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There was something strange about China’s high-altitude balloon travelling across America last week before it was shot down by the U.S. Air Force’s F22 jets.
For six days, the lumbering airship floated some 50,000 ft over the world’s greatest superpower, reportedly even travelling over Alaska without being detected.
In an age of advanced satellite communications, Star Wars-style anti-missile defences, early-warning systems and laser-guided missiles, here was a machine that would have looked old-fashioned to the Wright brothers, the American aviation pioneers of the early 20th century.
Beijing’s spy balloon was able to run rings around the U.S.’s top surveillance programmes precisely because it was so slow and primitive.
The case, I believe, has profound and far-reaching lessons — and we would do well to heed them.
The spy balloon is seen drifting above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, on Saturday – with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it
This week, the Mail has drawn attention to the parlous state of Britain’s defence capability. As the world becomes ever more perilous, with a revanchist Russia and an increasingly aggressive China destabilising geopolitics, the democracies have a clear need to retain mighty military forces.
Several influential voices have called for a vast increase in Britain’s military spending — and with good reason.
But while new tanks, jets, guns, warships, ammunition and the rest are all vital, the next world war — should it ever come — is just as likely to be fought online as on the battlefield. That is why we must match any spending on military hardware with massive investment in technological defence — that is, our ability to wage war in cyberspace.
Just imagine a nightmare scenario in which the Chinese fitted a small nuclear bomb to a second balloon and floated it over the U.S. — to detonate over Chicago, say.
Given the limited scale of the weapon, the explosion itself might not cause much physical devastation or loss of life.
But its shockwaves could nevertheless cripple much of the electronic infrastructure across the eastern U.S..
Mobile phones, internet access, energy grids, water supplies, transport networks and military logistics would all be hit. Parts of society would cease to function.
This is the threat for which we should be preparing: investing in the technology and the skills needed to detect and neutralise such attacks.
Britain is lucky to have a world-beating intelligence and security asset in GCHQ at Cheltenham. But our systems are still too prone to attack by foreign regimes, criminal gangs and terrorists.
In recent months, the world has been dazzled by developments in artificial intelligence (AI). Programs such as the remarkable ChatGPT machine-learning software, which can answer many questions better and more coherently than humans do, have hinted at the scale of this capability.
‘Deepfake’ technology, in which computers generate spookily realistic videos of individuals apparently saying things they would never say in real life, is another example.
These technologies are aimed at civilians. But you can be sure that our potential adversaries are studying how to exploit AI and other modern tech in a future war. We should now be matching their investment pound for pound.
In recent months, the world has been dazzled by developments in artificial intelligence. Programs such as the remarkable ChatGPT machine-learning software, which can answer many questions better and more coherently than humans do, have hinted at the scale of this capability
My point is that, as regular scandals in military procurement illustrate, a splurge of cash on huge projects is in itself no guarantee of effectiveness. As with the NHS, just throwing money at problems doesn’t solve them.
The Ajax armoured vehicle, for instance, was meant to enter service six years ago. The £5.5 billion project remains beset by problems in development and production.
Our entire approach over recent years has been unbalanced, with too much money squandered on prestige initiatives, while the foundations of defence have been neglected.
All three of the services have been reduced in size, but there has been no commensurate pruning in senior hierarchies.
In 2019, the Ministry of Defence admitted that the Royal Navy had 34 admirals — but just 20 warships. The higher ranks of the RAF are packed with air vice-marshals, yet the entire RAF has fewer operational planes than the average U.S. aircraft carrier.
These people need to be far better deployed — and better trained, regardless of the cost — for the hi-tech world of the 2020s.
The truth is that our Armed Forces have grown complacent, the generals fighting — or at least preparing to fight — the wars of the last century.
After the Soviet Union fell, a misguided belief took hold that Britain was no longer in any danger from external threats — the world had witnessed what some called ‘the end of history’.
This led to the theory that our Armed Forces should project British power overseas instead of protecting us at home. The Army was to be revamped as an elite, lean expeditionary force, just as the Royal Navy would inspire awe around the world with two vast new aircraft carriers, together costing £7 billion.
It is a strategy that has backfired calamitously.
The Royal Navy released images of HMS Portland tracking the Russian vessels in the North Sea on January 9, 2023
Failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan badly undermined Britain’s military reputation, while the construction of the two carriers now looks like an act of epic folly.
One has been plagued with technical problems, and both have had to use borrowed American planes because Britain does not have its own suitable seaborne aircraft.
The skewed priority given to the carriers has left our defence spending hopelessly unbalanced. The Royal Navy now lacks the sailors, submarines and ships to guard the underwater infrastructure — such as utility pipelines and internet cables — around our coast.
Like a nuclear explosion released from a high-altitude balloon, a deliberate, sustained, but deniable attack by unknown assailants on this infrastructure would cause social mayhem and economic meltdown. The sabotage of the Nordstream gas pipeline last September was a warning shot in this respect — one that has exposed our lack of preparedness for such attacks.
And this leads me to another key question about how best to prepare for war in the modern era. It is often a question of proportion.
The former U.S. President George W. Bush, a critic of Pentagon excess, complained about the absurdity of aiming a $2 million missile at ‘a $10 empty tent’, and then ‘hit a camel in the butt’, as he put it.
The same mismatch can be seen in the current Ukrainian war, where Western anti-aircraft missiles, often costing over $250,000, are being fired against Iranian drones with a price tag of just $5,000. Old-fashioned flak guns could do the job just as well.
Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston (left) and Station Commander for RAF Coningsby Billy Cooper (right) with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during his visit to RAF Coningsby in Linconshire
We also need less ‘sophistication’ in our defence recruitment. The RAF’s emphasis on gender balance for its fighter pilots, for instance, ignores the fact that the Typhoon helmet is too heavy for the average woman, no matter how committed she is.
This is not just a question of redesign: the helmet’s in-built protections and hi-tech components mean it is always going to be very heavy.
It is ridiculous that, as we learnt this week, the RAF is struggling with personnel shortages, yet at the same time rejecting young, tough, capable men who are keen to do the job — simply because of their sex.
Some elements of war are timeless. As George Orwell warned: ‘We sleep soundly because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on those who would do us harm.’
It is critical, then, that increased spending on military hardware corresponds to far greater and better-targeted investment in how to deal with the sort of attacks we are actually likely to face in future — as well as on the spying capabilities that could identify the perpetrators.
The world is growing more dangerous. How we approach that danger now will determine whether or not we finally overcome it — should the terrible day ever come when we discover we need to try.
Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford.