Mark Lancaster is Minister of State for the Armed Forces, and is MP for Milton Keynes North.
The nature of conflict is changing. No longer is there a sharp dividing line between peace and war. Today we are involved in an era of constant competition – with our opponents becoming ever bolder in their brinkmanship. No longer is there any division between the civilian and the military. Everyone is considered fair game. And no longer does victory simply depend on bombs and bullets, but on cyber and strategic communications as well as our ability to own the narrative.
In this new information age, the Kremlin has stolen a march. In the wake of the appalling Salisbury nerve agent attack, its embassy was mockingly tweeting that “the temperature of Russia-UK relations drops to minus-23, but we are not afraid of cold weather.” Unhampered by moral scruples and unafraid to lie with impunity, this was just one of 25 different explanations designed to deflect and distract from the crime itself.
Tensions once grew slowly, providing us with advance warning of potential conflict, but we can’t rely on that any longer. We must be ready to respond, at very short notice, and in a wide variety of contexts. But of course Russia is not our only threat. We face a multitude of other challenges: hostile states, global extremist organisations, the rise of nationalism, political fragmentation, organised crime, terrorism and these threats have become so much more acute given the proliferation of sophisticated military hardware that was once the preserve of Tier One militaries.
In the face of these pressuresm, our forces are having to adapt. Not only must they retain a priceless ability to confront aggression, seize hostile territory, hold it and deny access to the enemy. But they will also have to find new ways of outmanoeuvring our adversaries in the information arena – a challenge we’re addressing in our Modernising Defence Programme.
Fortunately, the British Army is already upping its game. It is transforming its traditional concept of the division – the centre of our Army’s organisation where its actions in multiple domains are planned and co-ordinated. The twenty-first century Division will have more strings to its bow than simply armoured vehicles, strike brigades, and air assault capabilities.
Instead, by pooling intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, it will be able to map out and constantly monitor the cyber dangers 24/7. By using its 77 Brigade, it will have the skills to rapidly counter the toxic narratives of our adversaries. And by tapping into the talents of the digital generation, it will create a new type of soldier – as adept at using smart phones as smart bombs. Above all, by drawing on the talents of our whole forces, our Army will have the flexibility to respond to every emerging danger – devising game-changing technologies with our industry partners and making the most of international partnerships with NATO, our nine-nation Joint Expeditionary Force and the United States.
We’ve already seen our twenty-first century Division in action. What was the first thing our NATO reassurance force did when they deployed to Estonia? Survey the hostile and hotly contested information environment. And the way it combined with GCHQ to downgrade Daesh’s online presence, undermine its brand and demoralise the terrorists on the battlefield, is a textbook example of the how it plans to operate in future.
Every era is marked by a technological tipping point. A century ago, many failed to spot the potential of game changing technologies such as the aeroplane and tank. Douglas Haig famously declared in 1925 that they were only accessories to the man and the horse. Today, in a new epoch of fast-moving information dangers and rapid developments in Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, and robotics, we can’t afford to look in the rear-view mirror and discover we’ve missed our moment. By creating a force fit for the future, our great Armed Forces will know they will have what it takes to outflank any adversary be it on the battlefield or in the virtual world.