LONDON Britain should have an offensive ability to launch computer attacks to deter aggressors as part of a growing emphasis on cyber warfare, a British minister said -- and potential enemies should know its capabilities were already "considerable."
Despite broad cuts to government spending, including on defense, cyber security will receive greater funding. Britain announced a 650 million pound ($1.05 billion) program last month, labeling it a key priority.
As computer systems become more vital in the control of essential services, from power grids to banking, computerized attacks are seen as becoming as important a part of nations' arsenals as conventional or nuclear weaponry.
"We face a variety of threats in the cyber domain," armed forces minister Nick Harvey told Reuters on Tuesday after giving a speech on cyber policy at London think tank Chatham House.
"In every other domain (of warfare) you have the concept of deterrence and ... in the fullness of time we would expect to get into a position where people understood our capabilities."
Asked if he was acknowledging Britain did not have adequate offensive capacity at present, he said: "I don't think other countries who know anything about this are in any doubt that we have considerable capabilities in this field.
"If they have paid any attention to our security and defense review, they will have seen the signs of clear intent to remain well placed in this domain."
In his speech, Harvey had said the ability to electronically "turn out the lights" of a potential adversary would provide policymakers with wider options than simply a conventional military attack.
Experts say the Stuxnet computer worm identified this year -- and widely suspected to have been built by a state intelligence agency to attack the Iranian nuclear program -- shows the increasing sophistication of cyber weaponry.
A recent parliamentary report said British communications spy agency GCHQ had indicated China and Russia posed the greatest threat of electronic attack on Britain. Both states are seen as having prioritized cyber warfare as a way of getting around U.S. conventional military dominance.
Harvey told Reuters it was not possible to say how much of the 650 million pounds would be sent on offence, and that some attack techniques might be developed as a side-effect of research to improve electronic defenses.
Security experts say GCHQ's uniquely close relationship with U.S. agencies has long been key to its status as a world leader, far exceeding any cooperation with European allies.
Britain and France last week agreed to set up a military cooperation pact seen aimed at preserving geopolitical clout in the face of the spending cuts -- but Harvey said there had been little discussion so far of the sort of cooperation on cyber warfare that Britain has long had with the United States.
"It's not something we've specifically discussed in any detail with the French," Harvey said. "It is true that we have a particularly close relationship with the United States on this."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)