“We need to develop our asymmetric edge and bring focus to the orchestration of intelligence, information operations, cyber, electronic warfare and unconventional warfare,” Lieutenant General Ivan Jones, the commander of Britain’s field army, said as he announced the formation of a cyber warfare unit to fight “above and below the threshold of conventional conflict.”
The U.K.’s new special cyber operations unit, 6 Division (6 Div), will move beyond the typical cyber capabilities within the military sphere into full-blown social media “information warfare.” And here the primary adversary is Russia, which has turned the dark art of peddling fake news and political propaganda across major social media platforms into a national security strategy.
Much of the work of the new unit will be relatively traditional signals activities—jamming and intercepting enemy comms, supporting the field world of allied intelligence agencies. But as a sign of the times, the new unit also has an offensive and defensive propaganda remit—taking the social media fight to Russia as well as the various state-sponsored terrorist groups using those platforms to stir unrest and interfere in the workings of the West.
Philip Ingram—a defense analyst after years with British Military Intelligence—told me “this is the first step in the British Army recognizing and countering how the information sphere can be and is weaponized. It is critical that this is addressed at the defense level as well and coordinated with our NATO allies and in particular the U.S.”
Ingram met General Jones a day before the new division was announced, and was told that “this is a journey for the Army, starting with small adaptive steps enabling a better cycle of rebalancing for the future as threats evolve and develop.”
As I’ve written before, cyber warfare more broadly has reached a new phase this year, with increased levels of integration between the physical and cyber domains. The catalyst has been the Middle East, with escalating tensions between the U.S. (and its allies) and Iran—but the real battle has pitched the U.S. and those allies against Russia and China. “When people ask what keeps me up at night,” the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said recently, “that is kind of the thing that keeps me up at night.”
Until now, most of the headline activity in the West has been around countering such threats, be that election interference, the stirring of popular unrest, or the peddling of a pro-Russia agenda. But the new group will go further, turning defense into attack, and Russia is as susceptible to information warfare as anyone else—and its spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are even more so.
The new cyber division within the British Army will pull recruits from existing special forces units, where there are strong cyber skills already in place. It will combine resources from existing units—including the 1st and 11th Signal Brigades and the 1st Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade. There is a mix of special forces and intelligence resources applied to the offensive cyber capabilities we read about in the press—the two work hand in hand. But 6 Div will also widen its net, looking for a new generation of social media skills. This is as close as we have seen in the West outside the intelligence and private contractor domain to the government-run hacking groups seen in Russia and China, as well as Iran and North Korea.
“The character of warfare continues to change,” General Jones explained, “as the boundaries between conventional and unconventional warfare become increasingly blurred—we must create a campaign mind-set—our posture must move from reactive to proactive and our approach from passive to assertive.”
Those boundaries becoming blurred is the major change we have seen this year. Cyberwarfare has become an interchangeable battlefield tool—an attack in one domain and retaliation in another. And cyber warfare itself is multidimensional, with the mix of offensive and defensive capabilities with state-sponsored attacks on civilian targets.
This all sits within the broader sphere of hybrid warfare in which Russia takes the lead. The country has extended and consolidated its economic and military spheres of influence to exploit the weaknesses inherent in open societies. And, as I’ve written before, the media plays its part. Special forces and intelligence leaders will express their exasperation at the predictability of the western media response to events and how this is deliberately fueled by Russia’s strategists. The thirst for the drip-drip of ever new headlines—how those will play, how to keep it alive, the impact it will have.
Media manipulation links to the population interference that takes place through the abuse of social media platforms. And this is the latest evolution in the West—taking that fight to Moscow.
This year, 2019, has marked a turning point for Western military strategic planning. And when the history books are written, the conflict in the Gulf will be highlighted—the catalyst for more open cyber warfare than has been seen before—as will our belated coming to terms with the extent of social media’s patsy role in facilitating Russian interference in elections and campaigning. This latest news builds on a similar focus in the U.S., where we have seen the increased profile of Cyber Command in the military domain and the announcement of a cyber unit within NSA in the intelligence domain.
“The rebalancing, within current assets, is a very necessary start emphasizing the importance of capabilities that were closely held before,” Ingram said in writing up his meeting with General Jones. There is a legitimization here of these new capabilities, “grouping them into a formation with an identity and history puts them on the same footing as other elements an is the first win in a psychological and information battle to recognize their value.”
What’s as interesting is the West’s own use of the mainstream and social media to ensure that Russia and its proxies don’t have it all their own way. We have always seen that battle for hearts and minds in the physical sphere. What we’ve started to see with news of cyberattacks on energy grids in Russia and command and control networks in Iran is the beginnings of the same in cyber.
“State and non-state actors are continually seeking to gain an advantage in the grey zone that exists below the threshold of conventional conflict,” as General Jones put it. And so, moving forward, you can expect much more of the same.
“This restructuring is not the answer to everything,” Ingram said, “and nor will or can it meet all current threats, but it is the first step in a journey and that first step gives a series of capabilities—and for the new division with psychological warfare in its structure, that rebranding is important in influencing future Army force development.”