Hacking Nuclear Weapon Systems: A New Weakness in Nuclear Deterrence Theory


David Krieger | Nuclear Age Peace Foundation – TRANSCEND Media Service

There are many ways a nuclear attack could be initiated.  These include the four “Ms” of Malice, Madness, Mistake and Miscalculation. Of these ways of initiating a nuclear attack, only malice could possibly be inhibited by nuclear deterrence (fear of nuclear retaliation), and such an inhibition from attack would not be reliable due to psychological and communication issues that are required for nuclear deterrence to be effective. For example, if a leader doesn’t believe that nuclear retaliation will occur, he or she may not be inhibited from attacking and nuclear deterrence will not be effective.

Madness, Mistake and Miscalculation all operate independently of nuclear deterrence. These pose great concern for the human future. An insane or suicidal leader could launch his or her nuclear arsenal without concern for retaliation. A mistake, as has often occurred with nuclear weapons, could also lead to the launch of a nuclear arsenal without concern for retaliation. Likewise, miscalculation of the intent of a nuclear-armed country could lead to a nuclear launch without concern for retaliation.

A new, and possibly even greater, concern is coming over the horizon. That concern, related to cyber-attacks on an enemy’s nuclear systems, could be labelled as Manipulation to create five “Ms” of nuclear attack initiation. It is emerging due to the growing sophistication of hackers penetrating cyber-security walls in general. It would be disastrous if hackers were able to penetrate the walls protecting nuclear arsenals.

Imagine a cyber-attack on a nuclear weapons system that allowed an outside party to launch a country’s nuclear arsenal or a portion of it at another country. This could occur by an outside party, working with or independently of a state, hacking into and activating the launch codes for a country’s nuclear arsenal. Can we be sure that this could not happen to any of the nine current nuclear-armed countries? It would pose a particular danger to those nuclear-armed countries that keep their nuclear arsenals on high-alert status, ready to be fired on extremely short notice, often within minutes of a launch order.

Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs in the UK, issued a research paper earlier this year, “Cybersecurity of Nuclear Weapons Systems: Threats, Vulnerabilities and Consequences.” The authors found, “The likelihood of attempted cyber-attacks on nuclear weapons systems is relatively high and increasing from advanced persistent threats from state and non-state groups. As an example of what is possible, the US is reported to have infiltrated parts of North Korea’s missile systems and caused test failures. Recent cases of cyber-attacks indicate that nuclear weapons systems could also be subject to interference, hacking, and sabotage through the use of malware or viruses, which could infect digital components of a system at any time. Minuteman silos, for example, are believed to be particularly vulnerable to cyber-attacks.”

Even if eight of the nine nuclear-armed countries had adequate cybersecurity, the weakest link could potentially have vulnerabilities that would allow for a cyber-attack. It is also probable that new means of penetrating cybersecurity will be developed in the future. It is within the realm of imagination that terrorist groups could have skillsets that would allow them to breach the cybersecurity of one or more nuclear-armed countries, and set in motion a nuclear attack with highly threatening and dangerous consequences.

The gaps in nuclear deterrence theory cannot be filled by throwing money at them, or with more new missiles with larger or smaller warheads. The problem with nuclear deterrence is that it cannot be made effective, and the potential for breaching the cybersecurity of nuclear arsenals only adds to the vulnerabilities and dangers.

The only meaningful response to nuclear weapons is to stigmatize, delegitimize, and ban them.  This is exactly what the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons seeks to accomplish. This treaty deserves the full support of the world community. As of now, however, it is only receiving the support of the countries without nuclear arms, and is being opposed by the countries possessing nuclear arms and those sheltering under the US nuclear umbrella. This must change, for the benefit of all the world’s people and especially the citizens of the nuclear-armed countries who would likely be the first victims of a nuclear attack.


David Krieger, Ph.D. is founder and president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. Amongst several of his wide-spanning leadership endeavors in global peacebuilding, he is a founder and a member of the Global Council of Abolition 2000, councilor on the World Future Council, and is the chair of the Executive Committee of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility. He has a BA in Psychology and holds MA and Ph.D. degrees in Political Science from the University of Hawaii as well as a J.D. from the Santa Barbara College of Law; he served for 20 years as a judge pro tem for the Santa Barbara Municipal and Superior Courts. Dr. Krieger is the author of many books and studies of peace in the Nuclear Age. He has written or edited more than 20 books and hundreds of articles and book chapters. He is a recipient of several awards and honors, including the OMNI Center for Peace, Justice and Ecology Peace Writing Award for Poetry (2010). He has a new collection of poems entitled Wake Up.  For more visit the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation website: www.wagingpeace.org.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 Dec 2018.

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