Defence Reform is inherently linked to Security Sector Reform and Governance (SSG/R). ISSAT’s International Partners have been involved in supporting national defence reform processes, over many decades, across the globe. Whilst each context holds its own complexities and opportunities for change, donor support to defence reform shares common features, components and stakeholders. According to the DCAF Backgrounder on the subject, defence reform aims to enhance the effectiveness and the accountability of the defence sector, making it more effective, accountable and affordable. It typically involves governance structures and mechanisms, military actors and the people. 

International partners’ driving concern for supporting defence reform is ensuring that national defence objectives and capabilities are informed by and aligned with evolving human security threats. In today’s realities, the professionalisation of armed forces comes under significant national resource constraints and within the growing demand for responsive, representative and accountable institutions, characterised by a protection culture.

Defence Reform Actors

Donor support to defence reform typically extends beyond military actors, to include other actors, including political leadership (commander in chief, president, prime minister, line ministries, national security and defence advisors), other state agencies permanently or occasionally involved in defence matters, private sector service providers and defence industry, non-state defence actors, parliamentary bodies, State, and semi-State oversight and accountability bodies, nonstate oversight and accountability bodies, as well as members of the community (men, women, boys and girls) – and last but not least, the defence sector personnel.

Levels of Defence Reform

Donor support to defence reform occurs on three distinct levels:

  • the strategic level, which includes policy guidance and expert advice for the  development of a national security and defence vision, whilst facilitating political consensus around national security priorities and agenda;
  • the operational level, which revolves around performance and financial management capacity and good practices;
  • the tactical level, which focuses on military capability, including equipment, training, infrastructure, as well as, basic human needs such as food and shelter.

Objective of Defence Reform

Informed by national security strategy objectives, defence sector reform allows defence forces to coherently: 

  • Assess the strategic environment to identify the threats, risks and challenges facing a country over the short- to long-term; 
  • Review the operational roles and objectives of the armed forces and civilian defence sector institutions; 
  • Consider tacticalneeds in the defence sector, plus its relation to other security providers and institutions involved in managing and overseeing the defence sector; 
  • Develop appropriate priorities, action plans and reform programmes for armed forces and defence institutions within their financial budget;
  • Organise the rotation and flow of its personnel from recruitment procedures to retirement; 
  • Ensure that new capability development is matched by adequate external governance structures and appropriate internal accountability mechanisms and a functioning interface between the two; 
  • Guarantee a people-centric approach to DSR to ensure that human security needs of both defence sector personnel and population are considered.

People Centred Defence Reform

SSG/R has been fundamentally anchored in human security since its conception in 1990s. However the past decades of SSG/R related programming have generated a donor portfolio that is heavily focused on state institutions, formal mechanisms and state-centric operational military capability approaches.  Good practice recorded by ISSAT in this area reflects the benefits of focusing on people’s security when defining reform objectives. International partners supporting defence reform need to increasingly shift away from purely state-centric approaches and strive to better integrate human security needs. Institutional reform is still relevant but only when these serve the people, peace and prosperity. This can only be done through in-depth community-based assessments, contextually-adapted stakeholder analyses and  functional understanding of the local security and justice system. A people-centred approach to defence reform should not only focus on local community security needs, but it should also address the needs of the men and women, members of the security sector.

An underpinning enabling factor for state institutions to contribute to people’s security and safety is management, oversight and accountability reforms. Making the defence sector more inclusive and more representative of the population is an additional cross-cutting goal for international partners supporting defence reform. This typically includes particular attention to gender equality, due to the strategic advantages that full diversity brings to decision-making, the operational advantages of being able to conduct gendered analysis of the operating environment and he tactical advantages that come with being able to operate with all genders in a target society. The ability of armed forces to recruit women into defence sector has become central to defence development goals.  

A defence sector that represents the society’s population composition is essential to ensure its legitimacy and cohesion. It requires the construction of joint vision and common identity which precedes that of the various (re-)integrated groups. It might also involve overcoming educational, language and other barriers which might hinder recruitment or career progression, or negatively Impact overall organizational climate.

Typical Steps for Supporting Defence Reform Process

Every country has had a different approach to defence reform. However, there are common features to most processes and international partners would benefit from recognising those. In many contexts, where donors have imported external models of reform, this has typically led to very poor or unsustainable results. Defence reform processes should always be driven by local priorities and solutions.

