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Could hackers launch a global nuclear war?

I guess you are all aware of the US decision to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Weapons Treaty (INF)? In defense of the decision its clear that the Russians have flouted it for many years.

So, does this make nuclear war more likely, or less? Well, Putin just threatened the US with its new hypersonic weapons if the US puts more weapons in Europe. By coincidence, the Pakistani and Indians have had their latest kerfuffle over yet another attack in Kashmir. That doesn’t sound like progress, right? So in the conventional telling, the withdrawal from the INF makes nuclear war more likely.

As it so happens, I just read Neville Shite’s famous novel On the Beach. This is set in the context of the aftermath of a World War 3, fought with nuclear weapons. All humans die, not from nuclear explosions themselves but from nuclear radiation which eventually covers everywhere on Earth. The war in this case resulted from a series of mistakes, that led to escalating errors by several nuclear countries, notably China and Russia.

The presumption is that nuclear-armed States won’t make mistakes that would start a nuclear war. But what if none of the nuclear State actors really wants to start a nuclear war? Could one occur, nonetheless? I think so.

The conventional case is that terrorists could manage to acquire nuclear materials from one of the ex-Soviet states, or manufacture a bomb the hard way, using bits and pieces picked up on the worlds grey-market for nuclear components. But that’s kind of hard and it would take a long time, comparatively speaking. Who would take that route if there were an easier way? Like hacking into nuclear weapons systems that already exist and possess firepower that a startup nuclear terrorist could neve amass on their own.

It seems to me that the evolution of cyberwarfare is such that the ultimate step is for a non-State party to hack its way into the State systems that supposedly prevent accidental use of nuclear weapons. Think ISIS or one of numerous terrorists or protest groups around the world. Wouldn’t it be easier to hack into thousands of nuclear weapons rather than just make a primitive small one of your own? Which doesn’t have a delivery capacity anyhow?

If hackers can already penetrate tightly guarded systems throughout the world, both civilian and military, what would make us think that the systems guarding nuclear weapons couldn’t be compromised? If you can get into US nuclear reactors, and Iranian centrifuges, why not into the systems surrounding the proverbial Red Button?

And if you really wanted to stir things up, why couldn’t you do this in several nuclear countries simultaneously? And, for good measure, couldn’t you hack into defensive radars to several countries to fake them all out an make them believe that they are under nuclear attack?

I’m sure the military, in both the US and other countries are going to deny that this is remotely possible. But who could be sure? After all, numerous sensitive systems in numerous countries have already been compromised and we civilians don’t know most of the story.

As we speak military sites are being hacked and penetrated all over the world. The good news is that for the most part, most militaries don’t want a nuclear war. Not so for numerous non-State actors though.

Nuclear know-how is widespread these days and quite easy to obtain. But non-State actors don’t need to make anything. All they must do is penetrate existing nuclear and other military systems out there to hack them.

It’s quite likely that there are terrorist and other political groups that could muster the expert human resources to be able to accomplish this. Who would have though that ISIS could take over a large swathe of the Middle Eat? In the wake of their military defeat, wouldn’t it at least be credible that they decide to take a different route to achieving their objectives?

And it doesn’t have to be a group, or even an individual with fanatical political beliefs to launch a nuclear hacking effort. How about some good old-fashioned nihilists? It’s not as if they don’t exist. And what about other groups who just want to make a lot of money and hold countries to ransom with the threat of starting a nuclear war to make politicians bend to their demands? In such a scenario, would politicians fight back, or give in? And if they give in, would that forestall a nuclear conflagration anyway?

It seems to me that this is a very likely threat. It’s the ultimate in asymmetric warfare. When it comes, we will have no warning. We might be lucky, and the hackers just want money and power and will spare us a nuclear Holocaust. But we couldn’t count on that. There’s enough people and groups out there with evil intent to likely make it inevitable.

Time to make sure we’re all protected. Time for a quantum beef-up for our cyber-defenses surrounding nuclear systems

Or maybe for the Great Unwashed to invest in a radioactivity-proof basement instead of that swimming pool you’ve been planning for the kids.

 

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Wednesday, 20 March 2019

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