UK security officials have warned cyber space will be the “most contested domain” for enemies and allies over the coming years.
The secretive National Cyber Force has been armed with offensive cyber weapons to use against hostile states and terrorist groups and has the ability to defend against cyber attacks.
A partnership between the spy agency GCHQ and the military, the unit also includes expertise from the foreign intelligence service, MI6, and the UK’s defence laboratory at Porton Down.
It has been operating in the shadows since April and was publicly avowed for the first time on Thursday.
General Sir Patrick Sanders, the head of Strategic Command, which leads on cyber for the military, said the creation of the cyber force is as important a milestone as the establishment of an air force 100 years ago.
“The imperative is just as vital because cyber space is the most contested domain where our adversaries and our allies will meet over the next decade and beyond,” he said.
Any operations conducted so far are still a secret, but personnel have the ability to disable an enemy’s air defence systems to protect UK aircraft.
They can also jam a terrorist’s mobile phone so he or she is no longer able to communicate with contacts.
In addition, the cyber unit works to prevent the internet from being used as a global platform for serious crimes, including sexual abuse of children and fraud.
Its current size has not been revealed, though Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the goal was to grow the unit to around 3,000 personnel over the next decade.
The force is split between different sites, including Cheltenham, where GCHQ is headquartered.
The UK has accused countries like China, Russia and Iran of launching cyber attacks against British targets, including most recently attempting to hack into research linked to vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus pandemic.