General Sir Nick Carter KCB CBE DSO ADC Gen, Chief of the Defence Staff, UK Ministry of Defence. The Chief of the Defence Staff Lecture is held annually at RUSI, covering key topical defence and security issues.
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Good evening – it’s a great privilege to be with you this evening to give my first annual Chief of the Defence Staff lecture precisely six months after I started in the job. And without getting overly excited I guess there’s never been a better week for a CDS to be controversial …but just before you get too excited, I hope I can live up to the billing I have just received
It is hard to remember a time when the strategic and political context was more uncertain, more complex and more dynamic – instability, it seems to me, is the defining condition. The threats to our nation are diversifying, proliferating and intensifying very rapidly. The global playing field is characterised by constant competition and confrontation, with a return to a former era of great power competition – reminiscent, perhaps, of the first decade of the 20th Century.
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; it is complicated by mass migration- arguably an existential threat to Europe; and compounded by populism and nationalism. The multi-lateral system that has assured our stability since 1945 is threatened.
We therefore live in a multi-polar world of competing powers, with diverging views on how the world should work, different values, a sense of historic entitlement and even some scores to settle.
There is also an important military capability dimension to all of this. Countries like Russia and China have studied our strengths and invested carefully in new methods and capabilities that are designed to exploit 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, aircraft and armoured vehicles. Worryingly, many of these systems are now in the hands of proxy states. No longer can we guarantee our freedom of action which we have taken for granted, certainly for at least the last thirty years, from air or sea and on land.
Meanwhile, the character of politics and 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. As I said here in January, what constitutes a weapon in this ‘grey zone’, below the threshold of conventional war, no longer has to go ‘bang’.
Energy, cash as bribes, corrupt business practices, cyber-attacks, assassination, fake news, propaganda, the usurping our 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. And the very globalisation that has opened up so many opportunities has also eroded the boundaries that have traditionally assured our security – between home and abroad, between virtual and reality, and between states and non-states.
We need to recognise that this is a strategic challenge that requires a strategic response. It is not a crisis, or series of crises, that we face. And if we don’t define the problem clearly, and act accordingly, rather like a chronic contagious disease, it will creep up on us, and our ability to act will be markedly constrained if not defeated. It’s the old fable about boiling the frog – if it’s dropped in boiling water it will leap out, but if it is put in bearable heat and brought to a boil gradually it will not spot the existential problem until it is too late.
Because it is new and exploits new technologies, this kind of warfare is unregulated. We no longer have the same depth of 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 once were. And many of these instruments have been willfully undermined as we have seen recently with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty. Now I don’t think that anyone wants war in the traditional definition of the term, but I do think there is a serious risk of inadvertent escalation leading to miscalculation.
Let’s face it memories of war are short, and it is not helped by the bellicose nature of populism and nationalism.
Unsurprisingly given the context I have described our Armed Forces continue to be extremely active – involving a remarkable spread of activity. Last month for example some 19,000 servicemen and servicewomen were deployed overseas on over 30 operations and exercises around the world:
- Nearly 3,000 personnel were deployed on NATO’s Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE providing deterrence and reassurance - involving seven Royal Navy Ships and marines; an infantry brigade including multi-national elements – most of which deployed by road and rail, travelling around 2,500km to test our STRIKE concept; with RAF aircraft providing airborne command and control, close air support and red air simulation.
- At the same time, and I would emphasise that – at the same time, around 5,500 personnel were deployed on Exercise SAIF SAREA in Oman to develop our integration with the Sultan’s Armed Forces and our ability to project a Joint Force over strategic distance. This involved our 2-star Standing Joint Force Headquarters, half a dozen Royal Naval vessels, armoured vehicles, aviation, medical facilities, fast jets and transport aircraft.
- And at the same time WESTLANT 18 with some 1,500 or so personnel deployed on HMS Queen Elizabeth and Monmouth, and RFA Tidespring for over a hundred days, involving the successful first of class F-35B Lightning II trials.
