Participating in Grand Challenges, A Student’s Perspective II, by Kiah Shabka

Following our exams in June, Exeter University ran a project called Grand Challenges. After two weeks of lounging about on Exmouth beach, I felt that it was time to do something a little more productive so I signed up to be part of the project. The inquiry group I took part in looked into Re-setting the UK National Security Strategy, focusing primarily on issues classified as Tier One threats: terrorism, interstate conflict and cyber security. In this post, I hope to provide an insight into the work we did during Grand Challenges by discussing some of the activities we undertook and the outputs we produced.


The first activity we took part in focused on interstate conflict and, being ever-present in the news, we were asked to look at Syria through an activity called Red Teaming. At the start of the session I thought that I knew my feelings towards Syria, however Sir Paul wanted us to do a deeper analysis of the situation and introduced us to a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). Through the SWOT analysis, we began to look at the situation in a completely different way and it became clear to me that my previous views on Syria were far too simplistic for such a complex scenario. We were split into groups and together formulated a plan of action which we then presented back to the other groups. Luckily my group were broadly in agreement over how we should prioritise the issues that we had identified during the SWOT analysis, and we quickly decided that intervention was simply not an option. Even humanitarian intervention carried far greater risk than reward. As this was a Red Team activity, each presentation was followed by a harsh critique from other groups, and surprisingly each team had decided on a different plan on action. This really demonstrated to me that there was no right answer and that if you put an idea forward, you really had to be willing to defend it tooth and nail among both peers and experts.


One of our key outputs was an open letter to the Prime Minister in which we critiqued the UK’s National Security Strategy (NSS) in terms of its approach to terrorism, interstate war and cyber security. This was an interesting task because, unlike the Red Team activity, we were forced to agree on how the next NSS (to be published in 2015) should be improved. We began by discussing terrorism which turned out to be relatively simple as we all agreed that the main flaw in that section of the NSS was the focus on ‘Islamic terrorism’. By solely focusing on Islamic terrorism, we felt that the NSS ran the risk of exacerbating the isolation often felt by vulnerable societal groups, which can actually contribute rather than prevent home-grown terrorism and radicalisation.


When we moved on to interstate conflict, however, the task became significantly harder. Whilst we all recognised that the wording of the NSS was vague, there was a fifty-fifty split in our group as to whether this was good or bad. Our solution to the group divide was simply to sit in a room for forty minutes and thrash out our dispute and, after a heated debate, we concluded that clarification was necessary for the sake of any future NSS. We proposed that the threat should be divided in two, with one to remain in Tier One and the other to be lowered to Tier Two status. Remaining in Tier One should be situations in which the UK is de jure implicated from the start, and demoted to Tier Two would be situations where Britain is not obliged to intervene, regardless of the amount of pressure being put on us. I really enjoyed being able to argue my views with fellow students and felt that it was incredibly refreshing to be able to decide amongst ourselves which direction we should be taking in our letter.


Finally we discussed the approach taken in the NSS to cyber warfare. Once again we were all in agreement that the document, and subsequent actions based on this document, showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of cyber security. Currently over sixty per cent of the cyber budget is sent to GCHQ and we felt that this completely overlooks the personal level of cyber security. Over eighty per cent of UK households have internet access, with this number rising significantly every year; in a world where your personal device can be hacked and used in a DDoS attack against a business or even one’s own government, all without your knowledge, we should be ensuring that citizens have the knowledge necessary to protect themselves from attack. We decided that investment in education should be the key message of the NSS; computer programming should be taught in every school just as other languages are, and we should be aiming to make British citizens the most secure users of cyberspace, whilst producing world-class programmers to protect our national interest.


The letter to the Prime Minister was one of the most exciting outputs we created because it has the potential to generate tangible impact. We have now received confirmation that our letter to the Prime Minister has been received, read, and will be passed onto the team who will create the 2015 NSS. I am very much looking forward to its publication as it will be interesting to see whether our critique has actually been listened to and acted upon.


