The UK has launched a new National Cyber Force run by spies and military personnel which will block terrorists’ phone signals, disrupt servers being used by hostile states and hack enemy weapons systems.
The new force — run by signals intelligence agency GCHQ, the Ministry of Defence, spies from MI6 and staff at the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory — has been secretly operating since April but was officially made public on Thursday as prime minister Boris Johnson unveiled a new £16.5bn defence spending settlement.
The Cyber Force has a few hundred dedicated staff but will grow to a force of 3,000 within the next decade, officials said. It is being run from several different locations including GCHQ’s headquarters at Cheltenham, the DSTL lab at Porton Down, Wiltshire, and intelligence agencies in London, but is expected to move into its own premises eventually.
Details of current operations are scant because so-called “offensive cyber” activities are treated as top secret, and security officials regard surprise and ambiguity as a key tactical advantage in cyber warfare. However, they say examples of possible activities include interfering with a terrorist’s mobile phone to prevent them communicating with their contacts, and protecting UK military aircraft by targeting hostile weapons systems.
Almost all such operations require ministerial approval, most likely from foreign secretary Dominic Raab who formally oversees GCHQ activities.
While UK ministers frequently talk about Britain’s strengths in cyber defence, they are much more reticent about admitting to conducting cyber attacks against their adversaries. The only known example is a campaign run by GCHQ against Islamic State, which was revealed two years ago. Intelligence officials admitted at the time that they had suppressed the group’s propaganda by destroying its equipment and networks.
Mark Sedwill, former National Security Adviser, also revealed last month that the UK had deployed offensive cyber measures against senior Russian leaders. Intelligence officials refused to say on Thursday which countries had been targeted by British cyber operations.
Both the US and Israel have well-developed offensive cyber capabilities and have traditionally been more open about discussing their potential.
Announcing the new Cyber Force, Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, said it would bring together intelligence and defence capabilities to “transform the UK’s ability to contest adversaries in cyber space, to protect the country, its people and our way of life”. He emphasised that it would operate in a “legal, ethical and proportionate way” while defending the nation and countering national security threats.
General Patrick Sanders, head of Strategic Command which leads on cyber operations for the MoD, said cyber space was “the most contested domain where our adversaries and our allies will meet over the next decade and beyond”.
He added that the creation of a Cyber Force was “a natural step after decades of co-operation” between spies and the armed forces, and indicated that the UK was growing a “potent national capability” to deter adversaries.