General Sir Richard Barrons, Commander UK Joint Forces Command 2013-16 HARDtalk


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General Sir Richard Barrons, Commander UK Joint Forces Command 2013-16

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.

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Welcome to HARDtalk.

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I'm Stephen Sackur.

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The military threats facing the Western world have

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changed dramatically.

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The West's military doctrine and capabilities

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have failed to keep up.

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That's the view of my guest today - not an outside observer,

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but, until last year, one of the most senior generals

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in the British Armed Forces.

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General Sir Richard Barrons led the UK's Joint Forces Command.

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He's fought in wars, from the Falklands to

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the Middle East and Afghanistan.

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-- the Balkans.

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How vulnerable is the West in the new balance of

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global military power?

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General Sir Richard Barrons, welcome to HARDtalk.

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Thank you very much.

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How comfortable are you in a civilian suit and out of uniform?

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Well, after nearly 40 years of service in the military,

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this is still in transition.

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In transition!

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Well, let's call upon your authority and experience, both

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with your new suit on, but with your uniform

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still in the cupboard.

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How, or what, would you define as the most pressing military threat

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facing the Western world today?

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I think it's a very complex answer to what, on the surface,

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is a simple question.

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But I think we have to recognise that we are at something

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of a strategic inflection point where the world we've known

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for the last 25 years is changing very rapidly,

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and not changing to the advantage of the West and Europe, in particular.

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So we have to acknowledge that are a new range of risks out there.

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And indeed the way conflict and confrontation is prosecuted,

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in terms of both method and thinking and ideas and capability,

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has changed.

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If you bundle all that together, we are looking at a mix

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of threats from Russia, as well as from terrorism.

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Am I to take it from what you've just said that you believe right

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now that the assumptions being made and the posture being adopted

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by the key Western military powers - and, let's face it, we're talking

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about the United States and the UK as well, maybe

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you could call in France - they've got it wrong?

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I think it's to be expected that many of the Western powers,

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particularly in Europe, are running on assumptions that

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reflect all our adult experiences from the end of the Cold War,

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where we didn't feel any existential risk to our homeland.

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We felt that the Western way was holding primacy in the world,

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and we had an initiative on how the world would actually turn out.

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And I think that is eroding very quickly.

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So, complacency is what you are suggesting?

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A combination of hubris, for sure, complacency.

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But also a preoccupation with our own internal business,

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such as Brexit or austerity, which has caused us not

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to look at these things.

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But even as you say this, I'm mindful of the fact that one

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of the key issues of our day - and we experience it sadly

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almost daily or weekly, with bombs going off in western

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cities, Istanbul or further afield - is this notion that there

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is a threat to the West's homelands, and that threat is from

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jihadist extremist terror.

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Are you suggesting that is the wrong way of looking

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at the threat to our homeland?

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I'm suggesting it's only part of the problem.

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So, yes of course, there's an existential risk,

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a risk to our way of life from people like the so-called

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Islamic State, who will bring whatever weapons they may

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bring to bear.

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So we are used to the idea now of shootings, such

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as in the nightclub, and the use of explosions.

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Just recently in our own media, a recognition from the British

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government of the potential risk from weapons of mass destruction.

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But the fact is, in the modern age the risk to our homeland

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and our interests abroad are greater than that and they must include,

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clearly, cyber, but also the evolution of advanced precision

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ballistics missiles and a new generation of aircraft

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and cruise missiles.

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But whose missiles?

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Are you suggesting, because you're not actually using the word,

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but are you suggesting to me that Russia, which we know now has very

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sophisticated precision missiles, not least based in Kaliningrad,

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right on the border of Europe, within easy reach of Berlin.

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Are you suggesting that Russia should be regarded

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today as an active threat to European security?

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I think we need to look at the potential of Russian capability.

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So, I'm absolutely not suggesting we are at imminent risk of a major

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armed confrontation with Russia.

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And I think most Russian leaders would say that was fanciful talk

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anyway, and absolutely not in their interest.

