Cyberwarriors as important as pilots, special forces: UKStratCom head
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Cyberwarriors as important as pilots, special forces: UKStratCom head

By Harry Lye 27 May 2021 (Last Updated May 27th, 2021 14:10)

The head of the UK’s Strategic Command, General Sir Patrick Sanders, yesterday said that cyberwarriors were as important to the defence of the UK as special forces operators and F-35 pilots as he announced the UK would publish an Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategy this summer.

Cyberwarriors as important as pilots, special forces: UKStratCom head

Speaking to attendees, Sanders said: “As a key priority, I and my partner in GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, urgently need the nation’s cyber and digital talent, part-time or full time.

“These cyberwarriors will be as vital to our defences as an F-35 pilot, a special forces operator or a submariner – and in contact with the enemy more frequently and persistently than any of them.”

Sanders comments at the event came as he put a spotlight on the UK’s efforts in the artificial intelligence space, announcing plans to publish a defence AI strategy this summer and the establishment of a Defence AI centre this year.

The general said the AI strategy would be guided by three principles; the adoption and exploitation of AI for defence ‘at scale’; the catalysation and strengthening of the UK defence and security ecosystem, and shaping the global development of AI to support ‘security, stability and democratic values’.

Sanders added: “For Strategic Command, this begins with the establishment of a Defence AI centre this year as part of a wider digital ecosystem across Defence that we call The Foundry. And forgive me if I unashamedly get a bit techno techno, but the technology and the terms matter.”

AI was highlighted as a priority in the UK’s recent Integrated Review, and in a military context is seen as critical for decreasing decision times and improving cybersecurity.

Sanders said the UK was being confronted by a ‘technological tsunami’ of ‘biotech, quantum technology, microelectronics and semiconductors, robotics and 5G’ but most significantly, AI.

AI, he said, would be both ‘foundational and an accelerant’ to all other fields of emerging technologies and added that the UK was not alone in the assessment, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments about how the nation that ‘leads in AI’ will ‘rule the world’.

Sanders also cited China as another country pursuing ‘superiority’ in AI. China’s push for defence AI has been seen as a way it could potentially leapfrog the US in defence capabilities.

Citing Eric Schmidt, the former chairman of Google, Sanders added that defending against an AI-enabled adversary without the use of AI was an ‘invitation to disaster’.

“AI will compress decision timeframes from minutes to seconds, expand the scale of attacks, and demand responses that will tax the limits of human cognition. Human operators will not be able to defend against AI-enabled cyber or disinformation attacks, drone swarms or missile attacks without the assistance of AI-enabled machines,” Sanders said.

He added: “Even the best human operator cannot defend against multiple machines making thousands of manoeuvres per second at hypersonic speeds and orchestrated by AI across domains. Humans cannot be everywhere at once, but software can – it can augment human capability and can have enormous benefits. It can defend society and democracy, it can enable operational advantage, and remove humans from harm’s way.”

In 2019, the UK was ranked third after the US and China on the global AI index. However, Sanders said the ranking concealed ‘a huge gap in a winner takes all competition where first-mover advantage is everything.’

Key to achieving the UK’s goals for cyber, Sanders said, would be building a talent pipeline with ‘a Defence Digital Service and Digital Academy’ and a career management system that could nurture cyber talent across defence.