Cyber Warfare – Just a buzzword or scary reality?

Cyber warfare has been on my mind for a few weeks, even before the WannaCryptor incident. It’s been there because I’ve been looking at the innovation context for a digital service I’ve been designing as part of my T317 end of module project. That service is for government, and one of the risks is that someone will try to attack or subvert it.

The other thing that has brought cyber warfare to my head is the forthcoming general election in the UK. There are signs that both the UK referendum on the EU and the US election night have been affected by cyber warfare.

What is Cyber Warfare?

cyber warfare
A linux laptop running wireshark to illustrate cyber defence in action (photo credit: James Kemp)

The popular view is hackers in a basement tracking people, bringing down other computer networks and stealing money. They do impossible things with a few clicks of the keyboard. Taking over CCTV cameras, planting data, or stealing it. The black hat guys use viruses, phishing and social engineering to empty your bank accounts and steal your life.

Personally I don’t buy that image. Bits of it certainly happen. There are a whole load of criminals out there looking to make a profit out of people. But it isn’t as easy or as glamourous as TV would have us believe.

Cyber isn’t Warfare

I see Cyber as a buzzword. It isn’t a new phenomenon. Like a lot of other things it has become much easier to do at scale with the spread of the internet. Warfare is the domain of the military, and implies state sponsored violence from at least one of the parties. Even in small insurgencies the insurgents are acting for political reasons in what they see as their national interest. As that famous Dead Prussian Carl von Clausewitz put it, war is the continuation of politics with other means. So for something to be defined as warfare there needs to be some sort of political dimension to it.

Cyber on the other hand is more of a police and intelligence services matter. Sure, malicious effects on certain systems can cause deaths and injuries. However it’s more about information and criminality than state sponsored violence or politics. There are daily cyber incidents, and they are almost all criminal in intent.

As I see it Cyber has the following potential components

  • Defence against threats (as multi-pronged as the threat landscape)
  • Information operations to persuade people to a point of view (AKA propaganda)
  • Intelligence gathering, both passive and active
  • Disruption of physical infrastructure – e.g. stuxnet style attacks, also control of things attached to the internet (IoT is scary)
  • Facilitation of criminality, whether stealing data/money or supplying contraband or illicit goods or services online

WannaCryptor Wasn’t Warfare

While the details aren’t entirely clear on this incident I think there’s enough data to be certain that WannaCryptor wasn’t an attempt at cyber warfare. I’m pretty sure about that because both of the sheer scale of the infection and the ransomware payload. If it had been political then it woul have been more closely targetted, and there would have been a message attached to it (other than give me some bitcoin). WannaCryptor infected hundreds of thousands of machines across 150 countries. That’s pretty much all countries developed enough to be able to access the internet. If you watch the video of the spread it goes round the world with office hours. It’s more Pandemic than planned campaign.

There’s an outside chance it was planned, but I doubt that it was intended to operate at the scale it did. It would need a top level authority to create that level of impact to deflect suspicion from it being state sponsored. There’s a high likelihood that several affected states will be putting significant effort into tracking down the culprits. Not all will be looking to put them in front of a court.

Cyber Defence

This is an area that should really be in our own hands, in much the same way that we close our doors and windows at home. It’s down to all of us to recognise the threats and act to prevent them. Clicking on links in emails is the digital equivalent of flashing a wallet in a dodgy part of town. Sensible people just don’t do that.

The secret of Cyber, or Digital, or IT, or computers, is simply that they are communication devices. Anyone can talk to anyone else directly. There’s no border, no internal policing, nothing to stop a dodgy person directly contacting you. So everything needs defending directly.  (See Castles in the Sky for my poem about security in the cloud). Every moment of every day carries the risk of compromise. Cyber is like a permanent counterinsurgency, except with viruses, phishing and social engineering in place of IEDs, ambushes and informers.

Cyber as a buzzword

I’ve claimed there’s no such thing as cyber warfare. There are parallels with real warfare though, and cyber operations can, and do, support military campaigns. That doesn’t make it a military thing though. Civilians and intelligence services support military campaigns too. There’s probably also a need for a civilian equivalent of the reserves for the cyber security people, whether defensive or offensive.

Security is millennia old. IT security is decades old. Cyber is simply the latest buzzword to make it sound sexy and attract funding. That’s a good thing, because it can affect us all directly and indirectly. So we all need to pay it some heed.

Security isn’t hard. It just needs you to think about it, and ask questions. Most importantly, don’t let the fear grip you. Fear makes us react irrationally.

My ‘cyber’ credentials

There are a lot of instant cyber experts out there. I’m not one of them. I’ve been working for the UK government in IT related roles back to 1995. This has included being part of the Departmental IT Security Committee when we did Y2K and being on the forefront of designing and building secure digital systems for part of the UK Home Office. I’m a professional member of the British Computer Society. There’s a lot about IT security that I don’t know, I look to the experts I work with on that, but I definitely know more than most of the media pundits you’ll have read recently.

