World War III Anyone?

Well, hasn’t 2024 landed with a cheery wave and a happy heart? The UK’s Chief of the General Staff talks openly about the necessity of a massive citizens’ army in the UK to counter and deter a resurgent Russia. Senior NATO officials offer to public discourse the assertion that the Brits better get a wiggle on because all-out war with Russia will happen within the next five years or so. Not to be outdone, Candidate Trump uses social media to warn of the near-inevitability of World War Three. A person could be forgiven for being just a little bit down given such forecasting from the (would be) great and good.

Being more considered, if serious people are considering the possibility of significant warfare as a probable event, we need to consider two questions rather urgently. One: what, if anything, can decision-makers do to prevent war? Two: what will we require as a country to survive? The first question is concerned with avoidance either though deterrence, appeasement, or policy stances embracing shades of grey between these two extremes. The second question is about resilience and what we need, as a country, to do to address the uncertainties of a period of high international tension and the shock of a hot war. To address the first enquiry, assuming a policy more towards deterrence than appeasement, substantially increased force numbers, readiness levels and continuous collective training are critical components of a military on the front foot. This is the responsibility of both the political and military leadership within the UK, but I am not sure I can detect too much urgency in raising military numbers, their training standards and ensuring ready supplies of the high-end consumables that a modern military power requires.

Questions of resilience are more nuanced, perhaps. If a population is to prepare for state-on-state warfare, do we need to look to food, water and energy security as a matter of urgency? Should we ensure that our younger people have basic survival skills in case homes are bombed and utilities denied? How is such a narrative even contemplated when the political classes in Europe and the US will continue to fight elections on economic competence and growth rather than security and international relations? We hear that war is coming for us but we do not see any actions to suggest that we are preparing for this occurrence.

Looking at our society as a complex system, we need to understand our vulnerabilities and what makes us fragile. We can then use our resources immediately to make good any strategic deficiencies so that our resilience comes to represent a key strand of our deterrence. If we believe the warnings, preparing for war, within our military and across our society, might help us to avoid one. Doing nothing is a choice, of course, but one that we might live to regret.

John Louth

Professor John Louth is senior strategic adviser to Redstone Risk. He serves on a number of UK defence boards as either a non-executive director or strategic adviser and sits on the panel of advisers to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. His latest book on UK exports was published this year by Routledge. He is a collaborating professor with the University of South Australia in Adelaide.