I have tabled a question for oral answer in the House of Lords this afternoon, as follows:
“To ask HM Government what proportion of the United Kingdom’s critical national infrastructure is owned by foreign-owned companies; and what assessment they have made of the benefits and disbenefits of that level of ownership”
I am sure I will receive a courteous answer but I rather suspect that what it will boil down to is (1) the Government don’t really know what proportion of our infrastructure is in foreign hands; (2) that they haven’t really got a policy on it; and (3) even if they wanted to do something about it they feel it is either too late or there is nothing that they can do.
Earlier this month the Government announced, in response to a critical report from the Intelligence and Security Committee, that it would be reviewing the role of Chinese-owned Huawei in the UK’s telecommunications and security infrastructure. This is welcome, if a bit late. I have been banging on about this for ages: for example here and here.
Six years ago the think tank Chatham House reported that
“as much as 90% of the UK’s critical national infrastructure is not government owned and a large proportion of that is under foreign ownership.”
Most of London’s electricity is provided by Electricite de France. Does anyone seriously doubt what would happen if it was a choice between switching the lights out in London or Paris because of some crisis?
In the last 10 years, Ferrovial of Spain has bought BAA, the operator of Heathrow and Stansted airports, Germany’s RWE has acquired npower, and Australian bank Macquarie has taken control of car parks by buying NCP.
German group Deutsche Bahn recently bought rail and bus operator Arriva, while ports company P&O, which owns assets at Tilbury and Southampton, was also bought by Dubai’s DP World in 2006.
This Government bangs on about the threat to British sovereignty presented by the UK’s membership of the EU, but they seem to be utterly silent on the implications for our sovereignty of having so much of our infrastructure controlled by foreign governments or its future being determined at the whim of foreign investors who are unlikely to have the UK’s national interest at the top of their priorities.
Very few other nations would be so sanguine.
In Lords’ Question Time today I asked:
“Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy on the deployment of autonomous weapon systems by United Kingdom Armed Forces.”
The response was – in my view – a helpful one:
“The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Astor of Hever):
My Lords, the United Kingdom does not have fully autonomous weapon systems. Such systems are not yet in existence and are not likely to be for many years, if at all. There are currently a limited number of naval defensive systems that could operate in automatic mode, although there would always be naval personnel involved in setting the parameters of any such operation. I must emphasise that any type of weapon system would be used only in strict adherence with international humanitarian law.”
Subsequent exchanges amplified the point further:
“Lord Harris of Haringey:
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is it the view of Her Majesty’s Government that there is a world of difference between a drone operated remotely from several hundred or thousands of miles away and one that is automatic and involves no human intervention before it discharges? In that context, will he tell us a bit more about the Mantis development by BAE Systems, which I understand is supported and funded by the UK’s Ministry of Defence, which the BAE Systems website describes as,
“Able to fly by itself, able to think for itself”?
Lord Astor of Hever:
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. As I said in the original Answer, the UK complies fully with its obligations under national and international law, and that applies to autonomous weapon systems. However, although technological advances are likely to increase the level of automation in some systems, just as in non-military equipment, such as cars, the MoD currently has no intention of developing systems that operate without human intervention.
As for Mantis, the MoD initiated a jointly funded advanced concept technology demonstrator in 2008, which led to flight trials in 2009. The MoD has no current involvement in BAE Systems’ Mantis advanced concept technology demonstrator.
Lord Lee of Trafford:
Does my noble friend agree with the comments of a senior RAF officer who said very recently that come 2020 the Royal Air Force would be something like 50% manned aircraft and 50% UAE or drones?
Lord Astor of Hever:
My Lords, remotely piloted aircraft systems are likely to form part of the future force mix, as they may offer advantages in endurance and range. However, the dynamic complexity of fighter-versus-fighter-type missions does not favour remote control. Therefore, a wholly unmanned force is unlikely to be achievable or desirable in future. Studies suggest a likely combat air force mix of two-thirds manned and one-third remotely piloted in around the 2030 timeframe.