In addition to the letter to the Prime Minister, we created a series of podcasts on the topics previously discussed. I was interviewed by one of the lecturers working with us, Dr Danny Steed, about my opinions on cyber warfare and why I thought it was so important to national security. It was a great experience to be able to openly discuss cyber security, a topic I find very interesting, and these podcasts should be available on the SSI website shortly.  The final outputs we produced were two presentations: one pitching our group’s findings to the media and the other presenting them to the other Grand Challenges groups. A team member and I created and presented the second presentation, summarising our task and findings. As well as the three key threats, we also discussed Britain’s role in the world and how our legislation in response to the aforementioned threats reflect where we see ourselves on the world stage. Personally I found this task very enjoyable and interesting and I hope that the people watching felt equally as interested.


Grand Challenges proved to be an incredibly interesting and informative two weeks and I can honestly say that the experience has sparked new interests and made me rethink future career paths. I would like to thank everyone involved in Grand Challenges and, in particular, those who helped create and run the programme. Sir Paul Newton, Dr Danny Steed, Ryan Patterson and Atienza Saldaña – thank you.

Participating in Grand Challenges: A Student’s Perspective, by Ryan Hopkins

Encouraging a student out of bed for a 9am start, the week after exams have finished and for one of those dreaded “extra-curricular” activities, is by no means an easy task. Yet when the morning of June 3rd arrived, and the University of Exeter’s Grand Challenges (GC) programme kicked off, there I was, (mostly) bright-eyed and eager to go.


Some months earlier I had decided the join the GC inquiry group run by the University’s new Strategy and Security Institute, entitled “Re-setting the UK National Security Agenda”. SSI had grabbed our attention early – inviting us all to attend a lecture by the former Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6), Sir John Scarlett. This was quickly followed by an intimate, closed seminar with the current head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), Mr. Jon Day. The SSI had thrown two huge actors in the world of strategy and security at us, and promised more of the same to come during the GC programme. This, I deemed, was worth getting out of bed for on June 3rd.


At the core of our inquiry group was an investigation into a document imaginatively entitled the UK National Security Strategy (NSS). This, as one can probably guess, set out the main national security threats faced by the UK, and the Coalition Government’s proposed responses to them. It was to be the purpose of our group – under the guidance of SSI’s Director, Sir Paul Newton, and Lecturer of Strategy and Defence, Dr Danny Steed – to examine this document, in order to assess whether or not we deemed the threats presented in it to be realistic dangers to the UK, to examine the Government’s understanding of these threats, and to judge whether or not the proposed responses and classifications were fit for purpose. Essentially, we were tasked with the question, “Is the NSS up to scratch, or does it need to be re-set?” By the end of the programme, we were expected to have written an open letter to the Prime Minister, recorded podcasts, and have presented to our peers participating in other GC groups, with our findings and recommendations for the next NSS – due to be published in 2015.


In order to allow us to do this, the SSI facilitated a huge range of external speakers – all more than living up to the exceptionally high standard that had been set previously by Sir John Scarlett and Jon Day. The idea was to expose us students to a broad selection of experts in the field of strategy and security policy, in order to allow us to see how strategy was applied in the real-world, away from academic debate and examination, which, in turn, would aid us in our quest to assess the utility of the NSS. I must confess, however, that in some sessions I simply forgot the purpose of the inquiry group, as I became caught up by some fascinating talks. Each of the “real people” (always a novelty, within a university) presented to us held captivating jobs and could speak of incredible experiences, all of which they were willing to share with a small inquiry group of around 15 people.


A particular highlight for me from the GC speaker set was a visit by the former Director of the National Security Secretariat at the Cabinet Office, Mr. William Nye. Mr. Nye also currently holds the position of Principle Private Secretary to HRH The Prince of Wales, so commands much respect. This session in particular stands out for me, because after giving a short talk on the NSS (which he was responsible for commissioning), Mr. Nye sat down in amongst the students, and took questions. Somewhat controversially, given his position as a lifelong expert in the field of UK National Security, I found myself disagreeing with some of what Mr. Nye had said. In most academic circumstances, disagreeing with the expert doesn’t really get you very far – it’s often a case of fair enough if you disagree, but please be quiet and just get on with it. Not so on this occasion. Mr. Nye gave me the chance to thrash out my own argument – contrary to his. He responded and asked for my opinion in return, he corrected me when some of my points were incorrect, and he gave me the chance to debate back.  Deliberating real UK National Security Policy, with a real National Security expert, gave me an insight that no lecture or conventional seminar could ever have provided. By placing students into small, closed sessions with practitioners who were willing to engage in debate and discussion, the SSI and GC programme went beyond the realms of traditional university learning, and in turn, allowed us to hone and perfect our own views and arguments.


