Covid-19: Britain’s chief of the defence staff talks about the military challenges | The Economist

published on July 2, 2020

you're listening to the economist asks

i'm anne mcelvoy

and this week we're asking is the battle

to conquer coronavirus

like a war armed forces have been

mobilized to fight a new global enemy

unlike any faced in modern times yet as

armies grapple with the pandemic on the


geopolitical jostling continues unabated

my guest is the head of the british

armed forces

general cynic carter chief of the

defence staff

he's the most senior uniformed military

adviser to the government

he served in germany during the cold war

during the sectarian conflict in

northern ireland too

and commanded troops in bosnia and

kosovo as well as tours in iraq and


where he was deputy commander of the

nato mission

general cynic carter welcome to the

economist asks no thanks ann it's very

good to be with you

you've described the army's mobilization


coronavirus in the uk as

the single greatest logistical challenge

of your career and that's a career

that's been spent in

incredibly difficult theaters of warfare


give us a sense if you could of the

scale and nature of this challenge and

why it's different

um well i think it's different because

um so much of the way that

government is organized is on the basis

of being as efficient as possible

and therefore all of our logistic

systems uh tend to be what they call

leaned out

so when you're confronted by something

where you have to have a massive

increase in the demand signal for

customers whether that's hospitals or

individual practices in the case of the

nhs that of course is a massive

expansion of the logistic effort and

when you then consider that you've got

to have

much more complicated supply chains that

make all of that happen

that's why i described it as being the

single greatest logistic challenge that

i've come across

in my career and that includes both gulf

wars you're one of the few people who've

seen the five eye security

report that suggested china covered up


outbreak and indeed may have made it

worse by its early lack of cooperation

what do you conclude from the reports

that you're seeing

um i mean i think it's unhelpful at this

stage to have a witch hunt

um i think what we've got to focus on is

how we prevent this from happening in

the future ultimately we need to be able

to work together to solve the problem

a witch hunt is not going to exactly

encourage teamwork i mean a witch hunt

suggests that

there's nothing to find i mean witch

hunt is a phrase used when one doesn't

particularly want to go and find

something well personally

i've seen no evidence of this being a

deliberate act by anybody

or it coming from a particular mistake

from anywhere either so when mike pompeo

says there's evidence

enormous evidence he said the virus

initiated wuhan institute of virology

and the us intelligence community would

appear to be quite divided on this issue

you know one of the things that you have

to do i suppose

is kind of weigh up different forms of

intelligence and come to come to your

own view i know you're not exactly going

to read out a

classified intel sadly for us on the


but but yeah i don't put you in an

impossible position on that general but


where do you come down on that kind of


my perspective is that um i have

personally seen no evidence that it

emerges from any deliberate act or

mistake by any government

um and my own view is that what you've

now got to do is to work out

globally how we prevent this sort of

thing from happening again

and how would you do that it comes down

to a global conversation and those

at the moment tend to be had probably in

un circumstances or through the g20 or

whatever it might be

but at the end of the day i think that's

got to be the conversation and we've had

five pandemics now since the year 2000

they've all emerged from different

places um and those

pandemics we are going to get worse

unless we find a way of

genuinely resolving them what about

disinformation and misinformation

about the virus i think you mentioned at


daily briefing that you gave not long

ago the

so-called 77 brigade is working with the

cabinet officer with the heart of

of government to help quash rumors about

misinformation this is something

not peculiar to the uk a a lot of

concern about

disinformation and misinformation in the

united states and in the other

democracies how practical is it

to combat that kind of threat given that

it's very disaggregated it's simply

about where people go

to get information so it may sound a bit

pedantic but i think you have to

distinguish between disinformation

and misinformation and of course

misinformation will come from you know

people who

may have got scams going conspiracy

theorists and jokers and all the rest of


and a lot of what our 77 brigade has

been doing in support of the cabinet


has been after misinformation uh and

finding misinformation and then getting

other parts of government or indeed the

media to call them out

but but that in itself sounds i mean to

some people that would sound like

something one that won't be very much

aware that something called the 77

brigade and what it does

and it does sound quite secretive can

you throw a bit of light on how it works

it is something that we created um not

for this purpose

uh it's something that was created for

battlefields um when of course


uh the information dimension of um you

know what we do on battlefields is

becoming really important

and essentially we would use it an

environment like say afghanistan

to be able to connect to the population

or indeed to the outside world

to bring get the message across that

perhaps one might in the past have

described as propaganda but is actually

much more about getting to the truth of


so would you get involved in something

like the

disinformation uh about 5g

and the allegations floating around

quite prolifically on social media that

that it had something to do with the

outbreak of coronavirus in the uk it'd

be much more about

um identifying that there was a story

going on and then

giving it to others at the political

level to sort out for themselves would

be inappropriate for

um the military to be involved in um

propaganda at home if you if you could

put it like that um

you know capers it was designed for the

battlefield you know has

advantages at this level but that's not

the way we're going to use it it's about

um identifying challenges for others to


you're very closely involved in debates

about the future

of nato and how it it should work in

future as a defensive alliance but even

that kind of argument

has been reshaped by the pandemic you

know we

we've seen countries collaborating on

joint vaccine funding pledges absolutely


eight billion dollar commitment

organized by the european union in this

case with pledges from japan canada

australia but the us was absent and i

guess that

brings us to the question of where we


the role of the united states in

this persistent defense alliance of nato

and what will

mean for the future there's been

