UK PONI Conference 2019: A Summary

If anyone was in any doubt as to the true range of ideas and dilemmas involved in the study of nuclear issues on the morning of the 13 June, such a belief would have been swiftly retired as the day commenced.

This year’s UK PONI Annual Conference sought to remind us that the nature of our current nuclear world is not set in stone, but is rather undergoing rapid and diverse change. This year’s conference succeeded yet again in assembling a selection of knowledgeable and talented individuals from across the field of nuclear research, ranging from engineers, analysts, scholars, and students presenting on issues both close to home and across the globe. This blog serves as a summary, an insight if you will, into this year’s conference and hopes to provoke further interest into the UK PONI’s work and future events.

Morning Keynote: Nicole Kett - MoD

Nicole Kett, the resource and policy director for the Defence Nuclear Organisation in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), initiated the day’s programme with an interesting keynote speech on the current government’s nuclear posture and policies, her role within the Ministry, and experiences as a woman working at the heart of the UK’s military establishment.

Session One: UK Nuclear Policy and Practice

The energy of the conference persisted into the first panel session on UK nuclear policy and practice. Applying a domestic lens to nuclear issues, the session began with an intriguing presentation by Babcock systems engineer Thomas Roberts. His work presented a convincing case for the need to develop a system of Integrated Logistical Support (ILS) for the UK’s next generation of nuclear submarines, and touched notably on the cost and lifespan impact of ILS solutions on continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD).

Sophie McCormack of the University of Exeter then covered political discourse on British nuclear weapons policy, highlighting the disparity between the use of nuclear terminology parliamentary debate and in academia. Jana Wattenberg of Aberystwyth University closed the session with her analysis of the UK’s approach to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), motives for its initial acquisition of the bomb, and the notion of an ‘ontologically insecure nuclear state’.

I found that this panel did well to touch upon the nuances of domestic nuclear issues; highlighting how these often overlooked or understated factors can have far reaching implications for nuclear policy making, affecting both national and international outcomes.

Session two covered emerging issues in deterrence and arms control, and came to be a personal favourite through its examination of the implications of various up-and-coming technologies and pressing environmental factors. Jamie Kwong of KCL opened the panel with a talk that highlighted key dilemmas for nuclear deterrence posed by the growing reality of climate change, including analysis of possible impacts on existing nuclear command and control infrastructure and on strategic stability.

Jennifer Edwards of Lockheed Martin followed up, casting our attention to space and concepts surrounding space and nuclear warfare, focusing on the prospects for and implications of space-based nuclear weapons on our existing nuclear order.

Keeping with the technological theme, Madison Estes, Associate Research Analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses, introduced us to the issues surrounding hypersonic weapons. Ms Estes’ captivating presentation covered these new developments, revealing how ambiguities of payload and reduced reaction time have the potential to exacerbate instabilities.

Rounding up the panel’s presentations was Dr James Johnson from the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, who provided insight into the implications that might arise from integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into strategic forces and nuclear command and control. Scenarios of unintended escalations, strategic destabilisation and autonomous technology acting without a restraining human hand served as an eye opening and gripping talk.

Covering an area in which my own undergraduate research is focused, the panel provided an interestingly broad spectrum of examples and dilemmas which helped paint a picture of the depth of the issues associated with technological developments and nuclear stability.

Lunchtime Presentation: Project on Nuclear Gaming

The lunchtime keynote, given by Andrew Reddie of the University of California, Berkeley, introduced attendees to the concept of nuclear wargaming and presented research findings from the Project on Nuclear Gaming (PoNG). The presentation educated attendees on player’s situational behaviour when competing on the computer-based nuclear escalation simulator ‘SIGNAL’.

Reddie explained various elements of the study’s results and posed questions on how we can use nuclear wargaming as an experimental tool in the study of human threat perception and conflict escalation. What I found fascinating about the PoNG research was that, while it doesn’t seek to produce a definitive method for predicting human behaviour in escalation scenarios, this new approach does present an opportunity to produce empirical data that aids our understanding of how certain situations may produce certain outcomes.

Session Three: South Asia: trends and risks

The third panel session of the conference assessed nuclear trends and risks in South Asia. Dr Salma Shaheen of KCL gave a comparative analysis on the role of newspapers and social media in either fuelling or cooling tensions in the Kargil conflict in 1999 and the downing of an Indian aircraft in February 2019.

Following suit with themes of escalation and stability, Syed Adnan Athar Bukhari of the University of Leicester delved into the role that developments in tactical nuclear weapons have played in the strategic relationship between India and Pakistan, hypothesising that counterforce planning and pre-emptive strike capabilities have increased the likelihood of escalation in a future conventional conflict.

Sam Guthrie of Dstl further examined inter-state escalation with an AI-centred approach to strategic issues in the region, highlighting India’s gradual developments in militarily applied artificial intelligence and the risks surrounding premature introduction of AI decision making into India’s nuclear response structure.

Finally, Shounak Set of KCL discussed doctrinal revisions, policy positions and increasingly antagonistic behaviours in the region, each of which may contribute to a broader shift in the future Indian and Pakistani national security architecture. Reflecting upon this panel I was struck by the many instances of dilemma in the South Asian nuclear context, and at the many angles from which it can be approached.

Session Four: Nuclear economies and geographies

The final panel of the day explored the realm of nuclear economies and geographies. Panel chair Jack Gritt, President of Women in Nuclear UK, opened the panel by sparking contemplation on issues regarding diversity within the British nuclear industry, and introduced the work Women in Nuclear UK does to break down barriers and attempting to increase female participation and employment in the sector.

Following this introduction, Geoffrey Chapman of KCL presented a historical overview of the concept of ‘tacit knowledge’ and its importance to the UK’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) in the push towards Polaris ‘hardening’. Refocusing attention towards more civil matters, Stephen Beckett of Rolls Royce discussed the future of UK nuclear energy.

Analysing predicted demands and evaluating the issues associated with construction costs and market values in the industry, Beckett outlined the challenges and potential solutions to Britain’s future nuclear sector.

The final presentation from an emerging scholar came from Thomas Davis of the University of Oxford. His talk argued that the global transition to Generation IV nuclear reactors will bring an increase in Russian influence, due to Russia’s dominance of the nuclear export market.

Despite a slightly less military oriented approach, I found the final panel to be no less intriguing in its analyses. Discussion on the impact that domestic factors, market demands and international politics are having on the world of nuclear, made for a thought provoking conclusion to the day’s events.

This year’s conference revealed to us once again that the complexities of nuclear energy, security, weaponry and strategy are diverse; their implications far reaching and interwoven. Events such as this annual conference play a vital role in renewing interest and attention on the nuclear landscape. What the project as a whole excelled in, this year as it has many others, is in combining the wide-ranging expertise of this multidisciplinary field into an accessible and cross-generational platform, on which ideas and research can be shared and discussed between peers from across industry and academia. As the day’s events ended and casual networking began over drinks and an evening meal, I was surprised to see how even after so many hours of discussion, attendees across the board were still keen to share their ideas, learn from one another and develop their understanding. To one, the quite unshakeable interest of those involved in the conference has much to say about the future of the project and paints an optimistic picture for the continuation of ever-greater and ever-more relevant research.

Listen to Lars-Erik Lundin speaking at UK Project on Nuclear Issues 2019 Annual Conference

Harry Spencer is an undergraduate student in the University of Leicester’s department for politics and international relations. His final year research specialises in conventional and cyber warfare as well as nuclear strategy.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard arrives back at HM Naval Base Clyde, Faslane, Scotland following a patrol.


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