Stephen Sackur talks to General Sir Richard Barrons, who led the UK's Joint Forces Command and fought in wars from the Balkans to the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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Now on BBC News it's time for HARDtalk.
Welcome to HARDtalk.
I'm Stephen Sackur.
The military threats facing the Western world have
The West's military doctrine and capabilities
have failed to keep up.
That's the view of my guest today - not an outside observer,
but, until last year, one of the most senior generals
in the British Armed Forces.
General Sir Richard Barrons led the UK's Joint Forces Command.
He's fought in wars, from the Falklands to
the Middle East and Afghanistan.
-- the Balkans.
How vulnerable is the West in the new balance of
global military power?
General Sir Richard Barrons, welcome to HARDtalk.
Thank you very much.
How comfortable are you in a civilian suit and out of uniform?
Well, after nearly 40 years of service in the military,
this is still in transition.
Well, let's call upon your authority and experience, both
with your new suit on, but with your uniform
still in the cupboard.
How, or what, would you define as the most pressing military threat
facing the Western world today?
I think it's a very complex answer to what, on the surface,
is a simple question.
But I think we have to recognise that we are at something
of a strategic inflection point where the world we've known
for the last 25 years is changing very rapidly,
and not changing to the advantage of the West and Europe, in particular.
So we have to acknowledge that are a new range of risks out there.
And indeed the way conflict and confrontation is prosecuted,
in terms of both method and thinking and ideas and capability,
If you bundle all that together, we are looking at a mix
of threats from Russia, as well as from terrorism.
Am I to take it from what you've just said that you believe right
now that the assumptions being made and the posture being adopted
by the key Western military powers - and, let's face it, we're talking
about the United States and the UK as well, maybe
you could call in France - they've got it wrong?
I think it's to be expected that many of the Western powers,
particularly in Europe, are running on assumptions that
reflect all our adult experiences from the end of the Cold War,
where we didn't feel any existential risk to our homeland.
We felt that the Western way was holding primacy in the world,
and we had an initiative on how the world would actually turn out.
And I think that is eroding very quickly.
So, complacency is what you are suggesting?
A combination of hubris, for sure, complacency.
But also a preoccupation with our own internal business,
such as Brexit or austerity, which has caused us not
to look at these things.
But even as you say this, I'm mindful of the fact that one
of the key issues of our day - and we experience it sadly
almost daily or weekly, with bombs going off in western
cities, Istanbul or further afield - is this notion that there
is a threat to the West's homelands, and that threat is from
jihadist extremist terror.
Are you suggesting that is the wrong way of looking
at the threat to our homeland?
I'm suggesting it's only part of the problem.
So, yes of course, there's an existential risk,
a risk to our way of life from people like the so-called
Islamic State, who will bring whatever weapons they may
bring to bear.
So we are used to the idea now of shootings, such
as in the nightclub, and the use of explosions.
Just recently in our own media, a recognition from the British
government of the potential risk from weapons of mass destruction.
But the fact is, in the modern age the risk to our homeland
and our interests abroad are greater than that and they must include,
clearly, cyber, but also the evolution of advanced precision
ballistics missiles and a new generation of aircraft
and cruise missiles.
But whose missiles?
Are you suggesting, because you're not actually using the word,
but are you suggesting to me that Russia, which we know now has very
sophisticated precision missiles, not least based in Kaliningrad,
right on the border of Europe, within easy reach of Berlin.
Are you suggesting that Russia should be regarded
today as an active threat to European security?
I think we need to look at the potential of Russian capability.
So, I'm absolutely not suggesting we are at imminent risk of a major
armed confrontation with Russia.
And I think most Russian leaders would say that was fanciful talk
anyway, and absolutely not in their interest.
But if you look at the evolution of capability, then there are now
things in the Russian military inventory that could cause great
harm, not just to the UK, but to our European
neighbours as well.
As you say that, I think of Donald Trump.
He is about to become president of the United States of America.
