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Head of the RAF says British armed forces must embrace internet technology

The UK needs to learn from the actions of the Israeli military in the Gaza in using YouTube and tweets to engage in 21st-century cyber-warfare, the head of the Royal Air force said yesterday.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton highlighted how the Israeli Air Force used the internet in the battle over international public opinion during last year's conflict as an example of harnessing new technology.

"Accurate and timely information has always been critical to the military but its importance is increasing as societies become more networked," he stated. "This is intimately linked to developments in space and cyber-space; as we saw in the conflict in Gaza in early 2009, operations on the ground were paralleled by operations in cyber-space and an 'info ops' campaign that was fought across the internet: the Israeli Air Force downloaded sensor imagery onto YouTube, tweets warned of rocket attacks and the 'help-us-win.com' blog was used to mobilise public support."

The Israeli attack on Gaza, with its large number of civilian casualties, led to widespread international criticism. However, the use of the internet by the Israeli forces attempting to show Hamas fighters employing local people as cover and the supposedly "surgical" nature of some of the bombing is thought to have countered some of the adverse publicity.

The emotive impact of civilian casualties has been graphically shown during the current offensive in Afghanistan to capture the Marjah region from Taliban forces. Twelve civilians, 10 of them from one family, were killed when two Nato missiles overshot their targets and hit a family home.

General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, immediately issued a public apology and the use of the missile system involved in the deaths has been suspended. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who had warned Western forces about civilian casualties before the mission was launched, has demanded an inquiry.

As well as the propaganda campaign, cyber-warfare can be used to target vital strategic communications and defence systems. Both Russia and China have been accused of using the new technology as offensive weapons to hack into targeted computer systems.

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In a keynote speech at the International Institute for Strategic Defences, Sir Stephen urged military planners to focus on the "operational environment that is increasingly becoming the 'vital ground' in 21st-century conflict".

The Air Chief Marshal's address was one of a series by the heads of the three services as they make their pitch for resources before the impending Strategic Defence Review. It follows the case for the Army made by General Sir David Richards and the Navy by Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope. General Richards had stressed that the land-based counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is the shape of wars to come, while Admiral Stanhope argued that the UK must look "beyond Afghanistan" in his bid to keep naval assets, including two new aircraft carriers. However, Sir Stephen declared that, instead of fighting the battles of the past, the British military should be looking to the high-tech defences of the future.

He said: "The exponential growth in the availability of information means that we must understand how to deliver and protect our national interests in the cyber domain and, although this is clearly a cross-government issue, defence has a legitimate interest in the development of offensive and defensive cyber-capabilities."

In future the enemy "may use sophisticated air defence systems, like the Serbs did in the 1990s and the Iraqis in 2003; or small arms and ground fire, like the Taliban use today", he said.

"But we must not get fixed. In the future our adversaries may use cyber-attack against our networked systems; indeed our national computer systems are under constant and intensifying attacks today. But our current enemies are already using effective information operations and propaganda (via the internet) about civilian casualties to try and influence our public's opinion and thus constrain our activities. In short, they'll use every possible means at their disposal to try to deny our freedom to use air- and space-power as we choose, because they understand that, if and when it is used effectively, it's our comparative advantage."

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