same model and understand how it is that defence meets the wants, needs, and fears of the everyday person in the UK. In broad terms, those can be categorized into three areas. One is around security. One is around prosperity. One is around influence. And Ruth, I don't know if you want to kick us off by talking about security briefly.

Ruth Harris

Yes. One of the things people think about immediately when they think about defence is the concept of protection and what that means to them. We went to this sort of, what is well known now as the Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to describe a little about what security means to somebody. You have the base of a pyramid looking at the physiological needs — air, water, food, shelter, all those things — then safety needs, which is personal security. And that is one of the basic requirements of life. Am I are able to do what I need to do to be able to secure food, shelter, etc. It's a really important point, even for someone who has struggled in life and is perhaps not as financially secure as they might want to be. Then personal security would come above that. And it's hard to describe that and how the military will give that to somebody who's perhaps living in poverty, et cetera.

But Defence needs to do that. They need to be able to articulate security across the nation and not just in the concept of a war or protection of the UK homeland and overseas territories, although that is key. In order to speak to the people, they need to articulate why defence is important, in order for you to live and work not just in the UK but in the world. The idea, of course, is that if you don't have protection, you are unable to build the economy to secure the things that you need in order to live. We have to remember that defence is the ultimate guarantor of the UK people's basic needs.

James Black

And that's not just in the face of external aggression, although that clearly is the kind of high-end scenario that defence is always working towards. But there are also broader kind of human security threats that defence provides a vital insurance policy against. And in many ways, insurance is a very good analogy. So it's something that you spend money on, but it really comes in handy when suddenly there's a fire in your house or there's a flood or there's some other sort of natural disaster or a break-in and some sort of human aggression or crime against you.

Defence offers that and we've seen that recently with COVID-19. The sorts of capabilities and forces that defence developed for a particular set of scenarios, suddenly being called upon for a very unexpected set of scenarios. So responding to a pandemic, helping build hospitals in London and other parts of the UK, helping distribute medical PPE, helping support the NHS and doing things that, to be honest, many in the military were not necessarily trained for where they have that unique role and they have a unique responsibility and legal status.

There's this concept of unlimited liability in the Armed Forces. So the idea that there is something unique about the profession of arms, about the status of being a member of the UK military, which means that ultimately you can be ordered into harm's way or even to give your life in order to protect others. And that's something that doesn't actually apply in any other walk of life and isn't even true of the emergency services in quite the same way. And similarly, these people could be called upon to use force, deadly force if necessary. So defence ultimately provides a very flexible set of options and capabilities that when the chips are down and there's some sort of unfortunate crisis or contingency, you can call upon that insurance policy and you can use it.

Ruth Harris

I think another good example is probably the use of defence at times when other aspects of government have not been available. For example, during strike, the fire service strike, is a good example. And I think in that way it's useful to think of defence as protection in a way that we wouldn't normally think about hard defence. It's probably worth understanding that the world that we work in is a really uncertain world, and in that way the defence has to be very flexible, as James describes.

James Black

Another important point here is the idea of influence, as well. So the idea that investing in security also doesn't just make you safer internally, but also enables you to project power and influence and portray a certain version or vision of yourself in the world. Now, this can be influence on your friends and your allies by showing that you'll stand with them in a particular crisis, that you'll be good for your word and that you will show up when it counts if there is a attack, for example, on NATO.

So influence isn't just about friends and allies. It's also about deterring potential adversaries. So those people out in the world who might be hostile to the UK and its interests and its values, the UK military tries to shape their behaviors into a direction that we would be more comfortable with. Now, that doesn't mean they necessarily become out the best of friends, but they would at least exercise restraint, for example, in not launching an attack against us or our allies, either because they think that the attack will not have a high likelihood of achieving its objectives, because we put in place the necessary defences to guard against it or because they think that there will be, with a high level of certainty, some sort of punitive response by the UK and its allies, whereby if they attack us, we will be able to strike back directly or indirectly and ultimately, therefore prevent them from achieving their strategic objectives.

So influence is also a really important part of what defence does, and that's become in many ways a key theme in recent years. So there's been a big interest in what's called defence engagement. So reaching out and working with international partners, building capacity, running training missions and trying to prevent, for example, fragile states around the world from becoming potential sources of conflict or instability in the future by working with local forces or working with international institutions such as the African Union, for example, or the United Nations.

