At first glance, the proposal of Defence Secretary Philip Hammond’s to put internet technology specialists in place as military reservists seems a bizarre address to the increasingly stretched numbers and capability of our armed forces.
It certainly seems a far cry from the reality of young men and women still risking their lives every day in Afghanistan.
But very relevant it is. For the nature of conflict and warfare is continually changing. And the biggest changes in recent years have been in the fields of intelligence and in cyber technology. Not only are our armed forces increasingly reliant on sophisticated technology employed in guided missiles, information gathering devices and drones, but at home the way of life we have come to enjoy has also become ever more dependent on complex – and vulnerable – technology. And as that technology has advanced, security threats have become ever more sophisticated. Last year alone, he revealed, the UK’s cyber defences blocked around 400,000 advanced, malicious cyber threats to the government secure intranet alone.
This is what lies behind his proposal to create a new cyber unit to help defend national security, from electronic communications systems to vital data. The Ministry of Defence is set to recruit hundreds of reservists as computer experts to work alongside regular forces in the creation of the new Joint Cyber Reserve Unit. The new unit will also, if necessary, launch strikes in cyber space. This would enable “cyber strikes” to disable enemy communications, nuclear and chemical weapons, planes, ships and other hardware.
It conjures up a vision of instant electronic warfare straight out of science fiction. But this vision is nearer to reality than most realise. Previously we had only to think of warfare being waged by land, sea and air. But to this we have already had to add space. Now there is a fifth domain – cyber. In July the British intelligence agency, GCHQ, revealed it had detected 70 sophisticated cyber espionage operations a month against government or industry networks. And in a written statement last year, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said 93 per cent of large corporations and 76 per cent of small businesses had reported a cyber breach last year.
None of this means that we can dispense with a conventional army: the brutal but all too necessary task will remain to root out armed enemies from challenging and complex locations, and to combat continuing threats of physical aggression. Defence will continue to extend a great deal further than computer screens.
But we need to recognise warfare has never stopped becoming more sophisticated. Adding “IT geeks” to our national defence capability is a grim recognition of the increasingly sophisticated threats we face. The key task now for Mr Hammond is to get the balance right between this requirement and the pressing needs of our front-line infantry.
Cautious welcome for skin cancer ‘cure’
There is always a need for care in interpreting reports of progress in medical research being hailed as “cures”. This is particularly the case with conditions such as skin cancer which are killers. But the news that skin cancer sufferers have experienced “spectacular effects” after receiving new medication appears well documented and merits a cautious welcome.
It is said to be the first time that scientists have come so close to providing an efficacious treatment for melanoma. It is being hailed by experts as the “beginning of a new era” and, as such, it will bring hope to thousands of people who are diagnosed with skin cancer in Britain each year.
Until now the prognosis for advanced melanoma has been very poor and many patients die within months of diagnosis. The European Cancer Congress has been told that one in six patients are already being saved by the ground-breaking treatment.
Now a new combination of drugs could mean more than half are cured of the deadly condition. The progress is testimony to the excellent work that has been done at research hospitals and at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, internationally acknowledged as a leading centre in developing fields such as the management of cancer.
Encouraging though this is, it does not in any way lessen the need for the public to take heed of warnings about exposing the skin to extended periods of sunshine and to take sensible precautions by the wearing of head and neck and shoulder protection. The dangers have long been understood and disseminated to pale-skinned Scots, but still far too little attention is still being paid to the killer condition to which such exposure can lead.