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But if you look at the evolution of capability, then there are now

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things in the Russian military inventory that could cause great

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harm, not just to the UK, but to our European

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neighbours as well.

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As you say that, I think of Donald Trump.

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He is about to become president of the United States of America.

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In the recent days and weeks he's described how smart

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he thinks Vladimir Putin is.

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He's actually sided with Vladimir Putin in a very important

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argument about the allegation that Russia meddled in the American

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presidential election, using its cyber capabilities.

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Donald Trump has sided with a Russian leader against his

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own security establishment.

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And yet you're here sitting with me, telling me that Russia has

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to be regarded, in terms of its capability, as a threat

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to the West's interests.

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What's going on?

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Well, I think we have to allow Mr Trump some room to manoeuvre,

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since he's not yet the president, and one would expect to see a very

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strenuous conversation between Mr Trump and the formidable

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machine that resides in Washington that will give him

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intelligence and advice.

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He's just told us that he doesn't actually believe what he hears

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from his own intelligence agencies.

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That is, in a sense, the great import of this argument,

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over what the Russians did in US election.

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My first point is, let's allow that discussion to mature a little bit

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as Mr Trump takes office.

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But in terms of capability, I'm in absolutely no doubt

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that Russia, and others, have invested very thoughtfully

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over the last 15 years in evolving their military

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capability to do two important things.

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One is, keep Nato out of their territory, their airspace,

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their waters and their land in the investment of things

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like advanced air defence.

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But also to invest in capabilities that in very sophisticated ways can

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bring harm in an opportunistic way.

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Not in a grand, strategic assault, but in an opportunistic way,

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to Berlin or London.

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And cyber is an important part of that.

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There's quite a rich conversation about cyber.

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But we also have to recognise that in the Russian inventory

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are capabilities that could deliver conventional - so not

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nuclear = conventional, precision effects in our homeland.

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And that's not a comfortable place that we would want to be.

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Until eight or so months ago, you were one of the top six generals

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in the UK Armed Forces.

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You actively were on duty as the Ukraine crisis

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unfolded, for example.

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What do you take from that, in terms of the way the West has

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responded and is still trying to respond by ramping up Nato

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capability and forces on the eastern flank directly facing Russia?

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Would you say that the West on your watch and after it has

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reacted with strength and credibility or not?

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Nothing like enough yet.

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I think it's a very, very difficult proposition for any government.

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Because in our adult experience we have not had a confrontation

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or conflict with Russia.

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And nobody wants to go back to the Cold War.

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And nobody is talking about, actually, a reset of the Cold War.

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The dynamics now are very different.

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I think the primacy of terrorism as a risk consumes an awful lot

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of government attention, resources and bandwidth,

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and we would all understand that.

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I think the effect of austerity since 2008 has made public

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spending decisions really, really difficult, and so there's

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no enthusiasm to think about unpalatable events that have

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not yet occurred that would cause perhaps difficult

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and different spending choices.

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I'm interested to know what you think is actually

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happening on the ground.

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Michael Fallon, the British Defence Minister, Secretary,

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said only a few weeks ago to a Parliamentary Committee,

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he said that he thought Britain and Nato would be ready to fight

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a war with Russia if necessary in two years' time.

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Is that good enough, and is it even true?

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I don't know, since I don't work in the Ministry

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of Defence any longer.

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You were there until eight months ago.

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Not much has changed, frankly.

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Well, there would have to have been a massive acceleration in planning,

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capability and in discussion with our Nato partners

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for a two-year horizon to be ready, deliverable.

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Always something can be done.

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But the fact is, we have to look at the state of Nato as an alliance

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which has gone through progressive demobilisation, for very

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good reasons during the aftermath of the Cold War.

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And it now sits with a lot of capability which is not

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held at high readiness.

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And in any case, quite a lot of Nato capability is not designed to deal

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with the sort of things that Russia is now able to present.

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You are using very diplomatic language, but I know,

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and of course you know, that your real views came out last

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September in a memo that ended up in the newspapers when you talked

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about the deliberate withering of Britain's defence capabilities.

