National Cyber Force conducting offensive operations 'every day'

The National Cyber Force (NCF) is taking offensive action to defend British military assets "every day", the Commander of Strategic Command has said. 

General Sir Patrick Sanders, who leads defence's cyber capabilities, spoke to the BFBS Sitrep podcast about the new force that is a joint partnership between GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

"We are involved in cyber operations on a daily basis – that can range from against serious organised crime and child sexual exploitation, right the way through to countering disinformation that might be coming from troll farms which are trying to undermine the very fabric of our society and then preparing ourselves for some of the worst-case, high-end threats.

"But we are operating in cyberspace constantly and persistently because this isn't like a military capability that you keep in reserve, you have to be engaged forward all the time to understand and to be able to deter the threat."

When asked what offensive cyber capabilities mean in practice, Gen Sanders said: "What we're really talking about is the deliberate manipulation of computer systems and data to achieve real-world objectives and real-world outcomes."

He referred to cyber attacks against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria as an example.

"What we found there was Daesh – Islamic State – were exploiting cyberspace to recruit, to propagate a hateful ideology, to control their fighters, to exercise command and control and to maintain their own morale," he said.

General Sir Patrick Sanders, Commander Strategic Command (Picture: MOD).
General Sir Patrick Sanders, Commander Strategic Command (Picture: MOD).

"And that was a strength… we wanted to turn that strength into a weakness. 

"So we began to attack their servers, to close them down in cyberspace, but also to disrupt their communications with their fighters and to fundamentally undermine their cohesion and their morale.

"And to do that in combination with physical manoeuvre in the air, the ground, with Iraqi Security Forces, and the result that you saw play out that was very effective."

Gen Sanders said Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are cited as the most dangerous state actors in cyberspace.

He also referenced the so-called SolarWinds hack which Britain and the US have attributed to Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service.

During a cyber attack prevention exercise in Dorset last year, the Strategic Command chief likened the level of hostile activity in the domain to the Blitz.

Gen Sanders said  it is "almost certain" cyber will feature as part of conflicts in the future (Picture: MOD).
Gen Sanders said it is "almost certain" cyber will feature as part of conflicts in the future (Picture: MOD).

Speaking to Sitrep, Gen Sanders warned it is "almost certain" cyber will feature in future conflicts but casted doubt over whether it could "trigger" a ground war or its own 9/11 or Pearl Harbour event.

However, he acknowledged "NATO has reserved the right to exercise Article 5 in response to cyber attacks". 

Gen Sanders also explained how an "information revolution" has provided a "lifeline" to many during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that emerging threats can take advantage of our reliance on cyber.

He highlighted intellectual theft and disinformation as some of the dangers, warning the spreading of false narratives "causes people to change their perceptions and their behaviour" and can "affect democratic processes".

You can listen to the full interview on the BFBS Sitrep podcast