Nuclear weapons are increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attacks that could have ‘catastrophic’ consequences because of their reliance on new technology, a report warns today.
Online enemies could sabotage control systems and cause Britain or another nuclear-armed state to launch a strike against another country by mistake, the Chatham House think-tank said.
The likelihood of attempted cyber-attacks on nuclear weapons is high and increasing from ‘advanced persistent threats from states and non-state groups’, the report found.
The Chatham House report, which is published today, examines the threats facing the world’s most deadly weapons.
Nuclear weapons are increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attacks that could have ‘catastrophic’ consequences because of their reliance on new technology, a report warns today
A national nuclear arsenal, such as the weapons carried by Britain’s Trident submarines, could be subject to interference, hacking, and sabotage through the use of malware or viruses, it warns.
This could ‘infect digital components of a system at any time’, which the think-tank said could lead to countries launching nuclear weapons by accident.
The report said: ‘At times of heightened tension, cyber-attacks on nuclear weapons systems could cause an escalation, which results in their use.
‘Inadvertent nuclear launches could stem from an unwitting reliance on false information and data.’ It says a compromised system cannot be trusted in decision-making.
It added: ‘With the potential for such catastrophic consequences from a nuclear weapons detonation attack it is crucial to have the most robust nuclear policies in place.’
When nuclear weapons systems were first developed, computer capabilities were in their early stages and little consideration was given to potential malicious cyber-vulnerabilities.
As a result, current nuclear strategy often overlooks the widespread use of digital technology in nuclear systems, it was claimed.
A nuclear arsenal such as the weapons carried by Britain’s Trident submarines (pictured), could be subject to interference, hacking, and sabotage through the use of malware or viruses
The paper’s authors, Dr Beyza Unal and Dr Patricia Lewis, said that although such risks have existed for a long time, new technology has ‘exacerbated’ the threat facing nuclear weapons systems.
They say that with each new digital component embedded in a system, new threat possibilities emerge.
The report adds: ‘Cyber vulnerabilities within nuclear weapons systems and structures present a whole set of danger and risks’.
It said the vulnerability of nuclear weapons systems to hacking would at best undermine trust.
But it added: ‘At worst, cyber-attacks could lead to deliberate misinformation and the inadvertent launch of nuclear weapons.’
The report also raised the prospect of ‘cyber spoofing’, which creates false information that seems to come from a legitimate source but affects a country’s decision-making process.
This could ‘hijack decision-making with potentially devastating consequences’, it found.
The research paper calls for nuclear weapons states to incorporate cyber risk reduction measures in nuclear command, control and communication systems.