It might be easy to dismiss a speech by General Sir Nick Carter about the risks of falling behind our “adversaries” among the world’s “Great Powers” as simply an appeal for more funds.
But, given it is highly unusual for the head of the British Army to intervene in the political realm, we should take what he has to say seriously. The UK’s Armed Forces are now smaller than they have ever been since the Napoleonic Wars with cuts of 18 per cent in the size of the Army since 2010 reducing it to 82,000. This was an understandable response to the economic crisis, particularly during a period of relative stability in the world. However, as General Carter made clear, there are troubling signs on the horizon.
Echoing US Defence Secretary James Mattis, he said the world was now in a period of “Great Power competition”, recalling the machinations in the 19th and early 20th century that culminated in the First World War. States were becoming “masters at exploiting the seams between peace and war”, using cyber attacks, assassination, fake news and intimidation to get what they want, General Carter said.
Attacks in this new Great Game are not necessarily physical. In interfering in the US election and, possibly, the Brexit referendum, Vladimir Putin may have achieved some of his strategic aims. As the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz might have advised if he was alive today: “Cyberwar is the continuation of politics by others means.” But General Carter also spoke of the “eye-watering capability” of the Russian military. Putin clearly out-witted the West in Ukraine when he annexed the Crimea, while initially denying Russian soldiers were involved. And there are genuine fears that he may try similar tactics in the three Baltic states, all Nato members, where British troops are deployed and train to counter an invasion.
Our Nato membership could draw us into a conflict with Russia, but our defence in the direst of situations will rely on the alliance’s collective strength. The UK may have the world’s fifth-biggest defence budget, but in any military confrontation between the UK alone and Russia, we would be the loser.
The UK must ensure its military has the right equipment – a situation that cannot be said about the Iraq War – so we can play an effective part in Nato. Outdated weapons must be replaced and clearly new threats require new thinking – and perhaps more money.