Monday, 13 January 2014

The Threats Ahead

In December of last year, Think Defence posted a tongue in cheek piece about the "biggest threats in the next ten years". The post itself may have been a comical stab at the defence industry, but the comments section got going with ideas and theories about the legitimate potential threats that may exist in the the next ten years. And as old TD's trying to stimulate the online defence community to have a discussion about the SDSR due in 2015, I thought I'd weigh in with my own thoughts.

Cyber Security
Is the modern bogey man, easily a match for the Russians during the Cold War. The problem is trying to separate the subject into its various streams such as military vs civilian, and trying to prise apart the dangerous from the annoying, the critical from the embarassing.

I say this because cyber attacks come in many forms, some of which are distinctly less serious than others. A lot of what gets reported in the press as hacking and cyber attacks are really not a huge issue in the long run. Many are simply Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, which prevent a webpage or service from being used for a certain period of time. While annoying for the operator and potentially a little damaging for their credibility and business, such attacks are typically short term and cause only disruption, not long term problems.

Some attacks can be a bit more serious, such as the attack on private intelligence provider Strategic Forecasting, Inc (Stratfor), which resulted in the release of company e-mails and supposedly the credit card details of subscribers. The damage to Stratfors credibility was quite significant, not least because Stratfor offers advice to clients about their security measures! But in the grand scheme of things the hack was not the kind of complex process that people imagine or see in the movies. A prime cause of the Stratfor hack was supposedly their very lax attitude to password security and a lack of even basic encryption of personal client data in their possession.

Indeed, one of the stated aims of many hacking groups is not so much accessing the data that various companies hold, but demonstrating to the public just how lax many companies are with the security of that data and who is allowed to access it. In turn it is not a great leap to say that a big part of cyber security is not investing in millions of pounds worth of specialist software, so much as it is being more careful about how that data is stored and who is allowed to view it, including a variety of physical security measures.

This leads us to the headlines about power grids potentially being taken down and planes falling out of the sky as a result of cyber attacks, which often belies the fact that many companies that run such services often already have very good security measures to resist such attacks, including keeping important systems segregated from external access, requiring any potential attacker to somehow access the site physically, which is where tight physical security measures come into play.

Probably of more concern is the proliferation of networks in the military context. The great selling point of much modern military equipment is the increased ability to "network; that is, to share information acquired by one platform with other platforms or users, in order to increase the situational awareness of the force as a whole.

The main problem is that such data is transmitted over channels that can be intercepted and interfered with by a sophisticated opponent. If the encryption used for military communications can be broken, then messages can be intercepted and false information can be transmitted to cause confusion.

As scary as this may sound though, I think there are two mitigating factors. One is that this is actually a lot harder to do than it sounds. Modern computing permits the use of encryption methods that are vastly more complex than anything seen previously. Second is that this is not a new phenomenon by any means.

Militaries have been intercepting, probing and jamming each others communications for a very long time now. The most obvious and most easily implemented solution has been to restrict the amount of useful information that gets transmitted, while making sure that any information that must be sent is done so using codewords or other cover techniques, and that certain basic principles of communication security and counter-intelligence techniques are observed at all times. 

When these principles are combined with modern data encryption, networks should prove very difficult to crack. Not impossible, by any stretch of the imagination. But very difficult. Therefore I wonder if the greatest danger posed by the threat of cyber or other electronic attacks might be the amount of money that is spent on preventing them, which is then taken away from other, more useful conventional capabilities.

Energy Security
Energy drives our economy. We rely on it for everything from leisure activities to heating to cooking to transport to communication. But how secure is our energy supply?

That depends on your definition of "security". The potential for a growing economy to outbid UK companies on international energy markets can drive up prices and/or force the UK to go to other suppliers to meet demand. This is probably a greater risk to UK energy supplies then any prospect of military action against UK bound tankers. 

The problem with discussing UK energy security in the defence context is that it actually has very little to do with defence. Protecting the physical assets of the domestic energy supply chain is more of a job both for the companies that own them and for the Home Office. Negotiating deals with foreign fuel suppliers is also not a defence concern. 

