One of the country's most dintinguished senior officers has been appointed to head the military's cyber-warfare operations amid rising concern about the risk of attacks on official websites endangering Britain's defences.
Major General Jonathan Shaw will lead a unit combating internet assaults on vital strategic installations, including nuclear facilities and communications networks, The Independent has learnt.
The Strategic Defence and Security Review identified cyber-warfare as "tier one" in a league table of threats facing the UK. Last week Sir Peter Ricketts, the National Security Advisor, asked government departments to take precautions over hackers promising revenge attacks over the WikiLeaks affair. The director of GCHQ, Iain Lobban, has stated that cyber warfare, some orchestrated by foreign governments, is one of the biggest challenges faced by the intelligence services.
But it is the WikiLeaks threats which have become the most pressing in the field, according to Whitehall sources. "Hacktivist" supporters of the website have hit companies that withdrew services from WikiLeaks such as Visa, Mastercard and PayPal. Some supporters of WikiLeaks blame the UK for what they see as complicity in a campaign against its founder, Julian Assange.
Leaked US diplomatic cables show worries over an aggressive internet warfare programme from China. A State Department circular claimed Beijing may use private companies with proficient hackers. Other cables referred to Iranian Islamist groups seeking technology to attack Western targets.
Maj-Gen Shaw, currently the Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (International Security and Policy), will keep his current position, along with additional cyber warfare responsibilities. His unit will work alongside a Cabinet Office body, headed by a senior civil servant, Neil Thompson, which has been looking at measures which can be taken against electronic espionage.
Maj-Gen Shaw commanded British troops in Basra, playing a key role in arranging a truce with Shia militia factions which temporarily eased the rising violence. He has since been among the senior commanders to have questioned British policies in Iraq.