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CGS Keynote Address 2018

Closing Keynote: General Mark Carleton Smith, The Chief of the General Staff

The Speech

So in drawing this year’s conference to a close I’d like to thank you all for your participation; to Karin and RUSI, to Guy Swan and AUSA and to our sponsors. 

I think you’ll agree we’ve covered a lot of important ground – too much for me to do full justice to now and we’ve shared some well-judged insights; you’ll all have your own but I think on reflection my key observations revolve around:

  • Nature and diversification of competition 
  • Diffusion, competition and new threats
  • Scale, pace and urgency of change
  • Criticality of Allies and Partners – evolving opportunities and of shared challenges and insights - warfare after all is a human endeavour.

But whatever you personally concluded, I hope you all leave with a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for us all. 

Some of them in the not too distant future – since I think we almost certainly still under-estimate the change that is going to take place within the next decade – well within the Service lifetimes of most people in this hall. 

This is a fascinating time to be a brand new Chief of the General Staff; a new Chief gets literally hundreds of letters, one or two of them actually quite supportive and encouraging, but what they all do in one tone or another is to offer advice and taken together they reflect the opinions, the views and the prejudices of a wide community of security and defence observers; and of course the odd crank. And occasionally it’s difficult to tell the difference. 

It's become a truism, they generally say, that we live in exceptionally unstable times and that the world has never been more unpredictable. That is the condition of the world; it’s always been unstable and its always been unpredictable and our current worries, many assert, could certainly be much worse. 

After all, in the year I joined the Army we fought an unexpected war in the South Atlantic, we still retained significant forces committed to Internal Security in Northern Ireland, and we were confronted by what we then called the Group Soviet Forces Germany across the Inner German Border, equipped with amongst other things, tactical nuclear weapons and a range of chemical and biological agents.

In all (that year) we had over 280 soldiers killed that year; more than in any year since, more than at the height of Iraq and Afghanistan, and 28 of them were killed in the United Kingdom, 11 of them here in London, including the elder brother of a friend of mine. 

‘That was a real enemy’ they say and I don’t disagree. But we don’t live in the past and certain fundamental changes seem to be underway that have real meaning for our future; much of it linked to rapid technological change which I think marks out the times we live in now from those that went before. 

The other leitmotif is the money. People worry about it. So how can we justify claim to resource over the heads of others; well, to my mind, as compelling a case as any is that what can be afforded for Defence should be in direct proportion to the threat; just so long as we can demonstrate that our efficiency is at the very edge of arduous and exacting whilst consistent with our operational outputs and objectives; and I can’t promise any respite in that regard.

Therefore, given I’ve only been in the job several days, in the spirit of these times I thought I might offer something of a hybrid – one part reflection on the strategic context and the changing nature of the threat, and one part on what I think is important for the Army in particular as I take over.

And for those of you who have planes and trains to catch and want it in a nutshell, my focus as CGS is the future, preparing the Army of tomorrow, which is why you’ll find in the Army that I command some of the brightest and the best of all generations in those appointments that sign and shape our future; and the further out we’re looking the younger those teams should be. 

Which is going to be a challenge given that the world’s always been volatile and unpredictable. So what’s so different today? 

I think it’s not only the re-assertion of state-based threats; true as that is but it is, also I think, the pace of the change associated with the permanent and escalating technical revolution that I spoke about yesterday, combined with the proliferation and cross-contamination of risks compounded by the widening spectrum of threat. 

I think we all agree that the nature of warfare is broadening beyond the traditional physical domains and that warfare today is characterised by a persistent full-spectrum competition, whilst our own freedom to operate in time and space of our choosing is increasingly challenged by the proliferation of integrated land, maritime, air and space systems operating at ranges measured sometimes in the thousands of kms; whilst the pace at which strategic threats can manifest themselves has accelerated exponentially; cyber, net-speed, unconstrained by geography and the laws of nature; whilst the difficulty of attribution complicates our response times and emboldens the aggressor to ever-greater risk.

And it’s not just about capabilities either; malign intent and the inclination to use force today to change the facts on the ground both seem to be on the rise. Putin’s State of the Nation three months ago painted a darkening geo-political picture.

Russia today is not a status quo power; it’s in revisionist mode and its intent is now matched by a growing arsenal of long-range precision capabilities; and it’s not just Russia. We are confronted by the consequences of a global order challenged by other revisionist powers, of rogue states; that want a world shaped along their own authoritarian lines.