We have also enhanced our Defence engagement in the Asia-Pacific region during 2018, including a near-continuous Royal Navy presence. The Continuous at Sea Deterrent) commemorates its fiftieth anniversary, and of course who will forget that extraordinary fly past over London in the summer that celebrated RAF 100. And at the same time significant numbers of personnel have been held at readiness at home to support the civil authority.
Now, there are a number of deductions I draw from all this. We will need to be clear in a post BREXIT world what role we want to play in the world – for example is our ambition to be globally deployable or global – and what level of activity should we plan for? We have to find the right balance between ‘fight tonight’ and ‘fight tomorrow’, as this is essential for the long term sustainability of our Armed Forces; and we need to find the right mix of capability between the raw necessity for mass and the need for sophistication and precision; as well as recognising that we seem no longer to be able to hold forces purely at readiness - now it’s much more about the notice to recommit forces that are already committed.
The Modernising Defence Programme has sought to get after these challenges. We need to mobilise to meet today’s threats; we must modernise to meet future threats; and we must transform ourselves to become the agile and adaptive organisation that the future demands.
After a decade or so of counter insurgency, the immediate necessity is to mobilise to confront the threat from peer on peer opponents – this involves improved readiness and resilience (with the NATO Readiness Initiative as a forcing function to do this); the protection of our critical national infrastructure; becoming an outwardly facing organisation that is fully integrated into the pan-Government effort to amplify our strengths and our unique capabilities – what the National Security Adviser calls Fusion Doctrine, and is to all intents and purposes modern grand strategy; mobilising also involves reinforcing and improving our alliances to secure the political cohesion that is our centre of gravity; and thinking laterally about how we can outmanoeuvre our opponents and communicate our actions.
Readiness is about generating agility and tempo which involves speed of recognition, speed of decision making and speed of assembly – hence recent announcements on retaining forward bases in Germany. Readiness is founded on resilience and depth, involving high quality training, personnel and equipment availability, logistic sustainability and appropriate stockpiles, all enabled by the turn-key capability that is information advantage – that is both about the agile exploitation of information as well as the ability to transmit one’s message to affect the behaviour of relevant audiences.
The goal of mobilisation must be - to be prepared to fight the war we might have to fight - because in so doing there is a reasonable chance we will deter our opponents from wanting to fight.
We are in a period of change more widespread, rapid and profound than humanity has experienced outside of world war. The period of change is more sustained than the two world wars of the last century combined, and its rate is still increasing. Change at this pace and scale inevitably brings instability which requires a different approach to the traditional 'peacetime' mentality’. We need to recreate the innovation and ingenuity seen in wartime if we are to succeed in this environment.
Paraphrasing from Barry Watts and Williamson Murray’s Military Innovation in the Interwar Period:
Historically, technological developments have played an enabling or facilitating role in stimulating fundamentally new and more effective ways of fighting. But the underlying technologies themselves (for example, the internal combustion engine, radio communications, radar etc.) as well as the new military systems to which they gave birth (airplanes, tanks, amphibious landing craft, aircraft carriers, radar and so forth), formed only a part of these innovations…we still had to integrate advanced weapons systems with appropriate tactics, operational concepts and doctrines in order to realize the full potential of new ways of fighting. There was nothing inevitable about the outcomes.
Our modernisation will be led by technology. We will frame our modernised force (call it Joint Force 35) through the integration of five Domains: Space, Cyber, Maritime, Air and Land, with information at the core. This will be a force that is digitally enabled and integrated; and while it will still have conventional platforms like Joint Force 25, we will have changed 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 technologies like processing power, connectivity, machine learning and artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, autonomy and quantum computing that will achieve the disruptive effect we need.
I am well aware that predicting these combinations will be challenging, so we will have to take risk, accept some failure and place emphasis on experimentation by allocating resources, force structure, training and exercise activity to stimulate innovation in all lines of development. This will enable adaptive exploitation as opportunities become clear.
