Commentary | 5 February 2016

Is Trident safe from cyber attack?

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Dr Andrew Futter |Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester

Cyber Nuclear Weapons United Kingdom Global Security

Last year, former UK Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, warned that UK nuclear weapons could “be rendered obsolete by hackers”, and that without a comprehensive assessment of this risk to the Trident system, a future Prime Minister may not be certain they had a “reliable deterrent” that could be used when needed.

Lord Browne’s comments, which were based on personal experience and a 2013 report from the US Defense Science Board, have been met with a diverse reception; for some the Trident system is inherently safe from hackers because it is “air-gapped” from the wider Internet when on patrol under the surface of the ocean; while others claim that cyber attacks could make the system obsolete before work on the successor even begins. Either way, the fact that Trident relies on numerous computers, complex software and endless lines of code means it must be assumed to be vulnerable to interference in some way, and this new challenge seems set to play an increasingly important role in the debate over renewal, and raise serious questions about the longer-term efficacy of the UK nuclear deterrent.

This article looks into what we actually mean by “the cyber threat”, what exactly might be vulnerable, it what ways, and to whom, in order to better grasp the overarching challenge presented to UK nuclear weapons…

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