You are here:

House of Commons Library

A brief guide to previous British defence reviews

Published Monday, July 9, 2018

This Commons Library paper provides a short guide to the main recommendations of the defence reviews that have taken place since the end of the Second World War, and whether those recommendations subsequently lived up to events.

Jump to full report >>

Despite what one may expect, there were only eight defence reviews between 1945 and 2003/2004, up to and including the Defence White Paper in 2003/2004. In the interim periods the general approach of successive Governments has been to present a more or less annual statement on defence policy to Parliament, either in addition to or combined with, the annual defence estimates. Re-instated in 1946 that report was initially referred to as the Statement on Defence, although subsequently became known as the Statement on the Defence Estimates (SDE) in the mid-1960s. The reports were wide ranging and set out both an extensive overview of defence policy and the activities of the Armed Forces within that given year; and the requisite plans for provision of manpower, equipment and budgets. As such, many analysts have referred to them as defence white papers. The last SDE was published in 1996 in the last year of the then Conservative government. Under the Labour Government a Defence White Paper, akin to the SDE, was published the first year after the Strategic Defence Review but that practice was discontinued shortly after.

In 2010, when the Coalition Government was formed, one of its first actions was to announce a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Where previous reviews focused solely on defence and the armed forces, the SDSR incorporated linked areas of policy including counter-terrorism; international aid and diplomacy; border and cyber security; and homeland defence.

The SDSR also prompted a programme of institutional reform. Given the new approach to national security, and in order to bring all the different strands of work together in a coherent, co-ordinated and effective manner, both the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the SDSR acknowledged the need for strong leadership and guidance at the centre of Government. A National Security Council was established, with responsibility for overall decision-making and to oversee the implantation of the NSS and the SDSR.

The NSS and SDSR were collated into one document for the 2015 edition. The early election in 2017, combined with concerns about the changing security environment, prompted calls for a fresh SDSR. Instead, the Government opted for a National Security Capabilities Review, which is briefly examined here, and a Modernising Defence Programme, which has yet to be published.

This paper examines the main defence reviews that have taken place since 1945 and involved the fundamental restructuring of the Armed Forces or a shift in strategic thinking by the government. SDEs have not been included as these were largely statements of policy and an evaluation of the activities of the Armed Forces over the year.


Commons Briefing papers CBP-7313

Authors: Claire Mills; Louisa Brooke-Holland; Nigel Walker

Topics: Armed forces, Defence equipment and procurement, Defence policy, EU defence policy, Military operations

Share this page

Stay up to date

  • Subscribe to RSS feed Subscribe to Email alerts Commons Briefing papers

House of Commons Library

The House of Commons Library provides research, analysis and information services for MPs and their staff.