Cyberattacks as Significant as Traditional Threats, Says Battleship Manufacturer

HMS Westminster Royal Navy
Members of the British Royal Navy frigate HMS Westminster spray water with a hose to clean the ship after arriving at a port in Gibraltar August 19, 2013. The wars of the future may not be fought on the high seas but behind computer screens, according to cyberwarfare experts. Jon Nazca/Reuters

Warfare is increasingly being fought from behind computer screens rather than on the battlefield, forcing weapons manufacturers to consider the myriad of threats posed by cyberattacks. Now, the prospective manufacturer of the Royal Navy's next generation of warships has warned that cyberattacks pose a very real threat to the vessels.

Cyberattacks pose "an equally important threat to the more traditional threats," such as missiles and torpedoes, according to Geoff Searle, programme director at BAE Systems, the company which is currently negotiating with the Ministry of Defence to manufacture their new warships.

The Type 26 Global Combat Ships, estimated to cost up to 350 million ($543 million) each, will be kitted out with hi-tech computer systems and Searle says construction may begin by the end of the year. Recent incidentssuch as hackers demonstrating that wireless-enabled sniper rifles could be disabled or redirected to shoot at friendly targetsshow that increased computerisation of weapons may leave them critical vulnerabilities exposed which can be exploited by hackers.

A German missile system stationed on the Turkish-Syrian border was reportedly taken over by an unknown agent in early July. The hacker may have gained access through a computer chip or the system's real-time information technology and, though no visible damage was caused, the event set a dangerous precedent and could have resulted in the failure of missile interceptor systems or missiles being launched at unauthorised targets. In the maritime field, researchers from Lancaster University produced a report in January, in which they called cyberattacks "low-cost alternatives to physical attacks which have the ability to cripple maritime operations" and recommended a comprehensive review of current maritime cybersecurity training.

Tim Stevens, a cyberwarfare expert at the War Studies Department at King's College London, says that the process of "informationalisation"whereby military weapons and communications systems are increasingly digitisedinherently carries a risk of exploitation by cybercriminals which could have devastating consequences. "Hypothetically, you could alter the navigation system of a guided missile so that it comes back and blows the boat up," says Stevens. "There's no such thing as an entirely secure system so the designers of these new systems will have to take into account many, many such scenarios."

In its 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Ministry of Defence classified violations of cybersecurity as a Tier One riskmeaning they are of the highest priority to national security over the next five yearsand pledged 650 million ($1 billion) of investment to a new programme to tackle cyberthreats. This was supplemented by a further 210 million ($326 million) of government funding in 2013. The issue is likely to remain of high priority in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, due to conclude later this year.

Eurofighter, a German company which manufactures the Royal Air Force's Typhoon FGR4 jets, says it is also taking requisite steps to protect its aircraft from cyber threats. "We take all appropriate measures to protect the technologies, hardware and software available to our customers and this includes the correct protection against cyber-attacks," says a Eurofighter spokesperson. The Typhoons are due to replace the older Tornado bombers, currently being deployed in the bombing campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State, within the next few years.

Stevens says that the Armed Forces are right to make these investments, as future wars are likely to involve a major cyber element. He cites the Stuxnet virusa computer worm which was reportedly orchestrated by U.S. and Israeli forces and destroyed around 1,000 nuclear centrifuges in Iran between 2009 and 2010as an example of the way in which warfare is changing from crude kinetic attacks to more subtle ways of undermining the enemy. "There's an argument that the aim of the [Stuxnet] exercise was to make Iranian scientists not believe in their own instruments and their own machinery, to introduce that lack of trust in one's own systems...that's a very powerful thing," he says.

However, Richard Kemp, a retired British Army officer who served as Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan during his 29-year military career, believes that the conventional bullets-and-bombs warfare will remain the predominant means of engagement for the foreseeable future. He predicts that while drones and robotised-vehicles will play a bigger role in conflict over the next decade and may enhance the capabilities of infantry, they will not definitively replace traditional means of warfare. "This technology [of drones and robots] is in it's infancy and I think that it will become much more significant over the next decade, although I firmly believe that none of that will reduce the need for troops on the ground at some stage," says Kemp.