Defending Wales I: What does Wales need defending from?

(Title Image: Daily Post)

In 2012 I wrote a series of five posts on defence with regard independence, and they remained amongst my most popular.

One of the mistakes I made – something that was bound to happen when exploring issues as complicated and inter-related as this – is that I “put the cart before the horse” in writing posts on defence policy before considering foreign policy.

It was a long time coming, but now that I’ve considered foreign policy, it’s time to return to defence and reframe it with a better idea of how it could fit.

What might a Welsh army, navy and air force look like? Is it as silly as it sounds? Would they be of any use? How much might Wales spend on defence? Do we even need a military? How could Wales balance national security with civil liberties? How would we recruit people to the armed forces? How would we continue to remember our war dead?

These are some of the questions that will, hopefully, be answered over the coming few weeks – but remember this is just my perspective and I’m sure many of you will have your own ideas.

I start off by trying to answer the very question in the title: What does Wales need defending from? That can be boiled down more bluntly to: What can kill us?

A National Risk Assessment

The first task in determining a Welsh defence policy is to draw up a list of threats so we know what we need to be defended from.

There’s already some significant work done on this. The UK Government maintains a National Risk Register (2015 – pdf), while Wales Resilience (a Welsh Civil Contingencies Committee – Part VIII) maintains four regional risk registers.

In all cases, the risk registers list a number of threats and rank them based on the plausibility that they might happen in the next five years versus the potential damage they might do. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’ll draw up a list of potential threats that Wales needs defending from in three broad-sweep categories.

National Security Threats (Part VII)

These require a coordinated military and internal security (i.e. police, intelligence services) response. They include malicious threats which are deliberately intended to cause harm to the state, endanger life, involve criminal elements or could be considered acts of war.

Terrorism – Usually defined as the use of violence to force political or social change. It ranges from various “lone-wolf plots” – such as Anders Brevik in Norway or the 2016 Nice attack – to more organised terrorism deliberately concocted to cause mass casualties, such as the 9/11 or 7/7 attacks. Wales is unlikely to be a target for a terror attack, but there have been terror plots foiled in Wales, while Wales has been used as a training base for would-be terrorists. Wales also has several potential targets (usually crowded public places), such as the Millennium Stadium, major transport interchanges, shopping centres and industrial complexes.

At present, a terror attack is likely to come from Islamists or the far-right, but there’s always the possibility of attacks from dissident Irish paramilitaries, the far-left or direct-action animal rights campaigns.

The idea though that there’s some sort of coordinated underground terrorist network (particularly in the case of Islamists) is far-fetched; they’re more likely to be a very small number of marginalised men in failed states and divided communities who are brainwashed into carrying out attacks.

As a political ideology Islamism has already failed and the only thing they have left is violence. In the grand scheme of things, they’re nothing more than a nuisance – especially when compared to the likes of the IRA or rogue states. It’s the fear of terrorism that’s the real danger because scared people make big mistakes. So any Welsh counter-terrorism strategy has to address the fear of terrorism as much as stopping plots.

Cyber-Attacks – An increasingly serious threat, brought about by coordinated hacking, whether by individuals or even state-sponsored specialists. With so much of our lives now wrapped around computers and the internet we’re all at risk as individuals (phishing, data breaches etc.) right up to the state itself; if there were a coordinated attack on the National Grid or transport controls it could cause chaos.

Breakdown in Key Infrastructure – This includes:

  • Interruption to water supplies.
  • Interruption to oil supplies – Either due to price hikes or production clampdowns (such as the 1973 oil crisis), strikes (like the 2000 fuel protests) or an accident (such as the Pembrokeshire oil refinery fires of 1994 and 2011).
  • Brownout – When power supplies don’t meet demand due to generating restrictions or lack of generating capacity. The UK is at real risk of this due to a lack of long-term energy planning.
  • Blackout – Power supplies are completely disrupted, either accidentally or deliberately.

Serious & Organised Crime – It’s not as prevalent in Wales as other parts of the UK or Europe, but it’s still there, whether it’s drug trafficking, people trafficking/modern slavery or other organised criminal activity up to and including famous gangsters and rackets such as the Sicilian Mafia, Carmarthenshire Council, Yardies and Triads.

Civil Disorder – Wales escaped the worst of the most serious recent rioting in August 2011, but that’s no reason for complacency. Serious and long-running strikes could be considered a form of civil disorder, while some protests against controversial issues have attracted violence before. The last large-scale riot in Wales was in Wrexham’s Caia Park district in 2003 due to tensions between Kurdish immigrants and locals.

Subversion/Political Extremism – This doesn’t just mean the “far-left” and “far-right”, but anyone actively planning to violently overthrow the state or undermine national security. Even this site will – inevitably – have attracted some attention of the security services as secessionist movements usually count as “subversive”. To be frank, if the UK security services didn’t have at least a minor presence or informers within fringe political groups they’re not doing their job properly. This will, of course, include religious extremists and death cults, which are more likely to be a violent threat.

