Russia and China are using cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and mass surveillance to wage “political warfare” on the west, with the goal of “breaking its willpower” without ever escalating into formal conflict, the head of Britain’s armed forces warned on Wednesday.
Gen Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff, spoke as he unveiled his new strategy for the UK military over the next decade, arguing British troops had to sharpen their stealth capabilities, boost their technological expertise and embrace the use of “smaller, faster” autonomous planes and vehicles if they were to meet the new threat.
“More of the same will not be enough,” Sir Nick told an audience at the Policy Exchange think-tank on Wednesday. “We must fundamentally change our thinking if we are not to be overwhelmed.”
Pointing to Moscow’s cyber attacks on Ukraine’s banks and energy companies in 2017 and Beijing’s military focus on destabilising satellites, the UK’s armed forces chief said that while none of Britain’s rivals could afford to go to war, they were gaining expertise in operations that occur just below the threshold for conflict.
The US has also accused China and Russia of seeking to hack into western pharmaceutical companies and medical research bodies in search of intelligence about a Covid-19 vaccine.
“[Our enemies’] goal is to win without going to war: to achieve their objectives by breaking our willpower, using attacks below the threshold that would prompt a war-fighting response,” Sir Nick said. “These attacks on our way of life from authoritarian rivals and extremist ideologies are remarkably difficult to defeat without undermining the very freedoms we want to protect.”
His comments come as Downing Street is preparing an integrated review of defence and security, which is due to be published in late November. While ministers deny the defence strategy is a cost-cutting exercise, they acknowledge that boosting the military’s capabilities in drone warfare, artificial intelligence and cyber strategy may mean some reduction in traditional hardware such as tanks and warships.
“Some industrial-age capabilities will increasingly have to meet their sunset to create the space for capabilities needed for sunrise,” Sir Nick admitted on Wednesday. “The trick is how you find a path through the night.”
He did not give any examples of what would be cut in order to fund new technology, but a new strategy document accompanying the speech hinted that the UK’s aircraft carriers would be difficult to protect in the long term.
“Expensive, crewed platforms that we cannot replace and can ill-afford to lose will be increasingly vulnerable to swarms of self-coordinating smart munitions — perhaps arriving at hypersonic speeds or ballistically from space — designed to swamp defences already weakened by pre-emptive cyber attack,” the strategy reads.
Gen Mark Carleton-Smith, head of the UK’s army, has already announced that the future of the army will be a combined force of “boots and bots”, in which troops and robots advance together to the battlefield supported by “swarms of drones” which identify artillery targets.
The first generation of robotic vehicles would be delivered to paratroopers this month, Sir Mark told reporters this week.