  • Defence reform always starts from an articulation of the problem that has instigated the need for reform;
  • It is usually informed by the national realities and resources available to the defence sector, as well as the agendas of the various relevant stakeholders;
  • A national dialogue is usually necessary to identify the possible solutions reflecting local conditions andthe broader defence sector configuration at hand;
  • In most contexts a national vision would put forward the expected impact or end-state of the reform process;
  • International partners’ engagements would be designed around national vision and priorities;
  • International partners’ defence reform engagements need to feed towards a coherent objective shared between the international community and its national partners;

Operational details of international partners engagements would then be determined internally by each partner but coordinated nationally and internationally, including timelines, sequencing, key milestones and potential benchmarks.

Defence Reform Multidimensional Implications

Every reform process has various implications on multiple levels. Financially, donors need to better adapt defence reform solutions to fiscal affordability considerations. Fiscal affordability refers to a country’s independent sources of income in addition to the various types of aid and foreign assistance. Usually fragile and conflict affected settings have a limited fiscal space. As such, defining and staying within the fiscal envelope is essential to the security sector’ institutions sustainable capability.

Defining reform objectives without a necessary management and performance assessment might undermine the reform process altogether. Inventory and performance assessments are important mechanisms to determine the alignment between current capabilities and requirements. These assessments provide necessary technical elements to inform the defence reform process. It is also an opportunity to identify opportunities to improve efficiency and create synergies.

The political repercussions of any reform process are usually deeply trenched into common practices and inform the overall defence system. Reform reshuffles distribution and access to power. In many cases around the world, the leadership’s interest may be to maintain status quo. Rent seeking and misappropriation can create incentives for the sector to oppose reforms, and job attribution in the security sector can be the result of an attempt to “buy peace” by integrating former warring parties. Reforms may also be perceived as an attempt to shift power away from an overrepresented group in the security sector. Understanding and skilfully navigating political dynamics and implications of defence reform is key for its success.

Last but not least, the social dimension is at the heart of a people-centred approach to defence reform. Reform involves livelihoods and people. The social and cultural consequences of loss of income, status and welfare need to be adequately considered and mitigated against. This step is crucial to prevent reigniting a cycle of violence whereby former defence personnel join dissident groups. Experience shows that practices such as “re-hatting” and demobilising personnel often do not lead to expected outcomes. In countries with limited social benefits, the social implications of defence reform often amount to correctly managing personnel retirement, which does not receive enough traction by the international community. 

Key Selected Resources

  • Donors Talk SSR - Defence Reform - Hervé Auffret, Senior Security Sector Reform advisor with DCAF, joins us on the subject of defence reform. Hervé's expertise as an SSR advisor, and as a former member of the French Navy, guides the discussion on a people-centred approach to defence. This podcast series, “Donors Talk SSR”, is hosted by DCAF’s International Security Sector Advisory Team and it aims to unpack different themes and practices within security sector governance and reform.
  • UN Independent Review Team Report - The report offers an independent review of the extent to which the extensive development of Security Sector Reform (SSR) policy at the United Nations over the past 15 years has shaped SSR interventions supported by peacekeeping operations.
  • UN Defence Sector Reform (DSR) Policy - This policy is designed to guide the United Nations support to National Defence Sector reform (DSR) efforts. It outlines the parameters and components of this support, including principles, elements for any mission concept, core tasks and constraints.
  • NATO Defence and Security Related Capacity Building Initiative (DCBI) - The DCB Initiative was launched in September 2014 at the NATO Summit in Wales and reinforces NATO’s commitment to partners and helps project stability by providing support to nations requesting defence capacity assistance from the organisation
  • NATO Building Integrity - The Building Integrity (BI) Programme provides practical tools to help participating countries strengthen integrity, transparency and accountability and reduce the risk of corruption in the defence and security sector. 
  • Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index - This index by Transparency International assesses the existence, effectiveness and enforcement of institutional and informal controls to manage the risk of corruption in defence and security institutions.
  • Securing Development: Public Finance and the Security Sector - The publication by the World Bank highlights the role played by public finance in the delivery of security and criminal justice services. It seeks to strengthen policy and operational dialogue on security sector issues by providing national and international stakeholders with key information on security expenditure policy and management.
  • Sustainable Capacity Building - USIP's handbook offers practical guidance for planning, program design, and decision making for building the capacity of host country institutions, ensuring that lasting capacity is built and new processes remain in place over time. 
  • Effective, Legitimate, Secure: Insights for Defense Institution Building -  This publication by the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University offers an introduction to the concept of DIB and argues that establishing effective and legitimate defense institutions to undergird a partner’s defense establishment is the only way to ensure long-term security.
  • Before Military Intervention: Upstream Stabilisation in Theory and Practice - This book explores the natures of recent stabilisation efforts and global upstream threats. As prevention is always cheaper than the crisis of state collapse or civil war, the future character of conflict will increasingly involve upstream stabilisation operations.

Selected ISSAT Defence Sector Reform Mandates