Why is the government cutting troops for emerging forms of warfare?

A close up of a Union flag on the shoulder of a soldier's uniform
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The way in which wars are fought has transformed in the digital age. Today, nation states are increasingly leveraging cyber, artificial intelligence, drones, and other new technologies to launch attacks on their enemies.

In response to this sea change, the UK government recently conducted a thorough review of the nation’s defenses and concluded that the British armed forces must change with the times. As such, the government plans to slash troop numbers to 72,000 by 2025, while increasing investment in technology-driven capabilities. But is this the right decision to make?

The rise of AI warfare

With nation-state cyber-attacks becoming more frequent and disastrous, there is growing pressure on the UK and other countries worldwide to invest in new forms of technological warfare to counter this threat.

Max Heinemeyer, director of threat hunting at Darktrace, says: “Cyber as a means of disrupting and influencing other nations is now a fact of international politics – it’s a perpetual arms race to deliver the best front-end capabilities.”

The use of artificial intelligence technologies as part of defensive military strategies, in particular, will play a vital role in protecting both digital and physical infrastructure. Consequently, the most powerful nations on earth will be defined by their AI military capabilities.

“Signature-based defences — which only stop known threats — are futile against such sophisticated attacks. This is why AI is becoming critical, and not just a nice-to-have, in the effort to defend not only digital assets and information but also critical national infrastructure, which is being targeted by these attacks,” says Heinemeyer.

“Within this landscape, cyber superpower status will be defined by defensive, not offensive, superiority – cyber conflict is asymmetrical and it’s much easier to attack than to defend. Part of this defensive superiority must and will be using defensive AI to augment human teams.”

Heinemeyer says attackers will continue to use AI technologies to accelerate the speed and scale of their attacks over the coming years. He adds: “When ‘offensive AI’ is inevitably weaponised in cyber warfare, nations will have little choice but to fight fire with fire, using AI. Cyber security training for all national service people is important, but you simply cannot pit humans against machines – it’s not a fair contest.”

Protecting businesses

While emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are a major focus in the UK government’s recent integrated review on defense, security and foreign policy, experts argue that these shouldn’t come at the expense of other modern threats. For instance, adversaries are increasingly conducting supply chain attacks to compromise government departments and national infrastructure.

“In the past couple of weeks, the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper both raised interesting questions around national defence strategies and spending. At the moment these questions seem to have been reduced to a spending decision between boots on the ground and AI drones,” warns Andre Stewart, GM of EMEA at Netskope.

“However, if we fixate on this binary choice we will miss the opportunity to address a very clear and present threat to our national security (one that was referenced in the Integrated Review, but now seems to have dropped off the radar),” he continues. “Several states are currently sponsoring malicious actors to disrupt and compromise British society and safety. They target private businesses as an entry point, but once in, attackers move sideways through supply chain attacks or linked accounts and the ultimate goal for the attackers is often government departments and critical national infrastructure.”

Stewart says ensuring every UK-based business has a robust cyber defence strategy in place will also protect the nation, alongside conventional soldiers and AI-powered drones. He tells It Pro: “It’s time that the government’s national cyber defence strategy acknowledged the scale of privately managed attack surfaces, the link between private attacks and national security, and the talented dispersed cyber defence workforce outside of GCHQ and the MoD.”

The threat landscape is changing rapidly

The UK government is nevertheless right to adapt to new and emerging threats, according to ESET security specialist Jake Moore. “The threat landscape rarely changes so dramatically as it has done over the last decade. Foreign adversaries are changing the way in which we now see full scale attacks and potential attacks,” he says.

“Emerging warfare like AI is still in its infancy stage but to be ready for the potential full impact in the future, we need to start adapting today.”

As technology continues to advance, new weapons will emerge and become increasingly destructive. Moore believes that the UK must prepare for this by modernising the armed forces. He tells IT Pro: “Newer technologies mean newer weapons. The advances we have seen in technology have the potential of causing far more destruction and disruption than we have seen before and the government would be wrong not to act now.

“Upgrading military weaponry is vital and the future of warfare is no longer battling on the frontline with troops but fought digitally. Cyber defences are categorically where the money is needed and with the help of the National Cyber Force (NCF) it’s imperative that AI is used in not only protected but also in attacking.”

Sean Wright, application security lead at Immersive Labs, explains that there are arguments for and against the use of emerging technologies such as AI in the military. “First the argument against: AI is nowhere near the intelligence of a human, so it’s difficult to see some system replacing a human in that aspect,” he says.

“But switching the argument around, as we’ve seen often, more and more attacks are happening in the online world, to which AI could be better suited to combat as opposed to throwing more humans at the problem (who most likely will have limited skills, and we know all about the current resource gap in cybersecurity).”

Richard Skellett, a veteran IT professional, suggests that the government isn’t using AI how it should be. “The government says, as do providers of these solutions, that AI and automation are meant to augment humans and not displace them. Everything and anything that is process based will be automated and process is by far the single largest percentage of work that we do. We are seeing the results of this coming through in record numbers of youth unemployment.

“Taking away the entry level job of a human worker and giving that to a digital worker is devastating as just how are they going to get experience? The Government needs to be looking much more holistically at the impact of AI and automation and unfortunately that’s lacking, and we can see the evidence of that in the cutting back on troop numbers.”

Given the rise of technologically sophisticated warfare, it’s understandable that the UK government wants to invest in more advanced weapons and defenses. But it’s also clear that reducing the size of the conventional army in order to fund newer forms of warfare is a controversial choice.

Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter.