UK Defence Intelligence to establish new cyber warfare unit

By on 24/02/2016

The UK is establishing a military unit dedicated to cyber and electromagnetic warfare, the chief of defence intelligence told an audience at the Ministry of Defence yesterday.

Making a rare public appearance, Air Marshal Phil Osborn – the head of the Ministry’s Defence Intelligence arm – explained how his unit is investing some of the additional funds allocated to intelligence in last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

The spending review saw the security and intelligence agencies’ budgets rise by 18% in real terms over its three-year term, and promised that “the Single Intelligence Account (SIA) will also invest in a bigger and more capable global network and enhance its capability to fuse intelligence with the armed forces”. The £1.9bn allocated to “cyber capabilities” represents an increase of 76% on spending during the 2010-15 Parliament – and some of this, Osborn explained, will fund “the stand-up of a military joint cyber and electromagnetic group”, run by Defence Intelligence and the Single Intelligence Account.

The group, he said, will “deliver deployable cyber support teams dealing with both offense and defence, helping both operators and planners, commanders and executors.”

Speaking to an invited audience at the Strand Group – a seminars series run by Kings College London’s Policy Institute – Osborn announced that Defence Intelligence is also creating a “24/7 situational awareness capability able to provide global monitoring and analysis across the spectrum.”

This will be costly, he conceded, but “we put such stock on not being surprised that it’s worth the investment.” The world is becoming “more unpredictable, more competitive, more contested, more complex, more high-stakes, and as surprising and as demanding of intelligence as it’s ever been,” he explained, pointing to major global events for which the West had not been fully prepared.

“We probably underplayed the scale and intensity of extremism. We probably underplayed the risk appetite of Russia,” said Osborn. “Most of us probably got the pressures that led to the Arab Spring correct, but we probably didn’t accurately predict the scale or velocity of subsequent events; and we didn’t pick up on the scale or velocity of the instability in Syria and elsewhere… Many of us thought [migration] would be a challenge for much of the world, but we didn’t pick up the confluence of factors that made it as immediate [a challenge] as it is today.”

Considering a range of possible future risks, the Defence Intelligence boss gave some “generic examples of the kinds of things we should be thinking about.”

One “more dangerous, less likely but still credible outcome,” he suggested, was that of “a powerful but declining state whose economy is tanking and has to do something different – something dramatically different – to arrest that decline. And perhaps whose sense of self and history, or risk appetite, or system governance makes that gamble make more sense.”

The future is made still less predictable, Osborn suggested, by the tendency of powerful heads of state to take national decisions on the basis of very personal motivations: “If they’re deeply personal autocracies, how often are clashes between states actually conflicts between egos and the sense of self projected on a nation? You can probably imagine some of those today. The mystery of personality-based grand strategic decision-making will probably endure.”

A former RAF Tornado navigator and squadron commander, Osborn was made chief of defence intelligence a year ago and now leads 4,000 staff working on defence surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber and electromagnetic warfare, and defence counter-intelligence.

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About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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