Sink or Swim

27th April 2021
BY Margaret Gilmore, Correspondent for the Wykeham Journal, Former Senior Home Affairs Correspondent for BBC News and Former Winchester College parent

Who could have predicted when a young Nick Carter went AWOL from the Winchester College branch of the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) to play golf, that he was destined to become the most powerful figure in the British military? Today General Sir Nick Carter is Chief of the Defence Staff, in overall charge of all British armed forces and strategic military advisor to the Prime Minister.

General Sir Nick Carter GCB, CBE, DSO, ADC Gen

‘I wasn’t a very successful cadet,’ he admits of his schooldays in Win Coll CCF. ‘They promoted me eventually to Lance Corporal. Then I was caught pedalling off to play golf one Wednesday afternoon when I was supposed to be doing CCF and they removed the rank of Lance Corporal, and I went back to being a Rifleman again, a private soldier, you know, the lowest rank. So that wasn’t too good.’              

Nevertheless, General Carter is enthusiastic about his Winchester education. He believes it helped prepare him for what has been a diverse and distinguished army career that now sees him leading and shaping a modern armed force capable of defending Britain against a myriad of twenty-first century threats. COVID restrictions mean we are chatting via computer. He is casually dressed in a blue polo shirt. The background is nondescript, but his authority, charisma and affability are palpable.

‘I was not a massive academic success at Winchester. I’m a non-graduate,’ he tells me with humour and some humility. ‘One of the things that’s impressive about Winchester is that regardless of whether you go to university or not, it does give you certain things which you might not necessarily get otherwise. They place much more of a premium on not learning by rote. You’re expected to self-start. And you are rewarded for healthy scepticism, challenge and analysis. These are great things in an education.’

“'I was not a massive academic success at Winchester. I'm a non-graduate,' he tells me with humour and some humility”

The school also gave him a hinterland adding sport and culture to the academic syllabus. He excelled on the playing fields — Winchester Football, cricket and golf. At A Level he studied Economics, History and English and recalls Div as a stimulus where students could have an unusually mature relationship with dons and learn beyond the syllabus. His Economics don, David King, was a particular inspiration: ‘Economics is a subject where I suspect you could very easily just follow the syllabus and end up scoring highly at A Level as a consequence. But he took it to another level and through inspiring analysis, got one to understand why economics was a useful tool for thinking about decision-making and problem solving the future.’ 

Winchester, he explains, taught him to have intellectual curiosity and to think outside the box — assets tested early in his career. Sandhurst — the Royal Military Academy — was his father’s initially temporary suggestion given he did not have strong A Levels. On commissioning from Sandhurst he was given responsibility for 30 soldiers at the age of 18 and found himself leading a platoon in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, in some of the most dangerous circumstances. ‘The upshot of that is you either sink or swim…. It’s about reading the situation and being agile in your thinking…. You’re a young officer, aged 18 gusting 19, leading a patrol, which in an urban area would have three or four sub-patrols. You would be making sure those little detachments were being manœuvred in such a way that you were always protecting each other’s flanks, even if you couldn’t see each other. So you would be forever trying to make sure you were providing depth in the event of your being attacked…. And equally, you would be putting a sniper or a gunman under pressure if that individual wanted to have a go at you.’ I notice General Carter enthusiastically lifting his hands to mimic the movements of the different groups of soldiers as if on a three-dimensional map.

“'Winchester, he explains, taught him to have intellectual curiosity and to think outside the box - assets tested early in his career.'”

His education also helped prepare him for army life by teaching him to see things from the perspective of others: ‘One of the things that has been very important in the sort of operational environments I’ve served in, whether that’s Iraq or Afghanistan, or the Western Balkans, has been to try and put yourself in the skin of those you’re seeking to defend in the local populations, so that you really understand the political dynamics effectively. That is a very important attribute, that Winchester inculcates into its boys.’                

The ability to put himself into the shoes of a rural population in Afghanistan, for example, enabled him to see that freedom of movement in the face of insurgency was the most important thing for them. They needed to stimulate trade and the economy but had been displaced from their homes or prevented from travelling by insurgents. General Carter and his troops were sent to deal with that. The ability to understand the thinking of those around him was invaluable there, but he adds: ‘It’s a good thing to do, even if you’re trying to win the argument for more money with the Treasury!’                

On the day of our interview, despite COVID-19 restrictions, General Carter had just returned from Afghanistan where he continues to play a key role in working to bring stability.

