Drones, missiles and white Russian horses: The UK intelligence agency you haven’t heard of


The operation centre of Defence Intelligence is a vast hanger filled with highly trained specialists who monitor military and terrorist activities taking place around the world in real time. A world which, they stress, is becoming ever more dangerous.

RAF Wyton, near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, houses the biggest espionage facility of among the ‘Five Eyes’ security group of Britain, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Watch is kept 24 hours a day seven days a week, providing a steady stream of classified information to the government here and allies abroad.

Computer screens show checks being kept on a vast range of activities from that of HMS Richmond replacing HMS Diamond in operations against the Houthis in the Red Sea, to the movements of armed insurgent groups, the different types of drones being used by Russia in Ukraine, and even the development of hypersonic missiles the Chinese seek to keep secret.

“There’s a storm in the Middle East and a hurricane in Ukraine. China is climate change. Everybody is incredibly busy, we need to be prepared for what’s coming”, said a senior DI official.

Hypersonic missiles are a potent aspect of the ominous “climate change”. They can manoeuvre in the Earth’s atmosphere above Mach 5, and very hard to counter when they are launched. At present, Beijing leads the field in this giving it an important edge in any future confrontation with American and Western military in the Far East, if and when it decides to invade Taiwan.

At home, DI is extensively involved in providing homeland security. It played a vital part in the Salisbury poisoning investigation, helping trace the Novichok trail and the danger it posed to the emergency services.

Unlike MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – the UK’s other intelligence organisations – DI, with a staff of 4,500 headed by Adrian Bird, also helps in non-terrorist or espionage related police cases. DI drones were used to uncover incriminating footprints which helped convict the killer of the student Libby Squires, in Hull.  They are also called in on raids at times on organised crime gangs to electronically check for trip hazards that could compromise the operation.

It was, however, drones being used by the Kremlin in Ukraine which were of great interest to a team of scientists and analysts at the base on Tuesday – a Russian made Orlan-10 and an Iranian Shaheed 131 which had been packaged and sent to Cambridgeshire from the battlefield.

What they discover would not only be of value to the Ukrainians, but also in the Middle East where the Houthis have a plentiful supply of Iranian weapons at their willing disposal. British ships, it is acknowledged, are vulnerable to attacks by waves of drones.

Another group was trying to decipher a new type of radio signal coming from the Yemeni coast to decide whether it was a Houthi radar set-up for directing missiles.

“If you’re on HMS Diamond in the Red Sea, you want to be able to characterise the threat you’re coming up against. It sounds arcane, but without it you can’t fly, you can’t sail, you can’t operate. The timescale [of investigating new signals] has moved from days to hours. It is increasingly moving to minutes as radars are updating so rapidly, thus the urgency,” a defence official commented.

A team monitoring shipping helped discover that Moscow has sent 30 Orlov Trotter horses to North Korea.  Its ruler, Kim Jong Un, likes being photographed riding the white mounts. Days later Pyongyang sent artillery rounds and missiles to Ukraine. A subsequent intercepted message from a Russian paratrooper officer read “the grads [missiles] have arrived at the northern front from our North Korean comrades”.

James Heappey, the armed forces minister, said: “In a world where we can no longer take truth for granted, the work carried out by Defence Intelligence is increasingly critical to keeping our nation safe — providing insight and foresight to disrupt and counter the future threats we face from abroad and at home.”

As the challenges from hostile states and terrorist groups mount the need for intelligence becomes more acute, particularly in taking preventive action.

Senior DI officials want to stress, however, that they are aware of the scope of governments misusing intelligence, pointing to Britain’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an example.  “The turnover of decision makers is always an issue, but you have to educate those in senior appointments. We don’t know everything, but we hedge by increasing professionalism, but there definitely needs to be some humility in the intelligence world, we know that.”

They also know that such intelligence is vital in a world ever more dangerous, ever more unstable.