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Britain does not exclude preventive nuclear attack in latest cyber defence review

A "kinetic" response, across the board, even nuclear, underpins the new British national strategy that will shape the operational guidelines for the UK, post-Brexit. It does not exclude any scenario should the country be hit by a hostile attack from a foreign power and is aimed at partially or totally “blinding” the protection capabilities of infrastructures or systems that are critical for the safety of the population and economic activity.

Published: April 6, 2021, 10:51 am

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    The government of Boris Johnson, in line with the new priorities that the US and structures such as NATO have highlighted, considers cyber competition to be central as a determinant of the strategic equilibrium of the coming decades and in the document “Global Britain in a competitive age” it mentions the cyber issue 148 times, always in relation to the need to assume a more accentuated operational posture towards a dual approach, which integrates the military and civil spheres in the defence of the country’s digital assets.

    London defines itself as a “responsible power” in the cyber field, and claims to have the third largest operational capability in the world in terms of defence, resilience and coordination of intelligence.

    This vision was confirmed in 2019 in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera by the current Italian Minister for Innovation in the Draghi government, Vittorio Colao, according to whom the United Kingdom is at the forefront of Europe and the United States on the evaluation of the risks related to cybersecurity. The strengthening of the National Cyber ​​Force, from this point of view, is considered central to allowing any threats to be disrupted with direct or preventive actions. Thus, London is ready for anything should an attack pierce its cyber security perimeter.

    Giuseppe Gagliano, one of the leading Italian scholars of asymmetric wars, highlighted in Notizie Geopolitiche, that London has not ruled out in the most recent defence review, the possibility of a nuclear response to “computer operations that cause or present an imminent threat of death and destruction on scale equivalent to an armed attack” in reference to actions comparable to “a destructive attack against the industrial control systems of one or more of the critical sectors, such as water, energy, health or finance” capable of causing paralysis to the country’s system.

    For some time already, cyber issues have been included in the national security perimeters of all the major powers, and the doctrines of cyberwarfare are becoming more kinetic, dynamic and extensive. The main nature of problems linked to cyberwar however, is the blurred boundary between defensive operations and offensive actions since it includes all forms of attack and defence in cyberspace, representing an extension of electronic warfare in its aspects both offensive and defensive (countermeasures, wiretapping, etc.) and defensive (countermeasures, encryption, firewalls or barriers to prevent access to networks and databases) and often closely coordinated with the consequent political aims  – strategic and economic.

    The United Kingdom has now raised the bar and inserted cyber notions into areas where an offensive is to be considered comparable to a large-scale frontal attack, not excluding maximum retaliation. This declaration certainly has a deterrent value (and in the phase of strengthening the nuclear arsenal it is not surprising) but it also underlines the geostrategic value of cyber warfare.

    The cyber domino, for its intrinsic vulnerability, for its pervasiveness, for the impunity it grants, is exposed to threats coming from different directions and potentially destructive asymmetrical moves. Furthermore, in times of a pandemic, the dependence of the main critical infrastructure of the economic and financial fabric on digitized information systems, the expansion of smart offices and the considerable exposure of citizens’ data, has imposed reflection in all the most advanced nations on the most optimal nature of protection. Since the Stuxnet case, the virus launched by the US and Israel against Iran in 2010, all military decision-makers have been focusing on this complicated field of competition.

    London has deployed its cyber force to the Five Eyes, the spy block formed by the leading countries of the Anglosphere (United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and the USA, to defend itself on the cyber front. But it is ready to act autonomously if a rival state attempts an offensive.

    The reference to the final weapon, the atomic bomb, clearly signals the importance of the matter. At the same time, it highlights the need for an in-depth reflection on the rules of engagement in the cyber field since there is an obligation to distinguish between sovereign states, criminal groups and hackers operating with false-flag intentions which makes it an extremely complex problem to address.

    Needless to say, the big danger is accurate attribution of attacks, with most cyber experts suggesting that it is impossible to be certain about where online attackers are based or who they really work for.

    The 2021 British Defence Report states that the nation will not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear state that is party to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But then it adds that “we reserve the right to review this guarantee if the future threat of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological capabilities, or emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact, make it necessary”.

    In another passage, the report clarifies that “cyber” is considered an “emerging technology”. This evidently means that the UK will consider a nuclear response to a major cyber attack.

    In 2018 Air Marshall Phil Collins, Chief of Defence Intelligence, said the UK’s position should be to seek a rapid but controlled exploitation of vulnerabilities and the proactive denial of opportunities. Around the same time, UK Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC MP had stated that the UK believed it was clear that cyber operations would give Britain an intrinsic right to act in self-defence, as recognized in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. These two statements made it clear already that the UK believes it has the right to kinetically respond to cyberattacks, even if the response is preventive.

    The new ability of the National Cyber ​​Force (NCF) brings together the personnel of GCHQ and MOD, as well as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, for the first time under a single unified command.

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