Britain's army chief is warning that the country’s military is in a perilous state with its ability to respond to threats, primarily from a newly resurgent Russia.
The planned speech Monday by General Nick Carter is unusual for its frankness about highlighting threats and outlining the country’s vulnerabilities. Britain’s top officers tend to be more muffled — at least until they have retired from active service.
According to an advance copy of the speech, Carter will emphasize that Russia under President Vladimir Putin has built up an aggressive military "which Britain would struggle to match." He says the Kremlin has used its advanced capabilities in conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and that Putin has the ability and readiness to launch long-range missiles and quickly deploy large numbers of combat troops.
Britain “cannot afford to sit back,” Carter plans to say in the speech, to be delivered in London at the Royal United Services Institute, a research institution.
"The threats we face are not thousands of miles away but are now on Europe's doorstep - we have seen how cyber warfare can be both waged on the battlefield and to disrupt normal people's lives - we in the UK are not immune from that,” he says.
Analysts say Carter’s expected remarks are designed to put pressure on the Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May, which is considering yet another round of defense cuts. Sluggish economic growth, rising government debt and the feared impact of Britain’s exit from the European Union, known as Brexit, are forcing the ruling Conservatives to rethink what the country can afford to spend on its military.
Carter’s speech also echoes some key points raised last week by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who warned that America’s war-fighting edge has eroded and that Washington needs to shift its main focus from battling terrorism to countering China's rapidly expanding military and an increasingly aggressive Russia.
Unveiling a broad new strategy for the Pentagon, Mattis said building a force that can deter war with established and emerging military powers in Moscow and Beijing, as well as North Korea and Iran, would require increased investment to make the military more lethal, agile and ready to fight.
“We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia, nations that seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models,” he warned. He said competition with those adversaries has threatened America's military advantage around the world.
For Britain, Russia's resurgence has come at a bad time. The future is one of crippling budget-squeezing measures that will see a delay in the building of new frigates and tanks. The Royal Navy will also have to give up its two remaining amphibious assault ships capable of landing Royal Marines on foreign shores.
Far from expanding the Royal Navy, as promised previously by May’s government, a looming round of spending cuts, the second in three years, would see the fleet grow smaller. It would also see a delay in the purchase of American-made F-35 warplanes for use on Britain’s expensive new aircraft carrier.
U.S. defense officials have warned that Britain’s special relationship with America -- which is ultimately founded on military cooperation -- could well be imperiled. In November, General Ben Hodges, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, said Britain's position as a key ally and leading NATO member would be at risk, if its armed forces shrank even more. The British Army has already been cut from 120,000 to 82,000 regular troops.
Some recently retired senior British officers have been publicly criticizing government plans to cut more. Retired General Richard Barrons warned a parliamentary defense committee last year that the country’s military is “no longer fit for purpose.”
“The willingness of the head of Britain’s army to speak so bluntly serves to underscore the seriousness of his message,” British newspaper The Times said Monday. “Arguably, as Britain withdraws from the EU and American commitment to NATO wavers, the importance of this country being able to militarily punch above its weight has never been greater.”