The Daily Telegraph
Russia poses greater threat than Isil, says new Army chief
RUSSIA is now “indisputably” a greater threat to the security of Britain and her allies than Islamist extremist groups such as al-qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), the new Army chief has warned.
As well as posing a conventional military threat, the Russians are constantly seeking to undermine the West by developing new capabilities in non-conventional areas of warfare such as cyber and space.
Speaking in his first interview since his appointment as the Chief of the General Staff, Gen Mark Carletonsmith, 54, said it was vital that Britain and its allies were not complacent about the threat Russia posed.
“Russia today indisputably represents a far greater threat to our national security than Islamic extremist threats such as al-qaeda and Isil,” he said.
“Russia has demonstrated that it is prepared to use military force to secure and expand its own national interests. The Russians seek to exploit vulnerability and weakness wherever they detect it.”
Gen Carleton-smith was speaking after visiting British troops stationed in Estonia as part of a Nato battle group
‘Russia has embarked on a systematic effort to explore and exploit Western vulnerabilities’
that has been deployed to deter Russian aggression against the Baltic states.
With the defeat of Isil in Iraq and Syria, as well as losses al-qaeda has suffered in Afghanistan, Gen Carletonsmith believes that the greatest threat to British security has changed.
“The physical manifestation of the Islamist threat has diminished with the complete destruction of the geography of the so-called Caliphate,” he said.
As a result, Britain and its allies needed to focus their attention on Russia, particularly after the Salisbury Novichok attack earlier this year.
“Russia has embarked on a systematic effort to explore and exploit Western vulnerabilities, particularly in some of the non-traditional areas of cyber, space, undersea warfare,” he said.
“We cannot be complacent about the threat Russia poses or leave it uncontested. The most important conventional military response to Russia is the continued capabilities and coherence of the Nato alliance.”
He also questioned the need for the creation of an independent European defence force as a rival to Nato, which has been proposed by Emmanuel Macron, the French president.
“I would not support any initiative that diluted the military effectiveness of Nato,” he said.
“Nato represents the fundamental gravity of European security. It has been an extraordinarily successful alliance and, in my experience, we should reinforce success.”
‘We are appealing to people who don’t want a life that’s safer on the sofa, but want to be part of our military history’
It is a measure of how close Gen Mark Carleton-smith, the new head of the Army, has been to the thick of the action that, among the many spoils of war he has collected, he is the owner of a belt that once belonged to Uday Hussein, the son of the Iraqi dictator. As befits an officer who previously in his career has commanded Britain’s elite special forces, the general is understandably reticent about explaining how exactly he came to own an item that once belonged to the violent and psychotic elder son of Saddam Hussein.
Suffice to say that, at the time that Uday was killed, together with his brother Qusay, during a ferocious gun battle at the family’s villa in Mosul in July 2003, Gen Carleton-smith was commanding the SAS, which was heavily involved in the campaign to overthrow Saddam.
“Yes, it is true,” admitted Gen Carleton-smith when I asked him about owning the belt. “Let me just say that Uday had no further need of it.”
The general’s involvement in the Iraq war is just one episode of an action-packed career spanning more than three decades, during which he has seen action in conflict zones including Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and both Iraq wars.
More recently he commanded 16th Air Assault Brigade during its deployment to Afghanistan between 2010-11, when British forces were involved in some of the fiercest fighting of the campaign, during which 22 soldiers were killed.
Now, as the newly appointed head of the British Army, Gen Carletonsmith’s primary focus is on dealing with the new threats facing Britain and its allies, such as Russia, Iran, North Korea and the continuing menace of Islamist-inspired terror groups such as al-qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
Speaking exclusively to The Daily
Telegraph in his first major media interview since his appointment, Gen Carleton-smith, 54, said that the broad range of experience he had acquired as both a fighting soldier and an administrator at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall would be of immense help in his new job.
“The challenges of commanding and leading an institution like the Army requires a comprehensive blend of experience,” he said.
By far the most rewarding parts of his career to date have been the numerous times that he has commanded combat troops in action against the enemy.
“The requirement to lead and inspire men and women at the most uncertain and the most dangerous moments of our lives, that is a highlight that is rich in experience and emotion,” he said.
Against that, he has also had to overcome the human losses and the sacrifices of close friends. “We were all doing what we signed up to do,” he said matter-of-factly.
“The harder part is explaining and justifying selfish military ambition on the battlefield to those that are left behind.
“The consequences of the tour in Helmand are going to play out over the full lifetime of the widows and children who lost fathers and partners. The sacrifice lasts a lifetime.”
Gen Carleton-smith, who is married with two children, comes from a distinguished military family. The son of Maj Gen Sir Michael Carletonsmith, the Eton-educated officer is one of two brothers to have served in the SAS, a rare accomplishment. An enthusiastic cricketer, he is also a keen shot whose ability is widely admired in shooting circles.
Now, following his appointment as chief of the general staff in the summer, Gen Carleton-smith has the daunting challenge of restructuring the Army at a time when it is still struggling to come to terms with the Government’s recent defence cuts, as well as the toxic political legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His immediate priority is to address the recruiting crisis, which has seen numbers fall to around 76,000, well below its official establishment of 82,000.
“The Army today is busier that it has been in the past, with around 25,000 personnel either on operations or committed to future operations,” he said. When we met, he had just returned from visiting the British battlegroup stationed in Estonia as part of a Nato mission to deter Russian military aggression in the Baltic states.
“But it is smaller than it was designed to be, and manpower is now my overriding priority. We need to get a grip on our recruiting strategy in an exceptionally competitive market.”
He remains confident that an Army career still appeals to today’s younger generation. “We are appealing to people who don’t want a life that’s safer on the sofa, but want to be participants in the next chapter of our military history, and help with the defence of our country at a moment when we are confronted by a growing number of threats and challenges.”
Nor is Gen Carleton-smith persuaded that the development of autonomous war-fighting technology, such as drones and robots, will diminish the need for soldiers.
“Warfare is fundamentally a contest of human will,” he said. “Robotics are the next horizon in terms of being the new arrow in the quiver. But fundamentally I believe you are never going to remove the visceral human aspect to it, particularly if you believe that warfare is conducted to shape a particular political condition.
“The nature of warfare therefore will remain unchanged. But the means by which it is waged will embrace new systems.”
The development of new technologies does, though, mean that the Army now faces an era of unprecedented change, one the energetic Gen Carleton-smith is eager to embrace.
“The challenge is to cater for all conventional military responses but also the less conventional areas, such as cyber. That will require different thinking and skills.”