Refugee Crises – Large movements of people almost always results in trouble. The vast majority of refugees will be peaceful, but there’ll be a few bad eggs amongst them like any other population group. Not taking planning seriously or failing to carefully monitor the background of refugees is naïve and dangerous, no matter what the circumstances are of those fleeing.

Aerial and Naval “Buzzing” – A standard tactic of the Russian military in Europe, whereby long-range bombers, submarines and frigates stray within a nation’s “area of interest” without directly violating territorial airspace or waters in order to test (usually NATO) defences. Wales could be a tempting target for this as a backdoor into England. It’s more an annoyance than a genuine threat (at present) but it needs a response.

Armed Conflict/Geopolitical Instability – Whether close to home or abroad, if Wales is involved in an armed conflict or if a serious one starts in Europe, it brings with it a certain level of danger to the population. It might result in a direct attack on Welsh soil, an attack on Welsh interests abroad (such as an embassy), endanger Welsh citizens living abroad, lead to public protests and increases the risk of terrorism.

Non-Security Threats

hese include threats which aren’t related to security but could in themselves result in danger to life, property or national security.

Flooding and Coastal Erosion – Probably the number one threat to Wales, natural or man-made. Natural Resources Wales have their own flood risk map to notify the public when river or coastal flooding is threatened. Although Wales has the sort of geology and topography that can cope with reasonable amounts of rain, some parts are prone to serious flooding, like the Conwy Valley and area around Machynlleth. A recent Wales Audit Office report suggests more than 200,000 Welsh homes are at risk from floods.

Extreme Weather Events – Ranging from high-winds and heavy snow to heatwaves and drought. The only real defence here is proper warnings (Independence Minutiae: Weather Forecasting). The UK also experiences the highest proportion of tornadoes per square kilometre of any nation on Earth. They rarely reach the intensity of those in the United States though occasionally they do so, like the 2004 Birmingham tornado, or the 1913 Edwardsville tornado in the Rhondda, which killed 6 people. As a result of climate change, Atlantic storms are likely to get stronger and occur more regularly.

Multi-Casualty Accidents – Serious multi-casualty accidents – pile-ups, explosions, plane crashes, train crashes – are very rare in Wales, but trans-Atlantic flights routinely pass over the country and we have some of the most dangerous stretches of road in Great Britain. The emergency services already have plans for such events as part of their civil contingency responsibilities.

Agricultural Disease – With 80% of Welsh land devoted to farming – particularly livestock – agricultural diseases can devastate local communities and the rural economy, as demonstrated during the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic. Rabies has been eradicated from Great Britain, but there are occasional outbreaks of other diseases like blue tongue and, at present, an epidemic of ash die back and larch disease in Welsh forests. Effective containment procedures can help.

Human Epidemics and Pandemics – An epidemic is where a disease quickly spreads amongst a population in a certain area – like the 2013 measles outbreak in Swansea Bay. Pandemics happen globally and are usually declared as such by the World Health Organisation. There are particular concerns about flu pandemics due to new mutations in the flu virus, while the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance could see diseases like the bubonic plague make a comeback – it’s probably the most serious public health crisis we’re likely to experience in the future, more so than obesity.

Poor Air Quality – A dangerous build up of gases like nitrogen dioxide can seriously aggravate respiratory illnesses and lead to excess deaths, much like a heatwave. Effective pollution controls minimise the risk. There’s also the problem of volcanic ash (the closest threat being Iceland), which can interfere with air traffic, as demonstrated by the Eyjafjallajokull eruption of 2010, which grounded air traffic in northern Europe for the best part of a week.

Maritime Accidents – Wales is an important crossing point between the Republic of Ireland and the rest of Europe, while we have several sizable ports with the potential for oil spills (such as the 1996 Sea Empress disaster). Sea fishing is, statistically, one of the most dangerous jobs around and even though the Welsh fishing industry has shrunk, the sea continues to claim lives. The responsibility for responding to incidents at sea primarily falls on the RNLI, RAF and Coastguard.

Chemical, Biological or Nuclear Accidents – Wales is still home to heavy industry, particularly steel-making and chemical refining. It’s been shown time and time again, most recently last November, that heavy industries are – even when the best safety measures are put in place – considerably dangerous due to the high temperatures and chemicals involved. A Fukushima-style disaster at Wylfa would require the evacuation of 80-90% of the island, while a similar disaster at Hinkley Point could render most of south Wales uninhabitable for several years and result in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

Space Weather Event – Solar flares can range from the relatively harmless (A-class) to potentially devastating (X-class). The former will result in the “northern lights” being visible over most of Europe, the latter could take out electrical equipment on the ground and damage communication satellites.

Atlantic Ocean Tsunami – There are earthquake-prone areas which could send a tsunami across the Atlantic. They’re rare because the subduction zones that generate the force needed to cause an earthquake like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami aren’t there, so the danger comes from underwater landslides. There are specific concerns a serious landslide at Cumbre Vieja on the Canary Islands could cause a trans-Atlantic tsunami, while there are claims the 1607 Bristol Channel floods could’ve been the result of a tsunami too. A repeat in the 21st Century would be catastrophic as it would seriously damage pretty much all of the major southern coastal cities in Wales and likely impact Hinkley Point nuclear power station.

