This week it was leaked that the Ministry of Defence is set to replace General Sir Nick Carter as head of the UK’s Armed Forces by June.
Whilst denied by Johnny Mercer, Minister for Defence People and Veterans, if true comes months sooner than expected.
This article is by Robert Clark, Defence Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. Prior to this Robert was in the British Army. Robert can be found on Twitter at @RobertClark87.
Whilst General Carter is due to step down this year regardless, it is thought that the Prime Minister is seeking to appoint a new Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) to push through with his rejuvenated defence plans. Namely, restoring Britain’s status as the foremost naval power in Europe, and a potential shift away from reliance on heavy armour, to the cyber and space domains.
General Carter, who has been in appointment since 2018, has overseen the recent modernisation plans of the UK Armed Forces, expressed most keenly by the new Integrated Operating Concept (Defence’s contribution to the Integrated Review), and by the Prime Minister’s announcement of the well-received rise in defence spending over the next four years.
Both of these events highlight the evolution in utility of the UK’s Armed Forces. All three branches, in addition to UK Strategic Command (UKStratCom), will be operating together in an integrated manner, in order to defeat the nation’s enemies who are often attempting to subvert the UK by using below-threshold means.
General Carter has spoken at length about this evolution in strategic thought, most recently at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) annual lecture at the close of last year. Here he described the nature of the world in which the UK and its allies are going to increasingly find themselves in during the coming years, as authoritarian states seek to probe and challenge the rules-based order of which the UK remains an ardent defender.
It is in this increasingly dangerous geostrategic climate which the Prime Minister’s politically bold but sorely needed defence modernisation plans cannot afford to falter. The MoD, long-plagued by costly delays in repeated defence procurement initiatives, must now use this once in a generation opportunity to bring to bear the fruits of General Carter’s Integrated Operating Concept.
The outgoing CDS is reportedly lobbying for General Sir Patrick Sanders to replace him. General Sanders is the current head of UKStratCom – leading the cyber domain and overseeing the successful organisational move from Joint Forces Command in 2019. Crucially the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, whose recommendation will prove intrinsic to the Prime Minister’s appointment of the new CDS, is also tipped to want General Sanders.
The other two contenders for the top defence job are the head of the Army, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, Chief of the General Staff, and the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Tony Radakin, the First Sea Lord.
The choice that the Prime Minister will make will further shape the MoD’s modernisation plans. General Sanders, as head of the military cyber domain, is a natural fit for the emerging cyber, space and digital domains.
Should the Prime Minister choose General Carleton-Smith, whose operational and command experience includes Director Special Forces, and who is a supremely qualified commander, this would undoubtedly benefit the incremental process of developing from some of the so-called sunset capabilities, to the sunrise capabilities – the expected gradual departure from the age of heavy armour to the digital age.
Finally, Admiral Radakin’s appointment would add gravitas to the Royal Navy’s firm resumption to the senior service mantle once more. As the UK charts a new and ambitious foreign policy agenda – the government’s Global Britain campaign – the Royal Navy will prove fundamental in delivering the UK’s ambitions across the globe. Most immediately, this will be reinforced by the much celebrated spring deployment of the UK-led Carrier Strike Group (GSG) to the Indo-Pacific region.
This deployment, the largest for the Royal Navy in a generation, comes on the back of the UK establishing a host of new and ambitious trade deals across the region – most recently with Singapore, Vietnam, and Japan.
As the Chinese PLA Navy continue to flex their muscle in this region, further militarising the South China Sea in particular, the UK-led CSG is set to uphold the international maritime laws which govern these seas – something which Beijing has already voiced strong concern.
In these ever increasingly uncertain and unpredictable times, a steady yet innovative hand will be required to guide the UK’s new defence modernisation programme. In the coming weeks a new defence chief will be chosen – the appointment of whom will be fundamental in achieving the bold vision required to transform UK defence for the coming challenges ahead.