The UK‘s armed forces are now so dependent on information and communication technology that they could be “fatally compromised” by sustained cyber attacks.
The Defence Select Committee has produced a report that questions the military’s contingency plans and urges the Government to do more to address the threat.
“It is our view that cyber security is a sufficiently urgent, significant and complex activity to warrant increased ministerial attention,” said committee chairman James Arbuthnot MP.
“The Government needs to put in place – as it has not yet done – mechanisms, people, education, skills, thinking and policies which take into account both the opportunities and the vulnerabilities which cyberspace presents.”
Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude is the minister responsible for cyber security, but the report recommends that more ministers should engage and take on responsibility.
“Unless we have a really vigorous approach to defending against the sort of cyber attacks that are developing at a rather quick rate day by day, minute by minute, second by second, unless we have a really vigorous approach we are at risk of our armed forces as well as the whole of the rest of the government infrastructure being compromised,” Mr Arbuthnot told Sky News.
Dr Andrew Murrison, the Minister for International Security Strategy, has defended the Government’s efforts.
He said: “There’s no complacency and we will continue in a very rapidly evolving field to make sure we do absolutely everything to reduce the chance of there being a significant attack here.”
GCHQ, the Government’s communications headquarters, is considered a world leader.
Under the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, £650m was allocated to a new cyber security programme.
It showed significant recognition of the threat, but in truth no budget can ever be big enough. According to the Boston Consulting Group, the UK is the best prepared country to face a cyber attack.
But countries like Israel, China and the United States are well advanced, and are bettering their systems at a quicker pace.
Major General Jonathan Shaw, the former head of the Defence Cyber Security Programme, told Sky News that the UK competes favourably.
He said: “The way that British government is organised and the security side is actually extremely effective at coping with threats.
“It’s a very collegiate atmosphere and the ability of GCHQ to spread their knowledge across government actually gives us a real advantage over someone like the United States which has a much more stovepipe government system.”
What is not known is how offensive the UK‘s strategy is. The Government is clear about the threat it faces, but declines to speak about any aggressive action it takes against states regarded as hostile.
The Defence Select Committee’s report should be seen as an attempt to reinvigorate the military and Government’s efforts – not as an outright criticism of what has been done.