Britain should be prepared to “train and equip” a “citizen army” that could take part in a land conflict, the head of the British Army has said, sparking fears over a third world war.
Tensions with Russia remain high amid the ongoing conflict with Ukraine and General Sir Patrick Sanders, the outgoing chief of the general staff, said that other countries are already “laying the foundations for national mobilisation” to counter the “Russian threat”. The military top brass said Britain should “train and equip the citizen army that must follow".
He added: “We will not be immune and as the pre-war generation we must similarly prepare — and that is a whole-of-nation undertaking. Ukraine brutally illustrates that regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them.” Sanders said he was not in favour of conscription – forcing citizens to undertake military service – but suggested that volunteers could sign up for a potential land war.
His comments come after top Nato military official Admiral Rob Bauer warned that civilians must prepare for all-out war with Russia in the next 20 years. He said: “We have to realise it’s not a given that we are in peace. And that’s why we [Nato forces] are preparing for a conflict with Russia.” On Wednesday, Dennis Francis, president of the UN General Assembly, described the prospect of a third world war as "not beyond the realm of possibility".
General Sir Patrick Sanders: The outgoing chief of the general staff's speech on Wednesday criticised the size of the armed forces, while calling on the public to sign up for a citizen army. He warned that increasing the size of the army over the next few years would not be enough to tackle the threat of Russia.
Grant Shapps: The defence secretary has said he is “working hard” to ensure the armed forces are not depleted, amid warnings military personnel are leaving faster than they can be replaced.
Admiral Rob Bauer: The Dutch naval officer, who is chairman of Nato’s military committee, warned this month that Nato is preparing for conflict with Russia within the next 20 years, and that it “is not a given we are at peace”.
Why it matters
The war in Ukraine shows no immediate signs of ending, with the UK government supplying billions to aid the war effort. But while the conflict is never far from the news, for many Britons the immediacy of war – happening thousands of miles away – has not been on the doorstep.
But warnings from experts that the Russian threat is not merely confined to Eastern Europe has sparked fears that Britain may be more directly affected than many had believed - or hoped. With Nato suggesting that the next 20 years may see an all-out war with Russia, there are now concerns that it could kickstart World War Three.
These fears are not merely expressed by those on the fringes – Sanders is the head of the British Army and this week he spoke of the need to recruit a “citizen army” in the wake of falling army numbers and the threat that Russia poses. And while it is not unusual for a senior military figure to use rhetoric to increase funding and resources, it comes amid wider criticism that successive government has took their eye off the ball when it comes to defence and whether Britain can fight a major war.
As recently as September, the Ministry of Defence confirmed plans announced in 2021 to cut the full-time strength of the British Army to 73,000 by 2025, despite concerns being raised by then defence secretary Ben Wallace.
The fears of a new, more global conflict have come against a backdrop of increased military action around the world – including the war in Gaza (and subsequent spillover in to the Red Sea) and increasing tensions between Pakistan and Iran, who are attempting to rebuild diplomatic ties after both countries recently traded air strikes.
What the key people are saying
Citizen army needed: “We need an Army designed to expand rapidly to enable the first echelon, resource the second echelon and train and equip the citizen army that must follow... Our friends in eastern and northern Europe, who feel the proximity of the Russian threat more acutely, are already acting prudently, laying the foundations for national mobilisation” – General Sir Patrick Sanders during a speech on 24 January
Global conflicts will grow: “Ask yourselves – looking at today’s conflicts across the world – is it more likely that the number grows, or reduces? I suspect we all know the answer – it’s likely to grow. So, 2024 must mark an inflexion point. For the UK it must… be a moment to decide the future of our national defences. The choice is stark” – Grant Shapps in a speech at Lancaster House on 15 January
Preparations for war with Russia: “We have to realise it’s not a given that we are in peace. And that’s why we [Nato forces] are preparing for a conflict with Russia. But the discussion is much wider. It is also the industrial base and also the people that have to understand they play a role… The realisation that not everything is plannable and not everything is going to be hunky dory in the next 20 years” Admiral Rob Bauer at a meeting in Brussels on 18 January
What others are saying
The whole point is to prevent escalation: "We, of course, monitor closely what Russia does, we have increased our vigilance, our presence in the eastern part of the alliance, but the whole idea of that is to prevent an attack on a Nato ally. We do all of this to ensure that we have the readiness, the preparedness and the forces in place to remove any room for miscalculation or misunderstanding in Moscow about our readiness to protect every inch of NATO territory. And as long as we do that, there will be no attack against the Nato territory" – Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg speaking in a press conference on 23 January
Shapps trying to have his cake and eat it: “On the one hand, the sheer cost of war and the risks of inevitable destruction for both sides appear to be getting higher. For game theorists and those who emphasize rationality, deterrence and its ilk still provide a mechanism to either deter or limit violence. Yet, at the same time, Shapps also argues the likes of North Korea and Iran cannot be trusted to act rationally. They therefore need to be contained, and in the case of Iran, prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. This looks like someone trying to have his cake and eat it” – Professor Andrew Dorman, writing for Chatham House on 24 January
Russia sending nuclear signals: "Conflict hot spots around the world carry the threat of nuclear escalation. A durable end to Russia's war in Ukraine seems distant, and the use of nuclear weapons by Russia in that conflict remains a serious possibility. In the past year Russia has sent numerous worrying nuclear signals" – Rachel Bronson, CEO of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who kept the Doomsday Clock close to midnight on 23 January
Trump is the wildcard factor: “The prospect of a Trump return to office... is throwing many of those estimates into question. His unpredictability makes his actions, and the results, extremely hard to model. Some argue Trump’s often toxic reputation abroad and long-running reluctance to protect some US. allies mean the threat of conflict in Europe and the Pacific would be heightened during his administration. Others suggest hostile states including Russia and China might instead hold back rather than face the sheer unpredictability of his response. Almost no one questions that the threats are growing – but there are mounting disagreements on what choices must be made” – Journalist Peter Apps, writing for Reuters on 25 January
The threat of the US and China: “We’re in the classic pre-World War One situation, where neither side has much margin of political concession and in which any disturbance of the equilibrium can lead to catastrophic consequences. Both sides have convinced themselves that the other represents a strategic danger. We are on the path to great-power confrontation. The two greatest dangers to peace right now are us two [America and China]. In the sense that we have the capacity to destroy humanity” – Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state, speaking to The Economist in 2023
Nato is trying to remain relevant: “The reality is that these machinations can be boiled down to Nato’s attempt to regain relevance against the backdrop of a deteriorating situation in Ukraine. The alliance threw all its weight behind Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s nation, and it is no secret that the war is not going well for them” – Economist Philip Pilkington, writing for Unherd on 22 January
Red Sea conflict escalation: “[It] is an extremely disturbing situation. It would appear that third parties are facilitating this action being taken by the Houthis in the Red Sea—very damaging and dangerous The last thing you really want is the regionalisation of that war. You do not want that because that would mean escalation and escalation breeds further escalation. So, a third world war is not beyond the realm of possibility" – Dennis Francis, president of the UN General Assembly, speaking in New Delhi on 24 January
"There could be war in Sweden. The world is facing a security outlook with greater risks than at any time since the end of the Second World War. We stand with Ukraine, with our allies, and with the rules-based international order, and we do so in word and deed as an arsenal of democracy. All of this will demand more of us than before, and this begins with the realisation that defending Sweden is a matter for all of us.- Speech by Minister for Civil Defence Carl-Oskar Bohlin at Folk och Försvars annual national conference in Sälen on 7 January 2024