The UK has developed an offensive cyber capability which can “degrade, disrupt and even destroy” its enemies’ critical infrastructure, giving Britain an edge in what is becoming the most active domain in modern warfare, a top general has warned.
General Sir Patrick Sanders, head of Strategic Command, gave a rare insight into Britain’s cyber attack methods as he said his team of forces personnel was working with counterparts at Britain’s signals intelligence agency in Cheltenham, GCHQ, on ways to hit back against hostile states that target the UK for espionage, to steal intellectual property and weaken its defences.
“The world class national offensive cyber capabilities we provide in a completely integrated partnership with GCHQ can degrade, disrupt and even destroy critical capabilities and infrastructure of those who would do us harm, ranging from strategic to tactical targets, Gen Sir Patrick said on Friday. “These effects can amplify our forces at sea, in the air or on land and they contribute to deterrence.”
The general was speaking at the Ministry of Defence’s cold war-era nuclear bunker at Corsham in Wiltshire ahead of this autumn’s integrated defence and security review, which is expected to boost investment in innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence over traditional military hardware.
While Britain’s defence and intelligence officials are keen to publicise their efforts in cyber defence, they have previously been reluctant to admit to having an offensive cyber capability.
Cyber incursions by adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran are largely unseen by the public but have the potential to disrupt power plants, hospitals or transport infrastructure. Gen Sir Patrick said there were an average of 60 attacks per day on British military targets which were serious enough to warrant an intervention by the armed forces’ cyber defence team at Corsham.
“Cyber space has been a means for terrorist groups to push their propaganda, for Russians to interfere in our democratic elections, for Chinese misinformation and IP theft, for Iranian support to terrorist groups and aggressive use of the Covid-19 pandemic as a cover for exploitation operations,” the head of Strategic Command said.
“If this was an air war, it would be the Blitz . . . unlike the Blitz, there’s no physical destruction . . . so thankfully it’s bloodless but the intensity and the frequency of the attacks are on the same scale,” he said.
The only known offensive cyber campaign by British forces targeted Isis fighters in Syria and Iraq, and involved denying internet service, disrupting online activity, and destroying equipment and networks belonging to the jihadist group.
The integrated review, which is due to report in November, is likely to announce the creation of a new “Cyber Force” made up jointly of military tech experts and intelligence officers who will focus on deploying and advancing the UK’s offensive operations.
A new index of international cyber power, published last week by the Belfer Centre at Harvard University, ranked the UK third overall after the US and China.