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You listed in terms of naval power, air power, manpower on the ground,

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all of the different ways in which, in your view, the British military

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was being hollowed out.

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And Britain, of course, being - outside America -

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perhaps the most important member of Nato.

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And I think that is absolutely So.

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I also think it's entirely understandable in the sense that

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if you look at the passage of our history since the end

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of the Cold War, in the absence of that sense of a threat

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from Russia, and with many other compelling things to spend

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the public purse on, why wouldn't you take some risk

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with your defence capability?

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And my point is, first of all, let's be honest with ourselves

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about the state of Western defence.

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This is much more than the UK.

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But, secondly, let's look at the world as it's really turning

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out, and ask ourselves the question, OK, so if we are in the place

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we are now for good and understandable reasons,

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is it the right answer for the future?

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Can you guarantee that the future going forward will be as reasonably

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benign as the recent past?

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And if you can't, then you may have to do some different things and make

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some different choices.

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Well, I come back to the central fact that the Western

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world faces right now, which is that in a few days' time

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Donald Trump will be the de facto leader of the Western world,

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the most important man in Nato.

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Not only has he talked about the smartness of Vladimir Putin,

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he has said he will consider whether the United States

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under his watch should recognise Russian sovereignty over the Crimea,

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ie, recognise the annexation of what was Ukrainian territory.

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He has suggested that Nato members who don't meet the spending

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commitments of at least 2% of GDP on military expenditure will have

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to go their own way.

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And that Nato, in effect, would be over, finished.

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This is the man that you are now saying has to take responsibility

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for leading the West in a much more proactive building up

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of military resources.

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Well, I currently want to stick with the hope,

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as Mr Trump takes office, a richer discussion with his

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new team, with the organs of state in Washington and with his allies,

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will make it clearer to Mr Trump that we have all bought

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into collective security.

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Certainly since the end of the Second World War.

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That it's not in the US's interests to break with Nato,

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or to cause Article 5 to be...

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When you look at his tweets, when you look at his mindset,

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how worried are you?

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I'm worried, but I would want now to be in the position

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where I would like to give him the time to have that discussion

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with his own people.

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Fascinating, you keep talking about, "I hope he will talk

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to his own people."

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You know some of his key appointees very, very well.

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Thinking about General Mattis, who is now going to be

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Defence Secretary.

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We're talking about the other generals, one of whom is now his

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National Security Adviser, a very controversial figure indeed.

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Other generals who have been appointed to Homeland Security.

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Talk about another one being Director of Intelligence.

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These were guys who worked with in the field, general to general.

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Yes, I count them as friends.

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I admire them.

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They are uniquely experienced in the business of confrontation

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and conflict, and they know their business.

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And they have learnt their business through hard yards, principally

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in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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They are military men with no experience of statecraft

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or diplomacy whatsoever.

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Yeah, so if you ask them for a cool, clear, genuinely strategic

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experienced military view, then there are almost nobody better

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in the world to give that advice.

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But these are guys who know how to fight wars.

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Now we're talking about political roles, being the head

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of the Defence Department, the boss in the Pentagon.

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That's not a job for a bloke in uniform.

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That's a job for a bloke like you now, with a suit on.

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They are now faced with a very difficult transition.

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I have such confidence in their character and their abilities

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and experience that I think they will be able to seize this

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transition into what is clearly a political and policy role,

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but it's going to be difficult.

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Why do you have such confidence?

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In the United Kingdom there is no way that generals fresh out

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of uniform, men such as yourself, could be hoisted into political jobs

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like being Defence Secretary.

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Why do you think it's appropriate that it happens

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in the United States?

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I think in the United States there is a cultural difference.

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So the role of senior retired military in commercial and political

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and public life in the US is cast in a different way

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than it is in the United Kingdom, where people are genuinely

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uncomfortable with it in the United Kingdom.

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I also think that these folk are used to operating

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at the genuinely strategic level.

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They are soldier-statesmen.

