Like any technological leap forward, new, never seen before, state of the art practices or equipment are always the product of hundreds of years of development and evolution. The UK military’s focus on cyber (and to a lesser degree space) may seem like it has come from nowhere to be at the forefront of strategic development in the latest Integrated Review. But in reality, digital warfare has been developing for some time. The present focus may have more to do with our (relatively slow) speed to harness the opportunities cyber warfare brings rather than its effectiveness. It also reflects the growing dependence on digital infrastructure in modern societies.
As Noel Sharkey wrote in the Spectator recently, ‘For years the MoD has treated cyber warfare as a dangerous possibility, but in the next conflict…British officials expect cyberattacks to be the new reality.’ They would have to be extremely short sighted not too. Constant and increasingly creative fishing attacks by texts and email from petty criminals, digital identity theft, revenge porn, distributed denial of service (DDOS) and ransomware attacks against businesses (both Amazon and Google in 2020) and state infrastructure (the NHS was severely disrupted by the WannaCry virus in 2017), deepfake videos and electronic corporate and political espionage are happening on a daily basis harming millions of people. It is therefore no surprise that militaries are utilizing digital means to engage their enemies.
I have not personally worked with the UK’s own 77 Brigade in a professional capacity; to get a better understanding of their work I recommend reading Carl Miller’s ‘The Death of the Gods’ (Windmill Books, 2019). But this outfit was the first UK unit designated specifically to focus on the apex of psychological operations (psyops), stabilization and media operations to have a direct effect on the enemy. In Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan troops on the ground weren’t oblivious to the digital world – they understood the importance of media training, public relations, and operation security. The military has been using voice procedure over radio networks since their introduction. But the scale and speed of communication and the use of real or doctored information to change the behaviour or perception of civilians in conflict zones has increased at a previously unimaginable rate. With new challenges come new opportunities and the UK military must learn and adapt to overcome our adversaries in this sphere.
What should we be looking out for then? Fewer films featuring beleaguered and/or heroic muscle-bound infanteers, and more focus on cerebral square eyed ‘geeks’? New battalions of soldiers more interested in Esports than sports afternoons? Not entirely. There has always been and will always be a place for a diverse mix of skills and people in any successful team. But with the growing recognition of the scale and potential of cyber/digital warfare, the aspirations and direction in the Integrated Review, and the commitment to encourage research and development spending in the private sector, the UK Government has stated its intent. Service Chiefs and senior civil servants must now do their best to put policy into practice. Their success will ultimately be judged on how well UK infrastructure remains technologically advanced but digitally secure…or whether they’re already too late.
James Clark served in the British Army as an Infantry Officer, former Conservative parliamentary candidate, and founded Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces. You can follow James on Twitter at @JamesTClark