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Harris-quinney BenBen Harris-Quinney is Chairman of the Bow Group and International Security Research Fellow. Follow Ben on Twitter.

A catalogue of events in the early 21st century have ensured that national security is, and will remain, at the top of the political and news agenda. The Coalition Government rightly therefore made reform to COBRA and the National Security Executive a priority in the early months of government.  Some progress was made at the time in moving the United Kingdom to the point of having a truly world leading security and intelligence executive infrastructure.

Some months into the process however, it appeared to stall.

The move to formalise COBRA was undoubtedly correct, excessive bureaucracy is never appealing, but on matters as important as national security and defence, having a clear and rigorous organisational structure is essential. That as a nation we have spent so long with an ad-hoc structure in place is baffling in itself.

With added scrutiny over national security for the 2012 Olympics, now is an opportune time to return to and complete the process of reform to the National Security Executive that began in 2010. The Bow Group has therefore this week released a paper by Dr James Boys and Dr Liam Fox MP to analyse and address the current structure of COBRA, and to recommend changes to the current structure to progress to a point that is fit for purpose and ready to respond to any security challenges we may face.


The key recommendations made by the paper are as follows:

  1. The ad-hoc nature of COBRA, often wheeled out for political reasons, needs to be replaced with a new formalised and highly structured National Security Operations Centre, designed as a hub for operational command and control of missions and crisis management.
  2. The National Security Secretariat should be recalibrated to be able to bring in recognised experts from the private sector on specific relevant issues.
  3. Tactical decisions relating the theatre should only henceforth be made by qualified military personnel, and not members of the Government.
  4. A clear command structure must be identified, ensuring that a member of the executive is always in the country and readily able to take command if necessary.
  5. The Joint Strategy Board should be retained, strengthened and institutionalised.
  6. The approach taken by the National Security Secretariat towards the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy must improve dramatically.
  7. Joint Strategy Board meetings should be scheduled on a regular basis. Failure to meet will result in atrophy; regular meetings will promote unity and increase the flow of intelligence and communication. 
  8. The preparation of the National Security Strategy needs to be institutionalised, if necessary legislated for, and be seen as a priority for every future incoming Government.
  9. Review and progress to reform our national security infrastructure must continue to be constant in order to meet a constant and ever evolving threat.

Dr Liam Fox MP commented further that; "As the report stresses, the changes introduced by the Coalition Government are a welcome step in the right direction, but further changes are required to ensure that our intelligence community remains fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Having initiated bold moves, it is in the long-term interest of the county for the Coalition Government to urgently address the current system and I hope that it notes the recommendations made in this paper."

The reforms that the Bow Group propose are a natural continuation of those which the Coalition Government have thus far brought forth, but we seek to implore the Government to complete the process in moving the UK the forefront of intelligence and security infrastructure by international comparison.

Our preparedness may not be tested, and in this sense it can at times appear easy to de-prioritise security, but it must always be in the immediate focus of Government. It will never be possible for a nation to be completely prepared for any potential security crisis, nor to protect every citizen at all times. Getting this process right today however, will make the United Kingdom as secure as it can be come what may, and as efficient as it can be in holding national and international partnerships together effectively under the umbrella of a National Security Executive.

It must return to the forefront of the Government’s priorities.

The Bow Group paper “Intelligence Design – UK National Security in a Changing World” by Dr James Boys & Dr Liam Fox MP is available for download at the Bow Group’s website.

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