For the last 50 years, an outside force has never threatened the United States’ nuclear weapons safety. The United States has always employed large security forces, secure/remote facilities, and strict protocols. However, in recent years, and especially recent months, the U.S. and its allies have come under increased cyber attack. For example, in the summer of 2012, alleged Iranian hackers destroyed 30,000 computers of the Saudi Aramco Company. Chinese hackers have stolen information on important defense projects from defense contractors. The designs include the PAC-3, THAAD, and the Navy’s Aegis ballistic-missile defense system. Also schematics on the F/A-18 fighter jet, the V-22 Osprey, the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship were stolen. If these systems were compromised, how long until the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is compromised? Perhaps it already has been.
Many analysts are worried about the American banking system or the power grids. However, I can’t think of a worse situation than if our nuclear weapons were hacked. A nuclear power plant’s controls could be compromised and next thing we know the US has its own Chernobyl. The US infected the Iranian nuclear industry with a virus called Stuxnet that severely hindered their progress in 2010. Is the US immune to this type of attack? In this age of Internet attacks, any country or group can theoretically attack the United States from a laptop. These recent escalations in Internet attacks should signal world governments that the need for nuclear disarmament is even more imperative. If a terrorist organization can’t build their own device, then they can just use one that already exists by hacking the controls or falsifying reports of an attack. Studies done have shown that the US nuclear arsenal is indeed vulnerable to a cyber attack.
Technology advances at an incredible rate in this age. Defense systems cannot keep up with the evolving capabilities of offensive tools. Simply making the US arsenal no longer fire ready would prevent hackers from firing one of our nuclear warheads. The Cold War is over. Shifting the US’s nuclear arsenal to be able to address the threats of this age is imperative. We do not need to be ready for an impending attack from the USSR. Those days are gone. We must now be wary that our security systems are all vulnerable. We must protect ourselves from our own systems as much as from foreign attackers. Now it seems nuclear weapons and power plants are liabilities. Deterrence will not work in the Internet age.
Brooks Troiani is an intern at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.