Cover: The Utility of Military Force and Public Understanding in Today's Britain

The Utility of Military Force and Public Understanding in Today's Britain

Published Apr 16, 2020

by Hew Strachan, Ruth Harris

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Research Question

  1. What do the conflicts of the last 30 years reveal to us (the general public and current political generation) about the changing dynamics of the (secondary) Clausewitzian Trinity, and what does this say about the utility of force in the 21st Century?

The presence of a communication gap between the government and the public on matters of defence policy can undermine the development of strategy and potential for the coherent use of military force. The Global Strategic Partnership (GSP) was therefore commissioned by the UK's Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) to challenge the traditional relationships between the UK's military, government and people, explore the relevance of the construct for the 21st Century, and the implications of this evolving relationship for the nature of the utility of force. The British government perceives the public as reluctant to support the cost of defence and unpersuaded of the utility of military force. Yet the formation of effective strategy in a democracy requires conversations both between the government and its civil service and armed forces, and between the government and its electorate. These two conversations are often conducted in different registers, undermining the coherence of national strategy. Moreover, the public is not a monolith, but a community that includes opinion formers, spouses of service personnel, and former armed forces personnel, all of them groups whose members engage with the use of force as do those in government. To generate a mature attitude to the use of armed force and, if necessary, to the utility of war itself, Britain will require a mature debate about defence—one that trusts and engages the public, allows the armed forces to participate in the discussion, and in which the government enables and enhances the structures to permit those conversations.

Key Findings

The study identified the following implications for national security:

  • 'Hybrid war' targets the role of popular opinion in shaping national strategy. 'Hybrid war' as it is now construed is less about 'real war' than about political influence as a substitute for war. The Internet and influence operations are used as part of hybrid warfare to promote messages that divide British society against itself. The reason for concern is that these divisions are already present—they can therefore be easily exploited by malign and covert actors. Britain's demonisation of 'hybrid war' rests on an implicit recognition of its own weaknesses, although they are themselves the product of a free society.
  • Social resilience is receiving increasing attention in relation to national security. Societal ownership itself underpins resilience. Awareness of the need for security creates a more robust society, and that in itself provides a level of protection as it reduces the returns on attack. Public engagement in defence creates a level of mass participation, which itself leads to resilience. This rests on the integration of the armed forces within the community, and in particular on direct evidence of their contribution to security. A lack of mature public engagement creates a lack of national resilience.
  • The effect of ignoring domestic resilience is to undermine deterrence. As with resilience, societal ownership strengthens deterrence. If the public do not understand what they are interested in defending or what they will fight for, then the enemy will assume that the democratic state will pursue every policy option short of war, but not war itself.


  • Emphasising the shared responsibility of resilience. In the context of domestic security, the responsibility for resilience is a shared one. Future strategic reviews must make this point explicit.
  • Developing a UK concept of deterrence. The UK needs a concept of deterrence that is nested in its national strategy and communicable to its own people, as well as internationally.
  • Creating coherence in communications. The decision to use military force is inherently risky and morally fraught but it can be the right decision: the public needs to understand the issues.
  • Connecting the armed forces and the government: Direct public engagement can promote understanding of today's armed forces.
  • Engendering clarity and transparency regarding the wars Britain can fight: British strategy needs to be explicit about the capabilities for which its armed forces are configured.
  • Being open to a debate on national service: Not to discuss national service (even broadly defined) is to limit the debate artificially.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the UK Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) and conducted by RAND Europe.

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