Unrestricted Digital Warfare.

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Harriet Rogers

Unless otherwise referenced, many of the ideas in this article are taken from the proceedings of the Disruptive Technology for Defence Transformation Conference held online by Defence iQ in September 2020. The Conference was held under the Chatham House Rule so individual ideas have not been attributed to particular speakers. Defence iQ is grateful to the speaker faculty for their contributions to the conference which was chaired by General Sir Richard Barrons.


A single manmade stock market crash, rumour or computer virus can be a new-concept weapon. Technological progress has given us the means to strike at an enemy’s nerve centre. The best way to achieve victory is to control, not to kill.

            -  Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare (1999)


Blurred lines

It is over 20 years since the Chinese doctrine of Unrestricted Warfare was published. The West faces a nexus of hostile states, organised crime and insurgent groups that do not recognize a binary distinction between warfare and are supercharged by technology. Meanwhile the geo-strategic rise of China sees it prepared to use all available levers of economic, political and military power to subvert international norms. The cyber and communications infrastructure of the Belt and Road Initiative enable China to disrupt and influence other states in support of Beijing’s vision of a China restored to its rightful place in the world.

In the information age, where data has value as a source of power and control, China has ‘leap-frogged” the West in its understanding.

Against this backdrop Defence iQ brought experts from the Armed Forces, industry and academia together to explore the challenges and opportunities of digital technologies. From the 3 day virtual Disruptive Technology for Defence Transformation conference a number of key themes emerged.


“A new form of security for the cyber age”

 – Jeremy Fleming, 2019, Director GCHQ, Fullerton lecture on Cyber Power.

First and foremost it is clear that we must shift to a “homeland defence” mindset. Daily probing of networks pose an existential threat to our security. It is vital that we adopt digital strategies that can face the myriad threats both above and below what has historically been regarded as the threshold of conflict.

Allied to this there is no doubt that future military superiority will be dependent on national cyber power and sharing of information across services, government and coalitions. Multi domain integration is essential in the information age, “joint” is no longer enough.

In a system of systems the network becomes the driving force. Long held ways of operating and iconic platforms may fall by the wayside as we shift from being weapons led to digitally led. As data becomes as much of an asset as weapons our fundamental approach to command and control, even warfare itself must be re-evaluated.

The explosion in data will require an increased reliance on autonomy and machine learning bringing ethical and policy challenges to the fore. As the use of advanced weapons systems evolves, our teaching of the law of armed conflict must develop in tandem.

Future operations will take place in a cyber contested environment in which weapons systems, defences and responses can be rendered useless overnight. Cyber considerations must routinely be included in operational planning and front-line cyber support available. Timeframes for procurement and upgrades should be measured in weeks and hours, not years and months.

Finally whilst the development of offensive and defensive cyber capabilities are essential, these cannot continue to operate in isolation from each other as they currently do. Rather our cyber capabilities should become an extensive eco-system in which interdependencies between offensive and defensive can be maximized to our advantage and in which routine persistent network patrolling becomes the norm.


A change of mindset.

There is no doubt that a challenging transformation of political mindset, doctrine and capabilities lies ahead. The good news is that the UK has the cyber institutions, industry and academic expertise and military strategists required to meet this challenge, but it will require collaboration and foresight. Cyber can no longer be an afterthought but must be at the heart of UK defence.