Defence policy is based on ‘over-simplified’ hype about cyber warfare, experts warn

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Britain’s defence policy is based on “over-simplified” hype about cyber warfare, experts have claimed in a new book.

Defence experts Dr Jack Watling and Justin Bronk say “damaging narratives” are too easily accepted as fact by many in military and government circles.

Such assumptions quickly come to “dominate thinking at the highest levels of UK defence policy”, they have said.

In a new book launched on Monday, called Necessary Heresies, the experts warn there is an “institutional blindness” at the heart of UK defence policy.  

Specialist advice is often overlooked or misinterpreted as senior decision-makers shape policy based on their own understanding, the book argues, of briefings given by subject matter experts.

“Crucial nuances and practical constraints are almost unavoidably lost in translation.

“This tendency is exacerbated by a natural inclination to over-hype the potential for novel technologies or strategies to provide transformative effects.”

‘Grey zone’ attacks

The authors argue future war is unlikely to be dominated by “grey zone” attacks short of out and out armed conflict.

The dangers of so-called “grey zone” operations, characterised by cyber attacks, assassinations, political interference and disinformation, were regularly cited by the former Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), General Sir Nick Carter, as being the likely shape of future warfare.

The authors say such woolly thinking is an “intellectual dustbin” that confuses the true nature of conflict.

They cited Gen Carter’s comments during the annual CDS Rusi lecture, delivered in December 2020, that “our rivals seek to win without resorting to war”.

He said that “arms length” tools like drones and mercenaries would be used more often as they provide “deniability and strategic ambiguity – thus enabling intervention without the risk of entanglement”.

The authors say Gen Carter’s ideas “not only lack crucial nuance and are unsound, but also produce “potentially harmful distortionary effects throughout Defence.”

Book challenges ‘misleading narratives’

The new book attempts to challenge some of these “misleading narratives before they drive acquisition and force-design decisions that undermine the British Armed Forces”.

The book argues that “through years of repetition, narratives about the rapidly changing character of warfare and the transformative effects of novel technologies have become akin to gospel truths, enshrined in policy documents.”

Senior defence policy planning is hampered by “received wisdom” the authors suggest.

“In many areas of Defence policy, such as cyber warfare, space or novel weapons systems, deep subject matter expertise is required to understand the potential benefits and limitations.”

Incompatible demands for efficiency savings and equipment modernisation lead to senior defence planners seeking “silver bullet solutions”.

“Once policy has been stated on an issue, further nuances and important caveats are often lost as the wider policy community try to tailor their own outputs to align with what they perceive as the new high-level consensus.

“As such, the narratives that end up shaping much of the ‘coal face’ work in Defence are not…(usually) nuanced.

“Instead, they are often mantras or collective ‘received wisdom’ that in practice has been oversimplified or distorted by repeated translation, repetition, and transmission.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “With £24 billion investment over the next four years, the Armed Forces will be modernised to meet future threats. The Integrated Review, backed by the largest investment in Defence since the Cold War, is delivering a force fit to meet the challenges posed by a more uncertain world, not battles of the past.”

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