National security in an independent Wales: Intelligence and military considerations

Apache helicopter over Snowdon (top left) by Hugh Llewelyn. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
HMS Duncan in Cardiff Bay (top right) by Fromthevalleys (CC BY-ND 2.0). Pictures of RAF Valley (bottom) by Defence Images. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bleddyn E. Bowen

Dr. Bowen is a Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London. The views in this article represent those of the author only.

In a recent article for Nation.Cymru, Ben Gwalchmai posed six difficult questions that must be answered in the quest for an independent Wales. Among them, he asked how should the Armed Forces be divided.

Rather, I think that two more pressing questions that should be asked is whether Wales should have a military, and if so, to what end?

I believe there is some scope for a Welsh military force, as I believe that the international political environment is anarchic and populated by opportunistic states, companies, and individuals.

Wales should not take its territorial, economic, and institutional integrity – or national security – for granted.

A frequent criticism made of defence policies and national security strategies is that they focus too much on the means of military power, rather than the objectives to which they are deployed and maintained.

I see these problems reflected in discussions regarding military capabilities in an independent Wales.

The question of a Welsh military must be dovetailed to a larger question regarding what Welsh ‘national security’ would mean in a breakup of its ties with England.

‘National security’ – as opposed to narrow focus on military capabilities – poses more important and relevant questions regarding Welsh intelligence services, domestic security, and projecting influence through collective security.

In my field of study in Strategic Studies and International Relations, this would be termed ‘grand strategy.’

To achieve national security and get what it wants, a Welsh grand strategy should enable a Welsh government and state to continue trading in the international system, provide its own domestic security, be useful to allies, and not become a security liability to them.

If the primary objectives and tools of Welsh national security were to be codified, I propose the following headlines, which are elaborated in detail below:

Welsh national security objectives:

  1. Maintenance of the global political economy for the benefit of the Welsh economy and the quality of life of its citizens;
  2. Protection of Welsh citizens and the advancement of Welsh interests abroad;
  3. Prevent and counter hostile foreign activities within Wales;
  4. Maintain good relations and high levels of trust with British and European states and organisations, and the United States;
  5. Contribute to the common defence and collective security of allies.

Welsh national security tools

  1. A National Security Council chaired by the head of state/government
  2. An Intelligence service – counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence, counter-subversion, counter-organised crime, allied intelligence liaison
  3. A Welsh defence force – air/maritime policing, air defence, disaster response, civil protection, special forces
  4. Expeditionary combat and peacekeeping forces – NATO, EU, UN missions.
  5. Promoting allied exercising, training, and testing in Wales

The most likely and constant preoccupation of any Welsh leadership will likely be to ensure the Welsh economy functions properly within the global political-economy, and in particular regarding its major sources of imports and exports in the context of good relationships with its immediate neighbours, trading partners, and security providers.

In the long term, Wales must ensure it has access to markets for not only its industries and services, but also for commodity purchases such as energy, fuel, food, and spare parts for machinery.

Wales is hardly self-sufficient in these areas and will rely on the global maritime-based trading network remaining open for business.

Threats to this system are threats to Wales. This is one constant of security in a realm where we are ceaselessly warned of an ‘uncertain’ and ‘complex’ threat environment.

Intelligence Services

The primary tool for Welsh national security, and its contributions to this international system, should be its intelligence service and a National Security Council to oversee and coordinate its national or ‘grand’ strategy that utilises the intelligence, diplomatic, and economic tools of the state to meet its long-term interests.

Further, a subsidiary committee should be formed to manage all short-term security related activities, disaster response, and crisis management operations.

No matter the physical tools available, good advice and information to decision-makers are essential in both short and long-term strategy-making.

The intelligence services would have to ensure the security and privacy of essential state and governmental communications, and monitor and curtail the activities of foreign intelligence agents within Welsh territory and its institutions.

Countering political subversion – often coupled with corruption – will need cooperation from civil society, the police, and intelligence agencies both inside Wales and with allies.

Without robust institutions, a small state can fall prey to wealthy individuals or hostile external interests.

Counterintelligence – preventing hostile intelligence activities – will be another necessary activity because getting it wrong, or being naïve as to the interests and espionage of foreign powers, could make Wales a liability for the security of its neighbours and portend negative diplomatic consequences.

If a small state is a liability to the security of its neighbours, it will make life increasingly difficult for itself.

Intelligence is also a field where size and a lack of wealth can arguably be compensated for with education, training, knowledge, and guile. Small, secure, and cunning intelligenceagencies can frustrate well-funded opponents.

Wales can provide information and support where it matters for allies and for its own direct security against terrorism, subversion, and international crime.

Wales can feasibly fund ‘human intelligence’ – the use of agents to direct, collect, analyse, and disseminate intelligence. Human agents are cheaper to organise and train to a high level than it is to create technical intelligence systems that can compete and remain secure at a global level.

Wales would have to rely on allies for any high-end signals intelligence and other technical intelligence capabilities such as electronic surveillance, satellite reconnaissance, and cyber security because of their sheer expense.

In addition, Wales would have to undertake its own counterterrorism activities, and liaise with friendly and allied states and their intelligence agencies in organisations such as Europol and the Club De Berne.

A particularly thorny issue for Welsh intelligence agencies would be its integration within, or exclusion from, the Five Eyes agreement which shares high level intelligence between the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Armed Forces

The secondary tool for Welsh national security would be its armed forces. Wales will not be able to afford a large military force, and conscription is neither feasible nor useful, unlike in some small European states.

Welsh military forces would be unlikely to experience real combat on Welsh territory, assuming a cordial breakup of its attachment to England and the integration of Wales into NATO.

Therefore, Welsh combat experience must come from missions abroad and should be undertaken to pursue the objective of protecting our allies, particularly in Europe.

