by Alastair Stevenson - V3.co.uk - 30th Sept 2013
The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has pledged to recruit hundreds of computer experts for a reserve task force dedicated to developing and, if required, mounting offensive cyber operations.
Defence secretary Philip Hammond announced yesterday that the experts will work alongside regular military forces and government agencies to develop offensive as well as defensive tools and strategies. He said the creation of the Reserves unit is an essential step in the government's ongoing battle to protect itself and businesses from the growing cyber threat facing them.
"In response to the growing cyber threat, we are developing a full-spectrum military cyber capability, including a strike capability, to enhance the UK's range of military capabilities. Increasingly, our defence budget is being invested in high-end capabilities such as cyber and intelligence and surveillance assets to ensure we can keep the country safe," said Hammond.
"The Cyber Reserves will be an essential part of ensuring we defend our national security in cyberspace. This is an exciting opportunity for internet experts in industry to put their skills to good use for the nation, protecting our vital computer systems and capabilities."
The unit's creation comes during widespread reports that Europe is suffering a cyber skills shortage. Numerous government departments and businesses have said recruiting skilled cyber professionals is an ongoing challenge.
Prior to this announcement the National Audit Office (NAO) estimated the gap will last 20 years and will cost the nation £27bn a year.
Last week F-Secure chief research officer Mikko Hypponen uncovered evidence that government agencies such as the GCHQ and NSA are already outsourcing cyber missions to third-party security companies as they do not have enough skilled professionals in-house.
The government will launch a tailored recruitment strategy in October to get around the skills gap. It will look for three types of recruits: regular personnel leaving the Armed Forces, current and former reservists with the necessary skills and a select number of experts with no previous military experience, but with "the technical knowledge, skills, experience and aptitude to work in this highly specialised area."
The strategy has been praised by the wider security community. Royal Holloway University Information Security department head Professor Keith Martin told V3 the focus on creating offensive tools is of little surprise.
“It doesn’t surprise me people would want to build offensive capabilities. The government already all but explicitly acknowledged we do have cyber offensive capabilities, so I think it’s something that already exists now,” he said.
“In terms of knowing what extra capabilities they’re looking for I can’t say, but it’s fairly obvious this is an increasingly important medium where conflicts and diplomacy are going happen.”
However, Martin said even with the strategy the lack of clarity about what specific talents the GCHQ wants its reservists to have combined with the ongoing skills gap may still be an issue.
“I think there is a shortage, in the sense there’s a healthy jobs market with people that require these skills. Regarding whether there is a ready supply of these skills for the government to tap, it’s difficult to say as we don’t know what they want," he noted.
"But, there is a relatively short supply of these security skills within companies. Whether people within companies with these skills would be willing to give up their time, I don’t know, but I imagine there will be an issue,” he said.
Peter Armstrong, director of cyber security at Thales UK, added that he expects the strategy to prove effective and lead to an overall boost in the number of security experts operating in the UK.
"With the advent of cyber espionage and attacks which threaten national critical infrastructure, the need for a holistic approach to national security is long overdue. It's great to see the MoD taking its share of responsibility for this alongside its traditional physical defence remit," he said.
"In addition, and just as importantly, this move will help enormously in positioning public sector cyber security as an attractive career prospect for the next generation."
The UK government announced its Cyber Reserves initiative alongside announcing plans to create a new British Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) in 2012. These initiatives are part of the government's wider cyber security strategy, which was announced in 2011 when the UK government pledged to invest £650m to help bolster the nation's cyber defences.