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Recently, Britain’s Sunday Times published an interview with General Sir Richard Barrons, formerly head of the UK’s Joint Forces Command. Interviewed by correspondent Christina Lamb, General Sir Richard built on a proposition he has labelled ‘Warfare in the Information Age’, spelling out the nature of the new challenges that confront the West. Whether Daesh in Syria and Iraq, or Russia in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, our adversaries and those who might choose to become so believe that the very rules of war have changed. Western military interventions at the beginning of the 21st century provided an opportunity for those who wished to gain insights into the Western military system and to develop their own approaches and capabilities so that they could undermine what had been the West’s clear post-Cold War military advantage.
Whilst some US officials have been quick to point out the risks associated with the reliance on digital networks, even referring to the threat of a ‘cyber Pearl Harbour’, General Barrons is one of the first senior military figures in the UK to speak so stridently on the subject. He explicitly highlights that a future adversary would start with attacks on key infrastructure, including power, water, the banking system and food distribution, aimed at bringing normal life to a halt, and he describes this as a ‘new Blitzkrieg’. To counter this sort of challenge, he emphasises the historical importance of civilians, not just armed forces, as key to delivering the scale of response necessary.
General Barrons argues that the threats confronting the West and the context of the Information Age means that the UK, and the West more generally, needs to take the commitment to defence much more seriously. Whilst he advocates for increases in defence spending across NATO, he is equally concerned that the money is spent on the right things, adequate to fight future conflicts. He draws a compelling parallel with the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s in the UK, a time when the public and politicians were tired of war and there were significant stresses on the economy. However, he emphasises how at that time the need for a programme of rearmament to allow Britain to at least begin building modern tanks, fighters and warships, such that it could hold its own in the early days of the Second World War, was compellingly argued by key thinkers.
Thus, he argues that the UK and the West today need to be able to respond to the threat through cyberspace of attacks directed primarily at the civilian population by targeting the infrastructure on which modern society relies. It is not about building ‘giant forces’, he says, but rather having the ability to counter the sort of problems that are more typical of the Information Age.
General Barrons leaves the formal employment of the UK government in the next few weeks. In the interview, Christina Lamb highlights that he ‘is not a person to talk to if you want to sleep easy’. He continues to challenge the establishment to change the way in which it thinks about 21st-century conflict and the sort of capabilities that are needed to confront it. Whether using the broader capacity in the private sector to counter cyber- threats through the Reserves or perhaps funding a ballistic missile defence capability, he advocates a fresh way of thinking about defence. It is of note that while the communiqué from NATO’s July Warsaw Summit highlighted many of these challenges, the responses were very much of a traditional form.
Given his background in Joint Forces Command, General Barrons’ new thinking about defence should not be ignored. Perhaps, inevitably in a short interview, the article is light on detail as to what this thinking should look like. The task, therefore, remains to establish what the concept of Warfare in the Information Age looks like in a very practical sense. And, perhaps even more importantly, there is a need to assess whether it resonates with policy-makers in the UK and, more broadly, in the West.