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

Armed forces around the world have mobilized to fight covid-19. General Sir Nick Carter, the most senior uniformed military adviser to the British government, talks to Anne McElvoy about the challenges—and dangers—posed by the pandemic. Question timecodes for description and the top comment

How is the British army fighting covid-19?

Did China cause and cover up the coronavirus outbreak?

How is the British army's secretive 77 Brigade fighting misinformation?

Does NATO have a future?

What help can Britain expect from its military allies?

How effective has America's response to the pandemic been?

Is hostile activity from Russia continuing during the pandemic?

Are dangerous cyber actors taking advantage of the pandemic?

Is the proposed UN global ceasefire practical?

You're listening to the economist, asks Imam McElvoy. And this week we're asking, is the battle to conquer Arenavirus 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 a pandemic on the ground, geopolitical jostling continues unabated. My guest is the head of the British Armed Forces, General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the defense 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 Afghanistan, where he was deputy commander of the NATO mission. General Nick Carter, welcome to The Economist asks.

No, thanks, John. It's very good to be with you.

You've described the Army's mobilization against 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 theatres of warfare. So give us a sense, if you could, of the scale and nature of this challenge and why it's different.

Well, I think it's different because so much of the way that the government is organized is on the basis of being as efficient as possible. And therefore, all of our logistic systems tend to be what they call leaned out. So when you are 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 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 Eyes security report that suggested China covered up this outbreak and indeed may have made it worse by its early lack of cooperation. What do you conclude from the reports that you see?

I mean, I think it's unhelpful at this stage to have a WITCH-HUNT. 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, the witch hunt is a phrase used when one doesn't particularly want to go find something.

Well, personally, I've seen no evidence of this being a deliberate act by anybody. Where it comes from a particular mistake from anywhere either.

So when Mike Pompeo says his evidence, enormous evidence, he said the virus initiated that we can Institute of Virology and the US Intelligence Committee 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. And you're not exactly gonna read out classified intel, sadly for us on the show. But yeah, I did. You did. Impossible position on that, General. But what where do you come down on that kind of question?

My perspective is that I have personally seen no evidence that it emerges from any deliberate act or mistake by any government, in my own view, is that we'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 that moment tend to best be had probably in US circumstances all through the G20 or whoever it might be. But at the end of the day, I think that's got to be the conversation. We've had five pandemics now since the year 2000. They've all emerged from different places. 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 a daily briefing that you gave not long ago that the so-called Seventy-Seven brigade is working with the cabinet officer with the heart of government to help quash rumors about misinformation.

This is something not peculiar to the UK. 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.

Some of 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 rest of it. And a lot of what is said to simply Kate has been doing in support of the Cabinet Office has been after misinformation and finding misinformation and then getting other parts of government or indeed the media to call them out.

But that in itself sounds to some people that was sound. So they wouldn't be very much whether there something called the Seventy-Seven Brigade or what it does and it does sound quite secretive, can use to throw a bit of light on how it works.

It is something that we created not for this purpose. It's something that was created for battlefields when, of course, increasingly the information dimension of 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 a 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 things.

So would you get involved in something like the disinformation about 5G?

And the allegations floating around quite prolifically on social media that it had something to do with the outbreak of Grania virus in the UK, but much more about identifying that there was a story going on and then giving it to others at the political level to sort out for themselves to be inappropriate for the military, to be involved in propaganda at home. If you could put it like that. No 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 identifying challenges for others to solve.

You're very closely involved in debates about the future of NATO and how it should work.

And the future is a defensive alliance. But even that kind of argument has been reshaped by the pandemic. Q. We've seen countries collaborating on joint vaccine funding pledges up to the huge 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 see the role of the United States in this persistent defense alliance of NATO and what will it 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 two to three years. 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 level.

So 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 to your big additional 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 every country for itself.

Well, I think there have been some indications of people working together. I mean, the prime minister chaired a global meeting to talk about the vaccine. And finding a vaccine is something that is going to require all of us to put our shoulder to the wheel. I also think we're beginning to coalesce about thinking about vulnerable countries because, you know, we're not gonna be able to solve a problem of all the vulnerable countries, in particular, 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. The 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 de Psaltery to sometimes perhaps to the eccentric in his own response and suggestions about how to deal with coronaviruses that worry.

You know, I'm not sure it does. And I think when you talk to them, the American machine and everything that's happening with the United States in us we we still continue to have the sorts of conversations that I think you'd hoped 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've also seen it pretty disaggregated response in the U.S. and it is obviously such a major play in any argument to any debate about where the international system goes next. So when you're sitting down there with your opposite number, the senior-most senior commanders in the US, 

what are you asking for?

I'm regularly talking to my U.S. opposite number at the moment. Mark Milley, the chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. You know, we have a close relationship, as do our militaries. And 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. And, you know, he sees it very much from his perspective of what the U.S. can do to lead the Western world through this. So I'm I'm confident from a military perspective. 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 it was back end of last year, emphasizing how much cut cyber activity we're seeing, hostile cyber activity from Russia. I think there was a recent event about March the 11th when NATO jets had scrambled to intercept Russian planes off the coast of Ireland and Scotland.

 How frequent is this sort of thing going on?

Well, I think, you know, sort of every week to two weeks. I mean, I didn't see any diminution in the in terms of activity that we've seen over the last year and a half to two years at all. But then equally, what we're also doing, what we do and we've got an operation come exercise going on off the northern coast of Norway at the moment. And we've still got people exercising in parts of Europe, particularly Estonia, where we have a battle group at the moment. So, I mean, you know, neither the Russians or for that matter, NATO are already taking their foot off the gas. But in general terms, I think the level of effort and activity is not far off. What we normally would expect to see.

And the National Cyber Security Center here in the UK advised recently that jointly with the Department of Homeland Security in the US over so-called advanced persistent threat actors, groups exploiting the pandemic to get access to information, to intellectual property, to targeting pharmaceutical companies, among others. Is this something that you're seeing a rise in specifically related to the context we're in of Koven 19,

where are the threats may be coming from?

Did they come from the usual places that we have noticed in the past?

And of course, in a way where you have a crisis that's a bit mysterious 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. We will have a go at us. And, you know, one of the things that's playing out, isn't it, with this coronavirus thing is is a bit of a competition, isn't it, between whether authoritarian is the right answer. All the sort of Western liberal democratic ideals we stand for is going to be the best way of solving this problem.

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 MORTO in the virus and previously oord about the same level.

I, I don't have the evidence said it's greater, but I think, you know, the virus does force people perhaps too, as we you and I are now doing, as it were, to be at home doing things in a digital way. So the answer is that you know, it is an obvious opportunity for those who would continue to wish to make mischief and spread disinformation.

Let's look at what this means for the so-called global ceasefire. The UN was bidding for that and suggesting that that would be one positive response to the coronavirus pandemic. Globally, the US 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 Dyche, sure. Its affiliated organizations, ISIS, as others prefer to call it, are going to sign up to ceasefire. I remain doubtful about it. 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 diminution in their ambitions, certainly to continue to make mischief.

Generals in Jakarta. Thank you very much for joining us now. Thanks, John, very much. This interview is from our show, The Economist Asks. And every week we publish a new episode in which we interview key figures in world events, the opposite. We'll take you to a page with all of our previous episodes. Thanks for watching it.