There is a perception that unmanned technology is shrouded in secrecy. Although the rules of engagement for unmanned aerial vehicles are the same as those for manned aircraft, there is surely a case for the United Kingdom taking the lead by considering having a code on the context and limitations of usage of UAVs to clarify the rules, given the significance and spread of this technology. Is this a point that the Government are considering or will consider?
Lord Astor of Hever:
My Lords, I shall certainly take that question back to my department and get back to the noble Lord. We always make sure that equipment is used appropriately. Even after a weapon system is declared lawful, its use will still be subject to stringent rules of engagement governing its employment in the context and specific circumstances of the operation in question. Those rules of engagement as well as addressing legal issues can, as a matter of policy, be more restrictive than the applicable law. ….
Lord West of Spithead:
My Lords, the Minister slightly confused me with one of his answers. Will he confirm that for anti-missile, close range anti-aircraft, and anti-torpedo reaction systems, there is considerable merit in going for an autonomous system, even if it has a manual override? From what he said it sounds as though we are not continuing to develop that capability. Is that correct?
Lord Astor of Hever:
My Lords, in essence, an automatic system reacts to a limited number of external stimuli in the same way each time, just as automatic transmission changes gears when a car gets to a certain speed. Fully autonomous systems rely on a certain level of artificial intelligence for making high-level decisions from a very complex environmental input, the result of which might not be fully predictable at a very detailed level. However, let us be absolutely clear that the operation of weapons systems will always—always—be under human control.”
Today’s guilty pleas at the Old Bailey are a timely reminder that the homegrown terrorist threat has not gone away. Three men (Richard Dart, Jahangir Alom and Imran Mahmood) had been charged with:
“engaging in preparation for acts of terrorism by travelling to Pakistan for training between July 2010 and July 2012 and by “advising and counselling” acts of terrorism by providing information about how to go to the country for the same purpose.”
It is notable that Dart (a white convert to Islam who moved from Dorset to London) had been employed for a short period as a security guard for the BBC and that Alom (whose wife has already been sentenced for terrorist offences) is a former Police Community Support Officer. Both had therefore been – for a period at least – in security-related occupations.
The three convictions involved travel to Pakistan for training in terrorist techniques but as NBC News has recently reported:
“A new al-Qaida “guidebook” for extremists aims to incite homegrown “lone wolves” into carrying out small-scale terrorist attacks …. using materials as easily obtainable as motor or cooking oil, sugar and matches to trigger massive traffic accidents, devastating fires and deadly explosions.
Titled the “Lone Mujahid Pocketbook” and published by in the spring edition of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s “Inspire” online propaganda magazine, the guidebook uses a breezy style that borrows from social media speak and rap lyrics to encourage Islamic extremists in the West to commit acts of violence.
“R U dreamin’ of wagin’ jihadi attacks against kuffar?” is asks, using a derogatory Arabic term for non-Muslims. “Have u been lookin’ 4 a way to join the mujahideen in frontlines, but you haven’t found any? Well there’s no need to travel abroad, coz the frontline has come to you.”
Among other things, it offers detailed instructions for torching parked cars, causing vehicular accidents by pouring motor oil on highway curves, starting forest fires, “making a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom” and using a pickup truck with blades welded on the front “as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but (to) mow down the enemies of Allah.””
So the threat has not gone away and the current tactic involves self-trained (and possibly self-radicalised) lone wolf type activists.
There were a series of exchanges during Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon on the Arctic and the implications of the melting of the ice cap. The implications are substantial – and not just because of the impact on global sea levels. There is the potential opening up of a new sea route: the North West Passage sought by explorers so assiduously for centuries. There is the potentially easier access to mineral deposits and the possibility of oil drilling as the ice recedes. The ocean (and this brings with it the rights to exploitation of natural resources) itself falls within the territorial waters of a handful of countries – principally Canada, Russia and Greenland.
