An artificial intelligence (AI) defence centre called The Foundry has been unveiled, as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) says the UK urgently needs so-called "cyber warriors" just as much as fighter pilots.

The Foundry, for which a location has yet to be determined, will act as the hub for a new breed of cyber warriors.

General Sir Patrick Sanders, the head of Strategic Command, said a new cadre called the Defence Digital Service, a mix of military personnel and civilians, will work from the new organisation and in deployed locations.

Speaking at the Strategic Command conference, Gen Sanders said: “As a key priority, I and my partner in GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, urgently need the nation’s cyber and digital talent, part time or full time.

“These cyber warriors will be as vital to our defences as an F-35 pilot, a special forces operator or a submariner, and in contact with the enemy more frequently and persistently than any of them.”

The MoD believes a different commercial model between the military and industry is necessary to withstand and exploit the “technological tsunami” enabled by AI.

General Sir Nick Carter (below), the chief of the defence staff, has often spoken of the need for a new career model to allow military reservists and civilians to work alongside the military in cyberspace. 

General Sir Nick Carter joined the Army in 1977 as an 18-year-old

Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Gen Sanders said defending against AI-capable adversaries without employing the same technology is an “invitation to disaster”.

“AI will compress decision timeframes from minutes to seconds, expand the scale of attacks, and demand responses that will tax the limits of human cognition.”

In 2017, President Putin said that the nation that leads in AI will rule the world. President Xi Jinping of China has made similar comments and has directed his country to pursue superiority in the field of AI.

The new Defence Digital Service will seek to attract software developers and data scientists to make the UK a leading power in the emerging technology.

In 2019 the UK was ranked third, after the US and China, in the global AI index by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Centre.

“That ranking conceals a huge gap in a winner-takes-all competition where first mover advantage is everything,” Gen Sanders warned.

The Government’s recent Integrated Review of foreign, defence, security and development policy highlighted AI as a “strategic priority” for the UK.

Gen Sanders said “a thousand narrow AI flowers are blooming across defence, but we have not mobilised this at the pace and scale needed”.

Charlie Forte, the MoD’s chief information officer, said The Foundry will seek to emulate ideas like Industry 100, from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

Under that scheme, 100 leading thinkers from the private sector worked with the NCSC, the public-facing arm of GCHQ, for days or weeks at a time to bring in fresh thinking.

“These notions are all about how we take advantage of what the UK has to offer in terms of skills,” Mr Forte told The Telegraph.

The conference also heard how in the last few months cyberspace has been a “vector for espionage” and a “conduit for disinformation”.

British and American authorities attributed the recent SolarWinds hack to Russia and the cyber attack on the Finnish parliament to China.

High-profile hacks

Russian cyber hackers, either from the government or state-sponsored troll factories such as the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, are also believed to be behind the ransomware attack this month which crippled critical US national oil infrastructure, and the attack on the Irish health service in the midst of the pandemic. 

Gen Sanders said such threats underlined why the UK needed to develop cyber warriors, both in and out of uniform.

“We must be daring and entrepreneurial because the threat is moving towards us and the technological advantage away from us,” he warned. “We’ve been given the resources…we’ve now got to deliver.”

A senior Government official said: “The internet was developed by three geeks in a university three decades ago." 

As such, cyberspace is vulnerable to attack from rogue actors because it is “optimised for peace and opportunity” and has to “manage the complexity” this allows, the official added.