So what happens to the aid budget in an "age of austerity"?

Harriet Harman is right to draw our attention to the coalition's approach to development spending.

It wasn't just the NHS budget that the Cameroons pledged to ringfence and protect in opposition, as part of their failed "detoxification" and rebranding of the Conservative Party between 2005 and 2010. The aid budget, we were told, would be protected too - Bono appeared via video link at the Tories' annual conference in 2009 to heap praise on Cameron and co for signing up to the 0.7 per cent pledge.

But let's be honest: the aid budget isn't an issue that tends to be at the top of politicians' or journalists' priority lists. It can be so easily overlooked, forgotten and/or ignored.

So yesterday, in a speech at the London School of Economics, Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, who is also the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, was right to flag up the "fragile" nature of the Conservatives' pledge on international aid and the need for a Labour-led grassroots campaign to keep up pressure on the coalition to deliver for the developing world:

With the Tory Party commitment to the 0.7 per cent being fragile , with the opposition from within their own ranks so virulent, with growing public anger about the effect of the cuts on domestic priorities, alongside a strong public belief that "charity begins at home", no-one should take it for granted that the Tories will inevitably deliver on their pledge. The fact that the two parties of the coalition government and the official opposition all agree on this target should not lull anyone into a false sense of security that its achievement is a foregone conclusion.

So, we cannot simply wait for the pledge to be honoured, we must remake our arguments for it. It is time for "a Keep the 0.7per cent / 2013 promise" campaign. We are launching it next week. I am sure that we can look to young people, the churches, the aid agencies and our diaspora communities to support such a campaign - as they did so much to campaign for the original promise and so strongly backed the actions our government took to increase aid and drop debt.

She went on to make this rather important if depressing observation:

Despite the government's commitment to UK aid reaching 0.7per cent of GNI by 2013, the Spending Review Statement of last October froze the aid budget as a percentage of GNI for the next 2 years.

The cost of this 2 year freeze - instead of continuing the upward trend we established - is £2.2 billion which would otherwise have been available in development aid.

...Abandoning the steady progress towards the 2013 target, instead of building on the progress that was made when we were in government will require a big jump in the aid budget in 2 years time. Following the 2 year aid freeze, to meet their promised target by 2013, they will need to boost the aid budget by 31% in a single year - an increase of approximately £3billion - in 2013.

Does anyone - apart from perhaps Steve Hilton - really believe that's going to happen in the run-up to 2013?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.