So what is the strategy being followed to protect UK interests (indeed have those interests even been defined)?
Alas, the answer is not to be found in today’s Hansard:
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the 2012 Arctic Report Card of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States showing record-low sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean during the past year.
Nicholas Watt in today’s Guardian has a fascinating insight into the dilemma facing David Cameron as he contemplates what he will say in his long-awaited speech on Europe or whether he can put it off yet again:
“Over the Christmas break William Hague dusted off a sacred text that has served as the lodestar for British Eurosceptics over the last quarter of a century: Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 1988.
The foreign secretary thought that in preparation for David Cameron’s most important speech on Europe later this month, it would be wise to remind himself how Thatcher memorably set herself against a “European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.
As officials and ministers chewed over Thatcher’s speech they reached a rather startling conclusion. Were Cameron to deliver such a “pinko and pro-European” speech, in the words of one source, at least 25 anti-EU Conservative MPs would walk out of the party.
Eurosceptics often forget that Thatcher balanced her warnings of the dangers of a European super-state with a staunch defence of Britain’s place at the heart of the EU. “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European community,” she said. “Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the community.””
The real problem for Cameron is that there is now such a gap between what any sensible British Prime Minister might say about the country’s relationship with our European allies and partners and what the backbenchers on whom he has to rely believe. In practice, the gulf is unbridgeable. A fantasy that is rooted in a century-old vision of the United Kingdom as a world power straddling the Atlantic with a political and economic empire stretching round the globe is frankly incompatible with the realities of the twenty-first century.
It would be tempting to sit back and watch the fireworks as the Tory (and Coalition) meltdown unfolds, but the consequences for the country’s future are really too serious for that.
Yesterday afternoon I initiated a short debate in the Moses Room of the House of Lords on the biological threats facing the United Kingdom, specifically I was asking “Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements they have in place to protect the residents of the United Kingdom against biological threats; and what measures they are taking to promote the international regulation of biological weapons and to ensure that security standards are sufficient in laboratories engaged in biological research around the world.”
The National Risk Register has in its top tier of risks facing the UK major natural hazards, such as a flu pandemic, but also includes as a serious threat in that top tier of risks a biological attack by terrorists.
As Lord Tony Giddens pointed out later in the debate:
“There are three sets of factors which make biological threats far more menacing than they were for previous generations. The first of these … is work in scientific laboratories that is designed to unpack the basic building blocks of nature but which can have spin-offs of a dangerous kind. … Secondly, there is the disruption to or destruction of the world’s ecosystems, releasing pathogens from their normal hosts. The process is normally known as zoonosis and it is one that is fraught with implications for human beings. Thirdly, … we have globalisation which can transmit pathogens almost immediately from one side of the world to the other.”
But the other big change that I had highlighted was the speed of technological advance that has taken place in the last ten or fifteen years in respect of genetic manipulation and as I explained:
“viruses are very simple. They are simply a capsule, often with perhaps 10 or 12 genes within them. The changing of just one gene within a virus can have a very profound effect on what that virus does: how easily it is transmitted, the extent to which it can be transmitted from an animal to a human being or between humans, and the consequences for the organism that is infected.
In fact, in 2001 the Journal of Virology published a research paper that demonstrated a whole number of ways of modifying the mousepox virus. This new virus was so effective that it overwhelmed the immune system of the test mice, causing massive liver failure and eventually killing the subjects. That reaction occurred even if the mice had been vaccinated against the mousepox virus. That was a legitimate scientific experiment—an effort to control the mouse population in Australia—but it demonstrated that a quite small change in a single gene with comparatively simple techniques could have major consequences.
These techniques are becoming more straightforward and all sorts of legitimate research is taking place in these areas around the world. Some of this could have the consequence of rendering a vaccine ineffective; some of it could confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics and antiviral agents in pathogenic organisms; it could increase the virulence of a pathogen, or make it easier for that pathogen to be transmitted; or it could perhaps alter the range of hosts for that pathogen. A whole number of things are now technically possible that were not easily doable 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Entirely legitimate research on genetic manipulation and modification is of course going on all over the world for entirely benign purposes.