Wales will have to buy its military equipment, and its defence industry relationships will be key here.

Which platforms and hardware will depend on whether Welsh military forces will be a token garrison force, or an active tool of Welsh diplomacy and foreign policy to contribute to collective security and carry favour with allies in expeditionary and peace support operations.

Some useful benchmarks for defence budgets from other small European states are seen below. Miscellaneous forces refer to either Special Forces, Border Guards, Paramilitary Forces, or Joint Staff.

State Population GDP per head ‘16 Defence Budget ‘16 Land Maritime Air Misc
Croatia 4.3m $11,573 $588m 11,250 1300 1,250 1500
Estonia 1.2m $17,896 $503m 5,700 400 300 ~600
Finland 5.5m $43,492 $3.28bn 16,000 3,500 2,700 2,700
Ireland 4.9m $65,871 $1bn 7,300 1,100 700 N/A
Latvia 2m $14,141 $411m 1,250 550 310 3,200
Lithuania 2.9m $14,899 $642m 11,050 680 1,100 11,300
FYR Macedonia 2.1m $5,060 $107m 8,000 0 0 7,600
Slovakia 5.4m $16,648 $983m 6,250 0 3,950 2,550
Slovenia 2m $21,370 $450m 7,250 0 0 5,950
Wales 3.1m $23,333 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A

See sources below

The table illustrates that there is no reason to automatically scoff at the prospect of a Welsh military force because of its size.

These small forces contribute to joint NATO missions, such as in the Baltics today, or for UN and EU peacekeeping and observer missions. They also provide internal security through disaster response and civil protection capabilities.

The military capabilities of small European states only make sense by being tied to alliances, a focus on expeditionary mission, or the acceptance of guerrilla war plans in the event of territorial invasion.

Having experienced officers and personnel return home from disaster response, capacity-building and monitoring missions abroad enhances the capability of the state to respond to emergencies at home, and should not be dismissed as an expensive field trip or merely meddling in the affairs of other countries.

Welsh power projection through multilateral operations would also show that Wales is not a free-rider on the defence spending and risks that other states must confront to provide for their own security.

Indeed, President Trump’s complaints of free-riders within NATO may be inflammatory in delivery and style, but the American complaint about footing the bill for European defence and collective security is hardly new.

Furthermore, buying into the defence and intelligence capabilities of a future England, as well as joint US and EU missions, could win concessions and assistance in other policy areas.

Being useful and dependable is desirable in international relations, and builds international connections.

As well as ensuring healthy relations with its immediate neighbours, Wales’ security would benefit from an active relationship with the United States, as it will remain the world’s primary military and intelligence power for quite some time, as well as a major source of foreign direct investment.

Extracting information and assistance from Washington, as well as London and Brussels, would go a long way in enhancing Welsh intelligence and military capacities.

Wales can further improve its own military capability, and carry favour with allies, by promoting Wales as a training and exercise arena for allied military forces.

Wales already does this through the UK Ministry of Defence, therefore there is ample reason to foresee a continued capability to do this.

Another matter for military forces in Wales would be the legacy of the British Army, the Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy within Wales.

Wales may seek recompense in one way or another for the continued basing of ‘British’ or ‘English’ military forces on its soil, akin to the Russian naval base at Sebastopol between 1991-2014.

Welsh territorial integrity is unlikely to be directly threatened by another state, however, developing ground-based air defences, a standing garrison of mechanised or motorised infantry and special forces ready to respond in a disaster response capacity may assist an English desire to protect its homeland’s flanks if it fears a ‘bolt-from-the-blue’ incursion by hostile conventional forces.

A garrison force for the government would also ensure that the Welsh state has a monopoly of violence within its borders – a classic Weberian notion of what constitutes a state – that can help deter violent unrest, assist the police, and provide a source of boots on the ground for the Welsh government to use in disaster and crisis response.

Wales is not immune to major crises: police, health workers, and fire crews can only do so much of what the state asks of the them in a national crisis.

A Welsh military force could be useful as an additional capability in dealing with disease pandemics, infrastructure failure, extreme weather, co-ordinated terrorist attacks, and protecting the institutions of state, civil society, and critical infrastructure during general unrest.

Any Welsh naval and air forces will not be top-end combat platforms. They are simply too expensive to buy, maintain, and train personnel for.

Rather, Welsh maritime forces would be concerned with maritime policing, like the Irish Navy, which is effective at countering organised crime and smuggling which undermine our trading system.

Welsh airpower would most feasibly involve close air support (like the British Army Air Corp’s Apache attack gunships), air transport logistics for Welsh ground forces, and ground-based air defence systems.


I hope that this thought exercise generates more grounded and realistic thought about what sort of options are available to an independent Wales.

A clear purpose is needed to justify the military and non-military tools needed to realise Welsh national security.

Obsessing about methods and platforms alone is a path to ridicule in debate and financial ruin in practice.

Simply mirroring British or English military capability is not appropriate and hardly ambitious enough for a new state wishing to break from an imperial past.

An independent Wales would most likely be a territorially secure country – it will have little need for a large-scale military force and will not be able to act alone in major militaryoperations.

However, it can use its martial heritage and assets with its allies to build relationships and reap diplomatic benefits.

Welsh national security may be most concerned with intelligence activities for domestic security, sharing information and capability burdens with its allies, and ensuring that the global economy remains open for business.

military force is not necessarily required to achieve that, but a Welsh state’s ambition in protecting its people and projecting its influence in an anarchic international system may not need to end there.

Table sources:

IISS, The Military Balance 2017,

Office of National Statistics, ‘Population Estimates for UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland: mid-2016’,

Welsh Government, ‘Key economic statistics – January 2017’,

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