In the recent days and weeks he's described how smart
he thinks Vladimir Putin is.
He's actually sided with Vladimir Putin in a very important
argument about the allegation that Russia meddled in the American
presidential election, using its cyber capabilities.
Donald Trump has sided with a Russian leader against his
own security establishment.
And yet you're here sitting with me, telling me that Russia has
to be regarded, in terms of its capability, as a threat
to the West's interests.
What's going on?
Well, I think we have to allow Mr Trump some room to manoeuvre,
since he's not yet the president, and one would expect to see a very
strenuous conversation between Mr Trump and the formidable
machine that resides in Washington that will give him
intelligence and advice.
He's just told us that he doesn't actually believe what he hears
from his own intelligence agencies.
That is, in a sense, the great import of this argument,
over what the Russians did in US election.
My first point is, let's allow that discussion to mature a little bit
as Mr Trump takes office.
But in terms of capability, I'm in absolutely no doubt
that Russia, and others, have invested very thoughtfully
over the last 15 years in evolving their military
capability to do two important things.
One is, keep Nato out of their territory, their airspace,
their waters and their land in the investment of things
like advanced air defence.
But also to invest in capabilities that in very sophisticated ways can
bring harm in an opportunistic way.
Not in a grand, strategic assault, but in an opportunistic way,
to Berlin or London.
And cyber is an important part of that.
There's quite a rich conversation about cyber.
But we also have to recognise that in the Russian inventory
are capabilities that could deliver conventional - so not
nuclear = conventional, precision effects in our homeland.
And that's not a comfortable place that we would want to be.
Until eight or so months ago, you were one of the top six generals
in the UK Armed Forces.
You actively were on duty as the Ukraine crisis
unfolded, for example.
What do you take from that, in terms of the way the West has
responded and is still trying to respond by ramping up Nato
capability and forces on the eastern flank directly facing Russia?
Would you say that the West on your watch and after it has
reacted with strength and credibility or not?
Nothing like enough yet.
I think it's a very, very difficult proposition for any government.
Because in our adult experience we have not had a confrontation
or conflict with Russia.
And nobody wants to go back to the Cold War.
And nobody is talking about, actually, a reset of the Cold War.
The dynamics now are very different.
I think the primacy of terrorism as a risk consumes an awful lot
of government attention, resources and bandwidth,
and we would all understand that.
I think the effect of austerity since 2008 has made public
spending decisions really, really difficult, and so there's
no enthusiasm to think about unpalatable events that have
not yet occurred that would cause perhaps difficult
and different spending choices.
I'm interested to know what you think is actually
happening on the ground.
Michael Fallon, the British Defence Minister, Secretary,
said only a few weeks ago to a Parliamentary Committee,
he said that he thought Britain and Nato would be ready to fight
a war with Russia if necessary in two years' time.
Is that good enough, and is it even true?
I don't know, since I don't work in the Ministry
of Defence any longer.
You were there until eight months ago.
Not much has changed, frankly.
Well, there would have to have been a massive acceleration in planning,
capability and in discussion with our Nato partners
for a two-year horizon to be ready, deliverable.
Always something can be done.
But the fact is, we have to look at the state of Nato as an alliance
which has gone through progressive demobilisation, for very
good reasons during the aftermath of the Cold War.
And it now sits with a lot of capability which is not
held at high readiness.
And in any case, quite a lot of Nato capability is not designed to deal
with the sort of things that Russia is now able to present.
You are using very diplomatic language, but I know,
and of course you know, that your real views came out last
September in a memo that ended up in the newspapers when you talked
about the deliberate withering of Britain's defence capabilities.
You listed in terms of naval power, air power, manpower on the ground,
all of the different ways in which, in your view, the British military
was being hollowed out.
And Britain, of course, being - outside America -
perhaps the most important member of Nato.
And I think that is absolutely So.
