The U.K. Government is developing a "toolbox" of Internet cyber-weapons that could be used to attack other countries, Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey said in an admission that the military now treats the Internet as a battlefield like any other.
Harvey's rationale for a policy of cyber-offense during an interview reported in The Guardian newspaper was that cyberspace was no different to any other field of combat, and imposed the same strategic demands.
"We need a toolbox of capabilities and that's what we are currently developing," said Harvey. "The circumstances and manner in which we would use them are broadly analogous to what we would do in any other domain." Cyberwar is, he said, "conflict without boundaries" and "action in cyberspace will form part of the future battlefield."
Development of offensive technologies is being carried out at the Cyber Security Operations Centre at Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham under the direction of the Government's Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence (MOD), he indicated.
Harvey appeared to deny that pre-emption and counter-warfare might be a much more routine element of cyber-defense than these principles have been in the world of conventional war.
"I don't think that the existence of a new domain will, in itself, make us any more offensive than we are in any other domain. The legal conventions within which we operate are quite mature and well established," Harvey told the Guardian.
"The consequences of a well planned, well executed attack against our digital infrastructure could be catastrophic. With nuclear or biological weapons, the technical threshold is high. With cyber the finger hovering over the button could be anyone from a state to a student," he said.
Harvey's statement confirms what might be suspected about the U.K.'s attitude to cyber-warfare at a time when it has pointedly commented on numerous recent incoming attacks by foreign powers on its infrastructure.
These have included detailed allegations made by Foreign Secretary William Hague at last February's Munich security Conference that U.K. Government departments were regularly being attacked by one or more unnamed foreign powers.
Last November, Armed Forces Minister Harvey used a speech to signal the U.K.'s growing exasperation with the level of cyberattacks being directed at the country, suggesting that cyberattacks be treated as acts of aggression subject to international treaties, including the mutual military defense pact on which NATO was founded
Harvey's latest comments go further than any previous statements by a U.K. politician, however, including those made by former navy chief, Lord West, during a BBC interview in 2009 in which he said the country possessed the capability to strike against its enemies in certain circumstances.