The idea that cyber warfare will increasingly replace more traditional battlefield assets was strongly demonstrated this month when the British Army declared it was considering scrapping its tank units in favour of expanded cyber capabilities.
The reform could also involve a curtailing of the number of Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles the Army currently fields; the Warrior, a heavily armed and armoured transport used to rapidly deploy heavy infantry units, has seen extensive use in Britain’s contributions to NATO’s Afghan campaigns, but there are currently no wars for the ageing vehicle to fight – and the growing potency of cyber warfare could mean there will be fewer still.
However, some Warriors are to be retained, unlike the Army’s Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank. In truth, this is as much to do with the fact that tanks are becoming increasingly obsolete – hand-portable anti-tank weapons have become ever more damaging to armoured units, and the sophistication and growing use of attack helicopters and artillery has caused the inherently limited vehicles to face an uncertain future.
As strange as it may seem to assert, World War 2 was arguably the glory era for the tank; Cold War planners perceived that they would be useful if a conflict had broken out between the West and the Soviet Union, but the tactical use of helicopters was at that time still in its infancy, and portable anti-tank rockets lacked the accuracy and effectiveness of later designs.
In more recent times, tanks have seen rather limited use. The mountains of Afghanistan made them wholly unsuitable for use (tanks being at their most effective in open spaces, without the confines of streets, wooded terrain, or inclines), and although the two Iraq conflicts of 1991 and 2003 did see Allied tanks smash their Iraqi counterparts, Bagdad’s armies were equipped with machines woefully outdated and no match for their enemies.
However, Saddam Hussein’s tanks were even more vulnerable to NATO air power, since Iraq’s air force proved as feeble as its armoured units (indeed, it was often quipped after the 1991 Gulf War that prior to the conflict, Iraq had the fifth biggest armed forces on the planet, but afterwards did not even have the fifth biggest military in Iraq itself).
Yet in the later peacekeeping operations that took up the bulk of NATO’s efforts in Iraq, tanks saw very little deployment, and had greater value as a deterrent – the machines were not, after all, designed for peacekeeping purposes.
Although the decision to scrap the Challenger 2 has not yet been finalised, it may seem like a logical step for the British Army. June saw the creation of a dedicated cyber warfare unit, part of the Royal Corps of Signals. The 13th Signal Regiment has taken all existent cyber warfare personnel from the military, and although it falls under the Army’s jurisdiction, it closely cooperates with the Royal Navy, Air Force, and Marines, as well as the civilian GCHQ.
This was followed by the more recent revelation that Britain has developed cyber capabilities able to do significant damage to the infrastructure of hostile actors. General Sir Patrick Sanders, the commander of the UK’s Strategic Command, said that Britain’s cyber defensive and offensive assets were now an integral part of the country’s defence, comparable to the Royal Air Force’s rapid response squadrons and the Navy’s nuclear-armed submarine fleet.
Likening the current cyber threats facing the country to the Blitz, Hitler’s relentless bombing campaign against London in World War Two, he stated that the UK’s cyber defence forces negate 60 cyber attacks per day.
That the UK is structuring its cyber defences more carefully and balancing its budget by scrapping battlefield mainstay assets such as tanks could cause other countries to follow suit. It is also notable that London is openly declaring that its cyber forces are now not only defensive, but also potently offensive in nature; this is a significant departure from past rhetoric.
Military evolution of this kind is not, in fact, new: the tank replaced the horse on land; the aircraft carrier superseded the battleship at sea; and the aircraft – both fixed-wing and rotary – opened new tactical and strategic opportunities, with everything from strategic bombing to helicopter airlifts.
Cyber warfare must be seen in the same light: it is highly likely that Britain has set a precedent, and that many tanks and other armoured vehicles will be confined to storage, and the troops that use them will perhaps be part-time reservists as opposed to regular professionals. In addition, as the UK is now openly declaring its offensive cyber capabilities, it is also possible that known cyber assets will be used as a deterrent factor in the 21st century – just as nuclear weapons were in the 20th, and large armies and navies in the 19th.