Existential Threats

Existential threats endanger the survival of Wales as a state and, more than likely, threaten humanity generally….no, seriously.

A Direct Military Attack – 1282 all over again. This is one of the few existential military threats an independent Wales could face and, to be honest, the odds of it happening are so distant it’s barely worth contemplating.

  • Firstly, Wales would have to hold some sort of strategic value to an invading power – it doesn’t. We don’t have much in the way of transferable assets like oil, we’re in a sheltered part of the north Atlantic, we’re part of both the Anglosphere and American sphere of influence and are protected by the principle of democratic peace. That’s about as safe as it gets these days, despite future uncertainty surrounding EU withdrawal, the current rise in populist right-wing nationalism and Islamist terrorism.
  • Secondly, the only realistic invasion route is to move east-west along the major roads – so England would either be the conqueror or conquered anyway. There are very few coastal areas suitable for a large amphibious landing and an airborne invasion would be logistically difficult in Wales due to, ironically, poor communications between north and south – forces would have to be split.
  • Thirdly, an invading force (other than England) would have to have the resources to potentially invade and occupy all of Britain and Ireland then hold it indefinitely; realistically only the United States could do that – not going to happen because of points one and two.

There’s no reason to be complacent, and I’ll return to how to defend Wales on land in Part IV, but it would take the second coming of Hitler or Napoleon and neither of them could manage it.

Runaway Climate Change & Ecosystem Destruction – We’re already living in what’s being described scientifically as the Anthropocene extinction event as humans now impact nature just as much as nature impacts humans. Some species – the giant panda for example – should’ve already gone extinct through natural selection, but are being kept extant through conservation efforts and because they’re photogenic. However, it’s fairly likely that within the lifetime of everyone reading this, some species of mountain gorilla, tiger, orangutans, rhinos and whales will go extinct. By destroying their habitats we’re destroying our own. Although combating this is supposed to be a key plank of “sustainable development”, it’s become something of a meaningless buzzword due to its overuse by politicians and public bodies.

Nuclear War – We’ve come close to this a few times in the past and, although the odds of it happening have receded, the weapons are still there. An independent Wales is unlikely to be high up the list of targets for a first strike, but even then nuclear attacks under the “mutually assured destruction” doctrine tend to target any area of industry or population; you’ve got to assume Cardiff, Swansea, Deeside, Milford Haven and Port Talbot would be on the list, while Wales would be the number one destination for people fleeing populated areas in England. Even if Wales got off lightly there would be little left to rule over and retaliation would be nothing more than a token gesture of defiance.

Caldera Eruption – If a supervolcano erupted, the amount of ash it releases could block out the sun and reduce global temperatures to such an extent that arable food production would grind to a halt, perhaps for several years. Yellowstone in the mid-western United States is overdue an eruption and is the one everyone’s concerned about, but there are super volcanoes closer to home – notably Laki in Iceland which caused a “mini ice age” in 18th Century Europe (and could’ve played a part in instigating the French Revolution) plus the Mount Tambora eruption doing something similar in the 19th Century.

Impact Event – A meteor, comet, asteroid or even large piece of space junk hitting Earth. The damage it would do depends on the size, speed and consistency of the object, but it could range from nothing more than a small crater to the destruction of a city, even a mass extinction. I’m not one of these people who’ll go out with a sandwich board saying “The End is Nigh”, but the Chelyabinsk impact event in 2013 should serve as a wake-up call. Our ability to monitor “near Earth objects” has improved, and Wales is playing a part in that with a monitoring base (Spaceguard) in Powys. Despite these efforts, some potentially dangerous objects have only been discovered days before they’ve passed by Earth….

Sleep well.


As you can tell from the list, many threats to the well-being and safety of the people of Wales don’t require a military response – not even domestic terrorism, which can be just as effectively dealt with by a well-resourced police and security service.

It underlines that defence policy is as much about foreign policy as it is about “defending the country”. Wales doesn’t need “defending” in a rigid, last man standing sense. What we do need above all is protection from unexpected events and natural hazards, with a strategy set in some sort of plan so we’re not caught completely unawares. One long-term solution to dealing with disruption to oil supplies, for example, will be to encourage switching to alternative vehicle fuels – which would have to be led by government and industry.

British defence policy is ill-suited to Welsh defence needs, with attentions focused on aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons to maintain the UK’s global power projection and meet NATO obligations, while local authorities often seem discouraged from calling for military aid when they really need it. Despite the billions that go into UK defences each year, everyone reading this is more like to be killed by high winds, flooding or in a road accident than by an act of terrorism or air raid.

Wales will never be a global power, but we don’t really need to be or dragged into conflicts for the sake of bolstering the British establishment’s self-esteem. Neither does it mean we can’t have a defence policy that accurately predicts and reacts to the effects of natural and man-made disasters at home, whilst playing a constructive role overseas to support our foreign policy (Wales & The World VII: Foreign Policy & Defence).

Part II asks the next important question: What should the Welsh military role be?