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Russia remains UK’s top security threat, warns intelligence chief

The UK’s security priority must remain Europe and the Atlantic, as Russia is the main threat to Britain until the end of the decade, the head of the country’s defence intelligence organisation has warned.

In rare public remarks, Adrian Bird, chief of Defence Intelligence, stressed that the UK’s own backyard should be its primary concern. “The UK’s non-discretionary security priority must be our home region of the Euro-Atlantic, and here we assess that Russia will remain the greatest threat to the UK mainland out to 2030,” he said.

The security of Europe is increasingly “indivisible from that of the wider world”, he added, citing the cross-border impact of some state activity, climate change and global health concerns.

Speaking on Tuesday at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London, the head of Defence Intelligence, which works alongside the other UK intelligence agencies GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, added that China would pose the most significant challenge to Britain’s “overseas interests and economic security” from 2030.

Bird’s comments reflect the change in emphasis in March back towards Moscow in a refresh of the UK’s foreign and defence policy following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. In the immediate aftermath of Brexit, the government had tilted the country’s defence posture towards the Indo-Pacific.

Speaking on a trip to Estonia, foreign secretary James Cleverly said the UK was ready for Moscow’s next moves. “Whatever Russia decides to do next in Ukraine, or indeed anywhere else, we are prepared.”

Defence Intelligence is part of the Ministry of Defence, which next month is expected to spell out in detail how the change in emphasis will affect plans to spend its £50bn annual budget.

Bird told the audience that Britain had to be “alive long term to the challenges being presented by China”, as Beijing “will compete more directly with the UK across our areas of interest and will be capable of disrupting supplies of key technologies and materials”, including microchips, semiconductors and rare earth elements.

China’s military, intelligence, space and cyber capabilities pose an “increasing threat”, he added, concluding: “We assess that China will present the greatest challenge to the UK’s overseas interests and economic security in 2030.”

Last week Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the head of Britain’s armed forces, appeared to play down the UK’s post-Brexit switch in focus to the Indo-Pacific, remarking that the “tilt was tiny” and that the UK remained primarily focused on Europe and the Atlantic.

However, Radakin also emphasised the importance of the Aukus security pact, a trilateral defence partnership with the US built around the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.

In a wide-ranging address, Bird said Britain was facing increasingly complex and interconnected threats, which are underpinned by geopolitical instability and competition between states, as well as “rapidly accelerating technological advances”.

He said Defence Intelligence staff were already using machine learning approaches and warned that artificial intelligence would “widen and accelerate” militaries’ understanding of the battlefield and drive “faster decision making in future conflicts”. 

The organisation needed to harness AI to help cope with the amount of raw information that was coming in as its analysts were struggling to process it fast enough, he added.

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