The Daily Telegraph
Pandemic risks repeat of 1930s chaos, says forces chief
Gen Sir Nick Carter warns economic crisis in wake of Covid could stoke nationalism
THE head of the Armed Forces has warned that coronavirus has led to the erection of “nationalist barriers” and economic crises reminiscent of the lead up to the Second World War.
General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said that the “security challenges” presented by the pandemic were similar to those faced in the 1930s. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Sir Nick argued that better global cooperation was needed to tackle the pandemic and its economic impact.
“What you generally find with a crisis like this, which becomes an economic crisis, is that it then undermines the stability and security situation as well,” he said. “If you look at the 1930s, that started with a significant economic crash and that acted as a very destabilising feature. There are moments in history when significant economic challenges have led to security challenges because they act as a destabiliser.”
The economic crisis caused by the Great Depression was linked to the rise of fascism in Europe and ultimately to the outbreak of the Second World War.
There are now deepening global tensions developing over Covid-19, with mounting concerns over supplies of vaccines and the closures of borders.
Sir Nick cautioned: “There has been some unity with the vaccine, but generally speaking people have put up nationalist barriers, and that does not exactly help you with security and stability. What the virus has revealed is some fault lines internationally, but also within society.” It is the general’s starkest suggestion yet that the world could face another large-scale conflict. Previously he has warned that escalating competition between states could lead to “miscalculations” resulting in a war.
The uneven effects of the pandemic and rollout of vaccines across the globe have led to tensions. China has faced allegations of covering up the origins of the pandemic after the initial outbreak was said to have occurred in the city of Wuhan. A Russian disinformation campaign has been accused of undermining public health and spreading fear by making false claims about the Oxford vaccine. Meanwhile in Europe arguments have broken out over vaccine supplies, with the EU widely rebuked for temporarily triggering Article 16 of the Brexit protocol to prevent doses of other vaccines travelling from the bloc to Northern Ireland and on to Britain.
Sir Nick warned that the different approaches taken by rival states could lead to increased tensions around the world. “Covid has asked some very big questions about your supply chains and how you protect your people,” he said.
He said the steepest challenge would come when the worst effects of the pandemic start to recede. “We will be confronted with a couple of big choices.
‘Covid has asked some very big questions about your supply chains and how you protect your people’
There will be a big choice between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, and there will be a big choice between global solidarity and nationalist isolation.”
His intervention comes ahead of the publication of the Government’s “integrated review” next month, which Boris Johnson has declared will be the biggest overhaul of foreign, defence and security policy since the Cold War.
The Prime Minister has already awarded the Ministry of Defence a significant funding boost, worth an extra £16billion in real terms over the next four years. Sir Nick also warned that the global pandemic was taking place against a deteriorating global situation, which had seen a marked increase in state-based threats during the past three or four years.
He added that the support provided by the estimated 6,000 military personnel who have been assisting the NHS and other agencies involved in tackling the pandemic had helped the public to acquire a better understanding of the military.
“In the past we have been popular with the British public, but we were not well understood,” he explained. “As a result of the pandemic, people have learnt a lot about our adaptability and innovation and planning ability.”
As the head of Britain’s Armed Forces, General Sir Nick Carter’s primary task is to ensure that the military is ready to tackle any challenge that may come its way, from the threat posed by radical Islamist terrorists to defending the realm from hostile states such as Russia.
So the fact that the British military now finds itself playing a key role in the nation’s battle to defeat the Covid pandemic has provided a significant test of its ability to meet any challenge, no matter how unexpected it might be.
There are currently about 6,000 military personnel drawn from the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force who are providing support for the NHS in tackling the pandemic, which, as Sir Nick points out, is the largest number of medics the Armed Forces has deployed since the Iraq war in 2003.
And Sir Nick believes the military’s contribution to fighting the pandemic, from building the Nightingale hospitals last year to assisting with testing and providing vaccinations, has helped to raise the standing of the Armed Forces in the eyes of the public.
“In the past we have been popular with the British public, but we were not well understood,” he explains. “As a result of the pandemic, people have learnt a lot about our adaptability and innovation and planning ability.”
And, at a time when all three Services have been struggling to maintain recruitment levels, Sir Nick believes the experience has helped the public to see the military in a more positive light.
