The British Army's shadowy psyops unit 77th Brigade — which engages in online information operations, among other dubious clandestine activities — continues to fall far short of recruiting targets despite Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt boasting of the UK's growing offensive cyberwarfare capabilities.
The unit was founded in 2014, but has consistently struggled to attract both permanent and part-time recruits — new figures released to The Register under the Freedom of Information Act reveal in 2018 the unit reached 340 in strength, 29 percent (or 134 personnel) under target.
£22m announced to create new *offensive* #CyberWarfare operations centres for @BritishArmy in addition to 77th Brigade, supposedly using #AI Artificial Intelligence & analysts https://t.co/WZb1jvBM3h …— Spy Blog 🇬🇧 (@spyblog) May 23, 2019
The Brigade was meant to employ 203 full-time and 271 part-time staff by the close of 2018, but at the end of the year it only employed 190 full-timers and 150 reservists.
Still, it's a small improvement over the Brigade's 2017 size, when the shortfall was 40 percent, and a mere 125 soldiers were recruited or posted to the unit, although civilians seemingly remain unwilling to join.
World of Allusion
Formerly known as the Security Assistance Group, the unit was reformed and rebranded as the 77th Brigade in 2015. Leaked files reveal its revamping was supported by the Institute for Statecraft, the controversial state-funded parent 'charity' of the Integrity Initiative, a UK government military intelligence operation. In notes prepared for a trip to Israel, Dan Lafayeedney, former SAS operative and co-founder and co-director of the Institute, spelled out candidly the Brigade's composition and purpose.
"To that end we have supported the creation of special Army reserve units (e.g. 77th Brigade and SGMI — Specialist Group Military Intelligence) with which we now have a close, informal relationship. These bring in, as reservists with a special status, individuals who are very senior civilian experts in some relevant area, such as Hedge Fund managers, senior bankers, Heads of PA companies…People whom the Army could never afford to hire, but who donate their time and expertise as patriots," he wrote.
Och a wee sock puppet account. Sweet. 77th brigade or some loser? pic.twitter.com/k6rDZVe2c5— Kev R 🏴 (@kwr66) May 27, 2019
The unit's name invokes Major-General Orde Wingate's Indian 77th Infantry Brigade long-range penetration unit which fought behind enemy lines in the Asia-Pacific theatre of World War Two. The historical references don't stop there, as the unit is split into six separate 'columns', the fifth column designated as the media operations unit — arguably an inside joke referencing the phrase 'fifth column' coined by Emilio Mola, a nationalist general during the Spanish Civil War.
He told a journalist in 1936 that four columns of his troops would attack Madrid from the outside, while a "quinta columna" of covert supporters inside the city would undermine the Republican government internally. Ernest Hemingway subsequently used it in the title of a 1938 book, The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories.
Following @PennyMordaunt's £22m funding announcement for Army information and analysis centres, I was delighted to visit 77th Brigade today. Thank you to the @BritishArmy colleagues who showed me how they keep people in the UK and overseas safe from virtual and physical threats. pic.twitter.com/uXzMUbo5u4— Stephen Lovegrove (@SLovegroveMOD) May 24, 2019
While ostensibly set up in response to similar efforts by terror groups and 'hostile' states, such symbolism — and reports the unit creates fake profiles to influence and subvert online discussions — has led some to suggest the Brigade is domestically-focused, aimed at infiltrating and destabilising opposition groups in the UK.
Its political infiltration activities may extend beyond the online realm, however — in April it was revealed Kate Watson, a candidate for the Scottish Labour party and former head of 'Better Together', the official anti-Scottish independence campaign, was connected to the unit.
Moreover, Conservative MP and Minister of State for the Armed Forces Mark Lancaster is the unit's Deputy Commander. In an article written for website Conservative Home in July 2018, he boasted of how the British military was "transforming its traditional concept of the division" and creating "a new type of soldier" — although given the latest recruitment figures, his vision may be some years away from being realised, if at all.
Renew founder @_Chris_Coghlan is an interesting character indeed. Two year gap between his job in finance and the FCO's Counter Terror department. Became army reservist in 2017. Would that be for 77th Brigade, Specialist Group Military Intelligence, or…? #IntegrityInitiative https://t.co/jdsT1X0FBt— Kit Klarenberg (@KitKlarenberg) April 16, 2019
"The 21st century division will have more strings to its bow than simply armoured vehicles, strike brigades, and air assault capabilities…By using its 77th Brigade, it will have the skills to rapidly counter the toxic narratives of our adversaries. And by tapping into the talents of the digital generation, it will create a new type of soldier — as adept at using smart phones as smart bombs…What was the first thing our NATO reassurance force did when they deployed to Estonia? Survey the hostile and hotly contested information environment," he explained.