We are writing a unifying Integrated Operating Concept that sets the framework for the force across all five domains. Our experimentation will inform concepts such as how we compete in the ‘grey zone’ below the threshold of conventional war, space, Ballistic Missile Defence, and cyber. It will be iterative, with new concepts tested through extensive wargaming and net assessment to validate their feasibility. This will help identify the trade-offs required to develop a complementary suite of capabilities and systems drawn from all domains and applied in a coordinated manner - to counteract one, the enemy must become more vulnerable to another.
Joint Forces Command will become the home for strategic capabilities and integration, and will set the digital and information framework that ensures all of our capabilities are integrated effectively across the domains – and with key allies and partners.
All three Services are embracing the need to innovate, The Royal Navy’s Unmanned Warrior and Information Warrior exercises have accelerated the wide application of commercially available technology. Their Programme Nelson is creating a world leading digital platform in which to test advanced communications and artificial intelligence. The RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office has developed cutting edge counter measures for infra-red missiles. And the Army’s Autonomous Warrior exercise was in the media last week.
We will achieve this through partnership with the private sector where the greatest understanding for technology is found. Realising it will involve the adoption of 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. This requires a very different acquisition process and a different relationship with industry – similar to the Royal Air Force’s Typhoon Total Availability Enterprise with BAE Systems, or the reset commercial arrangement the Army has with Capita.
All of this will have a marked impact on our workforce. Technology, the competition for skills in an evolving workplace, and the abiding need to integrate across the Domains, and within them will require a new approach that maximises the potential of all our talent from wherever it is drawn. The balance between generalists and specialists will tip increasingly towards specialist career streams.
We will need to establish integrated career structures where appropriate that are blended between the Services and our civilians; based on clearly understood skills frameworks we will increasingly encourage lateral movement and entry on an enterprise basis across Government and with the private sector to provide greater opportunity for talent to be maximised for collective benefit. This will be enabled by new blended and flexible terms and conditions of service; we will change our approach to recruitment, ensuring that we make the connection to all of British society; we will change the way we deliver training and education; how we manage talent, how we reward it and, indeed, how we promote it.
And I feel strongly that we must transform to become curious, challenging and constantly adaptable, as well as being prepared to test some of our core assumptions. By establishing clear accountabilities, we will stimulate a sense of empowerment, enabled by incentivisation that will make a virtue of innovation. People must be encouraged to lead, to build inclusive teams, and to take sensible intellectual risk in the pursuit of opportunity and delivery – we do this brilliantly on operations with our philosophy of mission command, but the moment we return home the system freezes up.
My goal is to unfreeze it and improve markedly the way we run the Defence enterprise; to place it on a sustainable financial footing; to improve productivity and to deliver the headroom for modernisation. This is essential if we are to make the case in next year’s Spending Review, having had a welcome fillip in the recent Budget. And in so doing we must place data and science at the heart of our decision making through restoring net assessment and war-gaming to our strategic force development.
So far, I’ve talked about threats and capability – but we also have work to do, I would say, to improve our connection with society.
The military is a lot less visible than it once was and fewer people than ever have either served or know people who have served. The October 2018 YouGov survey on public perceptions of veterans and the Armed Forces suggested that the figure was less than 50% of the population. And of course, people don’t really study military history any longer. A recent SSAFA survey of some 2,000 people revealed the following about their knowledge of World War 1:
- 50% thought Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister at the time, and 10% thought it was Margaret Thatcher
- 20% thought we were fighting the French
- 6% thought it was President Kennedy’s assassination that triggered the war
- And when asked what the bloodiest battle of the war was, 16% voted for Pearl Harbour, 8% for Independence Day, 7% for Hastings and 5% for Helm’s Deep – yes that’s 100 of the 2,000 who were asked - who thought it was a battle in the Lord of the Rings trilogy
So, if we are to make the connection and ensure we represent the richness, diversity and variety of the people we serve then we have to do better at improving understanding and making the connection. And we need to tap into the British sentiment of always being proud to support our Armed Forces in time of crisis to broaden and diversify our wider military family, bringing more people in touch with who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Increasingly this means reaching out to a much broader range of culture and ethnicities.