“The Armed Forces have been in the public eye during the pandemic, and have been seen to be doing a positive job,” he says in an exclusive interview with The Telegraph. “We have not tried to take anything over. We have been there firmly in support of the heroic efforts of the NHS. We should be available in extremis to be used in support of the civil administration.”
But while Sir Nick is clearly proud of the contribution the military has made to tackling the pandemic, he is also aware that this must not detract from its central role, namely the defence of the realm. “The principle purpose of the Armed Forces is to be ready to fight the country’s enemies and to provide the deterrence that is inherent in all of that.”
And to that end, Sir Nick is concerned about the possible negative consequences of the pandemic, both in terms of its impact on the economy and the wider world.
“What you generally find with a crisis like this, which becomes an economic crisis, is that it then undermines the security and stability situation as well. And what often follows a very significant economic event is a security challenge.”
Sir Nick, 62, who is now in his third year as Chief of the Defence Staff, is particularly concerned that the growing nationalist tendency that has emerged in some countries as they struggle to tackle the epidemic could ultimately result in increased international tensions.
“If you look at the Thirties, that started as a very significant economic crash and that acted as a very destabilising feature.”
A shrewd, thoughtful man who spent much of his career as an Army officer commanding forces in such varied locations as Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Afghanistan, Sir Nick has dedicated his tenure to undertaking a radical restructuring of Britain’s Armed Forces so that they can fully embrace the rapidly changing nature of modern warfare.
In what he has designated the Integrated Operating Concept, he has launched an ambitious modernisation programme that aims to integrate new technology with more traditional war-fighting skills. “We are moving towards becoming a modernised force, which is less about crewed fighting units and more about uncrewed units and robotics, and that will have an impact on the number of people you will need in the future,” he says.
For example, the Royal Navy is currently developing a new generation of minesweepers that will be unmanned. Similarly, military commanders need to understand that “the next generation of military equipment will not necessarily be gas-guzzling and fossil-fuelled.”
A glimpse of what can be achieved by unmanned equipment can be seen from recent fighting in places including Libya and Nagornokarabakh, where unmanned equipment such as drones have played an important role.
Sir Nick also cites Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine as a good example of a military force using a combination of electronic warfare, combined with drones and missile systems, to achieve success.
He also fully appreciates the immense significance acquiring data from the internet will have in deciding future conflicts.
“If you want to succeed on the battlefield in the future, then data is going to be at the heart of what you want to do, and we need to think about how we can become cleverer at this.”
One notion is to create what has been called a “data foundry”, which can be used to provide units from all three services with data relevant to their operations. Another plan designed to enhance the military’s ability to integrate new technology into military operations is to establish a cyber academy.
“You have got to become very savvy at mining data and availing yourself of the opportunities that come with it. Otherwise you will be outwitted by your rivals in decision-making. It will be necessary in future warfare, which is why we must modernise.”
Sir Nick believes that the military’s ability to plan for the future has received a significant boost as a result of the “excellent settlement” it received in the Government’s recent defence review.
The need to modernise Britain’s Armed Forces should also be a top priority. “The world is very unstable,” he says. “Over the past three or four years, state-based threats have become more obvious.” He cites Russia, Iran and North Korea as three countries that pose a significant threat to global security. But he is less convinced about the threat posed by China.
“We have to be careful when we talk about China because it is not so much a threat as a challenge.”
In which case, I ask him, why is the Government, as has been reported, planning to send the new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and an accompanying battle group to the South China Sea, which is likely to be seen as an act of provocation by Beijing?
“This will be a political decision, and no decision has yet been taken,” he says. “We are not in the business of threatening anybody or stirring things up.”
As for his own future, he dismisses recent reports that he will be leaving his post early, and says he will continue to serve in his current post until June. “And it is entirely possible that I will be asked to serve beyond June,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy has been running a highly vocal campaign, for the next military chief to be a naval officer. Sir Nick offers a diplomatic reply.
“It should be the best person for the job, and in a sense your Service background is less relevant than your ability to bring together the Navy, the Army and the Air Force, and now cyber and space. Because ultimately you are the Prime Minister’s military adviser … Sometimes the Prime Minister needs to be able to look his military advisor in the eye and have confidence he has been given the best possible advice.”