For General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, the head of the British Army, there is no better illustration of the rapidly changing nature of modern warfare than to compare his own experience with that of one of his distinguished predecessors.
When Field Marshal Lord Guthrie served as Chief of the General Staff in the 1990s, he claimed to be the last Army chief to have had a spear thrown at him, an event he experienced while serving as a young officer. For his own part, Sir Mark claims to be the first Army chief to have been bombed by a drone while conducting operations outside the Iraqi city of Mosul.
“I was bombed by a commercial unmanned aerial vehicle operated by a terrorist organisation,” he recalls. “It just shows how quickly the nature of warfare has changed.”
At the time Sir Mark, a former head of Britain’s Special Forces, was involved in the US-led effort to destroy Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) after it had created its so-called caliphate.
The most radical transformation of the Army of modern times
And, in his current role as Chief of the General Staff, a position he has held since 2018, Sir Mark believes there are many important lessons that can be learned from Britain’s successful involvement in the coalition effort to destroy Isil as he seeks to undertake the most radical transformation of the Army of modern times.
“We fought a very successful campaign that resulted in the destruction of the caliphate in Syria and Northern Iraq,” Sir Mark explains in an exclusive interview with The Telegraph. “That was done by applying some of the lessons from our experiences in Afghanistan.
“We came to realise that the main priority was to build up the Afghan security forces so they could independently manage their own insurgency.”
“We have taken the lessons of how to create local indigenous forces and to harness them with 21st century Western technology. We applied it very successfully against the caliphate, and we did so almost without a single combat fatality.
“This form of remote warfare has almost become our house style.”
Sir Mark is speaking in his spacious modern office at Army Headquarters in Andover which is filled with mementos of an action-packed career during which he has seen active service in all of Britain’s major military engagements of the past four decades, including Northern Ireland, the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The ability to fight hi-tech wars of the future
His task now is to undertake the Herculean task of restructuring the Army in such a way that it retains the ability to conduct the type of successful military campaign that was undertaken against Isil while at the same time providing it with the ability to fight hi-tech wars of the future.
The template for the future structure of Britain’s Armed Forces was set out in the Government’s recently published Integrated Review, which set out an ambitious vision for the future role of the military as part of Global Britain. And to fund the ambitious reforms being undertaken by all three Services, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has managed to secure an extra £24 billion in funding from the Treasury.
But as part of the restructuring, the size of the Army is being cut from its current establishment of 82,000 to 72,500 by 2025.
Coming after the controversial cuts made in the 2010 Defence Review, which saw the Army’s size cut by 20,000 as part of the drastic defence cuts implemented by the Cameron government, the prospect of the Army being reduced further has led critics to question whether it will in future be able to conduct operations on the scale recently seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Concerns have also been raised about its ability to fulfil its Nato commitments and support future US operations.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the former US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently commented wryly that, following these cuts, the British Army will be about the same size as the entire American special forces.
But Sir Mark is confident the Army’s transformation can be undertaken without reducing its war-fighting strength.
“Soldiering has always been about evolution, and successful armies have always adapted to the changing nature of the threat and to changes in technology,” he explains.
“It feels to me that we sit today on the cusp of another transformation where there is no room for nostalgia.”
Most radical changes since the 1930s mechanisation programme
For Sir Mark, the radical changes about to be made to the Army’s war-fighting capabilities will be as revolutionary as the mechanisation programme that took place in the 1930s.
“I think the transformation from mechanisation to digitisation is going to feel much more fundamental, and it is going to fundamentally change how we do business.
“At the same time we cannot wish away the traditional threats that can still manifest themselves, as we have seen with the very overt display of Russian hard power on the Ukrainian border in recent months.
“We remain today predominantly an industrial age organisation with an industrial skills set confronted by information age challenges.”
The key aim of the transformation is to harness conventional war-fighting capabilities to emerging technologies that have the potential to transform the modern battlefield.
“The blueprint is for an army that is more expeditionary, more digital and more dangerous and one that is going to be much more competitive.”
“We have not seen the end of conventional warfare, but the character is changing,” he explains”
He cites the recent “small wars” in countries like Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh as examples where the introduction of new technologies has had a decisive impact.
“We are already seeing the implications of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and robotics, and how they might be applied on the battlefield.” As a result he believes future conflicts are more likely to be fought at greater ranges using more precise and effective weaponry.
Applying new technologies to conventional war-fighting skills
And, by harnessing these new technologies to the Army’s conventional war-fighting skills, Sir Mark believes that it will be able to demonstrate its value as an ally of the US military, as well as being able to undertake and sustain division-strength military interventions overseas, which is the traditional benchmark of Britain’s commitment to Nato and the US.
“We still have the capability to field a modernised, digitised war fighting division which is still the main currency for the US,” insists Sir Mark.
Moreover, the Army’s modernisation programme is vital if Britain is to remain a valued ally of the US.
“One of the possible concerns we have had was the pace of change in the US, and their form of warfare accelerating at such a pace that we would be unable to integrate our own forces within them,” he explains.
“Unless you can talk, pass data and manoeuvre at the speed of the US, you become more of a liability on the battlefield than a net advantage.”
Sir Mark has just returned from visiting the US, where he had a series of meetings with his American counterparts who have given their backing to the Army’s transformation programme.
“The US Army recognises that our size is just one metric of an army’s competence and relevance. What is more relevant is that the Army has the right mix of modern capabilities,” he explains.
“For our size and scale, if we can get the balance right, what will emerge in the course of this decade is one of the most modernised armies in the world, and that is a very attractive offer to the US.
“It will emerge sharper, more competitive, more lethal and digitally fit for the information age and optimised for the digital age and not the industrial age.”
One of the more eye-catching changes being made to the Army’s structure is the creation of a Special Operations Brigade with a Ranger Regiment at its heart, which Sir Mark believes will act as the vanguard for partnerships with new allies around the world.
Enbracing the green revolution
Britain’s Army chief is also keen to embrace the advantages of the coming revolution in green energy.
“There are some specific operational advantages to green energy,” he says.
“We can improve our logistics operations and improve our battery life, and that gives us a very significant sustainability to a field force.”
As one of the largest landowners in the UK – at just over 1 percent – he also thinks it is important that the Army sets an example by making its garrisons self-sustainable in terms of their energy needs. Later this year the Army will be opening its first four solar farms, with 70 more to follow.
“As one of the country’s largest employers – second only to the NHS – we have a responsibility to more than play our role in terms of a sensible and sustainable environmental agenda. It is all part of being a responsible contributor to society.”