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British Army to be downsized but National Cyber Force is here to stay

The size of the British Army could be reduced by as many as 10,000 troops in the coming days to make more funds available for cyber warfare, and the deployment of more drones and robots to fight future wars.

The government’s latest integrated review of foreign and defence policy has brought forth renewed focus on technology and the military’s cyber capabilities at the cost of raw manpower. Additional investments in naval frigates, drones, and fighter jets featuring cutting-edge technology will, in the coming years, see the British Army sized down from the present manpower of 80,000 troops to around 70,000-odd.

A massive restructuring exercise, which may also boost the UK’s domestic manufacturing capabilities, will see the Royal Navy replacing older vessels with advanced modern frigates and warships, the Royal Air Force inducting domestic fighter jet ‘Tempest’ instead of around 90 F-35 jets, and the Royal Marines turning into a new Future Commando Force, replacing the SAS and the SBS in the coming years.

The government will also focus more on electronic warfare and drone technology to enable the military to win future wars, while also investing in enhanced cyber capabilities to respond to state-sponsored cyber attacks targeting defence assets or critical national infrastructure.

Greater focus on expanding the military’s cyber capabilities

The funding towards enabling the British Army to conduct cyber operations will go towards the National Cyber Force. NCF was raised last year to counter terror plots, support military operations, and disrupt the activities of terrorists and criminals threatening the UK’s national security.

“The National Cyber Force is a joint Defence and GCHQ capability, giving the UK a world-class ability to conduct cyber operations. 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,” said Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in November.

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.

In November last year, the Ministry of Defence was awarded a £24bn cash increase which is to be spread over four years. A bulk of the additional funding is to be spent on strengthening the UK’s cyber defences. The National Cyber Force and a new agency dedicated to artificial intelligence will benefit the most from the additional funds.

In June 2020, the Ministry of Defence also launched the first dedicated Cyber Regiment 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 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 the 13th Signal Regiment is a vital addition to that defence,” said Wallace.


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