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A Spot of Serious Collateral Damage?

Summary: The war of words between the US and North Korea could easily spill over into military action. A full global conflagration is relatively unlikely. What is much more possible would be a limited strike by the US against North Korea followed by a tit-for-tat response by North Korea against South Korea. This could seriously damage the supply of computer memory chips which are critical for a vast range of digital equipment. That would have a major effect on the world economy and should not be underestimated in its importance.

The Korean War started in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea. The UN with the US as the principal force came to the aid of South Korea while China and the Soviet Union backed North Korea. In 1953 an armistice was signed creating the Korean demilitarised zone (DMZ) to separate North and South Korea but no peace treaty was ever signed and technically the two Koreas are still at war.

With the election of Donald Trump and the increasingly bellicose pronouncements from the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, worldwide concern has increased. There is a worry that this might lead to a global conflagration. I believe that these concerns are exaggerated.

The recent military parade in Pyongyang showed intercontinental ballistic missiles that were subsequently shown to be wooden models. They have, however, demonstrated long-range missiles successfully and so there undoubtedly will be growing concern within the US. The North Korean regime has exploded nuclear devices but so far these have not been particularly powerful or impressive. They are probably some way away from developing viable nuclear weapons rather than experimental explosions.  Although missiles have been launched, many have not performed properly and those that have are limited in range.

Nevertheless, the American Administration is undoubtedly concerned about the prospect of North Korea being able to attack the US. What is much more likely than an all-out war is some much more limited military action by the US intended to hinder substantially North Korean military progress. That in turn would not lead to a nuclear response from North Korea (if only because that response is not something they could give now).

Much more likely would be a more limited attack on South Korea since US assets are largely unreachable by North Korea’s weaponry. Within easy reach of the DMZ is the heartland of South Korea’s technological explosion. Such an attack could have a major effect on the South Korean economy. It would also have a devastating effect on the world.

When viewed from right-wing US perspective that might be dismissed as being too bad. South Korea is a long way away and they should be able to stand up to themselves. Who cares if a number of foreigners in a distant country are killed? The US is able to brush that aside remarkably easily throughout the Middle East. But if there was even limited military action by North Korea against South Korea it could have a devastating effect on a major part of the world economy which depends on South Korea for critical electronic components.

One type of memory semiconductor known as dynamic random-access memory (DRAMs) is critical for cell phones, desktop computers, global positioning systems (GPS), smart phones, tablets as well as a wide range of consumer electronics such as digital cameras, set-top boxes, smart TVs etc. They are also key components in networking devices.

Without these memory chips it would simply stop being possible to manufacture almost any of the above devices that we depend on so much today.  About 75% of the DRAMs manufactured worldwide are made in South Korea and most of those within 100 km of the heavily armed DMZ. The two biggest companies that make these devices are Samsung and  SK Hynix. Both are based near Seoul. South Korea is the second largest global semiconductor manufacturer and, in memory chips completely dominates the supply.

The manufacture of these critical devices is a particularly tricky business requiring extraordinarily expensive fabrication plants. Recent estimates of the typical capital expenditure needed for a new fab facility are in the range of $4 billion-$10 billion depending on the type of memory to be manufactured. Any damage to such a facility would be extremely expensive to repair but above all would take a very long time to undertake as the manufacture of the machines needed is a particularly difficult process in itself. Delivery times on new fab facilities are measured in years.

The conditions needed for the manufacture of state-of-the-art memory components are also very demanding. A single speck of dust can completely destroy a device and any chemical contamination can bring the entire production facility to a halt. An attack by North Korea using conventional weapons even if they do not directly hit a semiconductor manufacturing facility could easily produce enough ground percussion to dislodge dust in the vicinity of the fab line. They would have to be closed immediately and fully checked and, if necessary,  decontaminated before restarting even if they experienced no direct damage.

However, if the memory manufacturing facilities around Seoul are affected in any way then a major part of the world’s supplies of memory devices could be halted for a significant length of time. The manufacture of new mobile phones, computers, Internet storage devices and systems etc. would come to a halt no matter where those units were manufactured. If there are no memory chips then none of them can be made. If the memory supply dries up the effect on our modern economy would be relatively rapid and very severe.

