Ben Wallace: ‘Instead of mass and mobilisation, this future force will be about speed, readiness and resilience, operating much more in the newest domains of space, cyber and sub-sea’ © Toby Melville/Getty Images

The UK’s defence secretary has admitted Britain’s military is racing to catch up with its adversaries’ successes in technological warfare, as he warned: “our enemies have studied our vulnerabilities and adapted far more quickly than us”.

Setting out his vision ahead of this autumn’s integrated defence and security review, Ben Wallace hinted that the armed forces would use drones and other forms of autonomous weaponry rather than large troop deployments to fight future wars. 

“Instead of mass and mobilisation, this future force will be about speed, readiness and resilience, operating much more in the newest domains of space, cyber and sub-sea,” he told reporters on board HMS Tamar, the Navy’s newest warship, on Monday.

As he spoke, the defence secretary was flanked by one drone fitted with a torpedo and another kitted out with surveillance capabilities, which can be flown for miles from the deck of any naval vessel.

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s most senior adviser, has been a vocal critic of spending on hardware such as the UK’s aircraft carriers in favour of investment in drone technology.

The government’s enthusiasm for spending on military tech also reflects the changing nature of warfare as practised by countries such as China and Russia, which avoid direct conflict by using cyber attacks and the proliferation of disinformation to unsettle adversaries.

Over the weekend Lt Gen Jim Hockenhull, the UK’s chief of defence intelligence, used a briefing from RAF Wyton in Cambridgeshire, to urge the UK to keep pace with adversaries such as Beijing and Moscow who exploit new technologies and refuse to play by the rules.

“Whilst conventional threats remain, we have seen our adversaries invest in artificial intelligence, machine learning and other groundbreaking technologies, whilst also supercharging more traditional techniques of influence and leverage,” Lt Gen Hockenhull said, speaking from the intelligence base that co-ordinates secret missions with partners in the Five Eyes alliance.

“Hostile states are willing to take incredible risks,” he said, pointing to Russia’s attempted poisoning of former Soviet spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury two years ago. “We must make sure that we have both the intent and the capability to ensure that such wanton acts of irresponsibility will not go unpunished.”

However, traditionalists fear a focus on cyber operations and drone technology in the upcoming defence review — due to report in November — will come at the expense of military personnel and hardware. Some estimates suggest the Army could be cut from its current target strength of 82,000 to around 60,000. Mr Wallace has also previously acknowledged the review would mean “letting go” of some military equipment to invest in cyber and space capabilities. 

Speaking alongside the defence secretary on Monday, Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff, said the new armed forces would move from an “industrial age represented by platforms, to an information age as represented by systems” and have a “digital backbone” at their core.

But he was also clear that warfighting would always involve people, rather than just autonomous machines. “The nature of war never changes. It will always be visceral, violent and about politics,” Sir Nick said. “Ultimately it will always require people to go head-to-head on the ground to seek a result and a decision.”

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