Britain is facing the twin spectres of atrocities carried out by jihadis, who have been emboldened by the triumph of the Taliban, and hostile states seeking to suppress freedom on a scale not seen since the 1930s, a senior military officer has warned.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has given Islamist groups around the world greater confidence, resulting in terrorist attacks being more likely, while giving a boost to political Islam, said General Sir Patrick Sanders.
At the same time, he continued, authoritarian regimes in countries like Russia and China are seeking to subvert and challenge the international rules-based order using strategies that have the same effect as a modern day “blitzkrieg”.
Gen Sanders, the chief of Strategic Command, said that the “outcome in Afghanistan may not be the one we were seeking” but “we made a difference while we were there”. The need now, he said, was to adjust to what had happened and act accordingly.
Speaking at the DSEI ( Defence and Security Equipment International) conference in London, Gen Sanders said it was imperative to focus on the threats Britain faces in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain time.
“The threat isn’t diminishing. In fact, the security outlook is more perilous than it was 2 years ago,” he said.
“We are now facing the twin spectre of emboldened jihadi terrorists and something not seen since the 1930s – a growing authoritarian zeitgeist that celebrates the suppression of political and individual freedom as a better way to govern.
“This ideology is intersecting with geopolitics, and driving great power competition, as these autocratic regimes subvert and challenge the international order and adopt bold risk-taking strategies.”
Gen Sanders continued: “What links these authoritarian regimes – let’s name them: Russia and China – are two things.” First, he said, was a drive to achieve victory without fighting by using political warfare, and the second was a desire to expand warfare into the domains of space and the cyber world.
The adversaries, said Gen Sanders, are following “an approach to modernisation that pursues the exploitation of disruptive information-age technologies, and allying that with winning operational concepts that seek to have the same impact as blitzkrieg. It is nothing less than a race for advantage in the defining technologies of the future.”
“Under its ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy, China has openly and explicitly declared the ambition to dominate these technology frontiers,” said Gen Sanders.
This includes artificial intelligence, advanced computing, quantum technologies, robotics, autonomous systems and commercial space technologies, along with new generations of mobile telecommunications.
“China’s PLA [People’s Liberation Army] has concluded that the centre of gravity in military operations has shifted from concentration of forces to information systems,” said Gen Sanders. “They look to dominate a system of systems confrontation, creating new operating concepts: cross-domain, autonomous swarms and precision attacks to achieve persistent paralysis.”
The UK needs to take a more forward posture to counter this, said Gen Sanders.
“Let’s step up the pressure. We need to be prepared to conduct ‘precision soft strike’. Sometimes this will be avowed, to deter; sometimes not,” he said.
“We may wish to target adversarial media campaigns, as we have in the past, or disrupt – even neutralise – military systems, such as a supply chain. These activities take potentially years to plan, so we need to think ahead, [and] ensure that they are nested within enduring campaigns.”
Failure to counter the new technology offensive of adversaries would have consequences, said Gen Sanders.
“The risks are clear: it is a recurring pattern of great power behaviour that interests expand with power, that the appetite grows with the eating, and risk-taking increases the potential for escalation and miscalculation, unless this behaviour is challenged and contained,” he said.
“We will find ourselves in a world where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” he added.
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