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Avoiding a barrage of debt

25 October 2010

Les Hunt
Les Hunt

So, the current scheme to build a Severn Barrage has foundered. Not for the first time, of course; plans to span the Severn estuary between the Welsh and English coasts have come and gone over the years. The first serious proposal to establish a combined harbour, flood protection scheme and transport route was made back in the middle of the nineteenth century. The realisation that the tidal range in this part of the world could be harnessed to generate electricity, however, came in the early part of the twentieth century and a plethora of schemes followed, all of which, as we know, faltered for one reason or another, be it a shortage of funding, war or environmental objection.

But in this age, energy security has become a byword of government. More puzzling, therefore, that the present incumbents of Whitehall have decided to ditch what could have been the most predictable and reliable source of renewable energy available to us, contributing a peak 15GW to the grid. Of course, it’s down to funding again. With those draconian economic measures already outlined last week, it is not too difficult to see that public money is in very short supply and with its estimated £34bn, price ticket the Severn Barrage plans must, once more, be put back on the shelf, perhaps to be dusted down and reconsidered at some later date. Well, possibly.


Warfare in bits and bytes

Military strategists are now talking quite seriously about the establishment of a new type of ‘armed’ force in the UK, made up entirely of cyber attack specialists. The concept was given some credence last week by Michael Chertoff, former US Department of Homeland Security secretary and now head of the Chertoff Group, who gave the keynote speech at this year’s RSA Europe conference in London.

According to Mr Chertoff, the nuclear strategy of deterrence made it clear to potential aggressors that other nuclear powers would respond in kind. "We need to develop a set of rules soon to begin the process of stabilising the situation," he said. One such rule might be that if a cyber attack is on critical infrastructure and that lives are in danger, the target has the right to disable the attacking platform. He also thinks that countries could come to some agreement on zero-tolerance for attacks on air traffic control systems and financial trading systems. "By setting rules, we can adjust incentives to make countries take responsibility for what is going on within their borders," he said.

Earlier in the week, GCHQ head, Iain Lobban warned that critical infrastructure such as power grids, logistical networks and emergency services were targets for cyber attacks. Speaking to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, he outlined how cyber is not just a national security or defence issue but is something which goes to the heart of our economic well-being and national interest.

In his presentation Mr Lobban called for a reaffirmation of the proper norms of behaviour for responsible states in cyber space; both how they should be expected to behave and what they should be able to expect from partners. "When it comes to those who do not abide by the norms," he says, "one of the major difficulties we face is in attributing cyber activity to a particular nation state or other actor. It's not always impossible, but it is very, very hard. And that changes some of the military and diplomatic equations on how we deter, how we respond, how we counter or démarche."

Mr Lobban believes it may be possible to use military cyber capabilities for deterrent effect. But a casual parallel with nuclear deterrence and ‘mutually assured destruction’ is clearly wrong, because small scale but significant cyber attacks happen every day. "When it comes to these incidents, whether we can attribute the activity or not, we will need to have rapid and robust ways of working with allies. And where there is a deliberate or an unintended spread of a worm that threatens critical systems, countermeasures will need to be co-ordinated internationally in order to be effective."


A test bed for UK space technology

Small satellite pioneer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) has received funding to begin the design phase of a national technology demonstration satellite called TechDemoSat-1. The UK’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) have together provided a grant of £770,000 to fund the core mission design elements. SSTL, UK industry and UK academia will fund the novel payload technologies and the grant will enable the final payload selection process to be completed. Following a successful design phase, a further grant of £2,730,000 will be released to see the programme into the build and test phase.

UK organisations currently experience huge cost barriers and find it very time consuming to obtain a first flight demonstration for new equipment and technologies in space. TSB and SEEDA aim to address this issue by providing an ‘in orbit test bed’ for UK technology. TechDemoSat-1 will be the first collaborative UK satellite launched since the establishment of the UK Space Agency and will demonstrate the advanced capabilities of state-of-the-art small satellite technology for scientific and commercial applications. It will also be among the first missions to make use of the ground station facilities that are currently under construction at the UK’s new International Space Innovation Centre at Harwell.

TechDemoSat-1 is expected to carry a number of diverse UK payloads and demonstrate the potential of today’s small satellite-based missions for applications such as monitoring the maritime environment and shipping, man’s impact on the planet and providing in-situ measurements of a wide range of space radiation from low energy plasmas to high energy cosmic ray particles.

Les Hunt


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