Enemy states using hybrid “weapons” ranging from assassinations and cyber attacks to the use of fake news and corruption now pose a greater threat to the UK and the West than terrorism, the head of the British Army has warned.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the “arch exponent” of this form of clandestine combat and “represents the most complex and capable state-based threat to our country since the end of the Cold War”, said General Sir Nick Carter, adding that this was also the view of fellow commanders in the US, France and Germany.
The Chief of General Staff said he was not suggesting that hostilities were about to break out with Moscow. But he went on to say: “Our generation has become used to wars of choice since the end of the Cold War. But we may not have a choice about conflict with Russia – and we should remember Trotsky’s advice that “you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you”.
The strategies used by the Kremlin have dramatically progressed since the days of the Cold War, with interference in Western elections, the Brexit referendum and the destabilisation of the West’s allies.
“Since 2016 we have seen a marked shift to cyber, subversion and coercion, as well as sophisticated use of smear campaigns and fake news – for example, interference in the US democratic process and the attempted coup in Montenegro”, said Gen Carter.
Gen Carter’s address at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) comes at a time when the Government is facing prolonged and severe criticism over defence cuts. It was sanctioned by the recently appointed Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, who has declared a mission of securing funding for the armed forces from the Chancellor, Philip Hammond.
Mr Williamson is also said to be keen to make his mark in the Conservative Party amid the swirling uncertainty about the future of Theresa May. But senior defence sources wanted to stress that the concerns expressed went far beyond the ambitions of a minister.
There is worry that the focus on the “Islamic threat” has meant that other challenges are not being adequately confronted.
Gen Carter reported “significant progress has been made against Daesh [Isis] in Iraq and Syria, and the prospects of a Caliphate on the ground have been defeated. The threat from international terrorism, though, has diversified and is more dispersed, and we see the phenomenon that Daesh represents emerging in other parts of the world. And of course we’ve learned that anyone can become a terrorist these days – simply by renting a vehicle or wielding a machete.”
But he pointed out: “We would not define terrorism as an existential threat to our country – it is clearly a very significant threat but ... it is the rising threat from states and the consequences that stem from this for the military that I think is of more immediate concern.
“We now live in a much more competitive, multi-polar world, and the complex nature of the global system has created the conditions in which states are able to compete in new ways short of what we would have defined as ‘war’ in the past.”
“Worryingly, though, all of these states have become masters at exploiting the seams between peace and war. What constitutes a weapon in this grey area no longer has to go ‘bang’. Energy, cash [as bribes], corrupt business practices, cyber attacks, assassination, fake news, propaganda and military intimidation are all examples of the weapons used to gain advantage in this era of ‘constant competition’.
“The rules-based international architecture that has assured our stability and prosperity since 1945 is therefore threatened. This is not a crisis, or series of crises, which we face. It is a strategic challenge. And it requires a strategic response.”
The Russians, said Gen Carter, have adapted to this new scenario extremely well.
“They have no single model for conflict with Nato, they use a multi-model approach, utilising conventional, unconventional and nuclear domains, a hybrid version that might involve little green men, big green tanks and huge green missiles.”
“Their thinking is very flexible,” he said. “Their general staff is able to change, evolve, learn lessons with agility – for example, they know that demography is not on their side – so they are developing capability that needs fewer men eg missiles, drones, two-man tanks.”
He added: “They have developed coherent concepts for equipment and training that are focused on our vulnerabilities – eg our dependency on communications and IT; our lack of massed fires; our lack of investment in AD. They apply a ruthless focus on defeating their opponents – not seizing ground for the sake of it, but making sure that our vital ground is denied to us.”
To counter the threat, said Gen Carter, sanctions must be imposed, including on foreign wealth and on those carrying out destabilisation abroad. There should be realisation that the Kremlin respects those who stand up to it, and thus neighbouring states should be helped to withstand hybrid warfare while, at the same time, the UK must strengthen its own cyber defences.
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