Ruth Harris

Another component of defence and the public value that it gives, and that's prosperity. And prosperity has been a key term within government for at least five years now. It's found its way into documents, policy strategy. There are a number of ways that we can describe what prosperity is for defence. Some of them are more obvious than others for sure. One I would say is the public sector employment —the employment of people in the Armed Forces, MOD civil servants, et cetera. Basically it gives jobs, but it also gives private sector employment. If you think about small and medium-sized enterprises that feed into larger defence primes that are building equipment, the network of organisations that help to build the equipment that defence requires.

But it's not just the equipment, of course. It's the defence estate, as well. Who looks after that, who supports it, who builds houses in the local area where a defence base is, and the schooling and the health and other aspects that having large groups of people living in areas around the UK, that perhaps otherwise the demographic would be slightly different and certainly the population would be lower.

It's worth thinking, as well, about the skills and expertise that defence brings, and certainly all three of the Armed Forces put an awful lot of effort into this currently. STEM is one of the buzzwords at the moment, but actually it's really important. Not necessarily those people stay in the Armed Forces, but actually that spreads wider across the UK and pushes skills and expertise out into other parts of the economy.

Another point to mention, I think, is sort of research and innovation, because defence, well, war in general, let's face it, has often been the mother of invention. And certainly innovation and adaptability has come from times of conflict. I'm not saying that defence needs to be at war in order to innovate. I really hope not. But actually, the energy behind defence and the initiative that defence can bring to some areas is key for innovation funding research.

James Black

I think it's also worth noting the kind of broader concept of prosperity, as well. It's something that I think people often understand in terms of money, in terms of the money coming into the government's coffers. There's also a broader concept of prosperity as social welfare. And this is something actually that the Treasury and the government have been paying closer attention to in recent years. So it's this idea that there are less financial benefits, perhaps but ones that are still very important.

So things like social cohesion, a sense of identity, freedom from anxiety, freedom from fear, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and hope for the future. All of these things are quite intangible and might be quite difficult to measure, at least in a comparable way. And certainly they mean different things to different people and they will be prioritised differently at different times. Still, they're important to many people to see certain symbols that the military contributes to public life, be it guards outside Buckingham Palace or the military assisting with major sporting events or flyovers by the Red Arrows and all these other kind of small ways in which the military makes itself a visible part of the UK's public life and the kind of fabric of society. All those things do matter, too, symbols that can be quite powerful. And for many people, those also represent an important contribution and a benefit to their life, without which perhaps they would feel differently about their place in the world and UK society, and without which they might view the UK and its role in the world slightly differently, as well.

That's not to say that defence should always be focusing on exactly what the public wants or what the public sees as the most tangible outputs of defence spending. The public doesn't necessarily know all the things that defence does. Indeed, we should hope, given the classified nature of much of national security, that they don't know all of what defence is doing in detail. And so there's a real tension there as to what extent defence should be responding to the customer and to what extent the customer is always right. Should the taxpayer be driving defence decision making and investments? Should we be driving towards a future version of defence that is very much tailored to what individual people in this country want and what they see as being beneficial? Or should defence try and persuade and engage society in a quite honest and frank and perhaps difficult dialogue about the threats that do exist out there in the world and about the costs of defending against those in a way that is going to be sufficient? And, of course, what the risks and unintended consequences and potential limitations of certain defence investments might be in that particularly uncertain and difficult, challenging world.

Ruth Harris

I think it's worth saying that defence has always been slightly underconfident in blowing its own trumpet. And perhaps that's frustrating from someone who's been in the military for a long time and in the past has been frustrating because people in the military know what they do and know what they can offer. Defence needs to take this opportunity now to reflect upon and really redefine its role.

One of the most important things is to have this discussion widely across society. As we've already mentioned and we say in the report, the value of defence is in the eye of the beholder. There needs to be a national conversation, and it's really important to have that now and not to shy away from what that might really mean about how we serve the nation. But it also might mean a redefining of the role of defence, a redefining of where bases are, a redefining of how we work overseas and what we deliver, particularly with the fiscal challenges as we go forward.

Jack Jakins

Thank you for listening to Expert Insights with RAND Europe. The study discussed today was titled Understanding the Value of Defence: Towards the Defence Value Proposition for the UK. It was commissioned by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre within the UK Ministry of Defence. If you're interested in finding out more about this research, please visit our website at RAND Europe is a not for profit, nonpartisan research organisation that helps to improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.