‘Afghanistan has been such a feature of my life,’ he says, citing his second year-long tour in Kandahar and Helmand as an example of where the type of strategic thinking instilled at school has been put to play. It was 2009 to 2010 and by then he was a Major General, commanding 55,000 troops, predominantly Americans but including 10,000 British soldiers. President Obama had signalled a change in approach and reinforced work in Afghanistan significantly. General Carter led the way on the military side with a different perspective, treating the insurgency there less as a military and more as a political problem which the armed forces could not directly solve, but could enable others to.

‘It became what we call a population-centric form of counter-insurgency. It wasn’t just about trying to kill the bad guys. It was much more about working out how you connected the population to governance and then gave them a sense of security. And that had to be done in partnership with Afghans. In essence, it was first-principle thinking that could give the Afghans confidence to take responsibility for the problem rather than us doing it for them. There’s a very good Afghan joke which describes this phenomenon rather well, which is “God came to Afghanistan several hundred years ago and saw the scale of the problem and said to the Afghans, don’t do anything till I come back.” And of course, that is the inclination in those sorts of environments where the indigenous confidence is so shattered — the trick is to flip it so that it becomes their problem and you’re helping them to help themselves. That’s a lateral way of thinking.’

Today the threats and challenges are increasingly dynamic and complex. They include threats that do not recognise borders such as terrorism, cyber-attacks, denial of access attacks, and the development of more sophisticated long-range missiles and unmanned drones. This means that, as General Carter draws up a future ‘Integrated Operating Concept’ for our defence forces as part of the UK Government’s wider security blueprint for the future, it needs to be both operational and adaptable.                

‘I think the security situation is more fragile than I can remember at any time in my career, globally and for the UK,’ he warns; ‘Russia is the acute threat; I don’t regard China as a threat; I regard China as a chronic challenge. China is a rising super power, there are significant interdependencies, particularly with technology. There are lots of opportunities and we need to work with China to resolve the many global issues that resonate these days, whether that is climate change, biodiversity loss, emerging and disruptive technologies or conventions for space and cyber.’                

“'It is clear that General Carter values the lasting influence of his Winchester education. He continues to engage with young people and to return to Winchester College to support and inspire other Wykehamists.'”

The COVID pandemic, he warns, heralds global recession and the potential for more instability. ‘History does not repeat itself, but it does have a rhythm and invariably after an economic crisis you get a security crisis.’ Tension in regions like the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, the Caucasus and further afield, often involving more powerful external states, compound the threat. ‘Escalation leading to potential miscalculation is the greatest risk. Modern weapons, particularly autonomous ones, are hard to control, and the legal, ethical and moral framework that worked in the industrial age will not be so effective in the information age. The pervasiveness of information has led to a changed character of conflict and politics. The phenomenon of populism is a challenge and of course these days not many of our policy makers have had any experience of war and how ghastly it is.                

‘The nature of war is always visceral and violent. It’s always full of friction, and it’s always essentially about human interaction. We will find that autonomy and robots are increasingly prevalent but there will still be a requirement for humans to be in control and for humans to engage.’  His future vision sees an armed force where the battlefield will be populated by a mix of humans and robots, where defence personnel are diverse in terms of race and sex and gender, and where the system of promoting by rank is replaced to some extent with promotion and payment linked to specialisms like cyber skills.                

Meanwhile our armed forces continue to provide military aid in times of crisis or disaster. Since January 2020 General Carter has sat on the Government’s emergency committee COBRA advising on the COVID-19 pandemic. The armed forces have supported the NHS and helped with logistics, acquisition and procurement. They have distributed PPE, built Nightingale Hospitals and carried out large-scale testing in our cities.                

‘There were good examples of innovative thinking, and of two cultures, ours and the NHS, coming together in a very complementary fashion. It turned out to be rather a good marriage, because we sort of surfed off each other’s skill sets and produced a pretty successful product, in the case of the Nightingales in particular, in a really quite remarkable time-frame.’                

It is clear that General Carter values the lasting influence of his Winchester education. He continues to engage with young people and to return to Winchester College to support and inspire other young Wykehamists:                

‘The older you get, the more you realise how important it is to encourage the young. If you don’t make that connection, you won’t learn either. And so much of what I am doing in this current job and my previous one as head of the Army, was actually about making sure that the generation that matters is being listened to. You must take account of their views as you develop a modern career structure and modern armed forces that meet the country’s needs. It’s sobering to think that the Chief of the Defence Staff in 40 years’ time will just be joining the Armed Forces now.’ 

Related Stories