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Britain announces 'laptop army' with offensive cyberwar capabilities

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It once ruled the seas with the most powerful navy ever assembled, now Great Britain wants to dominate the next frontier of warfare: cyberspace.

Over the weekend, the British defense secretary announced a £500 million plan to cultivate a Joint Cyber Reserve Unit with the ability to carry out offensive cyber warfare.

"People think of military as land, sea and air," said secretary Philip Hammond, speaking to the Daily Mail. "We long ago recognized a fourth domain - space. Now there's a fifth - cyber." 

For years, Hammond says, British defense agencies have been developing defensive capabilities to protect  the island nation from malicious online attacks. But efforts that have already been undertaken are not enough, he said.

Now the Ministry of Defense plans to create a "laptop army," recruited from both the military and civilian tech sectors, which would be capable of neutralizing enemies from secure bunkers within the British homeland. Hammond called it the biggest change to warfare since tanks and fighter jets.

"More and more, modern warfare will be about people sitting in bunkers in front of computer screens, whether remotely piloted aircraft or cyber weapons," he said.

Reflecting this change, the defense secretary plans to revise the standards for enlistment. With the assumption that push-ups and rope-climbing do little to develop the skills of IT specialists, cyber reservists will not be required to pass the army's physical fitness test. 

Hammond defended this move, and the reduction in the overall number of British soldiers, as the necessary evolution of warfare.

"Military capability doesn't stand still. You cannot fossilise it," he said. "As much as we love and cherish our military traditions, the defence of the nation means we must spend money on the capabilities of tomorrow, not yesterday."

According to the BBC, British cyber defenses blocked approximately 400,000 "advanced, malicious cyber threats" to the government's secure intranet last year. The British intelligence agency, GCHQ, also reports that U.K. government agencies and businesses see roughly 70 sophisticated cyber espionage attacks a month.

But Britain is hardly the only nation preparing for the new frontier of war. It's widely suspected that the U.S. not only has cyber offensive capabilities, but that they've already been used. It's believed that the U.S. and Israel jointly created the Stuxnet virus that crippled Iranian nuclear research facilities in 2010. 

More publicly, the U.S. has also created its own special forces for cyber warfare. It's described as an "offensive team that the Defense Department would use to defend the nation if it were attacked in cyberspace." And earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to beef up American cyber security.

Photo by U.K. Ministry of Defense/Flickr