The pervasiveness of information and the pace of technological change are utterly transforming the character of warfare in the 21st Century, and the cyber security industry has earned a seat at the table alongside the army, navy and air force, according to General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff.
Carter, who served in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, and succeeded Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach as head of Britain’s armed services 18 months ago, was delivering an annual lecture to the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi).
In his speech, Carter highlighted the rapid deterioration of international stability in the past 12 months, and said global geopolitics was returning to an era of great power competition and conflict, akin to the environment of the early 1900s that led Europe inevitably towards the First World War.
“The challenge for us in the West is that the character of that competition, being conducted by authoritarian opponents, is attacking our way of life and our freedom in a manner that is remarkably difficult to defeat without undermining the very freedoms we seek to protect,” he said.
“There is a growing academic consensus that that the idea of ‘political warfare’ has returned. This is a strategy that is designed to undermine cohesion, erode economic, political and social resilience, and challenge our strategic position in key regions of the world.”
Carter said the increasing digitisation of society was opening new ways to execute “political warfare” through the use and abuse of information, online espionage, state-backed cyber attacks and intellectual property theft, among other things, often backed by “clever propaganda and fake news”.
This required a strategic response integrating “all of the levers of national power”, said Carter, as he set out a new operational approach that, it is hoped, will bring a renewed coherence and consistency to Britain’s defence strategy in the 2020s.
“Our modernised force will be framed through the integration of five domains – space, cyber and information, maritime, air and land,” he said. “This will change the way we fight and the way we develop capability.
“Our new UK Strategic Command, which formally stands up next week as the successor to Joint Forces Command, is charged with driving the essential integration across the modernised force to achieve multi-domain effect. It will develop and generate the capabilities we need to operate successfully in this sub-threshold context – or grey zone, as some call it – including space, cyber, special operations and information operations. It will also command the strategic base, including the fixed parts of our global footprint, and the support, medical and logistic capability that enables operational deployment and mobilisation.”
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Carter described how the UK’s armed forces will in future have a strategy that gives them “smaller and faster capabilities”, relying on a high degree of mobility, electronic warfare and passive deception measures to maintain an information advantage. There will be more unmanned and autonomous platforms integrated into more sophisticated networks of systems, based around an open systems architecture to enable innovative technologies to be introduced more quickly than ever before. It will also emphasise the “non-lethal disabling” of enemies, he said.
“This modernisation will require us to embrace information-centric technologies, recognising that it will be the application of combinations of technology like processing power, connectivity, machine learning and artificial intelligence [AI], automation, autonomy and quantum computing that will achieve the disruptive effect we need,” he said.
Carter called for work to begin on a number of projects to support these goals, such as focusing on areas where ethical AI and autonomous technology can bring advantages, and how to reframe and value data as a strategic asset. He said the technology industry will have a huge role to play in this.
“We must embrace open, outwardly facing innovation – in recognition that nobody does it all in-house any longer,” he said. “We must establish an academic and entrepreneurial ecosystem. We must utilise technology scouts to boost our R&D and pound the pavements visiting universities, research centres, startups and established companies looking to establish strategic alliances with the right partners.”