Offensive Security: Why it’s a Problem

Most approaches to global security are based on the idea that insecurity can be controlled through military force. We should be tackling threats such as climate change, economic injustice and resource depletion instead, argues Dr Chris Langley, SGR.

Article for New Left Project website, 4 December 2013

The use of armed force, whether by governments, private security companies or individuals has profound, persistent and widespread effects globally.  Armed force depends increasingly on the large-scale use of scientific research to develop and refine military technologies and this raises numerous ethical questions. For example, the rapidly increasing use of armed drones – especially in the past two years by the USA and UK, outside the battlefield[1] – has led to major protests, while the planned renewal of nuclear weapons systems in the UK and elsewhere raises profound concerns.

A major thrust of many current approaches to global security is based upon the notion that insecurity and conflict can be controlled through either military force (the widespread use of drones for instance) or by containing the area of conflict – through the large-scale application of military technologies (again drones being an example).  However, it is clear from examining global conflict over the past two decades that such an approach is far from successful[2].  In both the short and the longer term it makes far more sense to identify the underlying causes of insecurity and conflict and to take steps to address such causes.  Growing threats to stability and security include: climate change; resource depletion and competition; marginalisation of the majority world (including economic injustice); and global militarisation[3].  Prioritising the tackling of these threats has been termed the pursuit of ‘sustainable security’[4].

These issues are the subject of a new report from Scientists for Global Responsibility, entitled Offensive Insecurity: The role of science and technology in UK security strategies[5]. Using data from the Ministry of Defence and other Government sources, it asks probing questions about UK security policy.  For example, the Report estimates that around 76 per cent of military R&D funding in the period 2008 to 2011 went towards “offensive” high technology – such as nuclear weapons and related areas, combat aircraft as well as unmanned aerial vehicles – spending which supports ‘force projection’ outside the UK and marginalises other approaches.  This serves current UK military and security policy.


The UK’s security stance

In 2010 the UK Ministry of Defence ‘think-tank’ the Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) published Global Strategic Trends: Out to 2040[6] which in part responds to calls for the Ministry of Defence to produce more long-term strategic planning for security.  The DCDC identified four long-term drivers of conflict and ‘destabilisation’: climate change; globalisation; global inequality and ‘breakneck technological’ innovation – in other parts of the world. 

 The UK National Security Strategy (NSS), also in 2010, points out that the UK is “more secure…than in most of her long history…in the sense that we do not currently face, as we have so often in our past, a conventional threat of attack on our territory by a hostile power” [7].  The NSS sets out, in some detail, an overarching set of security objectives for the UK, including describing the present and emerging threats to the country.  The NSS goes some way to acknowledging the changed nature of modern security issues, and identifies global nuclear weapons proliferation, energy resources, climate change together with food and water resources having profound security dimensions.  And, interestingly the NSS sees many of the key security risks as ones which are not amenable to the use of military force – as is recognised by those suggesting more sustainable forms of security. 

This view however does not match the strategies outlined in Strategic Defence and Security Review: Prioritising military approaches (SDSR)[8], which claimed to have a major focus on a “coherent defence capability” for 2020.  Whilst the NSS identified what it saw as the security problems which the UK faces, the SDSR identifies the ‘solutions’, military and non-military,  which could be harnessed by the government to address the threats identified by the NSS.  SDSR sets out eight national security tasks (plus guidelines to implement them).  The SDSR focuses heavily on the armed forces as the primary means of achieving the identified objectives.  Thus the three publications suggest some but not all the same issues which may be threats to the UK (and also globally) but essentially see different ways to address them – less joined-up government than many would like.

The authors of Offensive Insecurity point out (pp.17-18)[9] that offensive technologies are claimed to help “defend interests abroad” (a phrase used by the authors of SDSR). To do so is not identified as a major role of the UK’s security apparatus focus in either the NSS or the DCDC publications mentioned earlier.  Such power projection methods, redolent of the Cold War mindset, but adapted to new ‘needs’ of the twenty-first Century do little to look to the broader security landscape where power projection has very little value.  Such technologies have the potential to weaken more diplomatic and peace-building approaches to longer-term threats identified by both the NSS and by those advocating sustainable security[10].


Science, technology and security

 A fundamental issue underpins how the form of security responses that governments undertake is determined.  The weapons, technologies and battlespace-planning are dependent upon research and development, and this forms a major area of public spending.  The security sector – government and corporate – use taxpayers’ funds to develop new means of addressing conflict.  Increasingly these means are technological and depend upon information and computational technology.  Implicit in such R&D activities, both in the EU and within individual member states are Security Research Programme funds[11] or their equivalent.  Such programmes bring together researchers to address specific research questions. 

