Search form

Last updated: 6 min 25 sec ago

You are here

Governments can no longer ignore the digital arms race

The warfare of the future could look more like it’s taking place on PlayStation than the battlefields of El-Alamein. It won’t be about tanks and physics, but coding and brains. Ciaran Martin, head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, has told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that a major cyber-attack on the UK is a case of “when, not if.” He puts it down to luck that the country has so far avoided a “category one” (C1) attack on vital infrastructure like energy companies and financial services. Such an attack might cripple infrastructure, with horrendous consequences. The new Defense Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has also entered this discussion recently, warning that such an attack orchestrated by Moscow could cause “thousands and thousands and thousands” of deaths around the country.
If in the past such scenarios were confined to sci-fi movies, they have now become a very real threat that governments have to devote time, effort and adequate resources in order to tackle. The US and a number of European countries have already experienced massive cyber-attacks. One of the scariest aspects of such attacks is that they can score a direct hit on a country’s civilian population without the need to confront that nation’s military. For centuries, it has been the role of a nation’s armed forces to defend its citizens and guarantee the survival and security of the state. In most cases, regular armies have faced each other on the battlefield. But recent history has seen a significant change in the nature of battlefields and warfare, with civilian populations becoming increasingly vulnerable to long-range missiles and the appearance of non-state actors.
Cyberspace has brought a completely new dimension, in which death and suffering can be the result of interference with the fundamental infrastructure of hospitals, emergency services, transportation and power networks, or the military, bringing these to a standstill with horrific consequences. Cyberspace espionage and interference with a country’s political processes are two other threats that, while not posing an immediate or direct threat to lives, threaten the nature and wellbeing of the target country.
The working assumption is that the main culprit of such attacks is currently Russia, and that this phenomenon will only intensify in the future. But it is not only Russia; China has also been accused by countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and India of cyber-espionage and accessing the networks of sensitive military, commercial, research and industrial organizations.

Cyberspace has brought a new dimension to warfare, in which death and suffering can be the result of remote interference with a nation’s infrastructure, bringing it to a standstill with horrific consequences.

Yossi Mekelberg

It is easy to forget what life was like before the world turned almost entirely digital. Letters are becoming a thing of the past, overtaken by emails; banking is fast becoming paperless; more people read a newspaper’s digital version than its print embodiment; and social lives are measured by the number of friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter.
While this cyber-revolution has radically changed the way we conduct our daily lives, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse, it has also revolutionized some of the most sensitive and important services provided by government to the private sector, and consequently the future of warfare. On the one hand it has brought improvements in quality and efficiency, but on the other it has created not only a faceless world, but worse, one that is extremely vulnerable to attacks.
Over-reliance on cyber technology means it has become the battlefield of the future, if not already of the present. There might be no need for a dogfight to bring down an aircraft if it becomes easier to do this remotely by tampering with its navigation and weapons systems, or with systems that control the airspace itself. The same applies to the computer systems of not only the military, but also of hospitals, electricity supply grids or water systems. A cyber-attack on any of these facilities could leave many thousands of people physically harmed.
Intervention in the political process is no less worrying, as it leads to the distortion of the political debate and the outcome of elections, referenda and the decision-making process. There is a long list of instances of Russian hacking of the US Democratic Party’s computers and the release of embarrassing and, some might argue, doctored data in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. Similarly, there are clear fingerprints of illicit cyberspace interference in the UK’s Brexit referendum, and in last year’s French presidential election. It has become increasingly challenging to differentiate between what is part of the legitimate debate and what is cyber propaganda.
No surprise, then, that the British army’s Chief of the General Staff Gen. Sir Nick Carter warned recently that the UK is trailing Russia in terms of defense spending and capability. Some might attribute this to those routine budgetary skirmishes in the corridors of power, in which any country’s security establishment will hype up threats, preferably in public, in order to legitimize its demand for a bigger slice of the national pie. That might be the case, but it should not detract from the main argument: That advances in new technologies, which have had such an intense and profound impact on everyone’s lives, expose everyone to the great dangers incubated by Frankenstein-like minds. We won’t be grateful to our governments if they don’t allocate adequate resources to those entrusted with providing a good answer to these existential threats.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.
Twitter: @YMekelberg