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The UK government recently released its Integrated Review Refresh 2023, which sets out four ways in which the UK will protect its core national interests. One of these looks to address the UK’s vulnerabilities through a focus on resilience. Robert Hall explores…


What a difference two years can make in geopolitics. As Harold Macmillan famously said: it’s ‘Events, my dear boy, events’.

In March 2021, the UK Government launched a policy paper titled ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy’. It was updated in July 2021. The paper set the scene for what was intended to be the long-term strategic posture of the UK. Part 4 of the document looked at ‘Building resilience at home and overseas’ and was the first serious attempt to address national resilience, with actions to follow.

Exactly 24 months after the initial review, the picture and posture have shifted. The ‘Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a More Contested and Volatile World’ was commissioned by former PM Liz Truss and announced on 13 March by the current PM. While retaining some of the strategic ambition of the preceding review, the tone this time is less upbeat and more pragmatic, recognising that the world has become more volatile which ‘is likely to last beyond the 2030s’. The revision ‘reflects the pace at which these trends have accelerated over the past two years. In that time, the transition into a multipolar, fragmented and contested world has happened more quickly and definitively than anticipated.’


The acronym VUCA, introduced in 1987, indicates the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world in which we live and to which we need to adapt. The term has been replaced by ‘permacrisis’ and ‘polycrisis’ in recent times. All the words reflect that constantly changing and disruptive world.

The question that arises from this turbulence is whether looking at - and for - external risks is ever going to allow a comprehensive strategic plan to emerge. A major crisis developing next month or year, say, in the Middle East or the Arctic or with a new pandemic, may necessitate another tilt in strategic focus and demand another revision of policy and priorities. The new crisis may happen as suddenly as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Hence, it would not be unreasonable to expect further strategic reviews to appear every few years or even possibly quarters. While strategic updates are necessary when circumstances change, if they change significantly and frequently (as they will) then long-term planning based on the panoply of risks becomes more problematic.

While not underestimating the value of risk registers and horizon scanning, there is a case now for focusing more on generic consequences and impacts rather than specific causes or events. IR2023 begins this journey by looking at resiliency measures in five key areas –energy, climate, the environment and health; the economy; democracy and society; cyber security and resilience; and the UK border. It is possible to add other strategic areas such as food, space, transport and communications to the list (as per the CNI domains). However, compartmentalising the impact areas too rigidly can obscure the cascading consequences that are prevalent in a complex environment: power outages affect water, health, digital, etc, for example.

The motto of preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is sound. Prioritising ‘protective and preparatory actions’ is a welcome approach in the review. Yet, this requires as much imagination and attention as horizon scanning. It also requires a clear understanding of vulnerabilities and the review acknowledges the need for such an assessment. It is perhaps surprising that this has not been done before.


Resilience is given prominence in the review: the word is mentioned 72 times in the 68-page document. A definition of resilience is offered but expansion of the concept is left for elsewhere. The paper sets out measures to improve resilience in the five nominated areas. In the introduction, the PM states that: ‘the stability and resilience of our economy and society is a precondition of our security’.

The concept of ‘security through resilience’ introduced in the review is a novel idea that is worth analysing. First, resilience has an inbuilt expectation of challenge, e.g. when security fails, to allow one to bounce back, and hopefully build back better, to achieve eventual success. It should be more active than passive. If resilience is enhanced then an opponent may be deterred (by denial) from any malicious act as it believes that recovery is a realistic prospect. Second, security is designed to guard against failure and although total security is elusive it is essentially a defensive measure.

To illustrate the separate roles of resilience and security, and avoid conflation, two examples may help. A company may be resilient in maintaining its products through disruption but if the office gate is left unlocked then security is compromised. On another level, the Ukrainians are undoubtedly a resilient nation but the country’s security is not guaranteed without the tanks to defend it. These examples do not reflect a sematic debate but an important concept of partnership and mutuality: perhaps ‘security with resilience’ is a better reflection. Security does not depend upon resilience but can most certainly benefit from it; the reverse is also true.


Readers of IR2023 will detect a tacit recognition of a shortfall in UK defence capability, made starker by the stocks sent to Ukraine. While announcing an increase in the defence budget, there is an underlying acceptance that tight fiscal constraints and competing domestic priorities could readily derail military spending, particularly if there is a further deterioration in the geopolitical environment. Review documents usually raise the valid question of whether there are enough resources to realise the vision.

This is where a whole-of-society approach comes into play but to a much greater extent than articulated in the UK Government Resilience Framework which was released without fanfare on 19 December 2022. The notion of appealing to and drawing on a large part of the UK population – particularly through volunteers and reservists – to complement our relatively small numbers of service personnel, emergency workers and healthcare professionals is one that deserves serious and urgent attention. An expanded volunteer community sector acting in concert with major businesses could – if properly organized and funded – provide the numbers that a national emergency may require; think of the COVID-19 response. The failure of the framework to consider ways to mobilise the nation has in fact been described as an ‘enormous[ly] wasted opportunity’ (1).

The government has been reluctant to sanction spending on a trial of 1,000 reservist civil servants. About that number of civil and military personnel was, however, called up during the recent wave of industrial actions. A true whole-of-society response would require much more resourcing but once established would be an asset that could provide ‘security with resilience’. According to a US agency, every dollar spent or invested on preparation has an overall benefit-cost ratio of up to 13:1 depending on the nature of the disaster. Other countries, particularly Scandinavian ones where a potential threat is on their borders, have grasped this nettle and mounted a credible ‘total defence’. This includes joint public-private sector training and regular exercising. We need to catch up.


The government has made strides in promoting resilience by creating various appointments and bodies: a Resilience Directorate and a Head of Resilience in the Cabinet Office, a UK Resilience Forum, a UK Resilience Academy, and increased funding for Local Resilience Forums. A new sub-committee of the National Security Council (NSC) on resilience was announced in the latest review. Hopefully, this will have a strong business contribution. The government has so far rejected the recommendation from a House of Lords Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy in October 2022 to establish ‘a Minister of State for CNI Resilience’. This would certainly give resilience effort more focus and teeth.

While committees and organizations are fine, unless they are given the resources and funding to match the task then they are in danger of disappointing. Resilience can only be delivered on the ground by many people playing their respective parts. A UK House of Commons Committee report on 18 December 2022 stated that: ‘It is quite evident from events since the last IR that the UK, and its allies, have not invested significantly enough in resilience, be it within supply chains or across all aspects of our societies from energy to education, business and beyond. This is an urgent priority – a twenty-year project which the Government must urgently pursue on a cross-Government basis.’ IR2023 and the Resilience Framework hopefully begin this journey.

The review states that ‘just as it took several years to build the counter-terrorism system after 2001, it will take time to develop and establish an effective model for security through resilience.’ It is envisaged that the new NSC sub-committee on resilience will drive this effort. However, we may not have the luxury of multiple years to achieve better resilience before the next national catastrophe. As we contend with the first war in Europe for over 75 years, with the potential to become a ‘clash of civilisations’, then we need to accelerate our capability to mobilise the nation and show resolutely that we can be both resilient and secure.

The author

Robert Hall is former Executive Director of Resilience First Ltd (2018-22). His book ‘Building Resilience Futures’ will be published by Austin Macauley Ltd later in 2023. It looks at many of the aspects of resilience described above. Contact:


  1. Braw, E. The Times, 21 December 2022.

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