In November last year, as Russian troops gathered on Ukraine’s border, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs on the defence select committee that “the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on the European land mass are over”.
“There are other, better things we should be investing in” besides tanks, said Johnson. “The future combat air system, cyber, this is how warfare in the future is going to be.”
The Prime Minister faced a heated grilling from skeptical members of his own party, including the committee chair Tobias Ellwood. He asked Johnson to “reconsider” cuts to conventional forces on land, sea and air. “What’s amassing right now on the Ukrainian border?”, asked the former soldier, before immediately answering his rhetorical question – “it’s tanks”.
The Integrated Review published by the Ministry of Defence in March last year promised a “modernisation programme that embraces the newer domains of cyber and space”. The number of British Army troops was to be cut to 10,000 below its current “established strength”, alongside reductions in previously planned fighter jets and Royal Navy ships. A National Cyber Force was announced, with headquarters in the North of England. Cyber was, said the PM, “revolutionising the way we live our lives and fight our wars, just as air power did one hundred years ago”.
Not even a year later, Russia is conducting a decidedly old-fashioned invasion of Ukraine on a scale not seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War, involving tens of thousands of ground troops and heavy artillery.
At the outset of the invasion, some predicted an unprecedented conflict in cyberspace. Russia’s capacities for cyber warfare were known to be extremely sophisticated. The Kremlin had already proven itself an aggressive actor, particularly against its neighbour in Kyiv after the 2014 Maidan protests toppled the pro-Russian government of Victor Yanukovych. In 2015 in Western Ukraine, unidentified hackers became the first to successfully conduct a confirmed shutdown of a power grid by hacking. Ukraine’s…