At a minimum they’re a reminder that democracy and Human Rights are not universal values; and they’re a reminder that the international rules-based system isn’t self-sustaining. It’s underpinned by power, hard power, predominantly although not exclusively American hard power, which we Europeans can’t take for granted; and the United States itself now recognises that its military edge needs sharpening in responding to the expanding competitive space and the subsequent erosion of US-led western military advantage. 

And what’s true for the United States is also true for us. 

So I think that the misplaced perception that there is no imminent or existential threat to the UK and that even if there was it could only arise at long-notice is wrong; along with the flawed belief that conventional hardware and mass are irrelevant in countering Russian subversion and that the answer lies somehow in disruptive technology and that the quicker we can field those technologies the less useful the traditional measures of combat power become as indicators of National Power. 

To my mind, that is to misunderstand the Russian challenge; their strategy of the integrated employment of political, diplomatic, economic, information and other non-military measures is predicated on a solid foundation of conventional military power – hard power. And their asymmetric approach is a deliberate and targeted strategy to expose Western vulnerability especially in the non-traditional domains. 

We may read Russia less well today than the Kremlinologists of the past but their lack of respect for weakness, especially military weakness, hasn’t changed one bit – and as we’ve become more sceptical about the necessity or advantage of intervention – Georgia, The Ukraine, Syria, Montenegro, Libya, Salisbury; how much longer do you want that list to grow? 

So, if we agree that the risks are potentially growing, then we need a more proactive, threat-based approach to our capability, including placing some big bets on those technologies that we judge may offer exponential advantage because given the pace of the race, to fall behind today is to cede an almost unquantifiable advantage from which it might be impossible to recover. 

The message is: Think Big, start Small and be prepared to hold the capability to scale rapidly. 

So the challenges for the Army are four-fold: 

We need to address the proliferation and diversification of threats and work out how to create and sustain an asymmetric advantage in a much more competitive and dynamic Land environment.

We need to continue to argue the relevance and importance of Land Power in response to those who would challenge its utility in the cyber-age; an argument compounded by the potentially toxic legacy of intervention. 

In the wake of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya there is still debate over the wider utility of armed force which in many respects exists not to fight conflicts but to preserve peace albeit through the credible threat of the use of force; and there can be no room for complacency in reinforcing these arguments. 

And for that deterrent effect, the currency is a capable, manned, trained and equipped Army, that is ready to fight and demonstrably so; an Army that matches operational agility, with sustainable degrees of organisational and structural stability, adapted to iterative cycles of experimentation, capability development and the demands of alliance obligations and the associated interoperability challenges.

But the hooks exist and it makes sense to play to our strengths; and the Army is starting to adapt to a profile of use which is far more relevant to the security challenges ahead; considerable steps have been taken to escape the binary mindset of peace and war, operations or training. 

In most respects it is now one continuous spectrum and the Army’s outputs are contributing to reducing the risk of conflict through Protection and Security tasks such as Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia and Poland, and security upstream through building stability overseas and capacity-building and reinforcing those essential international partnerships and alliances.

Including exploiting our unique set of bilateral and multi-national alliances and testing the boundaries of sovereign ownership with revised mechanisms for the pooling and sharing of capabilities because this is in every sense a team sport and we’re going to have to go further together. 

The Army needs to be used and it needs to be useful; proportionately, continuously and demonstrably; whilst continuing to lend intellectual energy to the debate as to how warfare is changing in the Information Age because it feels as though we’re on the cusp of a step-change. But I think the concepts and associated technologies are still little understood, especially by the senior and by definition older end of the organisation and those who perhaps have the best grasp of their potential application are still quite junior and probably today find it just as hard to get their voice heard as we did.

So, there is definitely something here about how the Army thinks and prepares itself for the future whilst having to deal with the reality of today, not least because Russia seems to have taken a different body of lessons from the historical evidence of intervention over the last 15-20 years including the utility of hard power in changing the facts on the ground. 

And it’s demonstrated that it’s prepared to use military force to protect its vital national interests. I hope Mungo Melvin, our resident Crimean expert, might agree that Russia took the view that it couldn’t cope with losing influence in The Crimea, whilst the West probably could; and Russia therefore took a rational risk, judging correctly, that The Crimea was ‘doable’. And the logic for Syria was similar and no amount of Information Advantage is going to change that calculus or the hard facts. 

