U.K. Changes Nuclear Strike Rules Over Cyber, Chemical and Bioweapon Attacks

The U.K. has said it plans to change nuclear strike rules and expand its nuclear arsenal for the first time in decades following a broad defense review.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson informed parliament of the review on Tuesday, ending three decades of de facto disarmament by the British armed forces. The U.K. will now expand its nuclear arsenal, which is currently the fifth largest in the world.

The 100-page report, titled "Global Britain in a Competitive Age," is the product of an integrated review of security, defense and foreign policy designed to refocus British policy in the face of perceived threats from Russia, China, and other adversaries.

The review is the foundation for a proposed £10 billion investment in Britain's armed forces, which drew condemnation from disarmament campaigners.

Johnson announced on Tuesday that the cap on Britain's Trident submarine-launched ballistic nuclear missiles arsenal is to be lifted from 180 to 260 warheads; representing a more than 40 percent increase.

The review also says the U.K. will change its nuclear weapons rules to meet the threat of states inflicting devastating cyber, biological or chemical weapons attacks against its population.

The review says that the U.K. will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state that is party to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Current non-signatories are North Korea, India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Sudan.

But any signatory state that breaches the treaty will not be protected by that assurance, The Times reported.

The review says the U.K. "reserves the right to review this assurance if the future threat of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological capabilities, or emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact, makes it necessary."

An unnamed defense source told The Times that the review takes into account the danger of a "cyber 9/11." The source added: "You don't need to drop a nuclear bomb on someone if you can cut off their food supplies. We've come a long way since the Second World War—now you can just turn off people's phones and the internet."

The U.K. is currently among the nations that have refused to commit to a "no first use" policy on nuclear weapons. Then-Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said in 2017 the U.K. would not commit to such a stance so that potential enemies would not be able to predict British military operations.

The review particularly notes the threats from Russia, China, and non-state terrorist groups. To address the latter, Johnson said the U.K. will also establish a new Counter-Terrorism Centre and build a new bunker underneath the prime ministerial residence at 10 Downing Street in London.

The review noted the "realistic possibility" of a successful chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack by a terrorist group by 2030, though did not provide any more detail on how the conclusion was reached according to a copy leaked to The Guardian.

The nuclear expansion is "in recognition of the evolving security environment," which includes cyberspace; "an increasingly contested domain, used by state and non-state actors" where serious damage can be done to British infrastructure and nationals. The report reasserted the plan to create a national cyber force based in the north of the country.

Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and others are all concerns for the U.K. in the cyber sphere. The 2017 WannaCry cyber attack, for example, badly affected National Health Service systems.

On China, the review was relatively moderate. "China's growing international stature is by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today," it read. The relatively soft language will be a disappointment to China hawks in the U.K. who are pressing Johnson to take a tougher line on Beijing despite possible trade and diplomatic fallout.

"The fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours, presents challenges for the U.K. and our allies," the report read. "China will contribute more to global growth than any other country in the next decade with benefits to the global economy."

The report was more scathing of Russia, which has been accused of several chemical weapons attacks in the U.K. in recent decades and a widespread campaign of meddling in British democracy.

The U.K. has been at the forefront of sanctions efforts against Moscow for such covert actions, despite huge amounts of Russian money—reportedly much of it laundered—in the British economy and reported Russian influence within the ruling Conservative Party via wealthy donors.

Russia, the report said, is the most "acute threat to our security." It added: "Until relations with its government improve, we will actively deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats emanating from Russia."

UK HMS Vigilant Trident nuclear missile submarine
This file photo shows the British HMS Vigilant nuclear-armed submarine on April 29, 2019 in Faslane, U.K. James Glossop - WPA Pool/Getty Images