Skip to main content

Contemporary strategic problems

Compared to the 1990s and 2000s, we are today seeing the rise of new major powers, the questioning of unrivalled US dominance, and the return of strategic competition between powerful states with the potential to result in devastating interstate warfare. Certain civil wars and insurgencies not only represent humanitarian calamities for the populations trapped within them, but also potential quagmires for outside powers hoping to bring resolution to such conflicts.

Threats to individual human wellbeing in the developing world, such as climate change, food/water scarcity, resource shortages, violent criminality, population growth, and civil conflict-driven migration also risk approaching levels where they could become threats to Western state security – not that any of those problems are the 'new' security challenges that they are often touted to be, having recurred as sources of tension and conflict throughout history.

Other new domains of conflict – cyberspace, for example – are indeed genuinely new, albeit with instructive parallels in prior technological and communications revolutions. Terrorism remains a persistent risk to Western and non-Western states alike. And the spectre of nuclear or biological weapons proliferating to potentially hostile states and non-state actors remains a grave concern to many of the world's security services.

The coming years look set to remain a period of dangerous and complex strategic challenges: SSI academics are at the vanguard of this research agenda, seeking to understand the causes, consequences, and mitigation of many of today's most serious security problems.

Lead academics


The increasing incidence, but also complexity, of post-Cold War military interventions in states affected by humanitarian disasters, ethno-religious conflict, and by the effects of local and transnational terrorist and insurgent activities, has led to growing academic and policy interest in the effectiveness and legitimacy of military interventions.

The SSI's empirically-focused research examines the underlying causes, conduct, and resolution mechanisms of such conflicts. Special attention is aimed at analysing the dilemmas and challenges that Western governments, and their militaries, experience during the wide range of military interventions and military operations they embark on.

The SSI's research expertise includes:

  • The ethics and politics of military intervention
  • The interface and interaction between the political, strategic, operational and tactical levels of warfare within national, coalition, and indigenous (partner) contexts
  • The challenges associated with the way and conditions under which conventional militaries adapt (or not) their organisational, doctrinal, training and education and personnel practices and structures in order to adapt to non-conventional forms of warfare
  • The growing incidence of political, legal and media scrutiny of intervention forces and its effect on how military operations are increasingly conducted under such constraints
  • Notions of success/victory and post-conflict legacies associated with these intervention

Understanding the extent to which the global balance of power is changing, the causes of observed change, and the potential strategic consequences, is a key research specialism of SSI.

The 2010s have arguably represented the decade in which great power competition began to creep back in. With strong economic growth fuelled by goods, capital, and technology flows, the so-called 'BRICs' – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – have emerged as independent political and, increasingly, military powers. At the same time, in terms of the scale of its technological lead, dominance of the global financial system, military sophistication, and relative human development levels, the United States – and other major Western powers – have deep reserves of unique strength.

Competition between emerging and established major powers is now manifesting itself between Russia and NATO in Eastern Europe and between the United States (plus key allies) and China in the South China Sea. Either one of these loci of confrontation could yet yield a military crisis that turns into a major war with the potential for catastrophic escalation to the nuclear level – and as-yet-unforeseen crises could also erupt in other contexts.

Since the industrial revolution, armed conflict has been subject to accelerating change: new forms of politics, new technologies, new demographics, and now the introduction of new geographies in space and cyberspace. This poses the challenge of identifying and distinguishing that which is new from that which seems to be new.

The defining feature of the character of war today is not so much to replace the old with the new, but to merge and combine the new and old in surprising ways. Different forms of conflict - older and new forces - now overlap: mounted special forces with laptops call in airstrikes, and hi-tech forces find themselves in close quarter combat with dug-in adversaries.

Any number of ideologies drive today's war-makers, from radical Islam to democratic sovereignty; and in a time of protracted wars for statehood and control of the seat of government - as well as migration patterns - we see now the increasing dominance of the urban battlespace.

SSI engages with all these questions of innovation and tradition through its current collaborative project with the Royal United Services Institute (funded by the US Department of Defence Minerva Programme), 'Information Warfare in a Russian and Chinese Age', which examines how two states challenging the Western strategic order in Eastern Europe and East Asia use information and propaganda to assist the projection of power in their neighbourhoods.