Chief of the Defence Staff Ash Carter Exchange Speech

The Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, gave a speech at the Ash Carter Exchange in Washington DC.

 Admiral Sir Tony Radakin KCB ADC

It’s a pleasure to be here at the Ash Carter Exchange, with such a varied and impressive audience, and I look forward to taking your questions after my comments.

And I want to start by offering three perspectives from the UK.

First, that the world is undeniably becoming much more dangerous. It has gone from being Competitive to Contested and now - as we see from Iran’s attack against Israel – it is increasingly Combative.

Second - Reassurance. These are worrying times.  But we are going to be alright.  The international order is being tested and the whole world is responding.  And the strategic advantages of countries like Britain and America, and our allies, far outstrip those of our adversaries.

And third: that the key to our response is Confidence. We need to be realistic in acknowledging the scale and pace of the threats, without falling into the trap of doom-mongering.  Otherwise, we risk undermining the very things that keep us strong – our unity and cohesion, our faith in the values we share, our economic and technological ambition and, above all, our sense of self-belief.

From Competitive to Contested to Combative

The past six months are among the most eventful and unsettling in global affairs since the end of the Cold War, yet with none of the optimism or hope that came with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In Europe, we have a war with no end in sight.  Last year’s counter-offensive by Ukraine was less successful than hoped.  But we risk overlooking the huge cost it placed on Russia in blood and treasure; and it was the backdrop for an attempted coup in Russia and Putin being indicted for war crimes. 

We do have to acknowledge the Russian Army was better entrenched than anticipated, and since then has been able to make modest tactical gains, albeit slowly and at even higher cost in men and material and to the national economy of Russia.

In the Middle East, last October’s barbaric attacks in Israel have, as we feared, served to inflame regional tensions. We’ve seen:

  • an outright attack by Iran against Israel involving hundreds of ballistic missiles and drones;

  • Houthi attacks against Western shipping in the Red Sea;

  • attacks on US forces in Iraq and a sustained effort to de-legitimise America and the western presence in the region.

  • and we’ve also seen a corresponding wave of division and protest across the world.

Meanwhile, North Korea remains as belligerent as ever.  China’s posture is becoming even more assertive: last week it was the turn of the Philippines to be on the receiving end.

Elsewhere, Venezuela has renewed its claims over huge swathes of Guyana. Kosovo and Serbia are at loggerheads.  Georgia is rocked by protests.  All around the world long-simmering tensions feel like they are coming to the boil.

At the same time, many of these challenges are becoming increasingly blended and blurred…

…Whether it’s the ‘no limits’ partnership between Putin and Xi…

…Russia’s use of Iranian drones and North Korean ammunition in Ukraine….

Or the willingness of Moscow, Beijing and Tehran to collude in subverting oil sanctions – the so-called Axis of Evasion.

And then much more quietly, the architecture that governs our security is decaying as arms control treaties lapse, regional fora slip into abeyance and hotlines that once spanned the divide fall silent.  Of course, much of that  just applies to the Euro-Atlantic. The Indo-Pacific never had any of these structures or frameworks in the first place - which in itself is reason for concern.

Strategic advantages

But daunting as this may seem, we are going to be alright, which is my second message.

The international order is being tested, but our national and collective interests are converging and spurring like-minded nations into action.

That’s certainly true for Britain.

The reason Royal Air Force jets joined those of the United States, France and others in defending Israel from last month’s attack by Iran was to prevent the conflict with Hamas escalating into all-out war in the region.

The reason the Royal Navy patrols the South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait, is because freedom of navigation matters to the prosperity of Europe every bit as much as it does to the Pacific.  

And the reason the British Army and its partners have trained tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers is because it is in all our interests to see Putin fail.

It’s not easy.  The world is messy.  The results aren’t always apparent.  And the task never ends.  But it matters.

And just as important as the military response, is our broader approach, which embraces economics and diplomacy and links global security with our domestic prosperity.

I’ve spoken recently about the return of Statecraft.

For the United Kingdom this includes the security guarantees we extended to Finland and Sweden ahead of joining NATO.

It includes the Atlantic Declaration with the United States and the Hiroshima Accord with Japan.

It includes the AUKUS agreement with Australia and America, and our industrial partnership with Italy and Japan to build a sixth-generation fighter.

Across the world, old partnerships are strengthening and new ones emerging.

NATO is stepping up. Since the 2014 Wales Summit, defence spending by Europe and Canada has increased by more than $600 billion.

Our NATO collective defence budgets are three-and-a-half times more than Russia and China combined.

And we also have strength in depth.

It includes intelligence agencies that were so effective in alerting us to Russia’s intensions ahead of February 2022, and more recently, of Iran’s attack on Israel.

It includes the industrial base across more than 50 nations that can mobilise to provide Ukraine with millions of rounds of ammunition, thousands of drones, hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles, and is now helping to build Ukraine an entirely new air force and navy.

