Some 30 years since the release of the Hollywood blockbuster War Games, the possibility that hackers might break into nuclear command and control facilities, compromise early warning or firing systems, or even cause the launch of nuclear weapons, has become disturbingly real. While this challenge will impact all nuclear-armed states, it appears particularly acute for the United States and Russia given their large, diverse, and highly alerted nuclear forces. The facts that relations between the West and Russia have deteriorated to a nadir, perhaps not seen since the 1980s, strategic instability has increased – particularly in the wake of the Ukraine crisis – and that the arms reduction agenda appears to have reached a standstill, makes this challenge particularly pressing. In this discouraging milieu, new cyber threats are both exacerbating the already strained U.S.-Russia strategic balance – particularly the perceived surety of nuclear forces – and, at the same time, creating new vulnerabilities and problems that might be exploited by a third party. In this Issue Brief, Andrew Futter analyzes these dynamics and their impact on arms control and possible future nuclear reductions and offers a number of concrete suggestions on how to address this complex interplay.
Andrew Futter is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester (United Kingdom), where his research focuses on nuclear weapons issues. He is a member of the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI) next generation working group and an Honorary Fellow at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham.