We’re heading for ‘world at war’ not World War Three, warns senior Tory MP

Amid tensions with Iran, Russia and China, former defence minister Tobias Ellwood has said the UK needs to be better prepared.

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, speaking at an event organised by the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA) in Feltham, on the second anniversary of Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Picture date: Tuesday August 15, 2023. (Photo by Jordan Pettitt/PA Images via Getty Images)
Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, has warned the UK is underprepared for war. (Getty Images)

Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood has claimed we have entered a "1937 period", and has warned that the UK needs to be better prepared for a period of sustained conflict around the world.

He warned that there "has been a complacency since the end of the Cold War", with Britain slimming down its armed forces, and called for the nation to "take stock" of its defence capabilities to deal with what appears to be an increasingly unstable era.

"It's going to be a world at war, rather than World War Three compared with World War Two – a world where we see multiple conflicts that the West cannot control or contain. No longer is the major stakeholder able to put these fires out," he told GB News.

The senior Tory MP made the remarks following a drone attack on a US military outpost in Jordan that killed three US soldiers, with Washington blaming Iran and US president Joe Biden vowing to "respond". Ellwood warned that the UK's "adversaries have started to team up and form alliances", with allies having "failed to contain" Iran's proxy influence in the Middle East.

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"We're seeing new alliances form, they are re-arming, the West doesn't have a cohesive policy yet, a strategy, on what to do with Iran or indeed Russia and China. Also, you have international institutions such as the United Nations unable to hold errant nations to account," he said.

"This is the danger that we have now, and then add on to that the introduction of new technology that wasn't around in 1937 that allows non-state actors, as we saw in this attack on the American base, to participate with increasing lethality."

Questioning how Britain should respond to this growing sense of global instability, Ellwood said: "We are a nation that steps forward, perhaps when others hesitate, that's who we are, that's what we do. That doesn't mean we do all of the heavy lifting, but we have convening power, we have soft power as well, and we try and look for the longer-term solutions including the immediate tactical responses. That's what Britain is good at and that's what other nations expect us to do."

Ellwood echoes the concerns of the British Army's outgoing chief of general staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, who warned last week that the UK would need to “train and equip” a citizen army to deal with a potential war, particularly with Russia.

“Ukraine brutally illustrates that regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them," Gen. Sanders told the International Armoured Vehicles conference in Twickenham. He described the civilian population as "a pre-war generation" who need to “think like troops” and be “prepared mentally to fight” should the time come.

His comments were taken by many as a call for a return of conscription, which ended in the 1960s, but as a strong believer in a professional Army, it's more likely that he was urging citizens to be prepared to volunteer if needed.

The Ministry of Defence issued a clarification before the speech, saying: “The British military has a proud tradition of being a voluntary force and there is absolutely no suggestion of a return to conscription.” The MoD added that £50bn was being invested in the military this year.

'On the brink of war'

Concerns have been raised in recent years about wider conflicts spreading across the world on a number of fronts.

This month, Nato military official Admiral Rob Bauer warned that civilians must prepare for all-out war with Russia in the next 20 years. He said: “We have to realise it’s not a given that we are in peace. And that’s why we [Nato forces] are preparing for a conflict with Russia.”

On Wednesday, Dennis Francis, president of the UN General Assembly, described the prospect of a third world war as "not beyond the realm of possibility".

Iran's various proxy forces have fuelled concerns of the Israel-Palestine conflict spilling into a wider regional conflict, and with the Houthis attacks on ships in the Red Sea, attacks on US military in Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and limited Israeli strikes in Lebanon and Syria – ripples are already being seen.

Former US ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein suggested neither the US nor Iran want a war with each other, telling the BBC World Service that despite the pressure Biden is under to do so, he probably won't want a direct strike against the Islamic Republic.

However, after the Jordan strike, former president Donald Trump said: "We are on the brink of World War Three". He added: “This brazen attack on the United States is yet another horrific and tragic consequence of Joe Biden's weakness and surrender."

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JANUARY 29: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during the plenary session of the Supreme Council of Russia and Belarus, at the Konstantin Palace on January 29, 2024, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Belarussian President Lukashenko is having a three-day visit to Saint Petersburg. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)
Russian president Vladimir Putin has fuelled fears of further war in eastern Europe. (Getty Images)

Where are conflicts taking place right now?

Already there are a number of wars and conflicts taking place all over the world, some of which will be fuelling concerns of spreading instability.

The Council for Foreign Relations, a US foreign policy think tank, has a map on its website tracking conflicts across the globe. It currently displays nearly 30 crises with detailed information available for each one. Some of these examples, such as China's confrontation over Taiwan, have not escalated into a war, but naturally is a stand-off the US has been watching very closely.

Here are some of the examples provided by the CFR:

  • The War in Ukraine: In the almost two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine has recaptured 54% of occupied territory, while Russia still occupies 18%, the CFR says. However, both sides have dug in, making breakthroughs increasingly harder and locking fighters into a period of sluggish attritional warfare, with military casualties climbing to an estimated half a million. Concerns have been raised by some in the West of conflict spilling over into other parts of eastern Europe.

  • Confrontation over Taiwan: Taiwan’s disputed status is a direct result of the Chinese Civil War, in which the defeated Nationalist (Kuomintang) government fled the mainland and moved to the island in 1949. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never exercised control over Taiwan, but claims it as its territory and has increasingly been calling for "reunification". In September 2022, Biden said the US would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Taiwan is the leading global producer of advanced semiconductors, meaning an invasion would be detrimental to US economic interests.

  • Confrontation with Iran: As Iran advances its nuclear program and trains proxy forces throughout the Middle East, the potential for violent conflict persists, particularly as the US accuses it of being deeply involved both in recent Red Sea attacks on commercial ships by Yemeni Houthi rebels, and the recent attack on US troops in Jordan.

  • North Korea crisis: In violation of UN Security Council resolutions, North Korea continues overt nuclear enrichment and long-range missile development efforts. Outright threats from North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un are also cause for concern, as he claims that North Korean weapons can now reach US territories and even the US mainland. In January, supreme leader Kim Jong-un said he had cast aside the goal of reunifying with South Korea, instead framing his southern neighbours – a close US ally – as the “principal enemy”.