The news emerges just days after MI6 chief Richard Moore – known as ‘C’ – placed China as top of Britain’s ‘four big intelligence priorities” – along with Russia, Iran and international terrorism. Last night experts said the move to boost recruitment confirmed that, despite the growth of digital and cyber capabilities, human intelligence was “more important than ever” in gaining vital information about what inner circles of Britain’s adversaries and so-called “strategic competitors” were actually thinking and planning.
MI6 – or the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), as it is formally known – has now begun to actively court operationally experienced members of the SAS, SBS and Special Reconnaissance Regiment, sources say.
While some in SRR, who possess highly technical digital skills, may be deployed to bolster MI6 numbers within Britain’s newly created National Cyber Force, others will be sent to both China and Russia, posing as tourists, academics, businessmen and women or even sailors on commercial ships.
All successful applicants will spend a year learning Mandarin or Russian, and undergo cultural awareness training before being deployed to areas such as Latvia or Hong Kong.
The move would place more pressure on an already stretched resource, with Special Forces currently the only troops deployed to fight in war zones and jihadi hotspots across the globe.
While the SAS has experienced a slight increase in numbers over the last 12 months as the regular Army adjusted to transformational changes, Special Forces regiments are still undermanned – with the SAS around 15 percent under strength and the SBS around 20 percent.
But sources say this shows the urgency being felt in Whitehall at addressing a shortage of intelligence officers vital to tackle China, Russia and Jihadi groups in “grey zone” operations.
Making his first speech since taking over MI6, Moore pointed to authoritarian China’s threat, as its intelligence officers carry out ‘highly capable” espionage operations here and use social media to “distort public discourse and political decision making”, while its growing armed forces and posture over Taiwan offer a real chance of conflict.
“Beijing believes its own propaganda – the risk of Chinese miscalculation through overconfidence is real,” he said.
Russia, he said, continues to mount “state sanctioned” attacks such as we have seen in Salisbury and the Czech Republic” and other destabilising activities which “contravenes the rules-based international system.”
With its nefarious cyber activities and assassination programmes Iran “parallels the challenge posed by Russia”, he added. Another parallel is Iran’s “development of nuclear technology which has no conceivable civilian use” and which, he said, must be contested.
On Friday diplomatic efforts to repair the broken nuclear deal with Iran seemed on the brink of tatters as hardline President Iran Ebrahim Raisi insisted on changes in terms and the lifting of all sanctions before committing to curb an advancing nuclear programme.
Last night James Rogers of the Council on Geostrategy think tank said: “Moore’s rhetoric and language is much firmer than I’ve seen before by anyone in HMG.
‘He rightly points out that China is now a major power that is ready and willing to use its power. This should worry us all.”
Moore went on to describe MI6 as “Britain’s overseas human intelligence agency (which) recruits and runs clandestine agents in other countries” and invited members of the public to consider joining, adding: “There is no more important or – I believe – more exciting time to work for MI6.”
Intelligence expert Dr Danny Steele, of Cranfield University, said: “The idea that human intelligence is somehow less relevant in the digital and cyber age is wrong.
“Human intelligence has become more important precisely because of cyber; disinformation and alternative facts poison the dialogue and make us increasingly question what truth actually is. We cannot assume that public rhetoric from Beijing or Moscow necessarily reflects the reality of thought in the inner circle.
“There may be things going on behind closed doors which can help us. Are there elements they are scared of? Are there things about which they are bluffing?
“The more we can reduce that uncertainty, the clearer C’s threat ledger can be tabled to Downing Street.”
Dr Paul Maddrell, of Loughborough University, added: “In the 1990s the USSR accounted for 70 percent of all our foreign intelligence work. After the Soviet Union fell, there were more targets, but less concern over each. Now we have even more targets, and very great concern about each.
“It should come as no surprise that SIS is recruiting.”