Computer hackers and propaganda specialists working in the British army are to be placed in a single division, as part of a reorganisation designed to reflect a belief that the boundary between peace and war has become increasingly blurred.
The cyber and intelligence experts will be consolidated into a reborn 6th Division – one of three in the army with a strength of 14,500 – which will also contain ground troops who can be used in secret, special forces-type operations.
Lt Gen Ivan Jones, the commander of the British field army, said the plan reflected the fact that “the character of warfare continues to change” and “the boundaries between conventional and unconventional warfare” had become blurred.
One of the early tasks for the rebranded unit is to better tackle disinformation and fake news emerging from Russia and elsewhere. For example, at the end of a recent exercise in Croatia, stories circulated that British soldiers had tried to abduct a native child only to be fought off by locals.
“What happened was that a handful of incidents that happened after the exercise, regrettable stories of soldiers accused of vandalism or urinating in public, were exaggerated online locally and began to appear in local media. We need people on the ground from the new 6th Div who can quickly counter that,” a military source said.
However, deliberate disinformation has been used in Mosul and northern Iraq “to great effect” to undermine Islamic State, army sources indicated, although they declined to provide further details for security reasons.
British combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan finished 10 and five years ago, and while the military are now engaged in some covert missions such as in Yemen, conventional war fighting is currently rare.
Troops are more likely to be engaged in peacekeeping and security operations, such as leading a Nato battlegroup on the Russian border in Estonia, or engaged in exercises in parts of the world where a visible UK presence is deemed politically desirable.
But there is an increasing view that conflict has moved to the electronic and information arenas – particularly with Russia, but also with countries such as China and Iran – in which a key question is whether the UK can play a role to ensure that countries in eastern Europe remained allied with the west.
Earlier this year, Gen Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, the chief of general staff, argued that peace and war were “two increasingly redundant states” because authoritarian regimes were “exploiting the hybrid space that exists in between”.
The reorganisation has been undertaken within the existing defence budget, although the army remains several thousand short of its target full-time strength of 82,000, with overall troop numbers at their lowest levels since before the two world wars.
In the race to be prime minister, the eventual winner Boris Johnson promised only to maintain defence spending at the existing level of just over 2% of GDP, unlike defeated rival Jeremy Hunt, who said he would lift it by £15bn to 2.5%.
Generals hope that it will be possible to further retrain soldiers keen to work or improve their skills as hackers or information specialists to enhance the capabilities of the 6th Division, based in Upavon in Wiltshire.
The change will also see the army’s 1st Division reorganised to focus more clearly on logistics, engineers and medics. The York-based 3rd Division – the army’s principal “war fighting” division – remains essentially unchanged.