It’s the cultural and diplomatic power that can be assembled in the face of aggression, exemplified by the responsible role played by the likes of China, India and Saudi Arabia in response to Putin’s nuclear rhetoric of late 2022.

And the biggest response was the one that went almost unnoticed. As European countries sought to wean themselves off Russian gas they were willing to subsidise consumers to the tune of 500 billion euros.

We live in the richest quartile on the planet.  And Western governments can leverage enormous collective power when they wish, which presents the greatest strategic advantage of all - choice.

In the United Kingdom, on the back of an improving economic outlook, the Government has chosen to invest 2.5% of our national wealth in Defence.

It means we can continue supporting Ukraine, with the largest and most comprehensive package to date. £3 billion in total this year and at least £2.5 billion for Ukraine each year that follows, for as long as it takes.

It means we can see through the modernisation of our Armed Forces. Renewing our nuclear deterrent.  Recapitalising the British Army and rooting it in NATO as one of SACEUR’s two Strategic Reserves.  Delivering the full potential of Carrier Strike.  Realising the ambition of AUKUS.

But it also means we can learn the lessons from the war in Ukraine and address our shortfalls:

  • Developing properly Integrated Air and Missile Defence;

  • Doubling our spend on munitions to deepen our stockpiles;

  • Resetting our supply chains to move from stop-start production to an industry that can deliver on a rapid and continual basis;

  • Getting after the challenges we face on recruitment and retention.

  • And being much more ambitious on technology.

That might mean long range missiles for the British Army.  Laser weaponry for the Royal Navy.  Sixth generation fighters for the RAF. Or transforming from a force with hundreds of drones to one with thousands of drones.

Confidence and Self-belief

There is another shortfall that is necessary to address in these contested times – self-belief – which is my third and final point.

We will shortly be commemorating the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

This involved the young men who fought their way onto the beaches of Normandy and demonstrated enormous courage and a clear sense of purpose. They were to see through what General Eisenhower termed “the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world”.

In all the great conflicts of the twentieth century, the West prevailed because we understood what was at stake.

That was true in the Second World War.  It was certainly true in the Cold War.  And it is no less important a precondition for success in the 21st century.

What we have seen unfold in the past few years is a battle of ideas: between an authoritarian and belligerent Russia and a dynamic, democratic Ukraine; between a reckless Iran and its terrorist network on one side, and the responsible nations of the Middle East on the other; between a China that believes it can dominate and coerce, and those nations that share a commitment to an international system that is open and free.

We should be equally clear of what it is we are seeking to uphold.  The belief that the rule of law is the basis of peace and prosperity in the world.  That sovereignty is sacrosanct; self-determination and self-defence go hand-in-hand; and aggression must not pay.  That is what is at stake.

The ceaseless flow of breaking news and instant commentary can feel overwhelming.  But if you step up a level, and take a strategic view, the outlook feels altogether more encouraging.

Because as the history of the Second World War and the Cold War teaches us, success can rarely be gauged by a snapshot in time – it’s the trajectory that matters.

Our trajectory is one where NATO is getting stronger.  Growing from 30 members to 32.  From just 3 members spending 2% of GDP on defence a decade ago to 18 meeting the total today and growing further.

Meanwhile Russia is on a downward trajectory. Weaker and more isolated in the world and facing long term social and economic decline.  Putin’s efforts to withhold Western gas supplies failed.  His efforts to strangle Ukraine’s economy failed.  He’s under pressure in Crimea.  The Black Sea Fleet has scattered.  And Russia has lost half the territory it took from Ukraine and now must twist its economy out of shape to sustain the war.

And Ukraine today is more certain of its trajectory than ever before. As a free and sovereign state, on the path to EU and NATO membership, and a rightful place in the community of democratic nations.  

In the Middle East, Iranian aggression is being met with international resolve.  International aid is coming to Gaza.  Trade is continuing to flow through the region.  Arab and Western governments are still talking.  Normalisation remains on the table.

In the Pacific, the tectonic plates are moving.  Australia is stepping up. Japan and South Korea are recalibrating historic positions.  Europe is engaged.  India and the United States are moving closer to one another.

This is how we respond to a more Combative world.  

Through statecraft.  Through even closer relationships. .  Through a willingness to take military action when required. Through inventing and embracing technology in a way Ash Carter would have espoused.   And by aligning the military instrument far more closely with our economic and diplomatic levers.

And our greatest strength in the task that we face are the very things we seek to preserve and protect.

Our willingness to trade and cooperate with one another. The strength and connectivity of our economies. Our unity and cohesion, and the resolve to uphold the rules and values we share.

The task now is to stay strong, stick together, and see it through.

Thank you.

From: Ministry of Defence and Admiral Sir Tony Radakin KCB ADC