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They will find it relatively easy to make the transition

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into the political space because as senior commanders

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they so often operated in support of that.

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There's a phrase that Gordon Adams, a very respected professor

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at the American University School of International Services coined.

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He says there's no risk of a military coup in the United States

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under Donald Trump, but given the nature of his appointments,

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there is what I call, he says, a "Velvet militarisation of American

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foreign and national security policy."

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Do you see what he's driving at?

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Absolutely I do.

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I don't think it's proven, but I think if you fill your

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administration with a lot of senior military leaders then people

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are going to make that accusation of them.

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But if you ask Jim Mattis and John Kelly for their view of how

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the world turns, then I think you would get a much

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more sophisticated answer.

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You know them very well.

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You just told me you regard them as friends.

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It's quite obvious that actually the British government doesn't have

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that many strong contacts with the people at the heart

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of the Trump team.

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At least one Conservative MP has suggested that people

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like you should be deployed to reach out to these new top figures

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in the Trump administration, in a sense, general to general.

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Are you prepared to do that?

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Does the government want you to do that, more importantly?

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Of course I'm prepared to do it, because I know these people well.

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But I don't think it's ever been done successfully.

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First of all, Jim Mattis would have to want it and find it useful.

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And even if they did, we invest a lot in currently serving

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officers and senior officials and politicians

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who own that relationship.

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And they would have to do think it's helpful for somebody like me to come

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and have a supporting role and actually,

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that's pretty unlikely.

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Yeah, the truth is that also there are things being said by,

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for example, Michael Flynn, the general who is now going to be

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the National Security Adviser to the president inside

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the White House, his suggestion that there is something

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fundamentally dangerous about Islam.

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But if you were to talk to him you would have to say,

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"Would you not?"

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This kind of language is completely inflammatory,

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unacceptable and unhelpful.

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Yes.

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Well, we would have to be able to have that sort of conversation,

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but the advantage of deploying friends and colleagues is that

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you can have that sort of conversation.

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But actually, so can our ambassador in Washington.

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So can the defence attachment...

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Oh, come on, do you seriously think the Trump administration

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is going to...?

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Well, we know he's not going to listen to the UK ambassador

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in Washington, because he thinks Nigel Farage should be UK

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ambassador in Washington.

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I'm not making a flippant point, I'm making a serious point.

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The British government, with its own view of what is in

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the West's security interests, is going to have very little to no

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leverage with Donald Trump.

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I think it's going to have to assume very little leverage to start with,

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and then it's going to have to build it.

0:17:200:17:22

But I come back to the point that it is in the United States'

0:17:220:17:26

interests to continue to invest in the collective security

0:17:260:17:28

arrangements represented by Nato.

0:17:280:17:29

And a discussion with senior partners in Nato must be

0:17:290:17:32

a good thing.

0:17:320:17:33

And perhaps we still allow time for that to happen.

0:17:330:17:36

We've talked a lot about Nato, and, of course, underlying our

0:17:360:17:39

conversation has been the notion that there is a Russian

0:17:390:17:41

assertiveness stroke aggressiveness at play right now that changes a lot

0:17:410:17:44

of the dynamic within Nato.

0:17:440:17:46

Yeah. We haven't talked about China.

0:17:460:17:47

But many people, not least Barack Obama with his so-called

0:17:470:17:50

pivot to Asia, believes that actually the key national security

0:17:500:17:53

interest for America going forward lay in the Pacific

0:17:530:17:55

and in relation to China.

0:17:550:18:02

Donald Trump says he doesn't even feel bound by the traditional

0:18:020:18:05

recognition of the One China Policy.

0:18:050:18:07

So, put your mind towards broader horizons of Asia, the Pacific,

0:18:070:18:10

and the US and the East.

0:18:100:18:11

Do you see problems there, too?

0:18:110:18:13

I do, because I think we recognise we live in the Asian century.

0:18:130:18:17

The power and wealth and the power of decision is shifting east

0:18:170:18:20

over this century.

