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Defence Minister 'to big up electropulse threat' - report

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New UK defence minister Liam Fox has fallen into the clutches of fearmongering armsbiz lobbyists, according to reports.

The Telegraph reports on a behind-closed-doors speech by Dr Fox at an event today organised by Avi Schnurr, a lobbyist known for pushing the idea that various expensive defence technologies should be developed by Western governments to ward off hostile ballistic missiles and Bond-villain* style electromagnetic pulse strikes. Schnurr is a leading light of both the Israel Missile Defence Association and the Electric Infrastructure Security Council, which hosts Dr Fox today.

“As the nature of our technology becomes more complex, so the threat becomes more widespread,” the defence secretary's speech reads, according to the Telegraph.

“While we all benefit from the products of scientific advances so we also create vulnerabilities that can be exploited by our enemies. However advanced we become the chain of our security is only as strong as its weakest link.”

The idea that terrorists or a rogue nation might launch a devastating electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strike against western civilisation is an old one. It has tended to lack credibility as the only known way to generate a worthwhile EMP is to detonate a nuclear weapon, and most observers find it difficult to see why someone with nuclear bombs and the desire to hurt western civilisation wouldn't simply blow up selected cities.

There are certain lunatic-fringe analysts who consider that an EMP can be generated easily using conventional explosives and simple equipment easily fabricated in a back-alley bombmaking shop, but in fact even the mighty US military has never succeeded in building a useful conventional EMP weapon, either explosives-pumped or of the electrically-powered High Power Microwave (HPM) type.

Nonetheless, it has been persistently argued that somebody with only one bomb might prefer to let it off in low orbit above the target nation/region, so causing widespread line-of-sight disruption to power grids and electronics beneath. Again, this has been met with scepticism as adversaries with access to suborbital rockets and one nuke would seem likely to have more than one nuke - and furthermore to be nation states and thus, unlike terrorist networks, vulnerable to retaliation using normal nuclear weapons or other military means.

Despite all this Mr Schnurr and his like have had a certain amount of success in bigging-up the pulse strike threat in the USA, and lately have crossed the pond. One of Schnurr's earliest converts here was the Right Honourable James Arbuthnot, Tory chairman of the Parliamentary Defence Committee and relentless arms-industry point man inside the government. Arbuthnot is nowadays a board member of Schnurr's EIS organisation, and is chairing today's EIS Summit.

It would seem that Dr Fox has now in turn been recruited by Arbuthnot, at least to the extent of being willing to boost the EMP threat in a speech. This may have been made somewhat easier by the fact that lately the menace of damaging electromagnetic radiation from solar storms has gained credence, helped by reports from NASA and the US National Academy of Sciences. There would be some overlap between the measures required to proof infrastructure against solar storms and that required against the possible EMP threat.

NASA warned last year of a possible, devastating "space Katrina" radiation storm, saying that the last such event back in the 19th century crippled the nascent telecoms industry - and stating that another storm of such strength is bound to occur sooner or later.

The radiation-storm and EMP threats are considered from the Ministry of Defence viewpoint to fall under "cyber" activities, one of the few MoD areas forecast to get a budget increase rather than savage cuts in the ongoing UK Strategic Defence and Security Review.

But cyber defence also covers conventional network security, which many would say is a more serious issue than solar storms or pulse strikes. And there are quite a few more observers who would be inclined to see even cyberwar net defences as more of an industry-driven grab at the public purse - perhaps quite worrying in a civil liberties context to boot - than as rational spending to meet a genuine threat. ®

*Evil Sean Bean in Goldeneye.

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