”Defence in an era of strategic competition” was the topic of an ‘ATA TALKS’ webinar on 27 September with a special and highly knowledgeable guest speaker, General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the UK Defence Staff. This online conference, organized by the Atlantic Treaty Association and the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association, with the help of ATA UK, attracted many participants from around the world.

General Carter has been the professional head of the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces for more than three years, and before that, he was the head of the British Army. He served repeatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013. That included commanding 55,000 NATO troops during the Afghan “surge” in 2009 and 2010, and then three years later as the Deputy Commander of all NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.  He has also held top policy positions, as well as senior command positions.

His tenure as Chief of the Defence Staff covers the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, the end of NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, and the conduct of the United Kingdom’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence and Foreign Policy.

This latter process included General Carter’s acclaimed “Integrated Operating Concept”, which charts a course for the Armed Forces to adapt to the new era of strategic competition.

The discussion was moderated by ATA Secretary-General Monika Begovic Ph.D. and CEO of the ATA UK David Hobbs. Opening remarks were made by Juxhina Gjoni, YATA President, and closing remarks by ATA President Jim Townsend.

The webinar had around 200 participants who were eager to learn more about the multipolar world we live in and how modern democracies face new security challenges and threats.

In her opening statement, Juxhina Gjoni mentioned that recognizing the increasingly complex security environment, our topic of today’s webinar is defence in an era of strategic competition”. She also congratulated the CEO of ATA UK, Mr. Hobbs, for contributing to ATA’s mission in educating, and raising awareness of our societies on foreign affairs and security issues.

 

In his presentation, General Carter explained the idea behind the Integrated Operating Concept for the UK’s Armed Forces. In doing so, he tackled the key features of today’s international security environment and ways of addressing the challenges and threats it presents.

He noted that increasingly assertive, authoritarian regimes saw themselves in competition with democratic nations, which they sought to undermine using all the military and non-military instruments of statecraft, and to achieve their objectives by operating under the threshold that would prompt a traditional military response.

I cannot remember time in my career when the operating environment of the strategic context was more complex or dynamic than it is now”, he observed.

General Carter pointed out that the world is now multipolar, and the distinctions between peace and war, foreign and domestic policy, state and non-state, virtual and reality, have all become blurred. Consequently, the starting point for the Integrated Operating Concept was the need to adapt to this competitive environment and the rapid technological changes that affect the security agenda. The goal was to produce a new strategic culture that was fit for purpose in an era of strategic competition, and which would meet the challenges of technological modernization.

Deterrence could no longer be considered as a static posture, but in terms of competition, more intelligent escalation management, integration, and across multiple domains.

All this means engaging Allies and partners, developing hard and soft military power, modernizing – from platforms to systems – and becoming more adaptable and agile.

Strategic communication is also vital in order to address multiple audiences and address the key problem of ensuring that societies are aware of efforts to undermine their way of life and ideology.

During the Q&A session, General Carter noted that while the Alliance’s military leaders would concur with the assessment of the strategic environment described in the UK’s Integrated Operating Concept, it is inevitably more complicated to draw up a common view among 30 nations, each with its own particular perspectives and preoccupations, with, for example, some nations differing in their willingness to be politically proactive.  Another challenge is that some external challenges to individual nations take place below the level that might traditionally be brought to NATO’s attention, a matter which was being studied carefully by SHAPE.

General Carter also noted that the United States and the United Kingdom have a deep partnership and that the two nations are traditionally close, and that like all Allies, they see their security within the NATO “wrap”.

Regarding the recent agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS), he underlined that this was not a new sort of alliance, but rather a military-industrial agreement, heavily focussed on sharing submarine technology in order to provide Australia with the relevant capability rapidly.

He also stressed that the UK continued to cooperate with the EU, and that all NATO’s members recognized that NATO is the best mechanism for assuring European security.  It was also important to remember that some instruments of statecraft were easier to bring to bear in the EU context.

Regarding the importance of values, he noted that the Alliance was founded upon common values, and that there were “like-minded” nations who might not be as democratic but could still be good partners.  It was important not to categorize nations in terms of two blocs, but to think in terms of communities of interests.

On the lessons for the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan, he suggested that areas for reflection might be the nature of political guidance during the early stages of involvement, and whether the international community can exercise the strategic patience necessary for nation building.  Other areas could include understanding of overall goals, and the understanding of the local context.  He also noted that the Taliban would have to reflect on how to build an inclusive government if it wishes to prevent civil strife returning to Afghanistan.

Closing this online conference, Jim Townsend pointed that these kind of webinars are to raise the awareness of the security agenda of today, but mostly to be educational for young people, inviting everyone interested to join ATA and YATA and work in their local communities with the same mission and vision ATA has.