The Integrated Review (IR) published on 22 March 2021 outlined the U.K.’s ambition to become a science and technology superpower by 2030. At the forefront of the ambition lies cyber defence and offensive capabilities, which will require industry and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to come together to ensure the UK’s cyber capability gains a competitive edge. Cyber reigns supreme as the jewel in the U.K. economic crown, and spearheads its defences too.
The Integrated Review contained plans to enhance our cyber strategy, from the creation of a new ministerial group for oversight through to the formation of a new National Cyber Force. The question is, as UK defence seeks to pursue a defensive and offensive cyber capability, how will the activities and technologies be regulated in a democratic society?
It is important that our troops act within, and are protected by, the law at home and abroad, but technology outpaces the law considerably.
General Sir Patrick Sanders, Head of Strategic Command, has said that the new generation of cyber warriors within the National Cyber Force would engage the enemy “more frequently and more persistently” than traditional military roles such as special forces. He noted that the threat we face is exponential, warning that the UK will not be able to defend against the barrage of cyber and disinformation attacks daily without the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The result will be hyper-enabled cyber operators seamlessly merging the best of human ability with machines to make thousands of manoeuvres per second, unlimited by the speed of human cognition. As General Sanders said, “Humans can’t be everywhere, but software can”.
The aspiration reflects the very real and rapidly growing digital threats we face; silent, invisible and with catastrophic effect if successful. Cyberspace has become a “vector for espionage” and the global headlines confirm the same through persistent ransomware attacks bringing critical infrastructure to its knees or disrupting essential supply chains remotely. With China currently dominating superiority in AI and software development, western powers must hasten the pace of implementation to ensure strategies like the IR do not simply become aspirational narratives countering a very real threat.
Enabling our warriors
The U.K. cyber security market needs to encourage innovative technologies and the development of AI and machine learning as a vital force multiplier. This will deliver value for tax-payers’ money and stimulate the cyber sector that protects the digital environment across public and private sectors.
As we edge towards the adoption of novel technologies and techniques to protect our digital interests at home and abroad, procurement agencies such as Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), legislators and regulators alike must act to make sure we can digitally defend, attack and operate as a democratic society with teeth.