Two events over the festive period provide a troubling foretaste of what is to come. First, combined naval patrols undertaken by Russia, China and Iran in the Gulf graphically illustrate the changing balance of global power, where America’s role as the world’s undisputed military power can no longer be taken for granted.
This was quickly followed by Washington’s decision to launch a series of air strikes against the Iranian-backed Shia militia Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria, which is the first time the US has directly targeted Iranian-backed militias in nearly a decade and represents a serious escalation in Washington’s confrontation with Tehran. The attacks were launched after the US accused the militia of carrying out a rocket strike against US and Iraqi forces in Iraq.
Both these incidents provide an insight into the profound changes taking place in the type of threats we are likely to face in the years to come, as well as raising serious questions about the nation’s preparedness for dealing with them.
The joint patrols undertaken by China, Russia and Iran indicate the desire of these rival powers to establish an alternative security mechanism which means that the US no longer enjoys automatic paramountcy when it comes to the formation of international coalitions, which has generally been the case since the end of the Cold War.
Consequently, whereas the British Royal Navy – working in conjunction with the US and other coalition navies to protect Gulf shipping – has previously had to contend with nothing more threatening than the fast patrol boats operated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, British warships will find themselves operating in waters contested by Russian and Chinese warships that have immeasurably greater firepower.
Having largely played a subsidiary role in the conflicts of the previous decade, the Navy is likely to find itself taking centre stage as Britain and its allies seek to curb the military threat posed by emerging powers such as China and Russia. This means that the Navy, as well as the rest of the military, needs to have sufficient numbers of warships, warplanes and soldiers available to make Britain a credible force in countering the ambitions of the regimes in Beijing and Moscow.
The use of proxy militias by rogue states such as Iran, by contrast, highlights the changing nature of warfare, to one where our enemies increasingly rely on non-conventional tactics to achieve their overall strategic objectives.
Iran’s relationship with Kataeb Hezbollah is a case in point. Ostensibly, the militia’s role is to protect the interests of Shia Muslims and their allies in countries such as Iraq and Syria, where it has also been used to shore up the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. However, the fact that the militia’s activities are directly controlled by the elite Quds Force unit of the Revolutionary Guard means that Iran is able to use the militia for its own nefarious ends, while allowing Tehran to deny any official involvement.
Similar tactics have been employed by the Kremlin in Ukraine, where Russian military personnel have frequently disguised their true identities, thereby allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to deny the Kremlin’s involvement in attempts to destabilise its southern neighbour.
Add to this the increased use of cyber warfare, as well as other non-conventional tactics such as the dissemination of fake news on social media outlets, and it is clear that his new form of hybrid warfare poses just as much of a threat to our future wellbeing as any number of Islamist-inspired terror plots.
The test for the 2020s, then, will be for the government to make sure that Britain has both the resources and the resolve to tackle the challenges of the future, whether they take the form of emerging powers like China, or less obvious adversaries, such as the masterminds behind cyber warfare and fake news.
Con Coughlin is defence editor of London’s Daily Telegraph.