And it is this aspect, fundamentally, that gave the inaugural Grand Challenges that added extra; that engaged students, that kept us coming back day after day for the two week programme, and which, if continued, will allow GC to grow and expand in future years. The Strategy and Security Institute realized and embraced this, and went above and beyond in providing activities and speakers far-removed from traditional academia. I have focused primarily on the range of speakers that were hosted, but of course, the SSI’s inquiry group went beyond that, and pushed the boundaries of teaching methods by engaging us in activities that were far-removed from the humdrum of the average lecture theatre. It was this combination of expertise, stimulating debate, and engaging activity that gave the SSI the edge in facilitating this programme. And from a student’s point of view, well, it was worth getting out of bed for.


On behalf of all of the students who took part in the “Re-setting the UK National Security Agenda” inquiry group, may I extend the warmest thanks and congratulations to Sir Paul, Danny, Ryan, and Atienza, for hosting a truly engaging, innovative, and successful programme.


Paul Cornish at the House of Commons

On 4 June Professor Paul Cornish contributed to an Oral Evidence Session of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. The Evidence Session forms part of the Defence Committee’s current inquiry entitled Towards the next Defence and Security Review. A video recording of the evidence session can be found at the following address:

Paul Cornish – New Publication on Strategic Cultures in Europe

Professor Paul Cornish has contributed a chapter covering the United Kingdom to a newly published, systematic analysis of the strategic culture of all EU member states and Turkey:

Strategic Cultures in Europe – Security and Defence Policies Across the Continent

By Heiko Biehl, Bastian Giegerich & Alexandra Jonas (eds.)

The book is available as an e-book or in paperback:

Paul Cornish – Recent Conferences and Events

Professor Paul Cornish spoke on ‘Professional Military Education in a Strategic Age’ at a conference sponsored by NATO and the UK Defence Academy at Wilton Park in May 2013. Later in May Professor Cornish spoke on ‘The Idea of a National Security Strategy’ at a conference in honour of Professor Colin Gray at the University of Reading.

Following the death of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich on Wednesday 22 May Professor Cornish published a short article on The Conversation UK; an independent, online source of news and opinion drawn from the academic and policy research community.

Professor Cornish’s article can be found on The Conversation’s website:



Paul Newton: Learning to Operate in Complexity

It’s all well and good addressing the complexity of the modern security landscape in a theoretical way. It is an altogether richer experience if one can marry theory with the practical insight that comes from seeing – indeed being an integral part of – an endeavour that operates on a scale far beyond the confines of any university classroom-based simulation or work placement.

That is the unique experience students and staff at SSI enjoy thanks to a formal partnership between the Institute and NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps – the headquarters that recently returned from Kabul.

ARRC is a multi-national and increasingly inter-agency organisation. Several hundred strong, held on short notice and at a high state of preparedness to deploy, it exists to take strategic direction and translate that into plans and operations in any security setting from major war to humanitarian relief.

In a concept trialled last year, Exeter students on the MStrat programme will now experience analytical complexity and agile decision-making by taking part in ARRC’s annual mission rehearsals. In return, NATO staff have already exploited the rich academic expertise in Exeter’s growing applied strategy and security communities. This is a new model for academic/practitioner engagement – one that should be productive for both parties.

Sergio Catignani’s musings on academic-practitioner research cooperation

Last week, two notable speakers visited the Strategy and Security Institute (SSI), Sir John Scarlett, former head of MI6, that is, the British Security Intelligence Services, and Mr. Jon Day, current head of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Both guests provided key strategic and operational insights into the way such organisations provide intelligence for the purposes of informing the national policy-making processes that enable British government and military leaders to select and implement the UK’s national security strategy.