Primarily then defence is concerned with the transit of those fuels, the protection of fuel sources and keeping nation state threats away from the UK. The latter point is not currently a major concern, due to the complete absence of nation state threats to the UK. The transit of the fuel and the protection of its sources is more of a concern, within reason.

The UK currently derives the bulk of its fuel imports from Norway, a stable country and a member of NATO, one that faces little in the way of imminent threats. Supplies from the middle east are more vulnerable but currently the UKs efforts to secure these supplies would seem adequate, alongside the efforts of allies such as the US. 

Probably the biggest threat to middle eastern fuel supplies would come from within those nations themselves, such as civil disorder, something for which the UK armed forces are not really placed to manage. 

With the advent of UK derived shale gas and a relatively secure global supply chain, there is little in the way of an obvious threat to the UKs energy supplies, at least that relate to matters of defence.

Economic Decline
For me, this is probably the most important threat facing UK defence. Although the UK itself is now growing slightly, defence equipment appears to continue to increase in price at a rate above standard inflation. Further, while the economy may be recovering, defence spending is still declining.

It is true that budget cuts have grounded more aircraft and taken more ships off the navy list than any enemy of the UK has since World War 2. This is a trend that is unlikely to reverse, not least because the UK government has already made the point that more cuts are on the way for defence.

The problem is that even this calculation is based on what I believe to be an unrealistic projection of UK growth. The government made much fanfare about record employment levels during the pre-Christmas period, but there is strong evidence to suggest that a significant amount of the increase was generated by temporary Christmas staff, many of whom will now be laid off as we head into the new year.

And at the same time as the government is patting itself on the back for its good work, we still see a steady stream of businesses closing their doors or reporting poor performance. The rise of low-cost stores like Aldi and B&M has masked (until recently) the poor performance of many of the major chains like Tesco and others.

This shouldn't be taken to the extreme. We're still talking about successful companies that are making profits. Car manufacturers like Jaguar Land Rover and Rolls Royce have also recorded significant sales, mostly driven by foreign markets. 

But the economy is not quite coming alive as some people hoped it would. There is still an underlying sluggishness, which when combined with the governments refusal to take measures to increase government income means that public spending will continue to take hits going forward. And - as always - defence will likely take a big lump of those cuts.

That means the army, navy and air force must be ready for further reductions. There is some scope within their 2020 plans for small reductions, but this will naturally affect their ability to deliver forces at the sharp end when required.

The Unknown
All the threats that we have no idea about just yet. Will any of these be a true threat to the UK? Well... we don't know. In all probability the chances that a direct threat to the UK will emerge are quite slim. What is more of a concern is the probability of an incident arising overseas into which the UK will be thrust.

We're already seeing problems in Africa that have required interventions by France, with logistic support often provided by the UK. With the spread of Islamist groups looking for a home, Africa continues to be a long term concern for the international community.

What has also been starkly demonstrated over the last few years is that even otherwise stable looking regimes can be one political upheaval away from chaos. Egypt and Syria were two of the strongest and most stable countries in the middle eastern region up until a few years ago, but now both are facing deep crisis. 

The reality is that you can pick almost any nation on Earth and - with a bit of creativity - come up with a viable set of circumstances under which that nation is plunged into a civil war or other kind of political chaos that leads to a major problem for the international community.

The best defence against such problems is to hedge your bets and retain at least a strong core of military capability. In the UKs case, that core has rapidly declined since the end of the cold war. It is still capable of slotting into an alliance and providing a significant contribution, but even that contribution is gradually dwindling and will dwindle even more when the impending cuts kick in.

This, in a roundabout way, probably represents the biggest threat to the UK going forward; being caught short when something big kicks off. We have allies, including the most powerful military in the world, but even allies have their limit.

Prevention is better than the cure, but with the US military facing budget cuts and the credibility of US and UK forces having taken a knock after the events of Iraq and Afghanistan, the preventative power of NATO and the UN is looking gradually weaker.

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