0:18:200:18:22

You can see the beginnings of a clash between a resurgent

0:18:220:18:25

Chinese exceptionalism and an American exceptionalism that

0:18:250:18:27

we've all grown up with.

0:18:270:18:28

And probably the focus for that is the South China Sea

0:18:280:18:32

where China has made it clear, I think since 1948, that it regards

0:18:320:18:35

the South China Sea as sovereign waters.

0:18:350:18:37

And the United States and many other nations in the region and elsewhere

0:18:370:18:40

subscribe to the UN Convention on the Law of Sea and say,

0:18:400:18:44

no, these are part of the global commons.

0:18:440:18:46

And those are two fundamentally irreconcilable positions.

0:18:460:18:48

So if China's ambition is to keep the US out of the South China Sea,

0:18:480:18:52

or at least the US military out of the South China Sea,

0:18:520:18:55

and the US under Mr Trump take the view that this is part

0:18:550:18:59

of the global commons - one third of the world trade flows

0:18:590:19:02

through those waters - then there's going to be,

0:19:020:19:05

at the very least, a difficult discussion coming.

0:19:050:19:10

So, you've painted a picture of a world over the next few years

0:19:100:19:13

that has to acknowledge the power and assertiveness,

0:19:130:19:15

not just of Russia, but of China as well.

0:19:150:19:20

Yes.

0:19:210:19:21

And you've nodded to it, but I now want your explicit view

0:19:210:19:24

on the rise of new forms of unconventional warfare,

0:19:240:19:27

and in particular cyber warfare, as it's loosely termed.

0:19:270:19:29

Let's leave aside whatever the Russians did or didn't do

0:19:290:19:32

during the US presidential campaign, but it seems to me that there

0:19:320:19:35

is an issue today about whether the West, which is of course

0:19:350:19:38

the richest bloc, and arguably the technologically most advanced

0:19:380:19:41

bloc, actually has a military edge when it comes to the use,

0:19:410:19:44

the employment, of these cyber tactics.

0:19:440:19:50

What do you think?

0:19:500:19:51

This is a work in progress.

0:19:510:19:53

In terms of intellectual ability, then the bright minds that sit

0:19:530:19:56

in Silicon Valley, in Washington, in Cheltenham at GCHQ,

0:19:560:19:59

they are as good as anybody in the world.

0:19:590:20:01

But the fact is, Russia has, according to some research,

0:20:010:20:06

perhaps a million programmers perhaps connected to 40

0:20:060:20:08

organised cybercrime rings.

0:20:080:20:09

So in terms of capacity, Russia has a much more developed

0:20:090:20:16

approach to cyber relationships.

0:20:160:20:25

I think it comes back to this point that in the West,

0:20:260:20:29

for so long, we haven't really felt a risk to our homeland,

0:20:290:20:32

and yet we are open societies and building ever more connected

0:20:320:20:35

societies, so we have created vulnerabilities.

0:20:350:20:37

I think what we need to do now is recognise those vulnerabilities

0:20:370:20:40

and harden our act up and organise better to deal with the risks.

0:20:400:20:43

So are we doing it?

0:20:430:20:45

That critique I cited earlier of you saying that in Britain

0:20:450:20:48

we are allowing our defence capabilities to wither on the vine,

0:20:480:20:56

I think you did make one specific point about a failure to really

0:20:570:21:00

conceive of just how important this new cyber warfare capacity is.

0:21:000:21:03

How vulnerable are we in Britain?

0:21:030:21:05

I think in its simplest terms, we have to recognise that war

0:21:050:21:08

between advanced states or even fairly advanced states,

0:21:080:21:10

won't necessarily be focused on the destruction of Armed Forces

0:21:100:21:13

or the carpet bombing of citizens, as we have seen

0:21:130:21:15

so tragically in Aleppo.

0:21:150:21:17

It might well be fought simply by dismantling daily life

0:21:170:21:20

through the assault on critical national infrastructure.

0:21:200:21:22

And cyber is the obvious way of doing that.

0:21:220:21:30

There are obviously other more kinetic means available.

