Army chief embraces historic shift to new kind of war

By Alex Stevenson

The completion of Britain’s two new aircraft carriers and even the continued reliance on Trident were placed in doubt last night as the head of the Army embraced a historic shift in the country’s defence priorities.

Far from resisting the growing momentum away from massive expenditure on major military projects like aircraft carriers, chief of the general staff General Sir David Richards argued it will be both cheaper and easier to fight wars without concentrating on traditional forms of war.

The rhetoric of his speech to the International Institute of Strategic Studies matched the growing mood of change gripping the Ministry of Defence as planning for the SDR gets underway.

“This is not a change that happens once in a generation, it is less frequent than that. And in many ways this one is more fundamental than from horse to tank,” Gen Richards said.

He said the “present shift” was towards the predominance of counter-insurgency tactics seen in Sierra Leone, where he commanded in the field, as well as, more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gen Richards presented politicians – both Gordon Brown and David Cameron were name-checked in his speech – with clear arguments justifying this transition.

His most controversial suggestion was that even state-on-state warfare was becoming less and less likely to be fought through traditional means.

He asked: “Having learned the lessons taught by al-Qaida, the Taliban and many other non-state actors, and taught how to exploit them perhaps on an ‘industrial scale’, why would even a major belligerent state choose to achieve our downfall though high-risk, high-cost traditional means when they can plausibly achieve their aims, much more cheaply and semi-anonymously, using proxies, guerrillas and economic subterfuge and cyber warfare?

“Modern state-on-state warfare looks remarkably like irregular conflict.”

A “virtuous congruence” between the need to cope with this shift and the increasing importance of counterinsurgency approaches meant the “difficult deductions” on spending decisions were easier, he suggested.

“We get more bang for our buck from soldiers that can fight one moment and help others the next than from an ‘exotic’ capability that is rendered irrelevant by advances in technology or ignored by those that fight on a different plane,” he added.

In a further piece of strategic opportunism, Gen Richards suggested that Britain should look to its alliances to ensure its security on traditional military grounds.

In the question-and-answer session which followed his speech Gen Richards made clear he supported a nuclear deterrent, but was far from unequivocal in his commitment to the present system.

Perhaps calling into question the Trident nuclear deterrent, he said: “Hi-tech weapons platforms are not a good way to help stabilise tottering states – nor might their cost leave us any money to help in any other way – any more than they impress opponents equipped with weapons costing a fraction.”

And the audience laughed loudly after he stated, perhaps a little too bluntly: “I’m a very big supporter of aircraft carrier support.”

He added: “This is about ensuring we achieve a balance across all three services and with allies, between our ability to fight a traditional war of air, maritime and ground kinetic manoeuvre and being able to conduct a far more difficult one amongst, with and for the people.”

Whichever party forms the next government will have fundamental choices to make about the way Britain prioritises its armed forces.

Yet, as commentators observed after Gen Richards’ speech, the head of the Army’s decision to embrace these changes rather than resist them has made the next defence secretary’s task much easier.

Gen Richards’ predecessor Charles Guthrie, who presided over five SDRs, said he hoped the MoD would not ‘salami-slice’ from various projects.

“If we do end up doing that, we’re going to end up being good at nothing,” he observed.

“If we spend this money in the right way, we’re going to be respected around the world.”

Tonight, the UK’s First Sea Lord will stress the importance of a Royal Navy fleet which can operate internationally.

With the strategic defence review on the way, both speeches are being treated as efforts at lobbying by UK military chiefs.