UK's Armed Forces must adapt to face 21st century conflict

The MoD launched a new cybersecurity regiment whose goal is to protect the UK's defence network operations. But is it too little too late?

Russian interference in UK affairs has been making headlines of late, as has the government's underestimation of the threat from Russia. 

The UK Intelligence and Security Committee's Russia Report, published in July, shone a spotlight on the government's inability to protect the country from Russian adversaries both physical and virtual, highlighting a failure to both acknowledge and confront the problem of - amongst other things - disinformation and state-sponsored cyberattacks.

Warfare has evolved, and Russia, along with many other countries and sub-state actors such as China, Al Qaeda and Islamic State, has moved with the times, much quicker than many of those in the ‘western world'. The role of physical ("kinetic") weapons is still important, but as far as our peer adversaries are concerned, at the moment that role is mainly as a deterrent and shield, while everything else from information, influence and money through to energy, investment and cyber, is being developed as an offensive weapon. This mix of conventional and non-conventional weapons has become known in the international community as hybrid, or ambiguous, warfare.

"This is not another cold war," says Chris Donnelly, Honorary Colonel of Specialist Group Military Intelligence - a Reserve Army unit - and former co-director of thinktank The Institute of Statecraft. "It's better to describe it at as a ‘hot peace'."


Fighting on the cyber frontline

Many of today's battles are taking place in the digital domain. Influence and disinformation campaigns lead the way; delegitimising western political and social systems with just a few clicks, while cyberattacks threaten businesses and national security.

The UK may have been slow to respond to the threat from hybrid warfare, but it is beginning to take steps in the right direction. Acknowledging that there's a cyber frontline that needs to be defended, this summer the Ministry of Defence stood up its first dedicated cyber regiment, the 13th Signals Regiment.

The main objective of 13th Signals Regiment is to protect the UK's defence network operations, providing ‘digital armour' to vital defence networks both at home and on operations overseas. It will work with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to secure all digital communications equipment and channels.

"This is a step-change in the modernisation of the UK Armed Forces for information warfare," said Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, when the regiment was formally stood up in early June. "Cyberattacks are every bit as deadly as those faced on the physical battlefield."

The 13th Signals Regiment is the core of a new Army Cyber Information Security Centre, which will focus on protecting the MoD's cyber domain but will also provide technical support for a hub to test and implement next generation information capabilities.

The first intake of 250 technology specialists is made up of armed forces personnel from 15 different regiments/corps, plus a number of specialists from both the Navy and RAF. They will be organised into several Cyber Protection Teams as well as technical staff who will secure the cyber domain for troops deployed on military operations.

"[This is] an exciting step forward as the Royal Signals, Army and wider Defence rapidly drives up their potency and resilience in the information environment and cyber domain," said Brigadier John Collyer, Commander 1st (UK) Signal Brigade. "The stakes are high and our success is increasingly and critically reliant of focusing our brightest men and women onto the opportunities and risks that underpin our operations both home and away."


Playing catch up

But is this a case of too little, too late? Donnelly, who was special adviser to four NATO Secretaries General, believes the UK doesn't fully understand how far behind Russia it is, and how much this puts the country at risk.

In order to do so, he says, you have to start by looking at the past and how the global security environment has changed. The 19th and 20th century models of conflict - war and peace - between two parties has evolved. It's been replaced by a complex global system where all players are competing simultaneously against each other, using everything at their disposal as a weapon.

Russia grasped this early, unlike the West, which has been slow to recognise and react to this new reality.

"When Putin came into power, he understood what was needed to make Russia an effective competitor to the West and based his rebuilding of the country around ambiguous warfare," says Donnelly. "The Russians have been quicker to understand the importance of coordinating all those different ‘weapons', whether that's hacking companies to steal knowledge or spreading disinformation.

"What we're seeing now is effectively here to stay - this is 21st century conflict. However, in the UK we've not been looking at this for the past 20 years, we've been fighting small wars in faraway places and have not noticed what's been happening in Russia, and China. It's scary, which is why people have tended to ignore it."


War is change

We need to consider the fact that we're essentially at war, Donnelly continues, noting that we're living in a world where the rate of change is that of wartime rates.

"Karl Marx's understanding of the revolutionising impact of war on society was based on the appreciation that the most important feature of war was that it was accompanied by much more rapid and profound social, economic and technological change than in peacetime.

"If war is change, then to all intents and purposes the last 20 years have been years of wartime - not in terms of killing or fighting - but in terms of change affecting society. It's been revolutionary in its extent."


A need for (culture) change

Donnelly points out that many of our institutions have been unable to adapt to the rapid rate of change as we're trying to cope with a wartime situation using a peacetime mentality. Constant uncertainty is the norm and he believes we need ‘wartime' leaders within the higher echelons of UK's Armed Forces; leadership that's adaptable to change and open to evolving institutions in order to meet the challenge of 21st century conflict.  

He says that the Armed Forces could be used for a wider variety of tasks - "some we are traditionally good at; but there is a danger that we will neglect those ‘new' skills in order to spend more on keeping traditional weapons", and that there needs to be a better understanding of the importance of reserves for future operations.

"We do still need strong classic armed forces, but today's attacks aren't coming from tanks, ships or planes, they're coming from disinformation and influence, and we don't have all the people we need in uniforms to fight those battles. But we can't afford to pay cyber experts the money they expect to join the Army. Some get paid more in a week than a soldier gets in a year, so how do we recruit them? One way is to bring them in as reserves. We need to develop new structures for the military that mix civilian and military forces, but this will require a culture change."

With the creation of the first dedicated cyber regiment, Donnelly is keen to highlight that the UK is heading in the right direction and more quickly than almost any other country in Europe. However, we've still got a long way to catch up with countries like Russia and China.

"We need a body of people tasked with developing a formal national strategy," Donnelly says. Until we do, these countries will continue to bombard us with all manner of attacks, knowing they can succeed with very little, if any, consequences.