The Intersection of Cyber and Nuclear War

Cyber technology is making the hunt for mobile missiles faster, cheaper, and better. This upsets nuclear stability because it opens the door to accurate strikes with conventional or nuclear weapons on the backbone deterrent systems of the second nuclear age, namely, mobile missiles. The consequences of this technological shift are many: an increase in the benefit of shooting first; more nervous, reactive intelligence tightly coupled to offensive forces; and arms races as attacker and defender go through cycles of measure and countermeasure.

The change also has far reaching consequences for stability and world order. It blurs the line between conventional and nuclear war, since even conventional attacks could disarm a country’s nuclear deterrent. It also undermines minimum deterrence strategies because states cannot have high confidence in the deterrent effect of small nuclear forces. The obvious counter is to get more missiles to ensure retaliation, and this means larger arsenals.

To understand the destabilizing consequences here all one has to do is surf the web to look at the weapon of choice in the second nuclear age: mobile missiles, mounted on trucks, trailers, and special launchers. Cyber war can make many routine military operations—like finding high value targets—more efficient. But the understandable desire for efficiency can produce strategic effects that are inherently unpredictable. They can also lead to changes in power balances. In business, for example, Amazon used cyber to streamline package delivery. But this led to shifting the balance of power in retail businesses more widely. Malls were shuttered as shoppers flock to web sites rather than crowded parking lots. Moreover, prices change much more quickly, as on-line sales give minute by minute sales data.

The hunt for mobile missiles isn’t about hacking a missile’s control system. That’s applying magic dust to the threat. Cyber has to be understood broadly, as a collection of digital technologies and links. Interlinking several technologies is the key to tracking mobile targets, much as Uber and FedEx do for customers and packages. In the military this means interlinking cell phone and camera hacks to track a mobile missile’s crew members. Security cameras are a treasure trove of information, and are among the easiest to hack. Or it could be done by spotters armed with special cell phones monitoring physical movement of key officials in the command chain. The reports could be time and location stamped and automatically sent to a fusion center.

One of the Perdix micro-drones drones tested by the U.S. Navy in October 2016. (DoD Photo)

One of the Perdix micro-drones drones tested by the U.S. Navy in October 2016. (DoD Photo)

Drones could be directed from tip offs from these sources, to give a more precise fix on a missile convoy. Swarms of micro-drones also could be dropped from aircraft to track it. Since tracking mobile missiles is threatening to the defender, stealth is an important feature of the hunt. Recently, DoD and the Navy tested such a swarm, with over one-hundred autonomous micro-drones. Each micro-drone was the size of a soda bottle, and painted orange so testers could see them. One of the most interesting features of the test was that the commercial TV crew sent to film it still couldn’t follow the flock by eye or with standard video cameras. The drones were flying too fast and high. Special high speed cameras used in golf tournaments had to be brought in.

Automatic license plate readers already are routinely used to track lawbreakers, and are widely employed by police. Beacon technology is another useful sensor. Beacons get pinged when a radio tag or cell phone app goes by. The ping tells a fusion center that a target is nearby, then the target is looked up in a data base. Then, an appropriate advertisement is sent to the cell phone. It isn’t difficult to see how this could be adopted for intelligence or other purposes. There are ways to not only track things, but to get insight into them. In a recent case a U.S. sports franchise reportedly turned on microphones of customers’ cell phones during a game to get insights about their fans, who were unaware of the “mic snooping.” Think of the intelligence value for warning or surveillance to listen into the conversations of technicians working in a missile convoy. Artificial intelligence now has a quality where it provides very good language translation, so these conversations can be heard and analyzed for insight into target movements.

No doubt other technologies are useful in the hunt for mobile missiles. But one technology is especially key. Digital technologies have greater potential when implemented together rather than individually. Big data analytics does this; it integrates many information sources into a common operational picture. In retail stores a discount coupon may pop up on your phone as you pass by the toothpaste aisle. This comes from sensors knowing where you are, and linking this to enormous data sets that contain your buying habits and preferences. The whole process, walking by the toothpaste to getting the discount coupon on your phone takes only a few seconds.

A final point to underscore is that mobile missiles are inherently vulnerable. Herman Kahn had an extensive discussion of this in his 1960 tome On Thermonuclear War.[1] Compared to fixed missiles they require much more back and forth communications (“Where are you?” “What’s my new target?” “When can I get a fuel pump for the support truck that just broke down?”). Mobile missiles also are soft. Cluster bombs will slice through them like a hot knife through butter. More, spotters and turncoat insiders can get close to them, to report locations or attack them. For all of these reasons the United States never went with mobile missiles in its Cold War deterrent force.

Russian mobile ICBMs. (AFP/Getty Images)

The intersection of cyberwar and nuclear deterrence has enormous and widely overlooked implications for stability. Classic deterrence theory says that stability results from possession of a survivable nuclear second strike. If the enemy hits you, they won’t get all your missiles. So, in theory at least, they are deterred from attacking in the first place for fear of retaliation. This logic has worked well for some seventy years. The ability to find mobile missiles, however, upsets the calculus. This is because the mobile missiles can be tracked, and if found are easy to destroy.

Countries with advanced technologies may be able to do this with conventional weapons. For one thing, going first with conventional strikes to destroy enemy nuclear weapons may appear to be safer than attacking with nuclear arms. The specter of vast civilian destruction is averted, and this could tempt a country to attack in the belief that it might limit damage to itself.

The risk of accidental war is also increased. This is because the hunt for mobile missiles leads to a tight coupling between mobile weapons and intelligence tracking. A tight linkage between moves and countermoves existed in the cold war. But it was damped by the slow, primitive information processing of the era, mainly satellites and overflights. It took many hours and even days to develop the pictures of Soviet missiles in the Cuban missile crisis, rush them to the White House, and get a read on what to do next. Today, cyberwar systems operate at the speed of light. And every effort is made to compress other parts of the kill chain. This is why hypersonic missiles get so much investment.

Arms racing is another result of the potential for a successful hunt for mobile missiles. To guarantee retaliation by countries with smaller arsenals they have to do something. There are many possibilities here, e.g. for deception. But the thing about deception is that it is hard to prove it will really work. Maybe the enemy has penetrated the secret plans. More likely to appeal to the military are more weapons. Larger arsenals work against an attacker because they can’t be sure of destroying them all. So an arms race follows.

The hunt for mobile missiles introduces new strategic dynamics into the second nuclear age. There likely are many of these that will be “discovered” in the coming years. These dynamics are not reruns of the cold war, when systems were less tightly coupled and the singular threat was nuclear attack. Today, there are several countries who could hit nuclear targets with precise conventional strikes. More, no doubt, will attempt to build up capabilities to do so. Predictions about what countries will or won’t do in a crisis are less convincing than recognizing the sea change taking place from the intersection of cyber and nuclear war systems. Entirely new dynamics are coming into play, and must be given the attention they deserve.

Paul Bracken is professor of management and political science at Yale University. He is the author of The Second Nuclear Age, Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Castle Bravo test at Bikini Atoll, 1 March 1954. (U.S. Department of Energy Photo/Wikimedia)


[1] Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Piscataway, NJ: Trasaction Publishers, 2007), 265-269.