What is the defence sector and why is it important?

The armed forces constitute the most powerful security institution and can influence reform in other areas. Their primary function is to underpin the domestic and foreign policies of a state with force or the threat of force. As such, they are central to the protection of a state’s sovereignty (OECD-DAC, 2007b; Chuter, 2011). They can also be a source of insecurity, human rights violations, repression, can capture a disproportionate share of economic resources, and can be used for the protection of sectional interests (OECD-DAC, 2007b). The significance of the armed forces means that an effective, efficient, accountable and affordable defence sector is essential for sustainable peace and development (UN, 2011b).

The defence sector includes:

‘the armed forces (army, navy, air force; paramilitary and reserve units); defence intelligence; the relevant ministry for defence and offices within the executive branch charged with managing and monitoring the security forces (such as national security councils and the auditor general); the legislature; military justice mechanisms and civilian mechanisms of control, such as military ombudspersons and inspector generals; and civil society. Non-statutory forces are also particularly important in post-conflict environments, where there may be a need to demobilise and/or integrate non-state armed groups.’

(Hendricks and Hutton, 2008, p. 1)

Defence reform

Defence reform can involve restructuring or building new defence capabilities under demanding political, social and economic conditions (DCAF, 2009). Often, in contexts where security and justice assistance takes place, the armed forces may have dominated the political process, or may have been aligned to particular political, ethnic or religious groups. An objective for reform is ensuring that the armed forces play a correct and useful role in the political process, being involved in certain technical and strategic aspects of policy-making and implementation, but not involved in fundamental decisions about how countries are run (Chuter, 2011). Other non-state armed factions may also exist, and defence reform in such contexts is underlined by the need to develop an integrated, representative and non-partisan force as part of broader statebuilding and peacebuilding efforts (Hendricks & Hutton, 2008).

Key issues for defence reform include (OECD-DAC, 2007b, p. 124; DCAF, 2009, p. 3):

  • Developing democratic control over defence policy and the armed forces, including a constitutional and legal framework and civilian oversight and management
  • Strengthening the process for reviewing security threats and developing the capacity to respond to them
  • Delineating clear roles and responsibilities with the police for internal security
  • Introducing integrated approaches to policy development, military expenditure, human resource planning, and management of military assets
  • Promoting reform in the training and the career development of military personnel, and career transition and resettlement plans for those leaving the armed forces
  • Encouraging public debate and citizens’ engagement with defence reform issues
  • Encouraging cooperation with non-state actors
  • Promoting ethnic, social and gender balances and equal opportunity policies
  • Promoting respect for human rights and international humanitarian law in the armed force
  • Strengthening regional arrangements for military co-operation, confidence building, arms control and disarmament.

The UN’s Defence Reform Policy (UN, 2011b) suggests that institutional reforms should be based on an initial review of the defence sector. This often draws on a national security policy or strategic defence review. Typical defence reform activities include (UN, 2011b, p. 24):

  • Structural reforms of existing institutions, such as rightsizing the armed forces in line with budgetary considerations and defence needs, and/or creating or restructuring a parliamentary defence committee
  • Functional and/or human capacity reforms, such as developing civilian oversight capacities at ministerial and/or parliamentary level
  • Physical or infrastructure reforms
  • Asset reforms involving, for example, equipment, weaponry and vehicles, including the development of new technology
  • Legislation, policy and doctrinal reforms
  • Training and capacity building in human rights and gender issues.
  • Chuter, D. (2011). Governing and Managing the Defence Sector. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies.
    See document online
  • DCAF. (2009). DCAF Backgrounder: Defence Reform. Geneva: DCAF.
    See document online
  • Hendricks, C., & Hutton, L. (2008). Defence Reform and Gender. In M. Bastick &K.Valasek (Eds.), Gender and Security Sector Reform Toolkit. Geneva: DCAF, OSCE/ODIHR, UN-INSTRAW.
    See document online
  • OECD-DAC. (2007b). Handbook on Security System Reform: Supporting Security and Justice. Paris: OECD.
    See document online
  • UN. (2011b). Policy: Defence Sector Reform. New York: United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
    See document online