Britain 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.