The government has formally announced the setting up of a National Cyber Force that will carry out cyber operations to counter terror plots, support military operations, and disrupt the activities of terrorists and criminals threatening the UK’s national security.
The creation of the National Cyber Force is the result of the government's intent to not only respond effectively to cyber threats from Russia and China, but also to deter criminal gangs, paedophile rings, and people-traffickers.
The first signs of setting up of the NCF showed up in October 2018 when sources told The Times that the Ministry of Defence and GCHQ were planning to set up an "offensive-cyber force". However, GCHQ and the MoD were reportedly at loggerheads over the command structure of the offensive cyber-force.
As per a Times source, while the military wanted it to be a high-level war-fighting force that could do things like counter-missile programmes, politicians wanted a tactical force that focussed on combating crime and domestic terror threats. The new force was expected to increase the number of available personnel in offensive cyber roles by as much as four times.
This Thursday, the government hailed the effectiveness of the National Cyber Force in a press release, stating that the organisation is playing a vital role in enhancing the UK’s world-leading and responsible cyber power. "The National Cyber Force is a joint Defence and GCHQ capability, giving the UK a world-class ability to conduct cyber operations," said Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
"The NCF is bolstering our global presence in the cyber domain, and it is a clear example of how we are turning our ambitious agenda to modernise defence into a reality," he added.
"For over a century, GCHQ has worked to keep the UK safe. Cyber security has become an integral part of this mission as we strive to make the UK the safest place to live and do business online. We are a world-leading cyber power. Today the National Cyber Force builds out from that position of defensive strength," said Jeremy Fleming, the Director of GCHQ.
"It brings together intelligence and defence capabilities to transform the UK’s ability to contest adversaries in cyber space, to protect the country, its people and our way of life. Working in close partnership with law enforcement and international partners, the National Cyber Force operates in a legal, ethical and proportionate way to help defend the nation and counter the full range of national security threats."
NCF is manned by personnel from GCHQ, the MoD, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). According to the government, NCF will benefit from SIS' expertise in recruiting and running agents, Dstl’s scientific and technical capabilities and GCHQ’s global intelligence.
The new force will conduct cyber operations to support diplomatic, economic, political and military capabilities and its range of activities will include the prevention of terrorists from communicating with each other, helping to prevent the internet from being used as a global platform for serious crimes, including sexual abuse of children and fraud, and keeping UK military aircraft safe from targeting by hostile weapons systems.
According to Francis Gaffney, Mimecast’s Director of Threat Intelligence and Response, along with the government’s decision to increase spending on cybersecurity, the acknowledgement of their creation of the National Cyber Force shows a real appetite to take action to limit the risks of cyberattacks at the highest level of government.
"Mature administrations like that in the UK face a huge amount of cyber threats daily – from the simplest opportunistic spam campaigns to full-fledged impersonation or ransomware attacks. This year has been a particularly challenging one due to the pandemic: people all over the country have had to move to a completely digital lifestyle and work in the virtual domain, and our valuable civil servants haven’t been any different. This is why we welcome the recent steps to prioritise cybersecurity at a central government level," he added.
The creation of the NCF is not the first step the government has taken towards setting up an offensive cyber force. In June this year, the Ministry of Defence launched the first dedicated Cyber Regiment that was tasked to protect vital defence networks at home and on operations overseas from cyber threats.
The 13th Signal Regiment is not only securing digital communications equipment and channels used by the armed forces, but is also working with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to provide secure networks for all military communications, and is providing the basis of the new Army Cyber Information Security Operations Centre.
The primary objective of the new cyber regiment is not only to secure existing digital communication lines but to provide specialist technical support for a hub to test and implement next-generation information capabilities as well. This will ensure that the Armed Forces will enjoy an edge in future cyber operations against enemy states.
"This is a step-change in the modernisation of the UK Armed Forces for information warfare. Cyber-attacks are every bit as deadly as those faced on the physical battlefield, so we must prepare to defend ourselves from all those who would do us harm and 13th Signal Regiment is a vital addition to that defence," said Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.