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The UK traditionally acts in the international arena as a permanent ally of the United States, supporting practically all military-political initiatives of Washington, including those that provoke a negative reaction from other NATO member countries.
The various departments of the British Armed Forces together with the US military, took part in combat and special operations in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries.
Of specific interest are the state and capabilities of the forces and means of conducting psychological operations (PsyOps), which it conducts around the Commonwealth, but also outside of its “borders.”
The majority of these operations are assigned to and carried out by 15 (United Kingdom) Psychological Operations Group. It was a tri-service or “purple”, military unit formerly parented by 1 Military Intelligence Brigade but from April 2014, part of the Security Assistance Group within the British Army’s Force Troops Command.
Since April 2015, it has been subsumed into 77th Brigade within Force Troops Command.
The 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group’s history is relatively short. It was established immediately after the 1991 Gulf War when the success of US military psychological operations convinced the Ministry of Defence that the UK required a similar capability. Initially, it was composed of just a single desk officer with the intention that it would be augmented by additional personnel when required. As such, the group was referred to in military terminology as a ‘shadow’ unit.
Because it was called a “shadow” group, there were, and still are, various conspiracies hat ‘shadow’ was a covert code name for the group and members of the group have been targeted in media.
Since 1991, the group expanded significantly in size to meet operational requirements and participated in every major UK military operation since that period. The Black and White Association (formerly club) is the regimental association for the group.
Leading members of the Black and White Association include Colonel Colin Mason (retired), Tony Rowlands (former Foreign Office official), Commander Steve Tatham RN, and the UK’s former two-star Director of Defence Communications, Stephen Jolly, now a Fellow in Information Operations at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom and generally considered the most senior serving psyops officer in British defense.
In October 2012, the group was awarded the Firmin Sword of Peace for its “valuable contribution to humanitarian activities by establishing good and friendly relations with the inhabitants of any community at home or overseas.”
The awarding ceremony included the following citation:
“A small team from 15 POG has been continuously deployed to Helmand for six years. Working predominantly with the Afghan civilian population, it has sought to inform, reassure, educate and through the promotion of free and unbiased discussion persuade Afghans that their futures are best served not with the Taliban, nor with ISAF, but with themselves and their elected government. The unit runs a network of radio stations employing local Afghans as DJs, broadcasting music, poetry, debate programmes and even a Helmandi soap opera, as well as producing graphical posters and leaflets to communicate in an area where literacy rates are only around 20%. Recent projects include information campaigns to prevent children picking up spent ordnance they find, disseminating information from farming and veterinary workshops using their radio stations, and promoting debate on political issues of the day.”
As of information from 2014, 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group had over 150 personnel under its command, approximately 75 from the regular Armed Forces and 75 from the Reserves. The Group supported deployed commanders in the provision of psychological operations in operational and tactical environments.
In March 2015, the 77th Brigade was created, to which the 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group was subordinated to.
The brigade specializes in “psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.”
A clarification of what 77th Brigade is was given by former Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Mark Francios said the following:
“77th Brigade is the new name for the Security Assistance Group. Its continuing role includes:
Providing support, in conjunction with other Government agencies, to efforts to build stability overseas and to wider defence diplomacy and overseas engagement;
Leading on Special Influence Methods, including providing information on activities, key leader engagement, operations security and media engagement;
Military capacity-building at various stages in the cycle of conflict, through mentoring, support and training, including providing training support to Force Elements to enable delivery of security assistance tasks. There will be 440 military posts in 77th Brigade.”
British member of Parliament Penny Morduant also provided some insight:
“Doctrine provides the philosophy and enduring principles by which military forces guide their actions. 77th Brigade uses a combination of NATO and UK doctrine including for Civil Military Cooperation, Security, Stabilisation, Information and Media Operations, as well as Peace Support and Humanitarian Assistance.
The doctrine applied by 77th Brigade has been developed through collaboration with NATO allies, within the UK military and with other Government Departments. It will also have called on the experience and expertise of other nations and academia. The doctrine is dynamic, being constantly tested against experience, and crafted for a contemporary environment, and will therefore continue to develop as new or anticipated challenges appear.”
In November 2018, Wired visited its offices, and it described one of the key rooms as:
“focused on understanding audiences: the makeup, demographics and habits of the people they wanted to reach. Another was more analytical, focusing on creating “attitude and sentiment awareness” from large sets of social media data.”
The 77th’s slogan is: “Behavioural change is our USP [unique selling point]”. Reports at that point claimed that the 77th includes 200 regular and 270 reserve personnel. This includes the 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group.
The brigade has four divisions. Its Digital Operations (Web Ops) Team, for example:
“collects information and understands audience sentiment in the virtual domain. Within the extant OSINT [open source intelligence] policy framework, they may engage with audiences in order to influence perceptions to support operational outcomes.”
While those in its Content Team:
“design and create video, audio, print and digital products that aim to influence behaviours for both an Army and external audience. Additionally, they advise on campaign strategy and propose innovative behavioural change methods.”
The Task Group:
“provides the deployable framework to deliver Information Activity and Outreach (IA&O) either independently, or in support of a composite force package.”
Finally, the Outreach Group:
“provides planning support to military commanders, their staff and Defense Attaché & Loan Service (DALS) personnel to enable them to deliver Outreach across the spectrum of military tasks and operational phases.”
The 77th Brigade was formed from the Military Stabilisation and Support Group, Media Operations Group, 15 Psychological Operations Group and the Security Capacity Building team.
