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In his eight years as a British military chief, General Sir Nick Carter has had to contend with some of the most dramatic changes that have ever taken place in modern warfare.
When he first took up his post as head of the Army in 2014, Afghanistan and the campaign against Islamist terror groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (Isil) were the primary military preoccupation.
Now, as Sir Nick, 62, prepares to stand down next week as Chief of the Defence Staff, having commanded Britain’s Armed Forces for the past three years, the threats to our national security have changed beyond recognition.
Islamist terrorists remain a significant concern, as the recent murder of Conservative MP Sir David Amess and the attempted bombing of a Liverpool hospital have demonstrated. But such have been the profound changes that have taken place, both in terms of the threats we face as well as our ability to respond to them, that Sir Nick has been required to undertake a radical transformation of the way the Armed Forces do business.
“We are living through a period of phenomenal change,” says Sir Nick, in an exclusive valedictory interview with The Telegraph. “I think there is more change than we saw during the two world wars of the past century. I became head of the Army in the summer of 2014, and we were arguing at that stage as to whether the threat was from violent extremism or whether it was a state threat from Russia. At that stage, the violent extremism argument just about won.
“But then, in 2018, we had the attack on the Skripal family in Salisbury, and it became blindingly obvious that Russia was the most acute threat to our country.”
The emergence of state-on-state threats such as Russia and China replacing Islamist terrorism as the Government’s main national security priority has resulted in Sir Nick overseeing the most radical overhaul of Britain’s war-fighting capabilities since the end of the Cold War.
These changes, moreover, have had to take into account the rapidly changing nature of modern warfare, where committed adversaries like Russia are more likely to resort to non-conventional means of attack, such as launching cyber attacks or creating a migrant crisis on Europe’s borders, as is currently happening in Poland.
“The way threats appear today are not so much as a conventional threat; rather it is what I call grey-zone activity, where opponents see the world as a continuous struggle in which all the instruments of power can be used, so long as they do not bring on a hot war,” he says.
As befits a general of Sir Nick’s martial prowess, we are sitting in the Wellington room overlooking Horse Guards Parade, surrounded by paintings depicting memorable events in British military history.
A striking portrait dominates the room of the youthful Sir Arthur Wellesley in India, marking the Battle of Assave in September 1803, his first major victory and one he later described as his finest accomplishment on the battlefield. Another painting depicts Lt Col Sir Charles Russell VC of the Grenadier Guards at the Battle of Inkerman in 1854.
Pride of place in the room, though, is Wellington’s Desk, the oval, leather-topped antique which the Duke used when he served as Commander-in-Chief in the 1820s.
Sir Nick, too, has devoted most of his 43-year military career to the art of soldiering, seeing action in such disparate war zones as Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, where he commanded 55,000 Nato troops, a feat he regards as one of the highlights of a colourful career.
Sir Nick’s broad experience of war, fighting in many different and complex environments, has set him in good stead for the challenge of carrying out a comprehensive restructuring of Britain’s Armed Forces, where the key aim has been to integrate Britain’s traditional military strengths with the technological advances taking place in areas like cyber and space.
In this context, one of his notable achievements had been the creation of the Army’s new 77th Brigade, a combined regular and reservist unit that is specially designed to wage war in realms like the internet.
One of Sir Nick’s favourite mantras is that, to equip the British military to fight the wars of the future, it needs to transform from the industrial era to the information age.
To this end, he has devised the Integrated Operating Concept, where all branches of the military are encouraged to work more closely on adapting to new technologies that are deemed vital for winning future conflicts.
At the forefront of Sir Nick’s thinking is the rapidly changing nature of the global threat environment, one which could lead to conflict with potentially hostile powers like Russia and China.
“Russia is the acute threat and managing that is top of my list,” Sir Nick explains. “It is on the National Security Advisor’s top list of priorities.” Sir Nick’s primary concern is that Russia’s constant involvement in provocative acts could lead to a disastrous mistake that could easily lead to conflict.
In the past few months, the Russians have massed their troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, have been accused of destabilising the Balkans and test-fired an anti-satellite missile. In addition, Moscow is active in countries like Mali and Syria.
“Miscalculation is an unpleasant possibility and we need to watch that so it does not get out of control,” he warns. “The big question is what is all designed to do, and whether our deterrence behaviour is inciting them to behave as they are. These are big important strategic questions that we need to get our minds round. There is no substitute for engagement with everybody, including the Russians, so that we understand each other as best as we possibly can.”
Sir Nick is also dismissive of suggestions that the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer will encourage its adversaries that the West no longer has the stomach for a fight.
“The Russians only managed 10 years in Afghanistan and we did 20 years,” he points out. “The Russians would be unwise to conclude that the West is dead.”
Apart from Russia, China is also a major concern, while Iran’s constant meddling in the Middle East is “something we are keeping an eye on.”