During both visits, members of the SSI, students as well other members from other academic and administrative units of the university together with many of the honorary professors and fellows affiliated with the SSI were able to listen to, but more importantly, actively engage with both guests. A myriad of topics were tackled, such as the failures and successes of intelligence as well as the British and international security concerns over the current Syrian crisis, cyber warfare, and nuclear proliferation.

On several occasions discussions centred also on the challenges connected to academic research and engagement with government and with security organisations in particular. Conversations over this last issue were, in fact, apropos given that the main aim of the SSI and its Masters in Applied Security Strategy is to enhance the strategic competence of the leaders of the future, that is, to train future strategists. The SSI aspires to achieve, in fact, such an aim by positioning itself on the cusp of research and of debates relating to the enduring as well as the new security challenges affecting UK and international peace and security.

Members of the SSI are cognizant of the fact that the premise of all academic research is obtaining and working on relevant, specific and timely information. This is crucial in order to ensure that social science research is based on empirical evidence rather than on tendentious rumours or opinions. Obtaining such data, however, can be quite challenging when researching military, intelligence or other security organisations. Organisations that deal with national security matters are, in fact, by their very nature secretive due to the fact that they often deal with very sensitive information that may jeopardise if not national security, then possibly the safety of specific individuals.

Yet, intelligence and military organisations often have a tendency to over-classify information. From my personal experience of researching several military organisations over the last decade such over-classification has often led even members internal to such organisations to be unable to tap into information essential for achieving more effective decision-making outcomes. In other occasions, it has led such organisations to repeat mistakes, to re-learn lessons or to, what various organisational and management theory literatures call, “organisational forgetting”. As Mr. Day even acknowledged, one of the quandaries that keep him awake at night is how government institutions suffer increasingly from poor corporate memory.

Discussions, thus, went on to explore ways in which academic researchers, who often need but find it difficult to access information relating to the decision-making processes and conduct of security organisations, could engage with such organisations by not only researching the problems associated with such processes, but also by providing, for example, historical context and expertise to the security regions and challenges that such organisations have worked on and are currently working on. Security practitioners could benefit, in fact, from tapping into the expertise that many academics may have and could provide if appropriate channels of collaboration were clearly delineated.

For instance, SSI members are currently considering the ways and means in which rigorous academic research standards, such as academic independence, research ethics, and critical engagement can be maintained, whilst at the same time safeguarding the integrity and sensitivity of the information shared by such intelligence and security organisations. Beyond the usual vetting processes and the subjecting of shared information to operational security clearance, what other and more practical, if not informal, ways could researchers and such security organisations cooperate in order to advance the knowledge of and solutions to the nature of the security challenges they encounter and the manner in which they deal with these?

These and other issues relating to improving the frank exchange between and tangible collaboration amongst academics, practitioners, students and honorary fellows interested in solving the real challenges that implementing strategy engenders are some of the concerns, which will make the SSI an exciting centre of teaching and research to participate in. They are also the main reason why I have joined the University of Exeter and why I feel privileged to be a part of such a fascinating enterprise.

Paul Cornish: Strategy Making in an Uncertain World

On 15 April Professor Paul Cornish and Professor Andrew Dorman of the UK Defence Academy were invited to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London to take part in a discussion on UK national strategy with officials from a number of UK government departments. Professors Cornish and Dorman presented the first draft of an article provisionally entitled ‘Strategy Making in an Uncertain World’ which will be published later in the year.

Gareth Stansfield guest speaker at Royal College of Defence Studies

Professor Gareth Stansfield was a guest speaker at the Royal College of Defence Studies in March. He spoke to the international officer class on the subject of Saudi Arabia and Gulf Security, as part of the Conflict and Strategy in the Modern World series of lectures. He also gave the yearly lecture on the politics of Iraq to the Advanced Command and Staff Course of the Joint Services Command and Staff College, and presented on the same subject at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, again in March. His most recent publication addresses Iraqi political developments: ‘The unravelling of the post-first world war state system? The Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the transformation of the Middle East’ International Affairs, 89:2, March 2013.