PONI Debates the Issues Blog

Protecting Our Nuclear Weapons in Cyber Warfare

(Upperclass Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy have the opportunity to spend one of their summer sessions in Cyber 256, Basic Cyber Operations, a course that rounds out the training regimen designed to fit the Air Force mission of fighting in air, space, and cyberspace.)

Throughout history, people have waged war to further agendas in an ever-changing struggle for power. From ancient sword battles to modern drone strikes, this endeavor evolves as technology rapidly advances. The production of military vehicles, aircraft, submarines, and usage of electronics and telecommunications have all expanded the battle space and introduced creative ways to gain advantages over adversaries. Just as the innovation of flight incited a race to dominate the skies, the emergence of cyberspace has opened strategic possibilities and threats, causing a scramble to secure a dominant position in a new realm.

Cyber warfare has been defined as a combination of computer network attacks, defense, and special technical operations. Recent media coverage of cyber warfare has only increased public awareness that cyberspace is becoming a field of warfare, and governments are fully aware of the need to act in response to cyberspace threats. Former U.S. President Barack Obama declared America’s digital infrastructure a strategic national asset, and formed CYBERCOM, a division inside the Pentagon tasked to “perform full spectrum operations”. In the United Kingdom, government officials have warned about the lack of preparation for cyber warfare and have announced new investments to bolster defense, such as the National Cyber Security Program. NATO also raised awareness, releasing the Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare to advise nations on how to operate legally in this domain.

Research on protecting the U.S. nuclear stockpile is essential to solving the emerging issues raised by the potential for war in cyberspace. Can a foreign agent launch another country’s missiles against a third party? Could a launch be set off by false early warning information that was corrupted by hackers? The lack of clarity on such monumental questions should be alarming given that the president has limited time to decide how to respond to a nuclear attack. There will always be some doubt about our cyber vulnerabilities, but the United States needs to show adequate control over its supply chain of nuclear components, from design and manufacturing, to maintenance and operations

A cavalier approach to cyber security will not be sufficient to secure the nation from an attack on U.S. nuclear infrastructure.  The United States should conduct a comprehensive examination of cyber threats to develop a remediation plan of how to solve potential problems, and establish next steps to defend against in cyber warfare. Understanding potential consequences, such as weakening another nation’s safeguards against unauthorized launching, should also be taken into consideration. Cyber warfare risks may lead to nuclear catastrophes, and it is in the best interests of the United States to continue securing its stockpile and improving control over the nuclear supply chain.

David Etim is a Federal Program Manager with the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Office of Advanced Simulation and Computing and Institutional Research & Development. He is also pursuing a doctoral degree as a part-time student in computer science and engineering at the University of Connecticut. David recently received his Master of Science degree in the same field and institution. He also has a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science, with a minor in applied mathematics, from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University.

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The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues. The content of this web site does not constitute an endorsement by or opinion of the Department of Defense or any sponsor of the Project on Nuclear Issues.