The Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) Course

What is the RCDS Course?

The Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) course is a post-graduate level course in international strategic studies focusing on, political, diplomatic, security, social and economic related issues at the grand strategic level – the level at which governments take decisions on these issues both nationally and within the international community. Issues are analysed for their implications in terms of strategy and leadership. The focus of study on the main course is practical rather than theoretical.

Who Should Attend the RCDS Course?

The RCDS course provides strategic education of those officers of the Armed Forces and equivalent civil servants who have the potential to reach the highest ranks and who must therefore understand and be comfortable working at the strategic level in a cross-government and international environment.

An RCDS course usually consists of 90-100 members from the UK and overseas. The UK members come from the Naval Service (Royal Navy & Royal Marines), British Army, and Royal Air Force as well as the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Other government departments also attend and in recent years have been drawn from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Home Office, Department for International Development, Cabinet Office and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratories as well as different police constabularies.

Overseas members join RCDS from some 50 countries each year on the basis of invitations sent by the MOD through diplomatic channels. The majority are from the Armed Forces, with the remaining Members being diplomats, civil servants, or police officers. Private sector and non-governmental organisations also occasionally invited to attend.

Most military members are in the rank range of Colonel/Brigadier (OF-5/OF-6, or Service equivalent), although a small number of more senior, and occasionally junior, officers are also present. Civilian members will be of an equivalent grade or status.

What is the Purpose of the RCDS Course?

The purpose of the RCDS course is to prepare selected senior military officers and government officials as well as appropriate individuals from the private sector, from the UK, and elsewhere, for senior leadership and management roles.

This is achieved by developing strategic understanding and the capacity for strategic thinking through rigorous analysis of the:

  • International security agenda;
  • Levers that provide for security, stability and prosperity; and
  • Key tenets of leadership at the national strategic level.

What are the Intended Learning Outcomes of the RCDS Course?

It is intended that an RCDS graduate:

  • Understands the international strategic context;
  • Is skilled in analysis; and
  • Is able to work intuitively across national, cultural and ideological boundaries to lead or contribute to developing strategy at the highest level.

When is the RCDS Course Delivered?

The RCDS course runs from September to July, and is delivered over three terms.

What is in the Course Curriculum?

  • Term 1 (Weeks 1-9): The Future Strategic Context.
    • Term 1 examines the principal influences upon, and potential sources of, instability and conflict in the world in terms of the strategic trends in geo-politics, geo-economics, geo-physical trends including society and culture, science and technology, and our interaction with the physical environment. It includes study visits to the City of London and defence industries in the UK and a study week in the USA, visiting the US government and international financial institutions in Washington and the United Nations in New York.
  • Term 2 (Weeks 10-19): Conflict and Security in the Modern World.
    • Term 2 examines the challenges presented by conflict in the 21st century, reviewing the ends, ways and means open to governments, agencies and international organisations for strategy to counter threats to security, stability and prosperity. It examines ways to prevent, manage or resolve conflict by managing crises and conducting and concluding campaigns should military action be chosen in the last resort. It includes a study visit to the EU institutions and NATO HQ in Brussels and it concludes with a practical role play exercise in strategy-making.
  • Term 3 (Weeks 20-44): Contemporary International Issues.
    • Term 3 examines the impact of contemporary national and international issues on the current and future security, stability and prosperity of key states and regions. It includes further study visits within the United Kingdom and a three week study tour to a choice of regions of the world. These overseas study visits look in depth at countries that share a region in terms of geophysical, geoeconomic and geopolitical risks. It consider their prospects in terms of governance, economics and security and the scope for regional and wider international co-operation. Term 3 concludes with a week long practical role play exercise in strategy, decision-making and communications at the national level, including real time interaction with media to provide the course members to put into practice the lessons from the past year.
  • Term: Leadership in the Strategic Environment.
    • Running throughout the course from Term 1 to 3 is a leadership thread which aims to facilitate an understanding of the theory and practice of strategic leadership and expose the challenges faced by leaders at the strategic level. The series of lectures from academics and practitioners covers the psychology of leadership, role of leaders at the strategic level and the characteristics of successful strategic leadership.

What Qualifications are Gained on the RCDS?

  • Accreditation: Successful completion of the RCDS course will result in the award of the post-nominal letters ‘rcds’.
  • Master’s of Arts (MA) Degree Option:
    • The main RCSD course can also serve as the foundation for an MA in International Security and Strategy, which is currently offered by King’s College London to those members electing to undertake the additional study requirement.
    • To complete the MA, in addition to full attendance of the RCDS course, participants must also complete:
      • 26 additional seminars;
      • Three extended essays (4-6,000 words);
      • A three hour exam; and
      • A 15,000 word dissertation.

What Facilities are Available?

  • The main lecture hall can accommodate 110 people.
  • There are eight seminar rooms and a number of study areas around the building.
  • The RCDS has its own library with approximately 26,000 books and pamphlets, including subscriptions to current periodical titles, e-journals, and online databases (those who undertake the MA option also have access to the libraries at the University of London).
  • There is also a large collection of research papers – including a full set of Members’ dissertations and Seaford House Papers.
  • WiFi is available throughout the building.
  • The College also has a comprehensive VTC capability, including in the lecture hall, in order to deliver lectures from around the world.
  • There is a small gym on-site, with locker rooms for male and female members.

What Accommodation is Available?

The RCDS does not offer any accommodation on site. Members either rent privately in London or may be entitled to use the 40 Defence Infrastructure properties reserved for RCDS in Kingston upon Thames.

Outline of the College

Established in 1927, the Imperial Defence College (IDC) was established to create greater understanding between senior military officers, diplomats, civil servants and officials. In 1970, the IDC was renamed the RCDS to reflect the change in UK policy.

The RCDS is the senior college of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom (DAUK) which was formed on 01 April 2002, and also includes:

  • The Joint Services Command and staff College;
  • The College of Management and Technology; and
  • The Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre.

The RCDS is located at Seaford House, Belgravia in London. The College is led by the Commandant, an OF-8 level officer (or civilian equivalent).

The Senior Directing Staff (SDS) are senior serving and retired officers and officials drawn from the UK Armed Forces, civil service, and diplomatic service. They provide mentoring and academic supervision to RCDS course members with the assistance of professors from King’s College London.

What about Alumni?

Those who attend the RCDS course become Members of the College for life. They retain access to Seaford House and its facilities including the library.

What is the Seaford House Rule?

The Seaford House rule is simply a copy of the Chatham House Rule which originated at Chatham House in June 1927 with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers to encourage openness, free discussion and the sharing of information. This allows them to express personal opinions and views which may not be the ‘official’ position of the organisations they represent. The Rule states:

“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”.


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