In the opinion of military experts, wars in the future will not start either on land or in the air but online instead. In fact, such a war has already begun.
Internet is an American invention. USA’s National Security Agency (NSA) and its “trusted” allies, including the Government Communications Headquarter (GCHQ), are responsible for protecting communication networks and information systems from, for instance, cyber attacks. And Facebook, Google and Apple (suspected of having close ties with the aforementioned organizations) dominate the commercial sphere. However, there are not many publications about the extent to which the NSA and its British partner, GCHQ, have infiltrated various networks so that they can monitor and use them in their interests to gather intelligence, wage cyberwarfare and conduct targeted cyber operations against opponents. Former President of the German Federal Intelligence Service (the Bundesnachrichtendienst) and ex-law enforcement officer Gerhard Schindler once, reportedly, told members of the Bundestag about the dangers of future warfare by saying that anyone capable of engaging in cyber espionage could also conduct cyber attacks.
Nowadays, even the uninitiated have come to realize just how militarized and exposed to risk the most crucial technology of our times has become. And there is an abundance of reports about viruses, worms and hackers. Hackers have even managed to gain access to highly secure government networks, and have used their skills and abilities to steal classified data, trade secrets and banks’ confidential information and then sell them on markets.
Cyber weapons are not on display during parades, but they have already become so powerful and pose such a considerable threat that an individual like Robert Hannigan, a Director of GCHQ (Britain’s powerful intelligence and security organization) up until 2017, made the following proposal to the international community in an interview with the magazine Wired. He “called for an international agreement on cyberwarfare and hacking by nation states”. “We should be looking at some kind of arms control for cyberspace,” Robert Hannigan said “We do need to come to some kind of international agreement about what’s acceptable and what isn’t”.
Still, in the United Kingdom, statements made by current and former officials do not, as is often the case, reflect actions actually taken. Rhetoric about seeking peace is used to disguise the leadership’s true intentions, i.e. to prepare to wage cyberwarfare. Robert Hannigan’s call for “a global cyberwar treaty” contrasts with the creation of a new UK army division that focuses on “cyber, electronic warfare, intelligence, information operations and unconventional warfare”.
In 2019, the British Army unveiled its latest 6th (UK) Division, comprising “ten specialist brigades”. Hailed as UK’s “hybrid warfare capability”, the division has approximately 2,000 servicemen and an annual budget of £250 million. Its aim is to “influence the behavior of the public and adversaries by specializing in information warfare”. In addition, the 6th (UK) Division is specifically tasked with addressing “threats from Russian unconventional warfare units”. And such a statement may, in fact, be construed as a declaration of war in this new climate. According to UK newspaper The Telegraph, while discussing the new division, Lieutenant General Ivan Jones, the Commander of the Field Army, said “The character of warfare continues to change as the boundaries between conventional and unconventional warfare become increasingly blurred. The Army must remain adaptable and evolve as a fighting force”. The head of Force Troops Command, Major General James Bowder, became the leader of the 6th (UK) Division, which comprises servicemen from the British Army, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. GCHQ’s arm, the National Cyber Security Centre, started trying to attract teenage girls to this sphere by offering special courses for them, CyberFirst Defenders, in Nottingham, Lancaster, Wrexham, Edinburgh and Oxfordshire. There were “600 free places on all-female CyberFirst Defenders courses in April and May” 2019.
Top officials from UK Ministry of Defense have told British media outlets the 6th (UK) division will markedly increase the Kingdom’s offensive cyber capabilities. According to The Times, “Britain’s cyber deference plans were ahead of schedule, with almost double the number of new capabilities” and GCHQ “was developing a full spectrum of weapons”.
“Britain has developed sophisticated cyberweapons capable of crippling a hostile state,” reported The Times. The article also said that techniques being developed included “the ability to make another country’s warplanes, ships and missiles malfunction and to infect a mobile phone to suck up information or wipe the memory”.
Shortly before the 6th (UK) Division was established, The Times, citing sources from the UK Ministry of Defense and GCHQ, reported that cyber capabilities, which could be used for attacks on Russia’s government communication networks and websites, were being developed. According to The Sunday Times and a number of other British media outlets, “defense chiefs” had “war-gamed a massive cyber-strike to black out Moscow if Vladimir Putin” launched a military attack on the West. Whitehall officials “vowed to step up offensive cyber-capability”. The measures were “part of a wider range of strategies to hit back at an increasingly assertive Russia”.
As Britain became increasingly involved in the global cyber war, The Independent published an article by Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a member of Parliament of the United Kingdom. It said that the British government sold “powerful surveillance equipment to repressive regimes” thus jeopardizing “more than human rights” during, for instance, the state-”sponsored annual surveillance week”. According to the report, Britain was “approving the sale of spy equipment, which can access people’s emails, phone records and turn smartphones into microphones”. Such products were already sold to nations, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Turkey, Bahrain and Turkmenistan. Surveillance equipment and spyware can be used to track websites users visit, and monitor communications. According to Lloyd Russell-Moyle, in theory, UK companies were not allowed to “export controlled goods to a state which might use them for internal repression”, because it was “illegal for the trade department to grant them a license. In practice, the Government routinely” gave them a pass.
In order to justify all these efforts, the current British political elite decided to ride the wave of anti-Russian sentiment by encouraging scaremongering. Hence, the number of reports in easily influenced media outlets and on the Internet about cyber threats from Russia have increased.
At present, the UK government views cyber warfare in terms of small victories it can yield in order to earn brownie points on the domestic front. However, brandishing cyber weapons can not resolve the Kingdom’s own problems and only serves to show how aggressive London’s policies truly are.
Vladimir Platov, Middle East expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.