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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Cyber experts needed to stay ahead of developing threats

Training the region’s next generation of cyber experts will be vital in fighting evolving military threats in the future, according to defence experts at the Global Aerospace Summit.

ABU DHABI // Training the region’s next generation of cyber experts will be vital in fighting evolving military threats in the future, according to defence experts at the Global Aerospace Summit.

They said the threat is especially felt in the Middle East where there is a shortfall in manpower and human capital development.

As terrorist groups become more technologically-savvy, governments and the defence industry will have to stay ahead of the curve and design weapons in such a way to keep their enemies at bay.

“The future is uncertain,” said Robert Harward, retired vice admiral US Navy Seal and chief executive of UAE Lockheed Martin. “We know these existential threats in the region like Iran and you look at newer existential threats that we had missed like radical jihadists gaining capabilities. I think all these are indicative of the threats we’ll have to deal with.”

He said the defence industry was bringing technology to stay ahead of some of these curves. “The UAE is the perfect example of this,” he said. “In partnership with the US, the UAE was able to bring top line capabilities, enabling them to defend themselves against imminent threats. We’re going to need to work with the services and our allies to stay ahead of the threats and I think a big issue for all of us is do we collectively with our allies and the defence industry have the capacity to stay ahead of the threats?”

A US study by global information company IHS found that the UAE and Saudi Arabia were named the region’s top importers of defence systems in 2014, most of which were advanced military aircraft and missiles.

The Emirates was ranked seventh in defence spending and fastest growing budgets the previous year, with 14.6 per cent. “It is important for us to maintain this technology lead,” said Dr Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics. “The reason why I argue this is because the ‘bad guys’ are getting very smart about the use of technology, even if you look at Isis, they’re actually quite smart at trying to experiment with UAVs, which can be weaponised, and there has been evidence of some of them doing that. These ideas are still continuing to percolate and it challenges us to be ahead of that curve to make sure we’re ready for that kind of event. These are some of the trendlines that go about how we design weapons and working on a concept of operations that are needed to keep enemies at bay.”

But the country’s growing defence sector puts into question its security and opens a potential window to cyber attacks. A US report compiled by Going Global Defence Intitiative of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership two years ago found that UAE Government websites were vulnerable to cyber attacks which sought to exploit defence and security flaws. It said the country’s integrated missile defence system would require comprehensive protection from cyber threats.

“The question that gets a lot of thought these days is where do cyber attacks fit in the next generation of military threats, whether it’s directly on the battlefield or not,” said Christopher Davis, country leader and president of UAE Raytheon. “Cyber attacks are going to be a fact of life. It’s a big issue for us with our future warfare and I think a real question for us all is how do we train and retain the human capital who are the cyber experts for the next generation. Regionally, it’s a real issue especially in the Middle East where manpower and human capital development is a real priority and where there is a shortfall.”

The impetus is on the defence industry and regional defence forces, according to Simon Carroll, president and general manager of Saab Middle East, to find a way to work together more regularly to develop the technology needed to defeat the threat. “I think in this region in particular, we need to find a balance because not all the organisations that the battle is against at the moment are [able] to use their technical capability,” he said. “We need to use our cyber asymmetry to our advantage and work more closely with defence partners and forces to be that one step ahead so we can avoid these tragedies that lead into a next generation of technology development.”​

cmalek@thenational.ae