New report finds nuclear weapons and related systems are increasingly vulnerable to cyberattack

Dr Andrew Futter has contributed to a new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).

Nuclear weapons and related systems are increasingly vulnerable to sophisticated cyberattacks, and nuclear-armed states must cooperate and accelerate efforts to prevent an attack that could have catastrophic consequences, according to a new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).

Dr Andrew Futter from our School of History, Politics and International Relations, has contributed his expertise to the report, titled ‘Nuclear Weapons in the New CyberAge: A Report of the Cyber-Nuclear Weapons Study Group’.

The report finds that cyber threats to nuclear weapons and related systems — including nuclear planning systems, early warning systems, communication systems, and delivery systems — increase the risk of unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon, increase the risk of nuclear use as a result of false warnings, and could undermine confidence in the nuclear deterrent. 

This is because the speed, stealth, unpredictability, and challenges of attribution of any particular cyberattack make it increasingly difficult to anticipate, deter, and defend against all cyber threats.

Dr Futter said: “The cyber threat to nuclear weapons is an international problem and will require concerted global engagement. A cyberattack that either causes a nuclear launch or explosion, or precipitates, exacerbates, and deepens a nuclear crisis is something that everyone has an interest in preventing. The most pressing challenge is therefore to bring together nuclear-armed states and seek agreement on preventing the most dangerous dynamics presented by the new cyber threat.” 

The Study Group analysed four plausible scenarios that illustrate the implications of the cyber threat to nuclear weapons. Using the scenarios as a framework for discussion and debate, NTI, with input from the Study Group, recommends that governments work to mitigate the threat by:

  • Developing options to increase decision time to account for threats to early warning systems
  • Establishing norms to restrict cyber weapons use against nuclear weapons systems
  • Enhancing survivability and resilience of nuclear systems and command, control, and communications systems
  • Securing and diversifying critical systems
  • Prioritizing addressing cyber risks in modernization plans
  • Maintaining a cadre of experts
  • Enhancing security of nuclear weapons, and reviewing the vulnerabilities of nuclear weapons to combined physical and cyber attacks
  • Initiating bilateral dialogue with Russia
  • Increasing international cooperation to reduce the cyber threat
Read the NTI news item on the report