UK defense chief discusses 'robot soldiers,' warns pandemic fallout risks another world war

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U.K.’s chief of the Defense Staff said in a televised interview aired Sunday that economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic increases the risk of a third world war, adding that robot soldiers could make up at least a quarter of the British army by the 2030s

In an interview with Sky News ahead of Remembrance Day, Gen. Sir Nick Carter, the professional head of the British armed forces, said tributes to those who perished during wartime still hold relevance today even though there is no one alive who served in World War I and the number of veterans from World War II is dwindling.

“We have to remember that history might not repeat itself but it has a rhythm and if you look back at the last century, before both world wars, I think it was unarguable that there was escalation, which led to the miscalculation, which ultimately led to war at a scale we would hopefully never see again,” he said.

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Veteran Charlie MacVicar, who served for 23 years with Royal Scots (Edinburgh Unit) pays his respects at the Royal British Legion Remembrance Garden, on Remembrance Sunday, in Grangemouth, Scotland, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. (Jane Barlow/PA via AP)

“Are you saying that there’s a real threat that there could be another world war?” Sky News foreign affairs editor Deborah Haynes asked. 

To that, Carter responded: “I’m saying it’s a risk and we need to be conscious of those risks. And that’s why remembrance matters. Because if you look back at history hopefully you learn from their experience and you make sure you’re very cautious about how we manage the sorts of regional conflicts we see playing out in the world today.”

Carter, the most senior uniformed military adviser to the secretary of state for defense and the prime minister of the United Kingdom, pointed to Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s decision to scrap the comprehensive spending review. Given the uncertainty amid the pandemic, it's difficult for the Treasury to set long-term spending targets. Sunak instead will set a one-year review in late November.

Still, Carter said he has been continuing negotiations with Downing Street and the Treasury in hopes of salvaging the planned integrated five-year defense review “because we need long-term investment because long-term investment gives us the opportunity to have confidence in modernization.”

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Members of the Royal Navy march, ahead of the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph, in Whitehall, London, Sunday Nov. 8, 2020. (Aaron Chown, Pool Photo via AP)

Discussing his vision for the British army in the 2030s, Carter said it could be compromised of some 90,000 human soldiers and 30,000 autonomous or remotely controlled robots.

“I mean, I suspect we could have an army of 120,000, of which 30,000 might be robots, who knows?” he said, stressing that he was speaking hypothetically and could not give accurate figures at this time.

Facing low recruitment over the past few years, the British army is comprised of just 73,870 trained regular personnel, falling short of the 82,050 target number, The Guardian reported. The armed forces have been working on several research projects aimed at filling the gaps using technology.

Britian’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson carries a wreath, during the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph, in Whitehall, London, Sunday Nov. 8, 2020. (Peter Nicholls/Pool Photo via AP)

Some involve small drones or remotely powered land or underwater vehicles. Not all are armed and some are to be used for reconnaissance. Additional research in robot warfare would be necessary before autonomous machines would have the capability and clearance to fire weapons in combat scenarios. 

Amid a second national lockdown in England, Queen Elizabeth II led tributes Sunday in a scaled-back service to remember those from the U.K. and the Commonwealth who perished in wartime, as most veterans paid their respects from home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The public was unable to attend this year and was instead encouraged to take part in the two-minute silence at home.

The 94-year-old monarch looked on from a balcony at a government building above the Cenotaph on Whitehall in central London on the 100th anniversary of the memorial's installation following the conclusion of World War I.

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Following a two-minute silence at 11 a.m., Prince Charles laid a wreath on the queen's behalf during the Remembrance Sunday commemoration. Others, including Charles' oldest son, Prince William, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also laid wreaths in honor of those who lost their lives. Leaders from across the political spectrum, including former prime ministers, were also present.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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