There are many ways a nuclear attack could be initiated. These include the four “m’s” 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).
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 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 cyberattacks on an enemy’s nuclear systems, could be labelled as “manipulation.” 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 cyberattack 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.
The Royal Institute of International Affairs in the UK, issued a research paper recently noted, “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 cyberattack. 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 U.S. 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.