UK Reserves Nuclear Strike Response For ‘Emerging Technologies’ Attack

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The UK Integrated Defence Review includes subtle change about when it may use nuclear weapons if attacked by ’emerging technologies’

The ‘Integrated Defence Review’ document published by the UK government on Tuesday includes a small but noteworthy change for the justifications to use its nuclear arsenal.

The 111-page ‘Integrated Defence Review’ document notes that the UK at the moment is the “third most powerful cyber nation in the world, ranking top in defence, intelligence, norms and offensive capabilities.”

The review also confirmed the UK is raising its self-imposed cap on its nuclear weapon stockpile to rise to 260, abandoning the previous cap of 225 warheads.

Emerging technologies

This increase will allow the UK to fully arm the Trident nuclear weapons system on two Vanguard class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, in the event of a conflict.

But the document on page 77 also signaled a change as to when the UK had the right to use nuclear weapons.

“The UK will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 1968 (NPT),” it said. “This assurance does not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations.”

“However, we reserve the right to review this assurance if the future threat of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological capabilities, or emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact, makes it necessary,” it said.

However the document also stated that the UK remained “committed to the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons”, and that it “will continue to work internationally to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict and enhance mutual trust and security.”

There has been some newspaper speculation that the “emerging technologies” clause could include cyberattacks, but there has been no official confirmation and it seems unlikely.

Military response

Yet the use of deadly force in response to a cyberattack has long been touted in some circles.

In May 2019 Israel carried out a military airstrike in response to an attempted cyber attack launched by terrorist group Hamas.

The airstrike against the cyber operation of Hamas, apparently housed in a building in the Gaza Strip, resulted in the Hamas cyber HQ being ‘removed’.

That was thought to be the first time that a nation-state retaliated with physical military action in real time against a cyber attack.

But an airstrike should come as no surprise.

Ever since 2011 the United States for example said it reserved the right to retaliate with military force against a cyber attack from a hostile state.

In 2018 former President Donald Trump reportedly relaxed the complex guidelines that have to be followed if the United States were to launch a cyber attack against a rogue nation.

All of this comes amid concern in Washington and the West that Russia is no longer concerned about its hacking activities remaining covert.

The UK has also been beefing up its cyber operations.

Indeed, the UK reportedly more than doubled the number of offensive cyber-capabilities in recent years, as GCHQ ramped up its ability to hit back at those launching cyber-attacks against this country.

In April 2018 the UK made a rare public admission that it had carried out a cyber offensive against the Islamic State terrorist group.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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