Mass mobilisation for World War Three?

A collage representing the Tri-Services of the...
A collage representing the Tri-Services of the British Armed Forces, including one of the Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyers, HMS Daring, a British Army, Challenger II main battle tank and a Royal Air Force, Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mass mobilisation for a world war level conflict would need the country to repeat what it did for WW1 & WW2.

Discussion I’ve read on twitter amongst those interested and knowledgable about defence (a mixture of serving officers, military historians and political observers) suggests that Britain has a real problem with the level of defence spending and decaying of capability for mass mobilisation to support a world war level conflict.

Years of small wars on the back of the 1990s ‘peace dividend’ has prevented major equipment changes. The British Army is still using many of the same armoured vehicles that it had in 1989. They’ve had internal upgrades, and improved control systems. The lighter vehicles have fared better because there were urgent operational requirements for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mass mobilisation for World War 2

Britain was in a similar state to now in the early 30s. After WW1 we didn’t want to go to war again. The army was small and didn’t have any of their kit replaced. With few exceptions in 1933, when Hitler came to power, the British Army was using the same kit that it had ended the world war with in 1918. The recognition of the nazi threat lead to an abandoning of the ten year rule (where we funded our armed forces on the assumption there would be no major war for at least ten years).

Appeasement was a policy not of keeping Hitler happy, but of buying us time to re-equip and expand our armed forces in preparation for mass mobilisation. Through the late thirties a massive programme of expansion and re-equipment went on. In 1938 Britain spent 7.4% of GDP on Defence [1], which is three and a half times what we are spending now. This doubled in 1939 to 15.3% – not all of which was after the declaration of war in September. By 1941 it was above 50% and it stayed there for the duration.

Existential Threat

The nazis were seen as an existential threat, so the public were willing to support mass mobilisation for world war two and accept the sacrifice of additional taxes to pay for the war. Income tax doubled from a basic rate of 25%, which is similar to the current level. I think it would be fair to say that Britain could only afford mass mobilisation for world war three if we could see an existential threat to the country.

Without an existential threat, today we could field one armoured Division with air and naval support. We can’t move it anywhere in a hurry without hiring civilian cargo vessels. Against certain countries that division would be an annoyance, but it certainly wouldn’t stop them doing what they wanted, just impose a stiff price.

Once it was destroyed, we’d be at their mercy. Either that or we’d be strongly considering our nuclear options. That said, anything that caused us to commit the 21st century British Expeditionary Force would almost certainly trigger the NATO mutual defence clauses. So there would be more than just the UK involved.

What does 2% Buy in Defence?

Britain is signed up to the NATO commitment to spend 2% of our GDP on Defence. Through some accounting adjustments we spend almost exactly 2% including some overseas aid. The actual defence budget of £38bn for MoD is likely to be about 1.9% of GDP this year. Almost 40% of that is spent on acquiring equipment, notably the aircraft carriers[2], trident submarines and F-35s. Between these three huge ticket items there isn’t much capital left.

As at 1 April 2016[3], the British Army had a trained strength of 79,750 regular personnel and 23,030 reserves, lower than it has ever been since before the start of the 20th Century. The Royal Navy and RAF both had slightly over 32k each, for a total armed forces trained strength of 168k personnel (very few of whom are reserves).

MOD reported that in 2015-16 it spent the following on each of the services[4]:

Service Operating Costs Equipment Total Share of Budget
Royal Navy £2.5bn £3.3bn £5.8bn 17.3%
Army £6.6bn £1.5bn £8.0bn 24.0%
Royal Air Force £2.5bn £3.6bn £6.1bn 18.1%
Joint Services £1.9bn £2.2bn £4.1bn 12.2%

You’ll notice that the totals don’t add up to the whole Defence budget, but that’s because I’ve left out the civilian elements and the long-term strategic acquisitions.

Mass Mobilisation of Our Armed Forces

There’s two ways to look at this, one is a simple uprating of what we currently have by the amount of extra money we might be able to spend and decide whether that would be effective. The other is to look at what we might need and then see if we can afford it.

For either of these tests you need to have an adversary in mind. When you get into it, quality and will to fight affect the answer. It’s not completely about raw numbers. Maybe someone somewhere has done the work to compare the economic strengths of warring powers and what that tells you about outcomes. I doubt it’s clear cut that the bigger economy always wins, but as a general rule it works.

What could we afford?

Britain is currently the 5th biggest spender on Defence worldwide, and our economy is 5th or 6th dependent on currency fluctuations and Brexit impacts. So there aren’t many countries that ought to be able to scare us, even if we can’t field enough troops to round up their military.