I also think it's entirely understandable in the sense that
if you look at the passage of our history since the end
of the Cold War, in the absence of that sense of a threat
from Russia, and with many other compelling things to spend
the public purse on, why wouldn't you take some risk
with your defence capability?
And my point is, first of all, let's be honest with ourselves
about the state of Western defence.
This is much more than the UK.
But, secondly, let's look at the world as it's really turning
out, and ask ourselves the question, OK, so if we are in the place
we are now for good and understandable reasons,
is it the right answer for the future?
Can you guarantee that the future going forward will be as reasonably
benign as the recent past?
And if you can't, then you may have to do some different things and make
some different choices.
Well, I come back to the central fact that the Western
world faces right now, which is that in a few days' time
Donald Trump will be the de facto leader of the Western world,
the most important man in Nato.
Not only has he talked about the smartness of Vladimir Putin,
he has said he will consider whether the United States
under his watch should recognise Russian sovereignty over the Crimea,
ie, recognise the annexation of what was Ukrainian territory.
He has suggested that Nato members who don't meet the spending
commitments of at least 2% of GDP on military expenditure will have
to go their own way.
And that Nato, in effect, would be over, finished.
This is the man that you are now saying has to take responsibility
for leading the West in a much more proactive building up
of military resources.
Well, I currently want to stick with the hope,
as Mr Trump takes office, a richer discussion with his
new team, with the organs of state in Washington and with his allies,
will make it clearer to Mr Trump that we have all bought
into collective security.
Certainly since the end of the Second World War.
That it's not in the US's interests to break with Nato,
or to cause Article 5 to be...
When you look at his tweets, when you look at his mindset,
how worried are you?
I'm worried, but I would want now to be in the position
where I would like to give him the time to have that discussion
with his own people.
Fascinating, you keep talking about, "I hope he will talk
to his own people."
You know some of his key appointees very, very well.
Thinking about General Mattis, who is now going to be
We're talking about the other generals, one of whom is now his
National Security Adviser, a very controversial figure indeed.
Other generals who have been appointed to Homeland Security.
Talk about another one being Director of Intelligence.
These were guys who worked with in the field, general to general.
Yes, I count them as friends.
I admire them.
They are uniquely experienced in the business of confrontation
and conflict, and they know their business.
And they have learnt their business through hard yards, principally
in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They are military men with no experience of statecraft
or diplomacy whatsoever.
Yeah, so if you ask them for a cool, clear, genuinely strategic
experienced military view, then there are almost nobody better
in the world to give that advice.
But these are guys who know how to fight wars.
Now we're talking about political roles, being the head
of the Defence Department, the boss in the Pentagon.
That's not a job for a bloke in uniform.
That's a job for a bloke like you now, with a suit on.
They are now faced with a very difficult transition.
I have such confidence in their character and their abilities
and experience that I think they will be able to seize this
transition into what is clearly a political and policy role,
but it's going to be difficult.
Why do you have such confidence?
In the United Kingdom there is no way that generals fresh out
of uniform, men such as yourself, could be hoisted into political jobs
like being Defence Secretary.
Why do you think it's appropriate that it happens
in the United States?
I think in the United States there is a cultural difference.
So the role of senior retired military in commercial and political
and public life in the US is cast in a different way
than it is in the United Kingdom, where people are genuinely
uncomfortable with it in the United Kingdom.
I also think that these folk are used to operating
at the genuinely strategic level.
They are soldier-statesmen.
They will find it relatively easy to make the transition
into the political space because as senior commanders
they so often operated in support of that.
There's a phrase that Gordon Adams, a very respected professor
at the American University School of International Services coined.
He says there's no risk of a military coup in the United States
under Donald Trump, but given the nature of his appointments,
there is what I call, he says, a "Velvet militarisation of American
foreign and national security policy."
Do you see what he's driving at?
Absolutely I do.
I don't think it's proven, but I think if you fill your
administration with a lot of senior military leaders then people
are going to make that accusation of them.
But if you ask Jim Mattis and John Kelly for their view of how
the world turns, then I think you would get a much
more sophisticated answer.