absolutely no question of the us being

right at the heart of all of the nato

activity that we've been involved in

over the last um

two to three years um and you know they

were very much at the heart of the new

nato military strategy that was

published last year

and they're very much at the heart of

the work that we're now doing to take

the nato military strategy to its next


so i i don't see any evidence of doing

anything different there

what do you expect then from the

european union or from

our allies in europe particularly our

big traditional military ally

is france but also to an extent to

germany and i know you've worked very

very hard on that sort of anglo german

relationship in the military sphere

and yet there's a sense that it is it's

piecemeal isn't it it's it's every

country for itself well i

mean i think there have been some

indications for people working together

i mean the prime minister

chaired a global meeting uh to talk

about the vaccine

um and you know finding a vaccine is

something that is going to require

all of us to put our shoulders to the

wheel i also think we're beginning to

care less about

thinking about vulnerable countries um

because you know

we're not going to be able to solve a

problem of all the vulnerable countries

in particularly the developing

world unless we do that on a team basis

and i'm absolutely certain that you know

we share common ground with for example

germany and france in trying to get

after that

and we will do it in a united way

because these vulnerable countries will

remember who helped them

in times of crisis what about the

response of

donald trump it somewhat veers from the


to uh sometimes perhaps to the eccentric

in his own response and suggestions

about how to deal with coronavirus does

that worry you

no i'm not sure it does i mean i think

when you talk to the american machine

and everything that's happening with the

united states you know we we we um

we still continue to have the sorts of

conversations that i think you'd hope

would be had about how we are

going to get after this challenge but it

must be

at some level as you have deep military

ties with the us

but we have also seen a pretty

disaggregated response

in the us and this is obviously such a

major play in any argument or any debate

about where the international system

goes next so when you are sitting down

there with your opposite number

with the senior most senior commanders

in the us what are you asking for

i'm regularly talking to my us opposite

number at the moment mark milley

the chairman of the us joint chiefs of

staff you know we have a close

relationship as to our militaries

and um he sees it in much the same way i

do that you know this is going to be a

problem that is a global problem that

needs to be solved

globally uh and you know he sees it very

much from a perspective of you know what

the us can do to lead

um the western world through this so i'm

i'm you know i'm confident from a

military perspective

um he sees it in exactly the same way

that i've been describing it

what impact would you say the pandemic

is having in terms of

the global outlook what we might call

bad or dangerous actors you

gave an interview i think towards back

end of last year emphasizing

how much cyber activity was seeing

hostile cyber activity

from russia they think there was a a


um event on about march the 11th when

nato jets had to scramble to intercept

russian planes

off the coasts of ireland and scotland

how frequently is this sort of thing

going on

well i think you know sort of every

every week to two weeks um i mean i

don't see any

diminution in the in the terms of

activity that we've seen over the last

year and a half to two years at all

um but then equally we're also doing

what we do

and we've got a an operation come

exercise going on

uh off the northern coast of norway at

the moment um and we've still got people

exercising in parts of europe

particularly in estonia where we have a

battle group at the moment

so i mean you know neither are the

russians or for that matter

nato are really taking their foot off

the gas in general terms i think the

the level of effort and activity is you

know not far off what we

normally would expect to see and the

national cyber security center

here in the uk uh advised recently i

said jointly with

the department of homeland security in

the us over so-called advanced


threat uh actors groups exploiting the

pandemic to get access to information

to intellectual property to targeting

pharmaceutical companies

uh among others is this something that

you're seeing arising specifically

related to the context we're in of

uh covert 19 where are the threats

mainly coming from i think they come

from the the usual places

um that we have noticed in the past um

and of course you know way where

where you have a crisis that's a bit

mysterious to to those of us who are not

sitting around the

table with the joint chiefs of staff

well i think it's more of our

authoritarian political opponents

who want to have a go at us um and you

know you know one of the things that's

playing out isn't it with this

coronavirus thing is there's a bit of a

a bit of a competition isn't that

between whether authoritarian is the

right answer or all the sort of

western um liberal democratic ideals

that we stand for is going to be the

best way of solving this problem

and and of course what disinformation

does doesn't it is to try to

play to existing divides and i think

that's what you see playing out here

and more so in the virus than previously

or at about the same level

i uh i don't have the evidence say it

it's greater but i think

you know the virus does force people

perhaps to as we you and i are now doing

as it were to be at home doing things uh

in a digital way so the answer is that

you know it is it is an obvious

opportunity for those who would continue

to wish to make

mischief and spread disinformation let's

look to uh what this means for the

so-called global ceasefire the un

uh was bidding for that and suggesting

that that

would be one positive response to the

coronavirus pandemic

uh globally the us uh counted that it

could restrict the pursuit of

terrorists in iraq what is your view of

the usefulness

of this rather sweeping idea of a global

ceasefire in the main conflicts that are

haunting the world

i mean the challenge of course is that

you know that's something that would

probably be

might be signed up to states some states

but of course

so much of the challenges in this world

are from non-state actors

and the extent to which daish or its

affiliated organizations

isis as others prefer to call it um are

going to sign up to ceasefire i remain

doubtful about

i'm certain they might have to limit

some of their activities because the

virus will be a problem for them in

the same way it is for everybody else

but i don't see any uh diminution in


ambition certainly to continue to make


general cynic carter thank you very much

for joining us no thanks ann very much

this interview is from our show the

economist asks

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