The UK is prepared for the international cyber threat

The Secretary of State explains how the UK is shoring up its defences, and working with other nations to meet the challenges of the digital age.

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In the past three years as Defence Secretary, I’ve been confronted by a swathe of complex challenges. Yet whether the danger comes from state aggressors, rogue states or non-state actors, it’s striking how often cyber is now their weapon of choice. And there’s a very good reason we now regard cyber as a Tier One threat – up there with natural disasters and terror. Virtual attacks have real consequences. We’ve seen Daesh using online tools to recruit followers and spread murderous propaganda. We’ve seen Russia using an army of social media bots to steadily drip-feed fake news and disinformation to the West, poisoning public trust. And North Korea’s fingerprints appear to be on numerous high-profile cyber strikes.

This year alone Parliament has been hacked and the WannaCry virus has shut down NHS operating theatres, as well as affecting more than 200,000 people worldwide. The consequences for the military are equally significant; it has been claimed Russia used malware to track and target Ukrainian artillery which illustrates how cyber can directly impair military capability. While big set-piece attacks are devastating, lower-level activity is costing business billions, undermining democracy and putting us all at risk.

In recent years we’ve seen our cyber adversaries multiply, attracted by the anonymous and ambiguous nature of the medium. It’s no longer the usual suspects; now any loner with a laptop and a grudge can cause chaos. That’s why the UK is taking action. We’re investing £1.9bn to strengthen our cyber security capability. This month we marked the first anniversary of the National Cyber Security Centre – bringing together some of the best cyber security brains from across government and the country. In the past year it has responded to nearly 600 significant incidents requiring a national, coordinated response. Defence is at the forefront of our response which incorporates three key elements.

Firstly, it’s about creating better resilience. We’re making sure our latest fifth-generation kit, from F35 to future frigates, Ajax Armoured Vehicles to drones, is packed with information sensors that can gather millions of bytes of data per second, to detect cyber intrusions and respond appropriately. We’ve also set up the Defence Cyber Partnership Programme ensuring companies with whom we’ve placed defence contracts are properly protected and meeting a host of security standards.

Secondly, we’re recruiting the best and brightest cyber talent. We’ve got cyber reservists from industry and academia putting their high-tech skills at the service of the nation by weeding out network vulnerabilities. We’re also building up a new 21st century Cyber Corps. This team of expert volunteers and captains of industry will advise us how to generate the disruptive capability needed, in everything from big data to autonomy, to keep us ahead in the cyber space race. Cyber is now a core part of our military training. In a few months’ time we will open a dedicated state-of-the-art Defence Cyber School at Shrivenham, bringing together all of our military joint cyber training into one place.

But, as RAF Second World War hero Air Vice-Marshal ‘Johnnie’ Johnson once remarked: “The only proper defence is offence.” Knowing we have the ability to expose cyber attacks and respond, whether in the air, on land, at sea, or in the cyber sphere, will deter our adversaries. Equally, offensive cyber capability gives us the means to maintain our battlefield advantage, delivering more targeted effects, limiting civilian casualties and protecting our own people.

And thirdly, we’re making offensive cyber an essential part of our arsenal, to use it where appropriate and governed by our commitment to international law. Our National Offensive Cyber Programme allows us to integrate cyber into all our military operations, and is being used with great effectiveness to degrade Daesh, not only in Iraq but in Syria too. And we’re not just investing in kit capable of soaking up a wealth of data, but running a multimillion-pound competition to develop machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence too – freeing up our personnel to provide a more co-ordinated and tailored response.

When it comes to cyber deterrence we stand stronger when we stand together, so we’re also working with our allies to develop our collective cyber response. At last year’s Warsaw summit, NATO recognised cyber as a distinctive domain of operations for the first time. Allied nations signed the cyber pledge, committing to enhance their national defences and strengthen their collective capability to resist attack. Simultaneously we need to continue to develop the ability to provide a proportionate response to cyber attacks against NATO allies. Having honed our own innovative national cyber techniques, we’ve become one of the first NATO members to publicly offer offensive cyber support to Alliance operations as and when required.

In 1933 Churchill declared: “Air power may either end war or end civilisation”, knowing air power could be used for good or ill. He made the right choice and in the dark decade that followed, our planes helped liberate our nation and transform our lives for the better. Now, in this new cyber age, we too are determined to make the right choices – boosting our cyber power to make our nation safer and the world more secure.