Currently, the 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group doesn’t officially exist, it simply turned into the 77th Brigade with additional staff, funding and capabilities.
The 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group was headed by Steve Tatham, who went on to head the Defence division of SCL, the now defunct parent of data miner Cambridge Analytica.
In an internal handbook Integrity Initiative recommends to its members that:
“if asked about our funding, be very clear: the Integrity Initiative is funded by the Institute for Statecraft. The IfS gets its funding from multiple sources to ensure its independence. These include: private individuals; charitable foundations; international organisations (EU, NATO); UK Govt (FCO, MOD).”
And on November 27yh, 2018, in answer to a Written Question, Sir Alan Duncan confirmed:
“In financial year 2017/18, the FCO funded the Institute for Statecraft’s Integrity Initiative £296,500. This financial year, the FCO is funding a further £1,961,000. Both have been funded through grant agreements.”
The personnel of 77th Brigade is not that of your typical military unit.
Soldiers in the 77th Brigade, which was formed in 2015, are based in Berkshire and spend their time producing video and audio content, using data to understand how the public receives different messages, and creating “attitude and sentiment awareness” from large sets of social media data
One of their most infamous members is Gordon MacMillan, a Senior Twitter executive. Hejoined the social media company’s UK office in 2013, and has for several years also served with the 77th Brigade, a unit formed in 2015 to develop “non-lethal” ways of waging war.
The 77th Brigade uses social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, as well as podcasts, data analysis and audience research to conduct what the head of the UK military, General Nick Carter, describes as “information warfare”.
Carter says the 77th Brigade is giving the British military “the capability to compete in the war of narratives at the tactical level” and to shape perceptions of conflict. Some soldiers who have served with the unit say they have been engaged in operations intended to change the behaviour of target audiences.
What exactly MacMillan is doing with the unit is difficult to determine, however: he has declined to answer any questions about his role, as has Twitter and the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Twitter would say only that “we actively encourage all our employees to pursue external interests”. The MoD said that the 77th Brigade had no relationship with Twitter, other than using it for communication.
The current training regime of the soldiers is unclear. Back in 2008, an annual report by 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group showed that there was a “robust training” going on for all incoming troops, and current ones as well.
This involved internal, as well as external trainings.
Currently, much of the 77th Brigade’s focus falls down on influencing audiences, so most of it happens online, primarily over social media.
When it comes to operations, it carries out various ones. Mostly it counters alleged “Russian disinformation” in media and social media, mostly by providing its own, counter-disinformation presented as fact.
In April 2020, Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter revealed that 77 Brigade is involved in countering misinformation online relating to Coronavirus.
“And of course we’ve provided an Aviation Task Force that’s been able to support the communities from Scotland down to the Channel Islands, in Northern Ireland, and from Wales to the east coast of England. We’ve been involved in helping the Foreign Office with repatriations and supporting our overseas territories, where we have security advisory teams deployed now in several of them, and of course we’ve deployed ships, HMS Argus, to do just that. And we’ve been involved with the Cabinet Office Rapid Response Unit, with our 77 Brigade helping to quash rumors from misinformation, but also to counter disinformation.”
In this case it was needed for the 77th Brigade to counter the top 5 myths allegedly propagated by Russia relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and NATO.
Earlier, even before becoming part of the 77th Brigade, the 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group took part in several operations.
Examples given in the 2008 Annual report include “Operation Telic” and “Operation Herrick.”
- Operation Telic (Op TELIC) was the codename under which all of the United Kingdom’s military operations in Iraq were conducted between the start of the Invasion of Iraq on 19 March 2003 and the withdrawal of the last remaining British forces on 22 May 2011.
- Operation Herrick is the codename under which all British operations in the War in Afghanistan were conducted from 2002 to the end of combat operations in 2014. It consisted of the British contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and support to the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Since 2003, Operation Herrick has increased in size and breadth to match ISAF’s growing geographical intervention in Afghanistan. Allegedly no more work is being done by British soldiers of any sort in Afghanistan.
Some other operations that PsyOps have been used, even before 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group and the 77th Brigade even existed also include:
In general, these are the more significant revealed operations that the British PsyOps forces have taken part in. In recent years, the focus has been shifted online, and it is much less “hands on” than in the past.
The cyber sphere has become one of the key battlefields of the 21st century, and the UK plans to be well-prepared for it.
In early 2019, £22 million was announced for Cyber Centres Across UK, and they would work and be established with assistance from the 77th Brigade.
“These new cyber centres will allow the Army and Defence to transform the way we use data, at speed, so that we can compete with our adversaries in a way fit for the 21st Century.
Combining artificial intelligence with our military analysts will help us better understand threats and exploit opportunities, in turn enabling us to get the truth out much more rapidly, quashing the noise of disinformation from our enemies.”
In its current form, British PsyOps are almost entirely focused online, with very much activity going outside of their offices, however, that doesn’t mean the investments and the ends towards which they’re being used are insignificant and should be disregarded. It is, however, safe to assume that every psychological, or even purely military, operation aimed at enemies of the US, or NATO as a whole, would involve some sort of British involvement, very likely with PsyOps operations, alongside any conventional participation. According to some experts, PSYOP units the United Kingdom and Poland are currently deeply involved in regime-change efforts in Belarus. For example, the Polish Telegram channel NEXTA is the media pillar of pro-Western nationalist agenda of protests.
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