At a time when the UK is being considered a potential location for NATO nuclear weapon storage, startling revelations about Chinese espionage over British nuclear installations have sent alarm bells ringing within the country’s security establishment.
Defense officials believe that Beijing spies have been responsible for 18 drone sightings at military sites and power facilities around the UK in just two years, The Mirror reported.
The drone sightings reportedly occurred between 2019 and 2021, however, the military bases’ locations were kept secret for concerns of national security. The revelation comes as intelligence chiefs warned that China is keen on stealing the UK’s most sensitive secrets.
The allegations against China for conducting espionage activities by fielding its drones come a few months after a rare warning issued against it by the UK Spy Agency, MI5.
In January, MI5 warned that a Chinese agent had infiltrated the British Parliament to steal state secrets. However, flying drones over sensitive installations could snowball into a bigger controversy between the two countries.
One nuclear site’s report reads: “Security personnel reported a drone being flown close to a facility,” while another said that the “Drone landed in the area and was airbase secured by security personnel.” A third report read that an “Officer reported seeing a drone flying. No drone located upon further search.”
Under the Freedom of Information Act, The Sunday People obtained information about the drone activity and was informed that “The Chinese have a very mature and sophisticated espionage program running throughout the UK” by the former intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Philip Ingram.
Looks like RAF Lakenheath air base has quietly been added to the list of nuclear weapons storage sites receiving upgrades in Europe.
— Hans Kristensen (@nukestrat) April 11, 2022
Furthermore, this disclosure comes a few days after the US State Department report had indicated that the NATO was poised to include RAF Lakenheath, a facility in the United Kingdom that was seriously being considered to be included in the NATO Nuclear weapon storage facility after an interlude of more than a decade.
The reports of the Chinese flying over the UK’s nuclear installation have the potential of making matters worse between the Chinese and the British governments that already remain at loggerheads.
While the British have accused China of human rights violations in Xinjiang and spy activities in the UK, the Chinese have accused the Brits of spreading misinformation to malign it.
The attention has shifted to nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom after Russia activated its Strategic Nuclear Command as heavy sanctions were imposed on it for the invasion of Ukraine.
Britain is ready to host US nuclear weapons, and Chinese drones in the vicinity of these installations could become a problem for the UK security administration.
The nuclear substation in Faslane, Scotland — the most sensitive military institution in the UK – is one of the places suspected of being spied on. Trident submarines are stationed there, and nuclear weapons are stored in the Royal Naval Armament Depot.
Drone sightings have also been reported at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, Berkshire, which designs and manufactures nuclear bombs. It comes after intelligence leaders warned that China is attempting to steal our most sensitive secrets.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, the United Kingdom possesses 225 nuclear weapons in its arsenal. The number is much lower than the estimated 5,500 owned by the United States and Russia, respectively.
The United Kingdom now stores its nuclear weapons in four different places– the AWE Aldermaston, the AWE Burghfield, the Royal Naval Armament Depot Coulport, and the Faslane Naval Base.
Ministry of Armed Defense Police officers patrols all nuclear weapons sites and power plants. If the bases come under attack, these officers are authorized to shoot to kill.
One intelligence source said that “China is intent on stealing British secrets. There is a network of Chinese spies in the UK and they will use any means necessary to steal classified information.” “We know they have been targeting very sensitive establishments such as military bases and nuclear power stations by using drones.”
Though UK authorities did not specify which Chinese drone was part of the alleged spying effort, China was earlier said to have deployed one of its huge spy drones, the Soar Dragon, to keep an eye on a US Navy cruiser that traveled through the Taiwan Strait in late July 2019.
An armed surveillance drone, the WJ-700 had also been showcased on Chinese state media, with one report claiming that it will be able to work with other unmanned aircraft to conduct reconnaissance and striking operations.
It is seen as a major component of China’s planned “unmanned combat system.” The WJ-500 and the WJ-600 are the other two drones in this family with reconnaissance and ground strike capability.
China’s drone industry has produced various intelligence gathering and combat drones in the last few years that have reportedly been deployed to serve as its eyes and ears. With China’s notorious track record as far as spying is concerned, it has been accused of deploying these drones to carry out espionage by the West on several occasions.
As tensions mount between the UK and China, this could lead to more vigilance and a deteriorating relationship between the two states even as geopolitical configurations are going through a tremendous change with western forces joining forces against Beijing.