You know them very well.
You just told me you regard them as friends.
It's quite obvious that actually the British government doesn't have
that many strong contacts with the people at the heart
of the Trump team.
At least one Conservative MP has suggested that people
like you should be deployed to reach out to these new top figures
in the Trump administration, in a sense, general to general.
Are you prepared to do that?
Does the government want you to do that, more importantly?
Of course I'm prepared to do it, because I know these people well.
But I don't think it's ever been done successfully.
First of all, Jim Mattis would have to want it and find it useful.
And even if they did, we invest a lot in currently serving
officers and senior officials and politicians
who own that relationship.
And they would have to do think it's helpful for somebody like me to come
and have a supporting role and actually,
that's pretty unlikely.
Yeah, the truth is that also there are things being said by,
for example, Michael Flynn, the general who is now going to be
the National Security Adviser to the president inside
the White House, his suggestion that there is something
fundamentally dangerous about Islam.
But if you were to talk to him you would have to say,
"Would you not?"
This kind of language is completely inflammatory,
unacceptable and unhelpful.
Well, we would have to be able to have that sort of conversation,
but the advantage of deploying friends and colleagues is that
you can have that sort of conversation.
But actually, so can our ambassador in Washington.
So can the defence attachment...
Oh, come on, do you seriously think the Trump administration
is going to...?
Well, we know he's not going to listen to the UK ambassador
in Washington, because he thinks Nigel Farage should be UK
ambassador in Washington.
I'm not making a flippant point, I'm making a serious point.
The British government, with its own view of what is in
the West's security interests, is going to have very little to no
leverage with Donald Trump.
I think it's going to have to assume very little leverage to start with,
and then it's going to have to build it.
But I come back to the point that it is in the United States'
interests to continue to invest in the collective security
arrangements represented by Nato.
And a discussion with senior partners in Nato must be
a good thing.
And perhaps we still allow time for that to happen.
We've talked a lot about Nato, and, of course, underlying our
conversation has been the notion that there is a Russian
assertiveness stroke aggressiveness at play right now that changes a lot
of the dynamic within Nato.
Yeah. We haven't talked about China.
But many people, not least Barack Obama with his so-called
pivot to Asia, believes that actually the key national security
interest for America going forward lay in the Pacific
and in relation to China.
Donald Trump says he doesn't even feel bound by the traditional
recognition of the One China Policy.
So, put your mind towards broader horizons of Asia, the Pacific,
and the US and the East.
Do you see problems there, too?
I do, because I think we recognise we live in the Asian century.
The power and wealth and the power of decision is shifting east
over this century.
You can see the beginnings of a clash between a resurgent
Chinese exceptionalism and an American exceptionalism that
we've all grown up with.
And probably the focus for that is the South China Sea
where China has made it clear, I think since 1948, that it regards
the South China Sea as sovereign waters.
And the United States and many other nations in the region and elsewhere
subscribe to the UN Convention on the Law of Sea and say,
no, these are part of the global commons.
And those are two fundamentally irreconcilable positions.
So if China's ambition is to keep the US out of the South China Sea,
or at least the US military out of the South China Sea,
and the US under Mr Trump take the view that this is part
of the global commons - one third of the world trade flows
through those waters - then there's going to be,
at the very least, a difficult discussion coming.
So, you've painted a picture of a world over the next few years
that has to acknowledge the power and assertiveness,
not just of Russia, but of China as well.
And you've nodded to it, but I now want your explicit view
on the rise of new forms of unconventional warfare,
and in particular cyber warfare, as it's loosely termed.
Let's leave aside whatever the Russians did or didn't do
during the US presidential campaign, but it seems to me that there
is an issue today about whether the West, which is of course
the richest bloc, and arguably the technologically most advanced
bloc, actually has a military edge when it comes to the use,
the employment, of these cyber tactics.
What do you think?
This is a work in progress.
