About Grant Christopher

Research Fellow at ICSA specialising on nuclear nonproliferation in East Asia and the effects of emerging technologies on nonproliferation.

Trident Test Failure: Does it Undermine the UK Nuclear Deterrent?

The failed test of a Trident II D5 missile by the British Submarine, Vengeance, as reported in the Sunday Times on 22nd January, has re-opened the British nuclear deterrent debate. This debate was supposed to be settled in July, where a Parliamentary debate to affirm the UK’s commitment, interpreted as a greenlight to continue procurement and planning for the Dreadnought class of submarines, passed with a sizable majority. Opponents of Trident are now trying to hold the Prime Minister accountable for withholding the information from Parliament.

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Disinformation from the White House

For anybody who saw the remarkable unscheduled press conference of the new White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, it was an astonishing event and worth watching in full. Was it spontaneous and based on unfavourable reporting? Or was it a pre-planned part of the new administration’s media strategy?

The statement was a lecture to the media on inaccurate reporting. It began with the ‘deliberately false reporting’ of the removal bust of Martin Luther King from the Oval office by Zeke Miller, a Time journalist. This was not true and Miller corrected by deleting the original tweet and producing another tweet retracting it.  This is likely to be misinformation: that is misreporting due to bias/incomplete information. Miller’s explanation is that that the bust was obscured and he could not see it. His own biases made him more likely to believe that the new administration would remove it and with the low effort cost of a tweet he reported it.

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The UK Nuclear Deterrent

“We’ve got to have that thing over here, whatever it costs … we’ve got to have the bloody union jack flying on top of it” –Ernest Bevin

bevin

Ernest Bevin’s quote on nuclear weapons still informs much of the debate around the UK’s nuclear deterrent today.

What the then foreign minister said, in one of the secret meetings to discuss Britain developing nuclear weapons in 1946, has developed its own kind of folklore. Other oft cited reasons to highlight the supposed ridiculousness of British nuclear weapons such as using nuclear weapons to get America’s attention and to keep/get/retain the UK’s seat on the UN security council keep going around.

Ernest Bevin’s patriotic quote is in my opinion a terrible reason for developing nuclear weapons. But the decision to acquire nuclear weapons didn’t rest on the back of the comments of a single minister. The British Nuclear Experience, by John Baylis and Kristan Stoddart unravels the complex issues and multiple independent stakeholders involved in the UK’s decision to develop nuclear weapons. There was a ‘state of mind’ in UK nuclear culture that propagated the idea in UK strategic culture during the cold war. However, we are not held to the reasons of the past. We must dispassionately weigh the evidence on having a nuclear capability in the UK based on the today’s security requirements.

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Nuclear Proliferation via Darknet Markets?

If there was a website where you could buy cocaine, AK47s, tasers, guides to stealing and hacking, or fake American passports, why wouldn’t you be able to buy something worse? What would stop the site from selling you the kit you would need to go nuclear?

Micro Curie Polonium-210 Source from AlphaBay

Micro Curie Polonium-210 Source from AlphaBay

Since 2014 work has highlighted the problem posed by ecommerce to nuclear [here at ICSA and by our colleagues at project alpha] and biological export control regimes. A wide variety of export controlled items from the Nuclear Suppliers Group lists, that control the goods you would need to build a nuclear weapon, were found to be freely available on ecommerce sites such as Alibaba.com. Significantly, these analyses did not include the darknet markets, notorious platforms used for the exchange of illegal goods.

After Silk Road

Since the takedown of Silk Road 2.0 by the FBI in 2013 darknet markets, sometimes known as cryptomarkets, have continued to operate. Since the death of the Silk Road brand, which was estimated at the time of its closure be making 92,000 USD a month for its operators, no single site has dominated traffic and as of December 2015 there are over 20 filling Silk Road‘s gap in the market. No site currently in operation was online before December 2013, highlighting the nature of the cat-and-mouse game being played out between the markets and the authorities. Analyses of the contents and users of these markets in the past have focused on drugs and conventional criminal activity, such as hacking and fraud, with no analysis yet performed on export controlled equipment and materials. In a recent excellent analysis by another group of colleagues at King’s which took a broad look at darknet content, included work on classifying darknet sites.

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