The UK GDP in 2016 is around £1.9 trillion[5]. During WW2 we spent over 50% of GDP on the war effort[1]. We taxed people more, borrowed heavily, and the economy also grew significantly from the war expenditure. I’m not sure that we could quite get to 55% on Defence, we’d still have the welfare state to fund, albeit some of it could be diverted to the war effort. We could also up the total tax share from around 37% (according to Treasury’s analysis the public sector spent £713bn in 2015-16[6]) to match that WW2 55%. That could bring Defence spending to 20% of GDP.

Other sources of funding:

  • The Welfare budget The UK spends about £250bn on welfare[6], over a third of our public expenditure. Most of it is on pensions and disability, neither of which would reduce as a result of a world war. We do spend £3bn of it on unemployment benefits, and another £27bn on Housing Benefit, both of which might come down a little if there was mass mobilisation. We could perhaps squeeze 0.1% of GDP out of the UK welfare budget.
  • The NHS At £162bn annually[6] this is the next largest chunk of public expenditure. At best some of the NHS will become defence medical assets, and the people will transfer to support those we’ve mobilised. Not to mention the inevitable casualties. In practice we’d probably need to spend more on the NHS, or make some really tough choices about priorities.
  • Borrowing – in 2015-16 we spent £45bn[6] on debt interest. If we borrowed enough to capitalise the interest for the duration of the war then we could add this amount to Defence budget.
  • Efficiency Gains If the rest of government was asked to cut around 10% of their budgets then we could perhaps add another 3% of GDP to the war budget.

So where does all this get us to? About twelve times the current defence budget, so we could significantly increase the size of our armed forces. On a straight multiple that would give us about two million all ranks from mass mobilisation. However I expect more of them would go into the army than either the RN or RAF for the simple reason that it will take longer to produce ships and aircraft to support that level of expansion than it would to produce army equipment.

Britain’s approach to World Wars

Historically we have form. Britain doesn’t maintain its armed forces between major wars. We keep a training cadre and enough to cope with the various small wars we get involved in. When the big war happens we do mass mobilisation of reserves and recruit anyone we can find. Typically it takes 18 months for us to form the million plus citizen armies we need to stand alongside our allies.

Many people (especially civilian politicians and voters) probably consider the idea of a major war very unlikely. We felt the same in the 1920s. Further, they probably also consider that if one did start that it would go nuclear (or find a diplomatic peace) well before we could train and equip the recruits to expand our armed forces. During the Cold War this was almost certainly true.

Infrastructure Deficit

The Household Cavalry/RAC had a recruitment st...
A Challenger II tank, the last British built tank. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What it means is that we’ve given up on necessary infrastructure to do mass mobilisation. We’ve stopped building military aircraft and tanks in the UK. We’d also struggle with a lot of other equipment, like small arms. Our wider manufacturing base is also shot, so the scope for repurposing factories to scale up production is also limited.

As an example, the British Army writes off small arms on a 10 to 15 year period. That means that normal production will be about a tenth of the current size of the armed forces need. So if everyone needs a rifle then we need 200k rifles for the regular and reserve. Let’s say we have a factory that makes 20k rifles a year, just to replace worn out stocks. When you scale up your armed forces through mass mobilisation to 2 million trained personnel then you suddenly need to build 1.8m extra rifles in under six months, and increase replacement levels to cover expected losses from accidents and combat.

Manufacturing Capacity

We’d also need to find plant, machinery and skilled people to set up factories to produce gun barrels, armour, heavy vehicles, jet engines, aircraft and the complex electronics that make them all work. We’ve got some capacity just now, but it’s all based on small orders delivered over a decade and sharing with other states.

Unlike WW2 the UK doesn’t have broad manufacturing capacity that can be diverted to war production. The UK economy is dominated by service industries, mainly banking. Manufacturing accounts for less than 10% of the UK economy (compared to almost 80% from services).

The extra kit would be a 50% growth in total manufacturing capacity, more like 10-15 times in the specific industries that could produce it. There would also need to be a massive upgrade to chemical & electronics plants to produce military ordnance. It would need to do this almost overnight, we’d need more kit for training people, never mind fighting a war.


There’s room in the British economy for a significant increase in military spending if we faced an existential threat. There’s no political will to spend more than the 2% we’ve committed to via NATO.

The UK doesn’t have the economic base to support significantly increasing manufacturing to equip a scaled up armed force. Nor do we appear to have sufficient spare kit in stock.

Overall, I’d say that we’d need at least a couple of years run up to mass mobilisation. If it ever happens then I hope we get that long. In the meantime, we could do with investing in our manufacturing base. That would make it easier to gear up, and also grow our economy. A strong economy is a better indicator of strength than defence spending.



[1] Broadberry & [xx], Table 1, pg23, [return]
[2] NB the cost of the carriers isn’t just for the carriers, but also all the rest of the ships needed to support and protect them. [return]
[3] MOD Annual Report and Accounts 2015-16, [return]
[4] MOD Annual Report and Accounts 2015-16, pgs.137-8 [return]
[5] Statista, UK GDP at current market prices, [return]
[6] HM Treasury, Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses 2016, [return]