The British media has been covering the creation of 77th Brigade, or ‘Chindits’ in the UK Army which they’ve wrongly described as PsyOps ‘Twitter troops’. The renaming is new but the plan for a significant restructuring and expansion of the UK military’s influence operations is not.
The change in focus has been prompted by a growing realisation that the success of security strategy depends as much on influencing populations at home and abroad as it does through military force.
The creation of a new military structure, designed to tackle exactly this problem, was actually reported last year in British Army 2014 – a glossy annual policy publication. The latest announcement of the 77th Brigade is really just a media-friendly re-branding of the existing plan.
You can read the document online (warning it’s a 50Mb plus pdf) but here’s a crucial section from page 121 onwards:
Our potential adversaries and partners are increasingly blurring the lines between regular and irregular and between military, political, economic and information activities. At least three nations who operate large conventional ‘traditional’ armies have now also adopted the Chinese concept of Unrestricted Warfare.
Author Steve Metz describes this as involving “diverse, simultaneous attacks on an adversary’s social, economic and political systems. It ignores and transcends the ‘boundaries the boundaries between what is a weapon and what is not, between soldier and non-combatant, between state and non-state or suprastate.” If we wish to succeed in such as environment we need to compete on an equal footing.
To do this, we must change not only our physical capabilities but our conceptual approach, our planning and our execution. This is not to say that the virtual and cognitive domains now produce a ‘silver bullet’ that will mean the end of combat, but that “superiority in the physical environment was of little value unless it could be translated into an advantage in the information environment”…
In order to shift the Army’s thinking in the approach to this new manoeuvre, the Security Assistance Group (SAG) will form in September 2014. It will form through the amalgamation of the current 15 Psychological Operations Group, the Military Stabilisation Support Group, the Media Operations Group and the Security Capacity Team.
However, these structures are merely the start point for a fully integrated capability that will harness a wide range of powers to achieve the desired effects – from cyber through to engagement, commercial, financial, stabilisation and deception. At the heart of the new structure must be a culture and attitude that is both Defence and civilian orientated.
And that is really what the ‘newly announced’ 77th Brigade is all about.
To see how seriously the British Army are taking this, the 77th is reportedly going to be made up of up to 2,000 full-time and reserve troops. Think Defence report that the combined strength of all the existing relevant groups that will be incorporated is just 300 people.
The idea is to make Information Operations a much more central part of military doctrine. This includes electronic warfare and computer hacking, physical force targeted on information resources (like taking out infrastructure), psychological operations – traditionally focused on changing belief and behaviour in the theatre of war, media operations – essentially corporate PR, and a wider use of media to influence external populations and potential adversaries.
The Daily Express reports that “the brigade will bring together specialists in media, signalling and psychological operations, with some Special Forces soldiers and possibly computer hackers” which seems likely to reflect exactly what the Army are aiming for in their new plan.
From this point of view, you can see why governments are so keen to hold on to their Snowden-era digital monitoring and intervention capabilities.
They typically justify their existence in terms of ‘breaking terrorist networks’ but they are equally as useful for their role in wider information operations – targeting groups rather than individuals – now considered key to national security.
The formation of the 77th Brigade is a mostly reflection of a wider refiguring of global conflict that puts cognition and behaviour at the centre of political objectives.
It is simultaneously more and less democratic that ‘hard power’. It makes the battle of ideas, rather than the use of force, central to determining political outcome but attempts to shape the information environment so some ideas become more equal than others.