Feature

Jonny looks at the future relationship between GCHQ and Defence

Last Updated: 01 Nov 2014
Jonny reflects on the commitment, skill and hard work of GCHQ men and women working to protect the UK and our allies over the past 100 years, and looks to the future.

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Swanborough Leiston Suffolk 1918
© Crown Copyright 2014

Jonny is a senior military officer working at GCHQ

I must admit I hadn’t really thought much about Signals Intelligence or GCHQ as I flew my Chinook across the border into Kosovo in 1999 on a pitch-black night at extreme low-level, trying to avoid the bombs from the Allied campaign and the surface-to-air missiles of the Serbian forces. It was pretty much the same sat in my tent in the Saudi desert when contemplating the ground invasion of Iraq in 1991 and battling against the elements in the Falkland Islands. Of course this was not accidental, so much of how and what GCHQ does has to be closely held to protect the UK’s advantage, ultimately to save British lives. Luckily, over the last few years, I have been privileged to work more closely with GCHQ and have seen firsthand the commitment, skill and hard work of GCHQ men and women working to protect the UK and our allies.

Since the birth of British Signals Intelligence in 1914, its first and continuing commitment through the last 100 years has been to support the Military. From day one, GCHQ has been getting to grips with the many and varied communication means the enemy has been using, sifting through to find the key intelligence for the Military and their political masters. Within the first year in 1915, Signals Intelligence was being used to combat, in real time, the air and naval threats. While technologies change and adapt over time, the unique and significant contribution GCHQ makes to protecting our soldiers, sailors and airmen continues apace.

Over the last two decades UK forces have not gone into conflict without support from GCHQ, and that support has often been in the field. Adapting from the old Cold War threats, GCHQ has moved to supporting a broader range of operations. GCHQ officers have worked shoulder to shoulder with those servicemen and women planning and carrying out the operations, whether in an operational theatre or from the home base in Cheltenham. Indeed, some 90 members of GCHQ have received a campaign medal for service in Iraq, and 156 medals so far for service in Afghanistan. Perhaps more telling is the faith that the Military put in a civilian organisation to provide the intelligence front-line troops need to achieve their missions as safely as possible in extremely dangerous and difficult combat situations. It is a source of great pride to GCHQ staff that their hard work helps to save lives on the battlefield.

As we approach drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, we look to the future of the relationship between GCHQ and Defence. A key challenge will be staying abreast of the uncertain global threat picture. For GCHQ, this means maintaining the agility to respond to a range of emerging threats at a time when finding the intelligence required is getting ever more challenging. Past successes show us a way of working together which should serve us well into the future.

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GCHQ Poppy Air

For me it is the continued trust between the military and GCHQ that is key and I have been very lucky to see first-hand the commitment and pride that GCHQ staff take in their work to save British lives both at home and on the battlefield.

Memories of deployment 

At the heart of GCHQ's support to the Military are our staff. It is a team effort to gather, analyse, translate and report intelligence, but when it comes to keeping the Military safe in warzones, the delivery of intelligence is often done by a single person.

Putting a Signals Intelligence expert in the field can both improve understanding of what the Military need, whilst protecting the use of intelligence. This is a lesson learned in World War One, and it is still valuable today.

In recent conflicts, GCHQ's staff have volunteered in numbers to deploy to warzones to help keep the Military safe. 90 GCHQ staff have received the medal for service in Iraq, and 156 for service in Afghanistan.