Britain’s new cyberwar strike capabilities may just be political posturing

Leading by example: Britain’s defense minister wants to build an army of hackers.
Leading by example: Britain’s defense minister wants to build an army of hackers.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Winning
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Britain’s defense minister Philip Hammond made a startling statement yesterday: “We are developing a full-spectrum military cyber capability, including a strike capability, to enhance the UK’s range of military capabilities.” This is not the first time a government has admitted to developing such capabilities. But it is the first time one has explicitly said it will seek to use it for offensive purposes. In the past, calls for offensive capabilities have been just that: proposals (pdf; link in French).

But in case you were envisioning a standing army of cyber-warriors, there’s reason to be skeptical. For one thing, the plan is to enlist a corp of “cyber reserves,” which would probably look more like hackers on call to the government than full-time soldiers. Moreover, Hammond is merely following through on a plan the ministry of defense has long been working on. The chief of defense intelligence told a parliamentary committee of the plan to “go out to the young computer professionals and make them an offer to do something good for their country” back in February this year. The same committee also downplayed the importance of offensive capabilities in its latest report (pdf), a stark change from last year (pdf) when it advocated a strong “disruption” approach. One reason might be that the government has had trouble retaining talent.

Further, two things point to the political rather than practical nature of Hammond’s announcement. For one, it was made at the annual conference of the ruling Conservative party. At a time when budget cuts are affecting confidence within Britain’s defense establishment, a hawkish announcement can go a long way, especially if it costs very little—the new “strike force” will cost £500 million ($806 million) “in the next few years.” Britain’s annual defense budget is £24 billion. Second, Hammond elaborated on the plan in an interview with the Mail on Sunday, a deeply conservative, middle-England newspaper with a wide readership outside metropolitan areas and among the families of military personnel.

As a piece of political theater, cyberwar has great appeal. But the reality is often more mundane.