There are some recurring watchwords amongst all of this – agility and adaptability, interoperability, integration and tempo; what do they mean for us? 

Well, I think it points us in several directions, and the Minister has helpfully already highlighted many of them this morning; I’ll maybe underline just a couple.

The first is the emphasis on training and experimentation in the context of a force operating in high-intensity conditions particularly in complex terrain, dense electronic environments and under persistent surveillance.

This is multi-domain manoeuvre at the very high-end requiring exceptional special-to-arm competence, concise operational staff work, precise control and intimate co-ordination with both Air and Allied forces; and doing so at points of the compass where the active demonstration of utility and capability reinforces our deterrent effect.

We are already training to the threshold of failure to promote learning and experimentation, and the integration and exploitation of technologies, that link the physical, virtual and cognitive domains but to go further and faster we need to expand our simulation capabilities, better understand how we might improve the human/digital interface and we need to better visualize what task-organization in the Virtual domain looks like.

And we must continue to improve our digital collaboration and capacity for sharing; because we have got to do this in partnership with allies as the challenge of interoperability only increases as we take technological leaps forward. Maybe a start would be an agreed doctrine for the application of emerging technologies.

The second point I would emphasize is the necessity to accelerate the pipeline between operational concepts to requirements through acquisition to fielding. We need a quicker route to demonstration and rapid prototyping so that if we are going to fail, we fail early and cheaply whilst carrying the lessons forward with families of evergreen platforms – platforms that are adaptable and modular, and critically integrated from the outset into the data network to ensure compatibility with what we can only assume will be a growing armada of autonomous platforms and even more alternative virtual systems. 

My last point is about how people fit into all this because the demands on them are only growing. We’re asking them to be combat ready today and prepared for tomorrow; persistently engaged overseas to deter and protect whilst remaining positively engaged and connected at home, contributing to both national security and to enhancing our national prosperity. 

And for that we need to draw on the Whole Force; not just regulars, reservists, civil servants, contractors and industry partners; that’s the force we went to war with in 1991, 27 years ago; I’m talking about a different sort of Whole Force, I’m talking about the sort of people whose skills are going to be necessary to underwrite success on the 21st Century battlefield.

And this isn’t just a challenge for the Army, it’s a strategic challenge for the whole of Defence; because to compete we need new non-traditional skills; skills not normally associated with those looking for careers in Defence or the Army. People whose aptitudes are highly sought after in a global market and whose instincts are more independently-minded and less hierarchical than some in uniform would feel comfortable with. And they will make different demands on our leadership if we’re to attract this more diverse team and integrate them successfully into a team of teams that goes close to reflecting the core values of our Army. 

It’s for Defence to overhaul the policy, that’s essentially an issue about mobility and flexibility, but we will need to provide the leadership, the inspiration and the motivation that goes beyond a common set of values because that produces a decent Army.

What I’m talking about is a Winning Army. A Winning Army founded on comradeship, self-respect and self-discipline; a Winning Army imbued with initiative and daring, with originality and self-confidence, with professional knowledge and infectious energy in all its commanders at every level. I’m talking about an inextinguishable will to win; a relentless pursuit of professional excellence and a determination not to be thwarted by the inevitable setbacks. And that’s to be matched by an entrepreneurial spirit that encourages and rewards an open, collaborative and challenging culture.

I place a great premium on the hard-won lessons from the battlefield: on decentralisation, on intelligent cooperation, speed of action and low-level initiative coupled with the confidence to underwrite those honest mistakes of subordinates that develop their warfighters’ instinct and experience. And a code of leadership that values the irrepressible sense of humour of the British soldier; that keeps things in proportion and fundamentally has a sense of humility and an honest sense of decency. 

All of these things exist in our Army; if they didn’t I wouldn’t be stood in front of you today as CGS but occasionally commanders need to breathe new life into these things and that time is now.

If I were to brand it, it would be as intelligent, dynamic and adaptive warfighting professionals – recognising that we’re paid to fight and to win. It’s a unique responsibility on behalf of our nation and as commanders and leaders our prime responsibility is the nurture and nourishment of the fighting spirit of our men and women. 

It’s what they joined the Army for and their martial spirit is the only true test of our readiness. If we keep it bright, my experience is the rest will follow. And we are all custodians of something exceptionally precious, not just our Army, but our nation’s Army and it’s made of flesh and blood - and beating hearts.