The British armed forces will need to become more nimble to counter the increasingly underhand tactics of nations such as Russia and China, defence chiefs have warned.
The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said the UK’s enemies have surged ahead recently, as he set out plans for a wide-ranging review of foreign, security and defence policy during a briefing on the Royal Navy’s newest ship, the offshore patrol vessel HMS Tamar, on Monday.
“The global picture has changed. Our enemies have studied up on our abilities and adapted far more quickly than us,” Wallace said. “The static concept of war versus peace no longer applies as we are contested on either side of the threshold of armed conflict on a regular basis.”
Wallace said the UK would need an armed force that is “more forward-deployed, deterring Russian activity in Europe, combating terror in the Middle East and the Sahel and countering Chinese activity in the Asia Pacific”.
He said the review would create an armed forces who were “fit for tomorrow’s battles, not fighting yesterday’s”.
The chief of defence staff, Gen Sir Nick Carter, added that the UK’s opponents “no longer distinguish between peace and war, between foreign and domestic policy, or, for that matter, between public and private”.
He said: “They now compete in all these different areas and they take a great opportunity in blurring these distinctions. Now, part of that of course is that our posture will have to change. It’s a posture … that will be much more about campaigning.”
Defence chiefs have reportedly been looking at ways to use artificial intelligence to protect data, networks and intellectual property in recent months as they seek to combat what they see as the most likely threat from Beijing in the future.
And the chief of defence intelligence, Lt Gen Jim Hockenhull, has warned that the UK’s adversaries are presenting a threat both digitally and in space. “Whilst conventional threats remain, we have seen our adversaries invest in artificial intelligence, machine learning and other groundbreaking technologies, whilst also supercharging more traditional techniques of influence and leverage.”
At Monday’s briefing, Carter said: “We will think much more about a force structure that is not just through the navy, the army and the air force, as we used to describe it. Rather, it will be a force structure that will be designed through the new domains of space and cyber and maritime, air and land.”
Wallace set out his vision for an armed forces prepared to be on a constant campaign footing to protect British interests around the world; as well as to be prepared to fight in more traditional conflicts.
The defence secretary has faced criticism for his decision to hold the review during the coronavirus pandemic, amid concerns the “reckless and irrational” timing could be used to mask “intolerable” cuts.
The chairman of parliament’s intelligence watchdog and former chairman of the Commons defence select committee Julian Lewis said in his submission to the review: “Undertaking a complex review would be daunting and difficult, even in stable conditions.”
Writing in a personal capacity, he added: “Persisting at a time of financial implosion and social dislocation smacks of desperation, immaturity or ulterior motives – possibly a combination of all three.”
The shadow defence secretary, John Healey, said: “As Britain faces more complex threats and conflict, it is vital the government gets this defence review right.
“This is the third review in 10 years and the last two have been driven by cutting costs. Since 2010, the Conservatives have cut the strength of British forces by a quarter, with 40,000 fewer full-time troops now than 10 years ago.
“First and foremost, this review must safeguard Britain’s capacity to maintain a world-class fighting force. Britain cannot afford ministers who repeat the mistakes of their past.”