0:21:300:21:32

So the challenge for the West, and this is much more than just

0:21:320:21:35

the UK, is, we are probably used to dealing with a single event,

0:21:350:21:39

such as the cyber assault on Sony, or the Ukrainian power grid.

0:21:390:21:42

But in the future, if we are going to play our part in modern conflict,

0:21:420:21:46

then we've got to deal with strategic cyber risk

0:21:460:21:49

and protect our critical national infrastructure,

0:21:490:21:50

protect our way of life.

0:21:500:21:53

And that means a more thoughtful organisation.

0:21:530:21:55

It probably means different laws, in fact, to share the responsibility.

0:21:550:21:58

We are almost at an end.

0:21:580:22:00

This phrase you just used, "If we are to play our part..."

0:22:000:22:03

It seems to me the narrative you've given me suggests that for years,

0:22:030:22:07

the West's publics haven't been fully engaged or even willing

0:22:070:22:09

to play their part, because they haven't wanted to ramp

0:22:090:22:12

up the expenditures in new areas of defence capacity in a way that

0:22:120:22:15

would allow the West to keep an edge.

0:22:160:22:18

Yes.

0:22:180:22:19

So what's going to change the dynamic?

0:22:190:22:21

Is it going to have to be the real threat of war...

0:22:210:22:24

..That will, in a sense, wake the West up?

0:22:240:22:26

I think there is enough evidence in a cool, hard look at the state

0:22:260:22:30

of western defence, a cool, hard look at the way the world

0:22:300:22:33

is changing, for governments to mount what governments should do,

0:22:330:22:36

which is a properly rigorous investigation to come

0:22:360:22:38

to some conclusions.

0:22:380:22:39

And then make different choices about public expenditure,

0:22:390:22:41

which can be done.

0:22:410:22:42

That's really, really difficult, because public opinion will think

0:22:420:22:45

it's slightly strange, or we are simply going to have

0:22:450:22:47

to hope that bad things don't happen, and then when bad

0:22:470:22:55

things do happen...

0:22:550:22:56

It's not a great defence strategy, is it?

0:22:560:22:58

I wonder whether you now would say, as a final thought, whether you now

0:22:580:23:02

would say, mea culpa, I didn't shout loud enough

0:23:020:23:04

about these issues when I was actually in place,

0:23:040:23:07

one of the top six generals in the country,

0:23:070:23:09

to make a difference.

0:23:090:23:10

It's all right now that you've left to jump up and down and say we've

0:23:100:23:14

got a real problem, but you didn't actually change very much

0:23:140:23:17

when you were there with your uniform on.

0:23:170:23:19

I accept that.

0:23:190:23:20

What I don't accept is that I didn't say these things when I was surfing,

0:23:200:23:24

because I did.

0:23:240:23:25

And I said it over a number of years.

0:23:250:23:28

So somebody wasn't listening.

0:23:280:23:29

Well...

0:23:290:23:29

The politicians weren't listening or you were just getting an easy

0:23:290:23:32

out for yourself.

0:23:320:23:33

Maybe I didn't explain it well enough, or I didn't

0:23:330:23:35

win the argument...

0:23:360:23:36

I certainly didn't win the argument.

0:23:360:23:42

But actually I think as events unfold, the arguments I have been

0:23:430:23:46

making for some time, are being reinforced by events,

0:23:460:23:48

and so maybe these conversations have their time.

0:23:480:23:50

And maybe that time is now.

0:23:500:23:52

Do you really believe that? Well, I want to believe it.

0:23:520:23:55

Because I think the longer we ignore these trends,

0:23:550:23:57

the greater the risk is that we just present ourselves as strategic

0:23:570:24:01

victims-in-waiting in a difficult world.

0:24:010:24:02

We have to end there.

0:24:020:24:03

General Sir Richard Barrons, thank you very much indeed

0:24:030:24:06

for being on HARDtalk.

0:24:060:24:07

Thank you so much.

0:24:070:24:24

Hi there.

0:24:240:24:26

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?