A few years ago semiconductor production in Thailand was affected by flooding and that caused a significant shortage of disk drives used for bulk storage in computer systems. Eventually that got back online. Anything like this happening in South Korea to the DRAM supply would be much harder on the world economy. It would be an easy hit for North Korea, not likely to produce a much more intense reaction from the West and therefore very tempting for the North Korean leader who seems to believe his own extraordinary rhetoric.

Can Jeremy Corbyn Walk Upon the Water?

Summary: There is a big potential danger in the levels of confidence exuded by the Labour Party these days. Labour must be very careful making statements that might alienate their core supporters and particularly the young activists who were so key to the recent electoral success. Jeremy Corbyn’s inflexible statements to Andrew Marr yesterday that we WILL leave the European Union and WILL NOT stay in the single market appeared to set out Labour’s red lines on Brexit. Labour has done well in being ambiguous and nuanced about its position on Brexit and it really must maintain that.

There is a great deal of optimism and confidence in the Labour Party following their near-win at the last election. The danger is over-confidence. We must remember that the Tories will regroup, they will come up with policies that are much more moderate particularly when they change their leader. That change is likely to come relatively soon.

We can be confident that the right-wing media will continue their overt and intentional distortion of reality to support the Tories as well as an extreme form of Brexit. Only today (24 July 2017) the Daily Mail and others castigated Jeremy Corbyn for reneging on his promise to cancel all current student debt. That is something he never did. But he did say he would sort it out.

We should be under no illusions that the next election battle will be tough. Labour made very effective use of the burgeoning younger membership of the party who understood social media so much better than the Tories. Next time round the Tories will no doubt make a better fist of things given the resources they have. In the meantime it is critical that Labour does nothing to alienate their young activists. The younger generations are generally very pro-Europe, pro-Remain.

This means that Labour and Jeremy Corbyn really must avoid unnecessarily rigid, inflexible statements about Labour’s policy on Europe and Brexit. Yesterday, in interview with Andrew Marr, Jeremy Corbyn restated that we would definitely be leaving the European Union, and definitely leaving the single market. He wanted close relationships with both but he seemed to exclude completely some of the much closer relationships that will be examined increasingly as the current Brexit negotiations unscramble.

Once Labour leads a government it will become responsible for the Brexit negotiations. There will be a great deal of goodwill from the European side given the extraordinarily incompetent way that the Tories have managed the business of negotiating Brexit so far. Many European countries would welcome changes within the EU and a pragmatic and thoughtful Labour-driven Brexit discussions may well be able to help articulating changes that would be more popular than simply providing for an adequate Brexit. Keeping that flexibility alive now will be very important in the future.

Maintaining that flexibility will also undoubtedly improve Labour’s appeal to its many young activists. These activists must be kept energised and enthusiastic right up to beyond the next election. They must not be taken for granted or be marginalised because of the overconfidence that seems to be rampant within the Labour Party today. It seems unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn can, in fact, walk upon the water.

Fallon’s Folly

Operations room in HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Summary: The computer hardware, software and infrastructure on Britain’s latest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth is quite inappropriate and completely out of date already. It is another example of just how wasteful the Ministry of Defence is in purchasing armaments to fight the last war, remaining blissfully unaware that warfare in the 21st-century will be very different. Aircraft carriers and other capital ships will survive for the shortest amount of time given modern anti-ship weapon systems. The fact that our aircraft carriers will be so out of date technically before they even enter service is very concerning.

The pride of the British Navy has just sailed out from Rosyth dockyard in Scotland. Like so many of the MoD procurement programmes , this spanking new aircraft carrier is already greatly flawed and largely inappropriate for the 21st-century. You can read more about this here: What we really should be doing now to make us safe in the future has been discussed here:  However this piece is principally about the on-board computer hardware and software and the way it is worryingly insecure.

Our Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, is very bullish about his lovely new aircraft carrier but many experts have been surprised to discover that it is using Windows XP as an operating system on some of the on-board computers.

Windows XP was released in 2001 and by the time that HMS Queen Elizabeth is in service Windows XP will be 20 years old. Mr Fallon assures us that it is a very secure system and one might be forgiven for thinking that because it is on board a ship it will be very easy to protect. Sadly that completely misunderstands where cyber insecurity comes from. It is seldom from hardware, much more often a consequence of what has been done by real people.

Windows XP works fine and is even reasonably fast for many operations. Michael Fallon probably understands computer security being that outside cyber attacks will be blocked. It may indeed not be easy to hack into the system from outside but of course there are to be 1600 individuals on board.

