‘No more pretence’ Sunak to under pressure to label China a threat to UK after Ministry of Defence hack

Rishi Sunak is under intense pressure to toughen his stance on China after the Ministry of Defence was targeted by hackers.

Ministers insist the MoD acted “very swiftly” after it discovered that bank details of all serving personnel and some veterans were at risk.

But former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said the attack was another example of why the government must admit that China poses a systemic threat to the UK.

“No more pretence,” he added “It is a malign actor, supporting Russia with money and military equipment, working with Iran and North Korea in a new axis of totalitarian states.”

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said the hack was “deeply concerning” and that the government had questions to answer.

The defence secretary Grant Shapps is due to update MPs on the cyber-attack, which centred on a database containing details of armed forces personnel.

Hackers attacked a third-party payroll system, meaning a very small number of addresses may also have been accessed.

When it discovered the breach the MoD took the external network, which was operated by a contractor, offline.

A number of Tory MPs, including Mr Duncan Smith, have warned the government’s current position does not go far enough and want ministers to label China a "threat" to national security, rather than an "epoch-defining challenge".

Ministers are not expected to confirm the culprit was China.

But former defence minister Tobias Ellwood told the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme: "Targeting the names of the payroll system and service personnel's bank details, this does point to China because it can be as part of a plan, a strategy to see who might be coerced."

It is thought that ministers will instead blame hostile and malign actors, without naming a country.

On claims China was to blame, cabinet minister Mel Stride said: "That is an assumption. We are not saying that at this precise moment."

But he insisted "our eyes are wide open when it comes to China".

The Ministry of Defence acted "very swiftly" to take the database off-line, he added.

"We take cybersecurity extremely seriously. Our intelligence services do, our military does as well."

The Government's latest review of foreign and defence policy had cybersecurity "right at the heart of that, exactly these kinds of risks, particularly when it comes to state actors," he said.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith urged the government to toughen its stance on China (Jordan Pettitt/PA) (PA Wire)
Sir Iain Duncan Smith urged the government to toughen its stance on China (Jordan Pettitt/PA) (PA Wire)

Affected personnel will be alerted as a precaution and provided with specialist advice, the govermment said.

The hack is not expected to affect paydays, although there may be a slight delay in the payment of expenses in a small number of cases.

Labour's shadow defence secretary John Healey said the hack, discovered several days ago, raised “many serious questions” for the defence secretary.

In March, in an unprecedented joint operation, the UK and the US accused China of a global campaign of "malicious" cyber-attacks.

Beijing was also blamed for targeting the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission in 2021, and for a campaign of "reconnaissance" directed at MP emails.