UK changes policy so it can use nukes in response to emerging tech

Royal Navy security personnel stand guard on Trident submarine HMS Vigilant in Scotland.

Jeff J Mitchell | Getty Images

LONDON — The U.K. has changed its defense policy which may enable it to use nuclear weapons in response to “emerging technologies.”

The country’s 111-page Integrated Defense Review, published Tuesday, included a subtle line on when the U.K. “reserves the right” to use nuclear weapons.

It says the U.K. could use nuclear weapons if other countries use “weapons of mass destruction” against it. Such weapons include “emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact” to chemical, biological weapons or other nuclear weapons.

Some British newspapers report that “emerging technologies” include cyberattacks, citing defense insiders, but the report doesn’t explicitly say that. The U.K. government did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Tom Plant, a director at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, told CNBC: “I would not interpret it to include cyber-attacks in isolation, no.”

He added that the “understanding of what constitutes emerging tech in government is not evenly distributed — cyber is definitely not ’emerging,’ it’s pretty substantially emerged.”

Either way, Plant believes that the change in language is significant.

“I think it is a marker that there is the potential in the future for combinations of technologies and behaviors to come together that create emergent risks – which perhaps would not arise through the developments of any one technology in isolation – that are incredibly hard to predict and that there is at least the possibility that one or more of these as-yet-unknown emergent challenges might rival WMD in the threat they pose,” he said.

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