There is a risk of a new world war if current, smaller conflicts escalate out of control, drawing in more countries and weapons, the head of the UK armed forces has warned.
General Sir Nick Carter said the global economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic could also trigger new security threats, even war.
In an interview with Sky News for Remembrance Sunday, the chief of the defence staff offered a vision of Britain’s army of the 2030s, saying it could comprise 90,000 human soldiers and 30,000 robots.
He also revealed a desire for a multi-year budget settlement from the Treasury this month to enable the military to make the long-term investments needed to modernise.
Instead, one-year budgets are being prepared, though talks are continuing to see if the Ministry of Defence can have a different settlement.
It is unusual for a senior military officer to comment on an impending political decision.
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Speaking at the National Army Museum in London, General Carter underlined the importance of Remembrance, even at a time when the country is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and growing economic woes.
“It is about honouring those who gave their lives in the service of our country and of course they did that to protect our way of life and our freedom. I think it would be very dangerous if we forgot that,” he said.
Asked why it would be dangerous, he said: “Because I think what we would also forget is the true horror of war and if you forget about the horror of war then the great risk I think is that people might think going to war is a reasonable thing to do.”
Economic crises in the past have led to security crises and General Carter said he was worried this could happen again given the blow inflicted on the world economy by the pandemic.
“I think we are living at a moment in time where the world is a very uncertain and anxious place,” he said.
“I think the real risk we have, with quite a lot of regional conflicts that are going on at the moment, is you could see escalation lead to miscalculation and that is a thing I think we have to guard against.”
Explaining what he meant by miscalculation, the military chief said: “The protagonists, either because they don’t realise the implications of their actions, lead to an escalation, which means that more people perhaps get involved, more weaponry gets involved and before you can contain it, it leads the sides ending up in a full-blown war.
“We have to remember history might not repeat itself but it has a rhythm and if you look back at the last century, before both world wars, I think it was unarguable that there was escalation that led to the miscalculation which ultimately led to war at a scale we would hopefully never see again.”
Asked whether he was saying the threat of another world war was real, General Carter said: “I am saying it’s a risk and I think we need to be conscious of those risks and that’s why Remembrance matters because if you look back at history, hopefully you learn from their experience, and you make sure you’re very cautious about how you manage the sorts of regional conflicts that we see playing out in the world today.”
He didn’t specify which conflicts but at least 1,000 people have died in nearly six weeks of fighting in clashes between Turkey-backed Azerbaijan and Russia-allied Armenia over the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, a conflict is continuing between Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country and Ukrainian government forces.
Turning to the UK, the top commander said he did not know whether the Treasury would give defence a multi-year budget settlement.
“At the moment there are negotiations going on in a very constructive way,” General Carter said.
“But clearly from our perspective we are going to argue for something like that because we need long-term investment because long-term investment gives us the opportunity to have confidence in modernisation.
“Modernisation essentially means you are going to park some capabilities, perhaps from the industrial age, and want to look forward to some of the capabilities you need for an information age.
“And having the confidence to do that of course means you need confidence in your long term investment.”
Defence analysts say a multi-year budget is needed to fund the military element of a major shake-up of defence, security and foreign policy that is being conducted by Boris Johnson’s government.
The Integrated Review was due to be unveiled this month but looks set to be further delayed because of the pandemic – it had initially been expected for publication earlier this year.
The document is expected to set out how the UK’s armed forces are adapting, with analysts anticipating a reduction in heavy armour, such as tanks, and greater emphasis on lighter, more agile forces, as well as cyber weapons and autonomous vehicles and aircraft.
“I think you are going to see an armed forces that’s designed for the 2030s,” General Carter said. “You won’t get there overnight but that’s the direction of travel.”
Asked whether he could give a bit more clarity on whether the review would mean a target figure for the army of 82,000 soldiers would shrink, the military chief said: “No, I can’t spell that out, not least because decisions haven’t been taken, but what I’m hinting at is that we need to be thinking about how we measure effects in a different way.
“I mean I suspect we can have an army of 120,000 of which 30,000 might be robots, who knows.
“But the answer is we need to open our minds to perhaps numbers not determining what we should be doing but rather the effect that we can achieve, is really what we should be looking for.”
“I suspect if that works successfully we might find there are other areas where we need to help in a similar sort of fashion,” General Carter said.
He said using the military to take over the entire coronavirus testing programme was an option but added that he had confidence in the current set-up at the moment.
Returning to Remembrance, General Carter said it is a shame coronavirus restrictions mean veterans will not be able to mark Remembrance Sunday in the same way as usual.
“But at the end of the day, Remembrance is essentially a very personal thing as well and I think the message I would want to put out to people is that let’s remember at home if we can’t do it collectively, let’s stand on our doorsteps at 11 o’clock and bow our heads and think about what our forebearers did for us.”
*story by Sky News