The question that I want to pose is: how well regulated around the world is that research? How confident can we be that other countries are applying the sorts of restrictions that we would wish to see? Some pharmaceutical companies may have an interest in carrying out experiments and developing their techniques in countries where the regulatory regime is far less intense than it might be in our own country.”
Biological weapons are outlawed under the Biological Weapons Convention, which has been signed by virtually every country in the world. However, as I pointed out:
“although countries have said that they accept that they should not be developing biological weapons, the world has not set up what we might consider to be any effective system for monitoring compliance or verification. Some of the biggest and most powerful countries—the United States of America, for one—are extremely dubious about setting up any external system to monitor their own compliance and do not necessarily see the need for a supervisory body.
The US, for example, clearly has no official bioweapons capability but has constructed a huge research base, in many different centres around the United States, under the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures programme. That is undertaking, no doubt quite properly, genetic research, development and testing. However, if the United States says, “We are not happy with our compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention ever being tested by anybody else”, it is very difficult to see how that could be enforced on other countries.
Scepticism also persists about whether Russia’s offensive bioweapons capabilities have been completely dismantled. There are, I think, five Russian military bioweapons facilities which remain closed to outside inspection. Many of the officials linked to their current defensive programme are the same officials that developed Soviet offensive capabilities during the Cold War. There is a question again about how secure those facilities are, particularly as we know that regimes change and that certain parts of the world become less stable as things move forward.”
I also warned that:
“There is clearly a risk that stocks of materials developed for one purpose could be misused or fall into the hands of terrorist groups or, potentially, rogue regimes.”
And concluded as follows:
“In responding, can the Minister first say what is being done to improve supervision of these matters? Secondly, what is being done to regulate the security of scientific establishments, including those that hold stocks of pathogens? It all ends with a fundamental question. We are at risk, as a nation, from a pandemic of whatever sort and from whatever origin, whether naturally or unnaturally occurring. Are we really satisfied that our emergency and health services are able to withstand that?”
The Minister who responded was Lord Wallace of Saltaire who acknowledged that:
“This is an important subject, and both a domestic and international one. We are concerned with the potential of a terrorist attack and the very distant potential of a global state attack. … We are also concerned with the possibility of accidental release from badly secured laboratories.”
Being a LibDem Minister he could not avoid taking the opportunity to snipe at his Conservative Coalition colleagues, saying:
“This is an area of domestic and international overlap. I would not discourage noble Lords from pointing out, as we deal with the intensely emotional issue of the defence of British sovereignty from European and other interference, that this is one of many areas where you cannot have entirely different British and foreign issues. We have to have international co-operation and, as far we can, regulation.”
He did confirm that:
“The Government are deeply committed to protecting the United Kingdom from biological threats. That requires us to have strong measures at home and co-operation abroad.”
but warned that:
“There is resistance to a strong international compliance programme … it is not simply from the United States, let alone from the American pharmaceutical industry, but from a range of other countries that I will not go through. For many of them it is a question of sovereignty and, for one or two south Asian countries, of suspicion of the West. There are limits to what we can achieve and we have to work as far as we can through education, co-operation and providing assistance. I also note that we are working with our partners inside the European Union through the establishment of centres of excellence with regional centres around the world to build this level of co-operation.”
His basic message was:
“There are some real problems here … this is a very complex area.”
And he concluded – rather strangely for a Government Minister – with:
“I shall finish by saying that we need to keep on challenging our Government and even more so other governments.”
So I suppose those of us who took part in the debate were being told: keep on nagging us and maybe we (the Government) will finally take this as seriously as it deserves.
If you want to read the full debate it is here.
There was an oral question in the House of Lords this afternoon on what measures the Government are proposing to take to recognise the contribution the Armed Forces made to the success of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. (Apparently, those who helped with the Games will be receiving a commemorative coin.)
