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The Joint Forces Command and the 2015 SDSR: Too Soon to Tell?

Ewan Lawson
Commentary, 27 November 2015
Cyber, Future UK Cyber Security Strategy Project, Military Sciences, Defence Policy, UK, Technology, UK Defence, Europe
While there are some welcome investments announced in cyber-capabilities by the SDSR, the devil may be in the details that are yet to be announced.

The Joint Forces Command (JFC) has been a huge boost to the joint-enablers space, with significant investment in ISR, commitment to MoD communications networks and a focus on more rapid acquisition to allow the department to avail itself of cutting-edge technology rather than twentieth-century IT systems.

However, while the SDSR makes some encouraging noises about space, this is one area in which the department has singularly failed to invest effectively. Yes, there will be extensions to Skynet V; and yes, there will be examination of near-space platforms. But without a proper joined-up approach to space, the business and government communities will continue to drift apart with very different agendas and priorities.

Identifying risks

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be hugely positive about the approach taken by the government in the 2015 National Security Strategy and SDSR regarding the response to threats and challenges in cyberspace. A reaffirmation of cyber as a Tier 1 risk is accompanied by a more than doubling of the allocated funds to £1.9 billion over the next five years, and the signposting of a new National Cyber Security Strategy and Programme to be put in place from 2016. Overall, this apparent commitment is clearly to be welcomed.

However, if the devil is in the detail, then the assessment is less clear. In part, this undoubtedly reflects the intention to deliver the strategy and programme next year and also reflects the sensitivity of many of the underlying issues – whether in terms of the details of the threats themselves or the counter-measures being planned. In part, this might also reflect the dominant role of GCHQ in UK cyber-security, which, as an agency primarily established to gather secret intelligence, culturally tends to focus on protecting its information. Whether this is entirely helpful in this environment is worthy of further debate. Indeed, it is questionable whether the most effective way of driving institutional change from Whitehall is to have almost the entire focus of the UK approach to cyber-security located in GCHQ – although the new National Cyber Security Centre will have representation from a broad range of stakeholders.

A question of resources

Financially, whilst the nearly £2 billion announced represents a significant step-up in investment, it is unclear whether this is sufficient to counter the range and complexity of developing threats. It is a tiny fraction of that announced for equipment for the armed forces and whilst the costs associated with the equipment programme are understandably much greater, this disparity given the nature of the threat to Britain’s interests from attacks through cyberspace is significant and will need to be explained in the forthcoming National Cyber Security Strategy.

However, those observations aside, the approach to cyberspace outlined in the NSS and SDSR, and indeed amplified by the chancellor’s recent speech at GCHQ, represent a clear commitment by the government to not only confront the threats to the UK in cyberspace, but also to continue to develop the UK’s position as a world leader in cyber-security.

Ewan Lawson is a Senior Research Fellow for Military Influence at RUSI.

*Header image: Crown copyright 2014


Ewan Lawson
Associate Fellow

Ewan Lawson was previously a Royal Air Force officer, initially as a policing and security specialist but in more recent... read more

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