Members of the UK’s cyber security community have given a broad, cautious welcome to the announcement of a cyber security defence force as part of a £16.5bn package of funding for the UK’s national security services, the largest investment in the armed forces since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The package is expected to generate up to 10,000 jobs and is also intended to help burnish the UK’s image on the international stage. The government particularly hopes it will impress US president elect Joe Biden.
In a brief statement, Johnson said he had taken the decision “in the teeth of the pandemic” because the UK’s defence must be prioritised.
“The international situation is more perilous and more intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War, and Britain must be true to our history and stand alongside our allies. To achieve this we need to upgrade our capabilities across the board,” said the prime minister.
“This is our chance to end the era of retreat, transform our armed forces, bolster our global influence, unite and level up our country, pioneer new technology and defend our people and way of life.”
As part of the measures, Johnson confirmed the creation of a National Cyber Force, a partnership between the armed services and GCHQ that has been in the works for some time, as well as a new agency dedicated to artificial intelligence (AI) and improvements to the UK’s outer space capabilities.
The UK is already understood to have the ability to conduct offensive cyber warfare against other countries if required, and defend its interests in cyber space. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) stood up the UK’s first dedicated cyber security regiment, the 13th Signals – actually a revival of a wireless signals unit created in the 1940s that subsequently supported Nato ops in West Germany during the Cold War.
The 250-strong regiment forms the core of a new Army Cyber Information Security Operations Centre and provides specialist technical support for a hub to test and implement new security capabilities. It brings together several existing cyber security functions from across the army, and will also operate with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.
Stuart Reed, UK director of Orange Cyberdefense, said the investment came at the right time for the UK.
“The threat of cyber warfare has been growing rapidly over recent years, and this announcement is a welcome sign that the government is recognising the paramount importance of having a cyber security strategy and appropriate tools in place,” said Reed.
“As well has having a robust physical defence force, the UK must be able to protect itself and adapt to the swiftly evolving cyber threat landscape. Every year we see increasing numbers of high-profile cyber attacks from threat actors both in and out of the UK.
“While many organisations and individuals have taken steps to protect themselves and their digital assets, the UK’s defence proposition has been in dire need of modernisation … This investment underlines the important work already underway by many credible cyber organisations in the UK, and strengthens the country for the continuing challenges ahead,” he said.
Mimecast director of threat intelligence and response, Francis Gaffney, said: “It is really positive to see the UK government acknowledging cyber security as a significant enough concern to continue with these large investments in its cyber activity. As president George Washington said, sometimes offense really is the best form of defence, and it is certain that this investment could act as a deterrent to threat actors.”
Gaffney predicted the initiative would have a net positive impact on the overall security hygiene of both civilians and businesses by serving to elevate the discourse around security and keep it in people’s minds.
Nominet CEO Russell Haworth added: “The cyber realm is undoubtedly the most important emerging domain of warfare – alongside the traditional ones of land, sea and air, is space – and the rules of engagement between countries are ill defined and are being exploited.
“This investment is therefore vital to ensure that the UK is prepared to face the threats and attacks that are emerging on the world stage. A new, dedicated National Cyber Force to defend against hostile action in cyber space will increase our cyber resilience as a country and complement the existing efforts of the NCSC and GCHQ to protect UK citizens online.”