Britain to carry out ‘offensive’ cyber attacks from new £5bn digital warfare centre

·3 min read
Ben Wallace - JULIAN SIMMONDS 
Ben Wallace - JULIAN SIMMONDS

Britain will launch “offensive” cyber attacks in response to similar assaults or disinformation campaigns by “hostile states” such as Russia, the Defence Secretary has said, as he unveiled plans for a £5bn digital warfare centre in the heart of the red wall.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Ben Wallace revealed that the new National Cyber Force headquarters will be built in the North West, in a move Boris Johnson hopes will emulate the construction of GCHQ, the government’s listening post, outside Cheltenham under Winston Churchill’s premiership.

Mr Wallace said the agency, which is expected to employ thousands of hackers and analysts by 2030, would “put Britain at the front” of countries with the ability to carry out cyber attacks.

“We will be one of the very, very few nations in the world with that scale,” he said.

The agency, which will be jointly run by the Ministry of Defence and GCHQ, will develop the ability to attack critical national infrastructure, such as power stations, in “hostile states” that carry out similar assaults on Britain.

Mr Johnson is expected to cite the plans as a key part of his levelling up agenda, as the Prime Minister prepares to set out how the Government is “getting on with the job”, at the Conservatives’ annual conference in Manchester on Sunday.

‘Foreign states are waging cyber warfare on us every day’

The National Cyber Force will be based in Samlesbury, Lancashire, between Blackburn, Preston, Bolton and Burnley.

MPs who have been lobbying for the headquarters to be based in Samlesbury include Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker, and Nigel Evans, his deputy, both of whom represent seats in the area.

Mr Wallace said: “Some foreign states are waging cyber warfare on us every single day. And we have a right under international law and among ourselves to defend ourselves. We will defend ourselves from cyber warfare if that warfare is dangerous, corrupting, or damaging.

“And one of the ways you can do that is to dismantle the tools that are used against you. For example, if a hostile state is using a server to deploy ransomware against you, or spyware or using disinformation, you could use offensive cyber to deal with those servers.”

He added: “Offensive cyber can do a range of things, including going after paedophiles and their networks, going after terrorism and their networks, and obviously going after hostile states, should we choose to do so where they use capabilities.

“It’s a new front, a new domain in battle. And that’s what we’ve got to be able to do here.”

Attack on the NHS

Mr Wallace cited the 2017 WannaCry attack that crippled parts of the NHS as an example of the type of assault that the new agency would be used to counter.

“WannaCry was a North Korean cyber attack and that crippled for a significant period of time our NHS outpatients system.

“My duty is to defend but having part of that is the ability to dismantle your adversaries’ capabilities to attack you.”

Asked whether the National Cyber Force’s capabilities were intended to include attacking critical national infrastructure in a hostile state that launched a similar assault on this country, Mr Wallace said: “It would be a dereliction of duty if these capabilities weren’t on our shelves. Who knows where we’ll be in 20 years’ time, we haven’t had a tier-one cyber attack yet, a catastrophic cyber attack.”

Mr Wallace said that Britain was already a “leader” in defending cyber attacks, thanks to GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, but added: “We have to respond in line with both escalation and deterrent. So will be investing in all our capabilities.”

Likening the proposed new centre to GCHQ, which was built in 1951, Mr Wallace said: “Cheltenham was a small country town and look what it has done. That’s what we mean by levelling up.”

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