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The strategic context and what it means for the Armed Forces

The strategic context and what it means for the Armed Forces
6 min read

At the invitation of James Gray MP, General Sir Nick Carter recently set out the strategic context and what it means for the military in a speech at the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme Graduation Dinner

James Gray has asked me to speak about the strategic context and what it means for the Armed Forces. It is remarkably complex and dynamic, and the defining condition is instability.   The threats that were identified in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review are diversifying, proliferating and intensifying much more rapidly than we anticipated. The upshot is a global playing field characterised by constant competition and confrontation, with a return to a former era of great power competition. Ambitious states such as Russia, China and Iran are asserting themselves regionally and globally in ways that challenge our security, stability and prosperity. This is overlaid by the threat from non-state actors such as Daesh using terror to undermine our way of life; this is complicated by mass migration; and compounded by populism. The multi-lateral system that has assured our stability since 1945 is threatened.

There is a military capability dimension to all this – while we’ve been focused on a generation of interventions involving counterinsurgency and stabilisation from the Balkans to Afghanistan, Russia and China have invested thoughtfully in new methods and capabilities that are designed to undermine our strengths and target our weaknesses: cyber; ballistic and cruise missiles; low-yield nuclear weapons; space and counterspace weapons; electronic warfare; integrated air and missile defence systems; multi-barrelled thermobaric rocket launchers linked digitally to drone targeting systems; new conventional capability such as low-signature submarines, modern aircraft and armoured vehicles. Worryingly, Russia and China have proliferated many of these systems to proxy states. No longer can we guarantee our freedom of action from air or sea and on land.

The character of warfare is evolving rapidly driven by the pervasiveness of information and the rate of technological change. Our competitors have become masters at exploiting the seams between peace and war. What constitutes a weapon in this ‘grey zone’ no longer has to go ‘bang’. Energy, cash as bribes, corrupt business practices, cyber-attacks, assassination, fake news, propaganda, the usurping of supply chains, the theft of intellectual property, and old-fashioned military intimidation are all examples of the weapons used to gain advantage, to sow discord, to undermine our political cohesion and insidiously destroy our free and open way of life.

Because it is new and exploits new technologies, this kind of warfare is unregulated. We no longer have the same mutual understanding, and the tried and tested diplomatic instruments and conventions that used to be a feature of international relations, such as confidence building measures, arms reduction negotiations, public monitoring and inspection of each other’s military activity are not what they were. Hence the greatest risk is inadvertent escalation leading to miscalculation, particularly with memories of real war now fading.

The challenge for the Armed Forces is mobilising to meet these threats while in parallel ensuring we modernise and transform to be competitive for the future. This means markedly improving our readiness, being prepared to fight the war we might have to fight because in so doing there is a sporting chance that we will deter it from happening; our opponents respect strength. This includes testing the mobilisation of our Reserves and Regular Reserves. It is about speed of recognition, speed of decision making and speed of assembly – hence forward basing elements of the force, being international by design and interoperable with other militaries, and routinely exercising the political dimension. It means protecting our critical national infrastructure, improving our resilience, understanding our weaknesses, thinking laterally about how we outmanoeuvre our opponents and how we compete in the ‘grey zone’, treating crises like Salisbury not as single events, but understanding how they fit in an overall strategy that requires a strategic response. And in doing so we must fully integrate Defence into the pan-Government effort to amplify our strengths combined with effective strategic communications.

We will frame our modernised force through the integration of five Domains: Space, Cyber and Information, Maritime, Air and Land. This will change the way we fight and the way we develop capability. As we modernise, we will embrace information-centric technologies, recognising that it will be the application of combinations of technology like processing power, connectivity, machine learning and artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, autonomy and quantum computing that will achieve the disruptive effect we need.

We will achieve this in partnership with the private sector where the greatest understanding for technology is found. We will adopt a new outcome-focused approach to procurement that shares risk and opportunity with our suppliers, enabling collaborative development and innovation to build the agility and adaptability we need to seize disruptive technological opportunity, with a responsive commercial function at the leading edge. We will place emphasis on experimentation by allocating resources, force structure, training and exercise activity to stimulate innovation in all lines of development.

Our other challenge is to reacquaint the public with the military, correcting misconceptions, explaining what service to the nation means, what the military does and how it should be used, revalidating its utility and relevance, and improving the quality of public debate and understanding. The Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme is an important part of this, and the connection matters much to each of the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force.

Absent an obvious existential threat (despite my depiction of the strategic context), it is paradoxical that we have never been so popular but perhaps so less understood, hence it is hard for our message to resonate. Misconceptions of the effects of service on our Servicemen and Servicewomen impact recruiting and on the ability of Service leavers to transition to the civilian job market. We must also remember that the young who join the Armed Forces want to be used, not kept on a shelf waiting to be used.

My priority as the Head of the Armed Forces will always be about maximising talent, for it is the remarkable quality of our Servicemen and Servicewomen which gives us our adaptive edge. And we should remember the wise advice of Sir Michael Howard who observed: “The trick is not to perfectly predict the future, but to be not too far wrong when war breaks out, so that one is well prepared to adapt at speed.”

General Sir Nick Carter is the Chief of the Defence Staff  

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