Prepare, Respond and Recover: how UK Defence could support societal resilience to crisis events

RAF Chinook and soldiers from 2nd Batallion The Duke of Lancaster Regiment at a vulnerable river bank working with the Environmental Agency to prevent flooding, photo by SSgt Mark Nesbit RLC/Open Government Licence

RAF Chinook and soldiers from 2nd Bn The Duke of Lancaster Regiment at a vulnerable river bank working with the Environmental Agency to prevent flooding

SSgt Mark Nesbit RLC/OGL

Using case studies from five countries, researchers developed a conceptual framework that includes three phases of societal resilience: Prepare, Respond and Recover. The team identified a set of proposals to help UK Defence improve how it conceptualises and operationalises societal resilience.

What is the issue?

Societal resilience, or the ability of societies to rebound from the shock of a crisis such as natural disaster or attack, has become a key priority for governments.

In the summer of 2021, a slew of climate change–related crises — including extreme heat across the American West, massive flooding in China and northwest Europe, and wildfires in Arctic regions — required a coordinated response. In addition to naturally occurring events, cyber-attacks continued to be directed at critical infrastructure, government departments and the private sector. This all occurred during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has continued to challenge individual countries, as well as the global community.

As climate change continues to progress and new and innovative methods of conducting cyber-attacks proliferate, it is likely these types of events will only increase in frequency. This has led governments around the world to develop their ability to respond when a crisis inevitably strikes.

The UK government recognised this in its 2021 Integrated Review, identifying a requirement to build the country’s resilience to physical and digital threats, and linking resilience with the protection of democratic institutions and strategic advantage. However, there is as yet limited consensus on what that resilience should look like and how to bring it about.

How did we help?

As part of the Global Strategic Partnership (GSP), RAND Europe researchers led a study for the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre to better understand the lessons UK Defence might learn from other nations’ approaches to promoting societal resilience. The ultimate goal of the project team, which also included Aleph Insights, was to support and enhance the credibility of the UK’s resilience and deterrence posture. While this project focused on the role of UK Defence, the team’s findings will be relevant to those involved or interested in resilience planning, both inside and outside of the MOD.

Following a global cluster analysis, the study examined five countries as case studies – Australia, Colombia, Israel, Russia and Sweden – and drew lessons from their approach.

In addition to qualitative analyses of each case study, Aleph Insights devised a Societal Resilience Index to compare the case studies based on variables that either contributed to or indicated societal resilience.

What did we find?

Phases of societal resilience are connected in a loop. Prepare (foresee, build, educate) enables UK Defence to efficiently and effectively Respond (understand, inform, mobilise). The Respond phase is sustained until the immediate crisis passes and the task becomes Recover (reset, regenerate, innovate). The Recover phase incorporates lessons learned so UK Defence can return to Prepare.

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The GSP study team developed a conceptual framework that identified three separate phases of societal resilience: Prepare, Respond and Recover. Variations of these stages feature prominently in legislation and policy guidance on societal resilience across the five case studies, as well as in the UK, and are terms familiar to the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD). The stages are as follows:

  • The Prepare phase consists of all activities undertaken prior to a crisis or incident to ensure that awareness and assessment of potential risks, threats and vulnerabilities has taken place and that the necessary resources and relationships are in place to enable an effective response. It includes the subtasks Foresee, Build, and Educate.
  • The Respond phase involves all activities that take place once a crisis has occurred to effectively mitigate the immediate effects of the crisis. Key priorities might include obtaining and maintaining accurate situational awareness, communicating across interested parties and engaging the necessary resource. This phase includes three subtasks: Understand, Inform, and Mobilise.
  • The Recover phase occurs once the initial crisis has passed or been mitigated. It consists of both short-term tasks to ensure that civilians have been removed from immediate danger and resources have been restored to their previous locations, as well as longer-term activities to return society to a pre-crisis state and ensure that responding personnel and equipment are returned to readiness. The subtasks included in this phase are Reset, Regenerate, and Innovate.

A critical characteristic is that these phases are not sequential, but rather overlap and at times take place concurrently as various crises unfold. Elements of each stage are dependent on actions in the previous stage, while feeding into and enabling subsequent stages.

It is important to note that, as crises may occur in parallel or with cascade effects, actors may find themselves in the midst of several tasks simultaneously. Societal resilience is an ongoing, cyclical process; actions in each phase enable and support tasks in the subsequent phases. For example, the MOD might need to continue to Prepare to respond to a cyber-attack on critical infrastructure while Responding to ongoing flooding.

What can be done?

Based on the research and analysis conducted as part of this study, the GSP team identified a set of proposals for UK Defence. These suggestions are aimed at helping UK Defence improve how it conceptualises and operationalises societal resilience, and think through how it can contribute to the wider context of UK efforts in this area.

  • Improve civil-military coordination and integration, including more clearly defined roles and responsibilities. While coordination and integration already occur across the spectrum, there may be room to improve. For example, more use could be made of military liaison officers in other government departments, and all personnel could be double-hatted, with a normal position and a crisis role.
  • Work to build more effective long-term relationships between Defence and national, regional, and local level organisations to support societal resilience planning. People need to know whom to contact, and when. This could be achieved through Defence engagement with local civil emergency planning bodies and raising awareness of military capabilities, including those niche capabilities that could benefit emergency workers in a crisis, and how they can be quickly accessed.
  • Enhance communication at all levels to strengthen trust and understanding between military, other government departments, civilian agencies and the public. This could prove an effective way of demonstrating to the public the resilience measures that government has in place. It can also build public awareness and confidence.
  • Exercise routinely in different configurations with various partners at local, national and multinational levels. This offers benefits for both preparedness and deterrence.
  • Explore mechanisms of rapid mass and cross-sector mobilisation. This may happen through changed utilisation of military Reserves, for example.