A “miscalculation” in the cat and mouse game with Russia could lead to full blown war, the head of the Armed Forces has warned, after a tense confrontation in the Black Sea this week.
General Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the defence staff, said the risk of an “unwarranted escalation” involving Britain is “the thing that keeps me awake in bed at night”.
There was a standoff between Britain and Russia when a Royal Navy destroyer passed through a contested part of the Black Sea on Wednesday.
Russia considers the waters to be its own after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but it is recognised by Britain as sovereign Ukrainian territory.
HMS Defender provoked Russian forces into firing warning shots and dropping four bombs close to the ship, according to the Russian defence ministry, but this claim is disputed by Downing Street.
HMS Defender: Cape Fiolent map
Reflecting on the incident during a talk at the Chalke Valley History Festival, Sir Nick, who has pushed back his retirement to stay in post until the end of the year, said: “The thing that keeps me awake in bed at night is a miscalculation that comes from unwarranted escalation.
“The sort of thing we saw in the Black Sea on Wednesday is the sort of thing it could come from.
“It wouldn’t have done on that occasion, but it’s the type of thing one needs to think quite hard about.”
He had earlier claimed the standoff was an illustration of the “battle of the narratives” that can take place in modern warfare amid the rise of disinformation and fake news.
“That was brought vividly to life I would suggest by the incident in the Black Sea which is causing great excitement in the media at the moment,” he said.
“That is classically an example of a battle of the narratives. And the jury’s out as to who won that battle.”
It came after Britain rejected Russia’s account of events, with the Prime Minister’s official spokesman saying the UK and other countries had been informed by Russia it was undertaking a “gunnery exercise” near to where HMS Defender was sailing.
“They provided us and others with prior warning of this activity,” the spokesman added.
Sir Nick, 62, also warned that Britain’s opponents were “evolving at pace”, adding: “If you look at some of the technologies China and Russia have developed, they are very worrisome.
“They are making us somewhat vulnerable.”
It has meant Britain now faces “mega competition” for people with science and technology, as technology such as AI, drones and cyber attacks is expected to become key in future conflicts.
Sir Nick said the military was now “anxious for data analysts, data scientists and engineers”.
“I never would have imagined this 10 years ago,” he said.
The Armed Forces chief voiced concern that the education system was not doing enough to equip the next generation of children with the skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) now desperately needed by the military.
He said: “From a military perspective, we are finding it very challenging to draw into the military the STEM skills we need, but also to retain them.
“My judgement is that this may well be because the education system is not developing enough people with those skills but I’m not really qualified to comment on the curriculum in schools, I’m afraid, just the output of it, perhaps.”
The Army has tried to tap into the popularity of video games to draw new recruits into its ranks, including an announcement that it was trialling the use of virtual reality technology in its training.