Sir Nick, who took a close personal interest in the Afghan conflict, also concedes that the manner of the Afghanistan withdrawal could lend encouragement to Islamist terror groups to plot further attacks: “It was not the outcome we hoped for. We need to be aware that there will be violent extremists who will be inspired by what they have seen in Afghanistan.
“Violent extremism is going to be with us, and in some circumstances painfully with us, for some time to come. And Afghanistan has not helped it in terms of that sense of inspiration and emboldenment, and I do not think you can afford to take your eye off the ball.”
Sir Nick himself came in for criticism when, at the height of the Afghan crisis in the summer, he was quoted as referring to the Taliban as being little more than “country boys”, although he insists his words were taken out of context.
“One of the risks of modern media is that snippets are taken of what you say. I was using a quote from former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who was trying to explain the sort of people we were dealing with.”
And, even though US President Joe Biden received most of the blame for the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport as desperate Afghans sought to flee the country, Sir Nick maintains the transatlantic alliance remains steadfast, especially so far as Washington’s willingness to work with its European allies is concerned.
“From a military perspective, what I see is a military commitment to the alliance, and the quantity of the American exercises that are being planned in Europe over the next two to three years are significant. That is a statement of intent.”
He is also keen that the Nato alliance embraces the same integration and modernisation principles that are being applied to Britain’s Armed Forces. “The reality of the world we are in is that we are up against opponents who are trying to achieve their objectives short of starting a conflict.” And, as Sir Nick is keen to point out, the big advantage that Nato has over an adversary like Russia is that “we have allies – the Russians have clients”.
Sir Nick, who takes pride in the investment he has made in reforming and modernising the Armed Forces, cites the recent global mission undertaken by the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth as a good example of how the military is learning to adapt to the changing nature of warfare by integrating new technologies into its operations.
“The deployment of the carrier strike group during the course of this year had our cyber and space components integrated into it,” he explains. Nor have the technological advances being introduced by the British military passed unnoticed by our adversaries, as demonstrated by the unwelcome attention the carrier group received from both the Russian and Chinese militaries.
“The fact that the carrier strike group was buzzed quite provocatively in the Black Sea and in the Eastern Mediterranean, both on the way out and back, shows that we have captured the Russians’ attention.”
The success of the Queen Elizabeth mission, which saw the British group visit a total of 40 countries, leads Sir Nick to believe that the changes he has implemented during the past eight years, from setting out a new vision for the Army to developing new war-fighting capabilities in areas like cyber and space, mean the military is moving in the right direction.
“As the Chief of the Defence Staff, you are always going to say that the modernisation is not going fast enough. You are always going to be managing risk against the current force structure against risk against the future force structure.”
And he has a word of advice for his successor, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, who takes over as Britain’s military chief on Wednesday, the first Navy officer to hold the position for two decades. Sir Nick has helped to prepare his successor for his new role by inviting the admiral to accompany him on his duties so that he is up to speed on all the changes taking place.
“We need to work in defence on creating a strategic culture that is fit for purpose in a much more competitive age,” he says. “None of us have been involved in great power competition in our lives – you have to go back to the 1930s and 1940s for that. So how to manage to deal with this multi-dimensional game of chequers will be a big challenge.
“The other big challenge is how he sees through the modernisation of the Armed Forces at a pace that is relevant given the extraordinary rate of technological change.”
On a personal note, Sir Nick has no regrets about a career that has given him enormous satisfaction, but which he only embarked upon because he flunked university. “I failed [to get in to] Oxbridge, and my father wasn’t going to waste money on having me go to a redbrick university.” This led him to apply to Sandhurst, and then take up a commission with the Royal Green Jackets.
Now his thoughts are turning to post-military life. A seat in the House of Lords beckons, and there is work to be done on improving his golf handicap. Earlier this month, the Queen invited Sir Nick to be her first audience – in the Oak Room at Windsor Castle – following her return to in-person duties after a short break on medical advice. Her Majesty was moved to say it was “rather sad” that he was leaving his role.
One diary date that Sir Nick is looking forward to is an invitation to be a guest editor of the BBC’s flagship Today programme over the Christmas holiday, alongside the likes of conservationist Dame Jane Goodall, Church of England archdeacon Mina Smallman and England footballer Raheem Sterling. While coy about his precise plans for his three-hour programme, Sir Nick hints there will be items on Afghanistan as well as Leeds United, the football club he has supported since a boy.
He is also minded to write a feature about the challenges of retirement, mindful of a remark once made by the champion jockey AP McCoy after he stopped racing that, once you retire, it is hard to maintain the same adrenalin rush. He is also giving serious consideration to writing a book: “I would like to write something that reflected on what I have learnt and might be helpful to the profession thereafter,” he says.
Whatever he does, Sir Nick insists he will bide his time and – taking to heart the advice of an acquaintance – “make haste slowly”.