In terms of intellectual ability, then the bright minds that sit
in Silicon Valley, in Washington, in Cheltenham at GCHQ,
they are as good as anybody in the world.
But the fact is, Russia has, according to some research,
perhaps a million programmers perhaps connected to 40
organised cybercrime rings.
So in terms of capacity, Russia has a much more developed
approach to cyber relationships.
I think it comes back to this point that in the West,
for so long, we haven't really felt a risk to our homeland,
and yet we are open societies and building ever more connected
societies, so we have created vulnerabilities.
I think what we need to do now is recognise those vulnerabilities
and harden our act up and organise better to deal with the risks.
So are we doing it?
That critique I cited earlier of you saying that in Britain
we are allowing our defence capabilities to wither on the vine,
I think you did make one specific point about a failure to really
conceive of just how important this new cyber warfare capacity is.
How vulnerable are we in Britain?
I think in its simplest terms, we have to recognise that war
between advanced states or even fairly advanced states,
won't necessarily be focused on the destruction of Armed Forces
or the carpet bombing of citizens, as we have seen
so tragically in Aleppo.
It might well be fought simply by dismantling daily life
through the assault on critical national infrastructure.
And cyber is the obvious way of doing that.
There are obviously other more kinetic means available.
So the challenge for the West, and this is much more than just
the UK, is, we are probably used to dealing with a single event,
such as the cyber assault on Sony, or the Ukrainian power grid.
But in the future, if we are going to play our part in modern conflict,
then we've got to deal with strategic cyber risk
and protect our critical national infrastructure,
protect our way of life.
And that means a more thoughtful organisation.
It probably means different laws, in fact, to share the responsibility.
We are almost at an end.
This phrase you just used, "If we are to play our part..."
It seems to me the narrative you've given me suggests that for years,
the West's publics haven't been fully engaged or even willing
to play their part, because they haven't wanted to ramp
up the expenditures in new areas of defence capacity in a way that
would allow the West to keep an edge.
So what's going to change the dynamic?
Is it going to have to be the real threat of war...
..That will, in a sense, wake the West up?
I think there is enough evidence in a cool, hard look at the state
of western defence, a cool, hard look at the way the world
is changing, for governments to mount what governments should do,
which is a properly rigorous investigation to come
to some conclusions.
And then make different choices about public expenditure,
which can be done.
That's really, really difficult, because public opinion will think
it's slightly strange, or we are simply going to have
to hope that bad things don't happen, and then when bad
things do happen...
It's not a great defence strategy, is it?
I wonder whether you now would say, as a final thought, whether you now
would say, mea culpa, I didn't shout loud enough
about these issues when I was actually in place,
one of the top six generals in the country,
to make a difference.
It's all right now that you've left to jump up and down and say we've
got a real problem, but you didn't actually change very much
when you were there with your uniform on.
I accept that.
What I don't accept is that I didn't say these things when I was surfing,
because I did.
And I said it over a number of years.
So somebody wasn't listening.
The politicians weren't listening or you were just getting an easy
out for yourself.
Maybe I didn't explain it well enough, or I didn't
win the argument...
I certainly didn't win the argument.
But actually I think as events unfold, the arguments I have been
making for some time, are being reinforced by events,
and so maybe these conversations have their time.
And maybe that time is now.
Do you really believe that? Well, I want to believe it.
Because I think the longer we ignore these trends,
the greater the risk is that we just present ourselves as strategic
victims-in-waiting in a difficult world.
We have to end there.
General Sir Richard Barrons, thank you very much indeed
for being on HARDtalk.
Thank you so much.
Stephen Sackur talks to General Sir Richard Barrons, who led the UK's Joint Forces Command and fought in wars from the Balkans to the Middle East and Afghanistan. The military threats facing the Western world have changed dramatically. The West's military doctrine and capabilities have failed to keep up. That's Sir Richard's view, not an outside observer, but until 2016 one of the most senior generals in the British armed forces. How vulnerable is the West in the new balance of global military power?