Nuclear Strategy Push-Back Against the “Cyber Industrial Complex”?

Greg Austin of the EastWest Institute published a piece in China-US Focus on August 6th in which he identifies possible push-back against the US government’s race to achieve “cyber superiority” and the emergence of “the American cyber industrial complex” from people in the US military knowledgeable about US nuclear weapons and strategy. He argues that disclosures by Edward Snowden reveal a “lack of restraint” in US cyber behavior and:

This lack of restraint is especially important because the command and control of strategic nuclear weapons is a potential target both of cyber espionage and offensive cyber operations. The argument here is not to suggest a similarity between the weapons themselves, but to identify correctly the very close relationship between cyber operations and nuclear weapons planning. Thus the lack of restraint in cyber weapons might arguably affect (destabilize) pre-existing agreements that constrain nuclear weapons deployment and possible use.

The cyber superiority of the United States . . . is now a cause of strategic instability between nuclear armed powers. . . . [I]n the long run, the most influential voice to end the American quest for cyber military superiority may come from its own armed forces. There are military figures in the United States who have had responsibility for nuclear weapons command and control systems and who, in private, counsel caution. They advocate the need to abandon the quest for cyber dominance and pursue a strategy of “mutual security” in cyber space – though that has yet to be defined. They cite military exercises where the Blue team gets little or no warning of Red team disruptive cyber attack on systems that might affect critical nuclear command and control or wider war mobilization functions. Strategic nuclear stability may be at risk because of uncertainty about innovations in cyber attack capability. This question is worth much more attention.

Cybersecurity literature contains references and analogies to nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy, including attempts to draw on the nuclear experience to address what some perceive as a cyber arms race. However, Austin is talking about something different–concern among experts that what is happening with US cyber policy, strategy, and capabilities threatens US nuclear strategy and stability. I do not know how prominent such strategic introspection actually is, or whether it deserves the level of deliberation Austin advocates.

In the most general terms, Austin seeks reassessment of what he and others believe is an insufficiently restrained American quest for superiority in military and intelligence cyber capabilities–not because of perceived threats to privacy and other civil liberties at home, but because this path might create strategic problems for US national security down the road, including in the context of nuclear weapons. For Austin, this reassessment should include more scrutiny of permitting one military officer to lead both NSA and US Cyber Command, a situation Austin provocatively describes as “an unprecedented alignment of Praetorian political power in any major democracy in modern political history.”

A unrestrained cyber industrial complex led by a cyber Praetorian guard potentially causing strategic nuclear instability? Well, now, the “national conversation” is getting more interesting by the day . . .


6 Comments on “Nuclear Strategy Push-Back Against the “Cyber Industrial Complex”?”

  1. S. Batsanov says:

    Very serious issue, which requires further strategic and legal analysis. There are several areas, including Cyber, where technological progress may be reducing importance of nuclear weapons, but, at the same time is undermining strategic stability, whatever that means, and thus increasing the risk of their first use.

    • David P. Fidler says:

      Have you seen anything else on this issue? I have to admit I had not connected (or seen others connect) the developments in cyber with strategic nuclear stability.

      • yousaf says:

        Hi — I wrote a piece on smth related:

        And see references therein, eg. DSB study

      • S. Batsanov says:

        There has been a some sort of debate in the US earlier this year, triggered by the new cyber-fears, in the course of which some military “thinkers” seemed to be playing with the idea of nuclear response to a heavy cyberattack with severe and “existentional” consequences. Bad idea, even in terms of deterrence, given much greater difficulties with attribution, when it comes to cyber attacks. I think Yousaf Butt, who already stepped forward, can provide more details on that. Anyhow, some military, and not just in the US, love to invent new functions and tasks for nuclear weapons, especially now, when the range of targets for nukes is objectively shrinking (which is not necessarily easily recognized in targeting policies, but that’s a different story).
        But then I started thinking further about potential future relationship between nuclear and cyber capabilities, and it occured to me that in principle cyber capabilities at some point in future could reach a level, which would allow them to disrupt or make unreliable nuclear capabilities, e.g. by disabling command and control systems of the enemy and, maybe, in other ways. Which would present a dilemma for decision-makers: either you press the button now, with the first sign of a massive cyber-attack or your button wouldn’t work later. Which would be quite destabilizing
        That’s still about future. Today we just have the first signs of conventional means potentially replacing some of the nuclear capabilities in a counterforce role, which has already become subject of animated Russian-US dispute about global conventional strike. Here again, we face the prospect of new non-nuclear capabilities being able to degrade or at least to dicrease reliability of a certain portion of nuclear arsenals, with similar destabilizing consequences: either you shoot faster or you don’t shoot at all. That may work well in a movie, but is scary when you it’s about shooting nukes.

  2. David P. Fidler says:

    Thanks for the suggested readings and the further thoughts on the cyber-nuke relationship.

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