Britain’s armed forces will have to give up some “industrial age capabilities” in order to compete effectively in the new battlefields of space and cyber, the UK’s most senior military commander has warned.
General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said the UK had to adapt to meet the challenge from “authoritarian rivals” such as Russia and China, which had adopted a strategy of continuous “political warfare” to achieve their objectives.
Speaking at the Policy Exchange think tank, he said this would mean deploying military forces more actively on operations that fell “below the threshold of war” in order to prevent all-out conflict.
The Government is currently engaged in an Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in what has been described as the biggest overhaul of the UK’s strategic posture since the Cold War.
Gen Carter said the need to effectively integrate forces across land, sea, air, space and cyber meant some older capabilities would have to be discarded – a move that would entail some risk.
“This means that some industrial age capabilities will increasingly have to meet their sunset to create the space that is needed for sunrise. The trick is how you find a path through the night,” he said.
“We know this will require us to embrace combinations of information-centric technologies but predicting these combinations will be challenging.
“We will have to take risk, accept some failure and place the emphasis on experimentation.”
Gen Carter did not specify which capabilities he was referring to, although he suggested it would mean less emphasis on traditional “platforms” such as tanks, ships and aircraft.
Gen Carter described how Russia had used the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria as “battle laboratories” to modernise its forces, while China was exploiting the “ambiguous boundary between peace and war” to achieve its military objectives by “disguising” its activities as civilian.
“Their goal is to win without going to war, to achieve their objectives by breaking our willpower, using attacks below the threshold that would prompt a warfighting response,” he said.
He said the UK needed to fundamentally change its thinking – moving to a more dynamic approach to deterrence – if it was not to be overwhelmed.
“This recognises the need to compete below the threshold of war in order to deter war and to prevent one’s adversaries achieving their objectives in fait accompli strategies as we have seen in the Crimea, Ukraine, Libya and further afield,” he said.
“Competing involves a campaign posture that includes continuous operating on our terms and in places of our choosing.
“This posture will be engaged and forward deployed – armed forces much more in use rather than dedicated solely for contingency, with training and exercising being delivered as operations.”