It is an interesting paradox that our Armed Forces have never been more popular, but this does not necessarily translate into understanding, let alone support for the campaigns in which we have recently been involved. Neither does it reflect a greater public willingness to spend more on Defence or to join the Armed Forces themselves. So, while our servicemen and women appreciate public support, they want to be valued and respected – not pitied – in other words it’s about empathy not sympathy.
This resonates hugely with our Invictus athletes, who refuse to be defined by their injuries, but instead are defined by their fighting spirit. Prince Harry spoke at the Opening Ceremony in Sydney this September about there now being an “Invictus Generation”, of post 9/11 Service people, veterans, and their families who shine a light on qualities such as service, dedication, courage, endurance, optimism and sacrifice. Invictus is about physical and mental resilience, about overcoming adversity and increasingly generating a wider understanding and respect for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women.
Growing such understanding will also go some way towards helping our veterans. The respect and honour shown to our Chelsea Pensioners proves that as a nation we value our older veterans. But we also have a generation of younger veterans from more recent campaigns who are subject to misconceptions such as those Lord Ashcroft’s 2017 Veteran’s Transition Review reported on - although people leaving the military are generally associated with positive characteristics such as ‘discipline’ and ‘loyalty’, the idea that they might have been damaged in some way is close to the surface. The perception that many veterans suffer from serious problems, including mental health disorders, is reinforced by often ill-informed comments that veterans are “scarred for life”, “homeless”, “have turned to alcohol or drugs because of traumatic stress disorder”, or “are more likely to go to prison”. Although these observations are always said with sympathy and probably gratitude, there is a remarkable gap between public perception and reality.
It is very difficult to prove that mental health conditions that some serving personnel and veterans develop are caused by their military service. Non-military factors or underlying mental health conditions exacerbated by military service could all contribute to an individual’s mental health. Public misconception is fuelled by television documentaries, dramas, films and some charity campaigns, and there is a risk, I think, that public misconception is acting as a barrier to the prospects of veterans in civilian life, as well as deterring would-be new recruits from joining. What we do know is that of the service personnel who left the Armed Forces in 2016/17, up to 6 months after leaving, 82% were employed, 10% were economically inactive (largely because they were in education, training, voluntary service or retired) and around only 8% were unemployed.
Part of the purpose of the recently established Veterans Board is to hold Government Departments to account for honouring their commitment to the Armed Forces Covenant. As well as assuring that a common standard is applied by local authorities across the country. Hence the importance of the Armed Forces Champion on each local authority whose task it is to hold the local authority accountable for their Covenant obligations. I hope the public might also step up and welcome veterans into their communities and thank them for their service.
Taking all of this together, and recognising the extraordinary complexity of the operating environment, we need to watch carefully that the effects of lawfare – i.e. the often vexatious exploitation of our legal system by others to de-legitimise the use of military force, to distract us, and to sow discord and doubt in the public mind about the validity of the cause - do not undermine the confidence of our junior leadership. There is a risk that the cumulative impact over the past decade, of a number of judgments and legal developments, could have the potential to constrain our ability to defend our nation, our values and our interests.
It matters profoundly to our Armed Forces that the next time they are employed on complex military operations, they are provided with the necessary legal and ethical framework to enable them to take the sorts of risks that are necessary to prevail against cunning and ruthless opponents. It is also vital that the next time we are used at scale, we are used successfully. And we have to ensure that policy makers only take us to war with a clear-eyed view of the consequences, recognising that when they do, they have a responsibility to make sure the country believes in the cause we are fighting for and understands the context.
To conclude - my priority as the head of the Armed Forces will always be about maximising talent – for it is the remarkable quality of our service men and women that gives us our adaptive edge. But we won’t recruit and retain them if we fail to make the connection to society - so my appeal this evening, is please help us convey understanding so that we assure that connection, and make the case for Defence.