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General Sir Nick Carter Avoids Party Politics, But Issues Challenge To Future Governments

Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nicholas Carter has highlighted key threats to those potentially in charge in an annual speech.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Distinguished Fellow, RUSI

The Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) at his annual RUSI lecture has been widely reported as giving a sobering view of the security challenges that Britain faces in the coming decade.

A resurgence of great power politics, a series of nasty trouble spots around the world, demographic trends that tend towards instability, and the disappearing lines between open conflict, civil strife, social and economic subversion.

We live in an era of "hyper-competition" between all domains, said General Sir Nicholas Carter - and the danger of miscalculation is rising exponentially.

To counter this, he said, it would be important to get the balance right between "defence" and new interpretations of "deterrence", and the key to this was "persistent presence" – something the United Kingdom has been generally good at achieving.

But there was a much bigger challenge underlying his words here, and even in the midst of General Election campaigning - where the CDS has to be extremely careful to avoid political statements - General Carter was issuing a remarkably dramatic challenge.

It was directed to the whole of the governmental machine in ways that would not be comfortable.

He said that "jointery" was no longer enough - real governmental "integration" of effort and effects would have to be achieved.

There would have to be a "step change", he said, in the way we conceive of security and strategic competition.

It is necessary to embrace the "fourth industrial revolution" and genuinely integrate the "sunrise technologies" – robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other disruptive technologies – into our security thinking, rather than to leave them as the interesting afterthoughts for which there was never enough actual cash to exploit properly.

More than once, he stressed that the UK must be prepared to discard some long-standing priniciples of the past if we are to meet the challenges he had laid out.

Islamic State Fighters pose on horseback in IS's Dabiq Magazine
One of the warnings from the RUSI lecture was about the threat posed by the Islamic State group.

By the mid-2020s, UK forces will have the force structure that was set out as long ago as 2010.

That force structure is concentrated on the heavy metal - as each of the three services has recapitalised itself, after the expeditionary operations of the immediate post-Cold War period.

General Carter’s vision seems to be that the next recapitalisation of the forces will not only see a pretty big switch into new technologies, but will also need to be part of a government-wide reconception of how national security should be conceived and delivered.

Men and women in the Armed Forces, he said in answer to a question, should expect to be part of some big and innovative changes even in the near future.

By implication, so should the rest of Whitehall and the future government, when the election presents us with one next week.

His analysis certainly went quite some way beyond anything to be read in the party manifestos or their campaigning statements.