Each of them may well have been security vetted but what has happened to them since that vetting? Has any of them got into some kind of trouble, debt or perhaps having an affair outside marriage? Surely these are the sort of things that could lead to an individual being blackmailed into compromising security on board.

All we need is an agent of a potential enemy to find one of the 1600 servicemen on board who can be “persuaded” just pop something into the computer for a moment. No visible damage will be done, no clues will be left.

The worst sort of cyber attacks are not the ones that have brought down the National Health Service in recent weeks (also because they were using Windows XP-based computers). The much more worrying cyber attacks come from the Stuxnet type computer worm. These are injected into a computer and sit quietly, in principle for years, before they are activated. All they do is replace a small piece of operating system code which may be activated on a specific date or when certain events happen such as loading a live guided missile into its launching tube.

All one needs to do is to place into a computer port a simple, apparently innocuous variant on the USB stick that most of us have. The picture above shows computers with their USB ports visible. Anybody with any degree of access to that area could carry this out. Modern operating systems like Windows 10 have very substantial capacity to block unauthorised USB-type hardware and that is why it is so important for most organisations to get rid of Windows XP as a matter of urgency. It would only take a minute for the necessary software to be downloaded into the machine and embed itself invisibly for future use.

At some time in the future that downloaded malicious virus can be activated which could cause the ship simply to stop, or to sail at full speed in a circle or in reverse. Or it could be driven onto the rocks not much can be done about it.

The Ministry of Defence’s claimed that the software systems in HMS Queen Elizabeth are fully protected is simply preposterous. The final worrying statement is that there will be a computer refit within a decade implies that hardware and software will be nearly a quarter of a century old. Does anybody remember just how dreadful and slow computer hardware was 25 years ago? This wouldn’t be Windows XP or Windows 95 but equivalent to us running Windows 3.1 today. The MoD should be planning a computer refit right now to bring the hardware and the software up-to-date. Computer technology is advancing at an ever increasing speed. The difference between Windows XP and the latest software in 10 years time will be like night and day.

Attempting to upgrade systems after such a long period of time is anyway very difficult and likely to be expensive. Hardware becomes incompatible and software very difficult to maintain because old languages and operating system commands are no longer being developed and maintained. The amount of effort will be substantial particularly as the key hardware is that which connects the computers to the various systems on board. Even getting hardware compatibility starts to become a real problem.

Today, 17 July 2017, it is revealed that the data networks within the carrier are also very slow, and are capable of running at only 8 Mb a second. We must remember that modern weapon systems generate very large amounts of data because it takes a lot of data to describe a rapidly changing battle environment. And don’t forget that 8 MB/sec is not available for everyone simultaneously. In reality it is available for one task at one moment and another task has to wait until data bandwidth is available. 8 MB per second is barely fast enough to watch a DVD and yet a £3 billion aircraft carrier has got to make do with that! This is and inadequate speed for a cottage in the Lake District or North Norfolk but not in a state-of-the-art fighting machine for the 21st-century

Domestic bandwidths are these days up to 300 Mb per second. Gigabit bandwidth is now commonplace in commercial environments in the UK and overseas. The report in today’s Times newspaper explains that the obscenely expensive jets that are being purchased for the UK simply cannot communicate data back to other aircraft and to the surface support ships adequately without revealing the position of those jets.

Sadly this is another example of massive procurement incompetence at the Ministry of Defence. Vast sums of money are being wasted on things simply couldn’t survive a 21st-century war and are therefore an extraordinary waste of money.


Dealing with the Brexit Fraud.

It doesn’t matter how Brexiteers spin things. We were lied to in order to achieve a very marginal result.

I was unsure about buying a new TV, but told it would pick up all the channels in beautiful full-colour. However I found it wouldn’t get any BBC channels and the picture was black-and-white. The shop said they hoped all these channels would work and in colour but these weren’t guarantees, only aspirations. They said that I had to live with it because that was what I had chosen.

This is what the Leave campaign want us to accept about the Brexit referendum result. We now know most of their promises were what we used to call “lies”. However they claim this is the “Democratic Will of the People”, despite all their lies.

For anything else I might buy this would simply be illegal and probably fraud. As a minimum we need to guarantee a rerun of the referendum once we know what sort of deal has been arranged. Nothing less will do.

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