The House was unanimous in its support for the efforts and hard work of those servicemen and women who were drafted in at short notice to help with security at the Games. However, inevitably the questioning turned to the failures of G4S which led to the army being called in in the first place.
And my colleague Lord Alan West broadened it to the dangers of privatisation in general:
My contribution was as follows:
And the Defence Minister was simply not prepared to answer …
Over the last few years, I have repeatedly expressed concern about the potential importance of the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse that could disable or destroy electronic installations. Such a pulse could come from an errant solar flare or other extreme space weather or it could be produced by a nuclear warhead exploded in the upper atmosphere. Both could have devastating impacts on ground-based electronic equipment and on electric power grids.
Now comes news of a weapon that could be carried in a cruise missile that can be programmed to disable the electronic systems in individual buildings. Apparently, the U.S. Air Force and its contractor Boeing, along with Raytheon, have created the High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, which was just tested over a Utah desert.
The cruise missile, which was launched from a U.S. bomber, was pre-programmed to fly over a target and shoot a burst of high power microwaves at a two-story building. It knocked out rows of personal computers and electrical systems which were shown in a video taken of the test.
Following the first target, the cruise missile then was guided to six other targets, resulting in knocking out all electronics.
Even if this was a US initiative, it sounds as though more effort needs to go into protecting UK infrastructure and critical systems against such attacks – which is more or less what I was saying about three and a half years ago.
The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (of which I am a member) has just published a report criticising the Government for failing to take seriously the concerns that it expresses in its First Review of the Strategy.
In particular, the report points out that the Government has failed to respond adequately to the Committee’s concerns about the implications for the National Security Strategy of major shifts in US strategy, of the Eurozone crisis and the potential impact of Scottish independence.
The Joint Committee had urged the Government to press ahead with planning the next national Security Strategy, allowing sufficient time to involve academics and experts external to the Government in the process and to allow the next Comprehensive Spending Review and the Strategic Defence Review to be properly integrated in the process. The 2010 National Security Strategy was rushed and weaker as a result.
The Government has acknowledged that it is “important to start thinking about the work plan” for the next National Security Strategy “well in advance of 2015”. However, there is no indication that any effort has been made to start drawing up plans to ensure that the next Strategy is a more candid and more explicit document that properly addresses difficult questions.
Even more disturbing is the absence from the Government of any indication that it intends to draw up the next Strategy in a way that achieves a broad national consensus on the foundations necessary to plan for our nation’s security in the longer -term.
Failure to build such a consensus will be a wasted opportunity – without such a consensus any future Strategy will not have abroad enough basis of buy-in and consent and that in turn will weaken the Strategy and also National Security itself.
A former senior analyst to the US Secretary for Defense has warned that:
“Chinese companies apparently have a covert capability to remotely access communications technology sold to the United States and other Western countries and could disable a country’s telecommunications infrastructure before a military engagement.”
Writing on Friday, F Michael Maloof reported that:
“The Chinese also have the ability to exploit networks “to enable China to continue to steal technology and trade secrets,” according to the open source intelligence company Lignet, which is comprised of former U.S. intelligence analysts.
The issue centers on the Chinese firm Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., which U.S. intelligence sources say has direct links to the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA. These sources assert that Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications firms such as ZTE Corp. have “electronic backdoors” to telecommunications technology sold to the U.S. and other countries.”
Huawei tell me that they are much-maligned and say that they are not linked to the People’s Liberation Army, but are just a private company trying to expand their business outside China.
In the UK the Government seems to be unconcerned that increasingly large parts of the country’s critical national infrastructure are under foreign ownership or are dependent for key components on overseas suppliers (there are a series of stories in yesterday’s Sunday Times behind its paywall about Chinese or Russian interests buying into the UK energy supply industry).
It is not clear why it can be assumed that these interests are necessarily benign and the UK Government doesn’t even seem to be interested in asking the question let alone doing anything about it.
How complacent can they get?