The expertise within the universities (predominantly in science, engineering and technology departments) is a fundamental part of military sector - corporate and government - R&D effort.  The involvement of the university research and teaching communities is integral to the UK’s security stance, the levels of collaboration and partnering are complex and help to drive a high-technology, instrumental approach to framing security and the threats faced[12].

The UK government’s military R&D spending in 2008-11 was around seven times that directly spent by government civilian departments on R&D addressing understanding and tackling the roots of conflict.  Some further figures are helpful here: in the period 2008-11 total UK R&D spending on offensive weapons systems included £1,565 million on combat aircraft and £991 million on long-range submarines (including their nuclear weapons) whereas sustainable security-related R&D, which addresses the root causes of conflict, only attracted £626 million for international development and £179 million for renewable energy (which would make the UK far more self-sufficient in energy terms as well as making a sustained effort at tackling climate change).  The authors of Offensive Insecurity point out that by cutting some publicly-funded R&D from highly aggressive power projection stances savings of £1 billion could be made[13], and these savings could be diverted to sustainable security measures.  Furthermore, spending on aggressive security in the name of safeguarding the UK also limits available monies for civilian R&D such as sustainable energy, resource depletion and health which has potential for enhancing the public good. There would also be much larger savings from cuts in defence procurement which, under the new Defence Equipment Plan, totals £160bn over the next 10 years[14].


The need for joined-up thinking

On the basis of the data provided within Offensive Insecurity, the major proportion of spending on military R&D has been focused upon power projection, and this looks set to continue, whilst that R&D supportive of sustainable security is thereby marginalised.  Additionally, where funds have been made available to support sustainable security it has much weaker links to policy-making.  The authors also drew attention to the fact that military R&D funded by government is done through the Ministry of Defence which has strong links with central government decision-making, whereas most of the sustainable security R&D funding (around 74 per cent) is spent through the research councils and is thus not closely linked to government policy making.

Worryingly in the UK and EU the security research programmes have a very marked presence of the global military corporations, and this frames a high-technology approach to security[15].

In those situations where power projection has been used it is clear that the UK and USA do not see the long-term picture.  Building peace after conflict is far more problematic than averting conflict in the first place by using the tools of sustainable security as can be seen in the post-conflict stabilisation attempts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya[16].  The Report points out that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when questioned did not appear to have a co-ordinated research programme and only small amounts of funding earmarked for research.  Thus opportunities for diplomatic approaches to post-conflict situations or non-military interventions could thus be missed.  Although the UK Department for International Development does address weapons proliferation and building peace and long-term stability (in the Middle East and North Africa)[17] and together with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence maintains the Conflict Pool which helps build stability in post-conflict regions there are globally few long-term and sustained attempts to build peace and reduce the drivers of conflict, for instance none of the Millennium Development Goals refers to peace or security[18].

In 2011-12 armed conflict was a marked feature of global events and caused considerable concern internationally, especially in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  Global military spending (inclusive of R&D) in 2012 is estimated to have been $1.76trillion (£1.09 trillion), which is around 2.5 per cent of the global gross domestic product[19].  Global public and private cybersecurity spending in 2011 was estimated as $60 billion (£37 billion) - about 3.5 per cent of global military expenditure, a figure of considerable interest given the Snowden disclosures about the extent and nature of mass surveillance by the USA and the UK of individuals’ telecommunications use[20].  These figures are approximate because data is sketchy from certain parts of the world. Although ‘austerity’ measures impacted on military spending across the world, the USA was still the major spender at $685.3 billion (£423 billion) – a rise of 69 per cent in real terms on the figure for 2001[21]

Military companies in the USA and UK were also the largest in terms of arms production (BAE Systems being third with profits of $2.35 billion (£1.42 billion) in 2012[22].  Clearly such large multinational entities will be able to exert influence on the security agenda globally.  The SDSR and the National Security Through Technology (NSTT) White Paper of 2012[23] almost entirely focus on the development of new military technologies and the industries that would provide them.  Such large corporations as BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin will be first choices in such provision.  The NSTT White Paper supports the export of arms and military technology, despite evidence that such activities tend to fuel conflict and denial of human rights and proliferation globally.  Furthermore, the NSTT continues a flawed approach to the security agenda despite the major failures apparent in the UK’s military stance and deployment in recent years – including high rates of civilian casualties, the fuelling of international arms races[24], and the lack of ‘joined-up’ thinking on terrorism on the part of the UK.

