Russia and China's 'digital authoritarianism' means we need to better arm our cyber troops, warns top UK general

New era, new weapons needed, says Chief of the Defence Staff


Britain's enemies are investing more and more in cyber warfare capabilities, the UK's top general has warned – singling out Russia and its "digital authoritarianism".

General Sir Nick Carter told the Policy Exchange think tank that countries such as China are setting out to undermine the West's ability to deter aggression by investing heavily in non-traditional methods of waging war.

Observing how "our rivals" had watched Western nations' misadventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the general warned that other countries had "invested in space and cyber" as well as building "electronic warfare" capabilities and drone-swarming technology.

"China's new Strategic Support Force is designed to achieve dominance in the space and cyber domains," said the professional head of the armed forces. "It commands satellite information attack and defence forces; electronic assault forces and internet assault forces; campaign information operations forces, which include conventional electronic warfare forces, anti-radiation assault forces, and battlefield cyber warfare forces."

That's a lot of forces.

General Carter also singled out Russia and China's exporting of digital authoritarianism*, warning that technological advances are being used to strangle liberty and democracy at birth, stating that the concept "also explores how the Chinese Communist Party is forging a future of mass surveillance and 'social credit scores' and is rapidly exporting these tools to other parts of the world".

As major policy speeches go, this was quite muted despite its clear statement of intent to deploy more of Britain's well-hidden "offensive cyber" capabilities. The Chief of the Defence Staff spoke about how British state-sponsored hackers might "actively constrain [an enemy] in the cyber domain to protect critical national infrastructure in the maritime domain", as an example of how the UK might start hacking authoritarian countries trying to harm British interests.

Yet there was little in the way of active promises that Britain's enemies could soon expect state-backed crews to start targeting their critical national infrastructure, in the way that Russian and Chinese APTs (among other nations) target the UK and the wider Western World. Perhaps, in light of recent government pledges to break international law in a "specific and limited way", Britain's top general didn't want to trigger another reputational crisis. ®

Bootnote

General Carter was clearly referring to US military blog War on the Rocks' series about digital authoritarianism when he made his speech. Unfortunately for the British general, the blog about China includes this sentence: "However, China is not the only actor responsible for supplying repressive technology. Other countries, such as Israel, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia, also supply advanced capabilities to repressive regimes – from location-tracking spyware and hi-resolution video surveillance, to hacking software, and censorship filtering applications."

Its author, Steven Feldstein, then wrote: "If the United States truly wants to get serious about restricting the global spread of authoritarian technology, then it should push for comprehensive restrictions that would apply to both democratic suppliers as well as autocratic producers like China."

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