There is a striking lack of connection between cause and effect in the thinking of those responsible for policy decisions in security as discussed above.  It is highly significant too that the authors of Offensive Insecurity found major gaps in data from Ministry of Defence responses to Freedom of Information Act requests (Offensive Insecurity p.57).  Overall the authors found a lack of openness and accountability, the Ministry of Defence being ‘unable’ to provide a  breakdown by programme of over a quarter of its R&D spending despite repeated requests.  This opacity in funding direction accounts for around £500 million per year.  The Report makes the recommendation that the Ministry of Defence needs to maintain and publish complete programme-level records of all its R&D spending and make it clear in publications where monies are used and for what purpose – democracy demands such. 


The need for change

The projection of power underpinned by the UK’s “offensive” security stance serves the economic goals enshrined in neo-liberal ideologies.  Spending in this area denies funding to other more effective means of maintaining peace and security, despite the NSS and DCDC mentioning the need to address those areas in which such power projection approaches are less than helpful.  Globally, military spending diverts attention away from diplomatic and sustainable approaches to security and stimulates proliferation.  Significant and sustained approaches to pressing needs like climate change, poverty alleviation and resource depletion, involving a range of government offices co-operating is needed to address complex and often long-range security threats.  More inter-departmental co-operation and planning is needed in the UK, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence.  Such co-operation also needs expert input from across the research community.  However, the evidence collected in Offensive Insecurity indicates that in defence as in other areas of present Government thinking there is a serious gap between policy decisions and an understanding of the extent and complexity of the problems being encountered. 

Critical voices from the science, technology and engineering communities as well as from other publics need to be heard which challenge the basic assumptions driving the UK security strategy in the short and long-term.  Change needs to happen to minimise security threats – rather than a continued focus on the large-scale use of weapons and force.  Governments across the world, addicted to power-projection modes of security, need to listen and engage with those who have a different view of the nature of pressing threats to peace and safety.

Dr Chris Langley is the lead author of the SGR reports, Soldiers in the Laboratory and More Soldiers in the Laboratory.

This article was first published on the New Left Project website, 4 December 2013. Reprinted with permission. 


Notes and References

[1] In Afghanistan Britain’s’ use of the Reaper drone accounted for 22 per cent of all drone strikes in the period 2008-11, and also

[3]; Soldiers in the laboratory: military involvement in science & technology – and some alternatives.  C Langley, Folkestone, UK: Scientists for Global Responsibility, 2005 /ArmsControl/Soldiers_in_Lab_Report.pdf

More soldiers in the laboratory: the militarisation of science & technology – an update. C Langley, S Parkinson & P Webber, Folkestone, UK: Scientists for Global Responsibility, 2007 /ArmsControl/More_Soldiers_in_Lab_Report.pdf

[4] See footnote 2.

[5] Offensive Insecurity: The role of science and technology in UK security strategies is authored by S Parkinson, B Pace and P Webber, and is available as a PDF at /publications/offensive-insecurity 2013. The Report is the latest in a series which examines in-depth the military involvement with science, engineering and technology in the UK.

[7] HM Government (2010). A strong Britain in an age of uncertainty: The National Security Strategy.

[9] Offensive Insecurity: The role of science and technology in UK security strategies  S Parkinson, B Pace and P Webber,  at /publications/offensive-insecurity 2013

[10] and  Soldiers in the laboratory: military involvement in science & technology – and some alternatives, C Langley,  Folkestone, UK: Scientists for Global Responsibility, 2005 /ArmsControl/Soldiers_in_Lab_Report.pdf

[11] More on the EU programmes may be found at: Arming Big Brother. B Hayes Transnational Institute and Statewatch, 2006.

[12] A full discussion of the many partnerships and collaborations involving UK research councils, the Ministry of Defence and the corporate sector  is available at: Soldiers in the laboratory: military involvement in science & technology – and some alternatives. C Langley,   Folkestone, UK: Scientists for Global Responsibility, 2005 /ArmsControl/Soldiers_in_Lab_Report.pdf

More soldiers in the laboratory: the militarisation of science & technology – an update.  C Langley, S Parkinson & P Webber, Folkestone, UK: Scientists for Global Responsibility, 2007  /ArmsControl/More_Soldiers_in_Lab_Report.pdf

[13] See page 8 in: Offensive Insecurity: The role of science and technology in UK security strategies  S Parkinson, B Pace and P Webber, at /publications/offensive-insecurity

[15] Arming Big Brother B Hayes Transnational Institute and Statewatch, 2006.

[18] SIPRI Yearbook 2013. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

[19] SIPRI Yearbook 2013. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

[20] Edward Snowden is a former US National Security Agency contractor who leaked a substantial number of classified documents to the media, see:

[24] Page 6 In:Offensive Insecurity: The role of science and technology in UK security strategies  S Parkinson, B Pace and P Webber, at /publications/offensive-insecurity

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