Cyber weapons may be relatively new, but non-nuclear threats to nuclear weapons and their command, control, communication, and intelligence (C3I) systems are not. In fact, before the United States dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945–before it even conducted the world’s first nuclear test in July of that year–it had started to worry about non-nuclear threats to its nascent nuclear force, in particular, Japanese air defenses. As the Cold War developed, fears multiplied to encompass threats to almost every component of the United States’ nuclear forces and C3I systems. While these threats emanated primarily from Moscow’s nuclear forces, they were exacerbated by its improving non-nuclear capabilities, particularly in the final decade of the Cold War. A two-decade hiatus in worry following the Soviet Union’s collapse is now over; today, non-nuclear threats to U.S. nuclear C3I assets–in particular, the growing capability of Chinese and Russian antisatellite weapons–are a major concern.
The United States’ experience is the norm. All nuclear-armed states have felt, and continue to feel, similar concerns. Indeed, the last few decades have seen the emergence of new potential vulnerabilities–this time in cyberspace–as nuclear weapons and C3I systems have come to rely increasingly on digital technology. To be sure, the networks involved in nuclear operations are almost certainly among the most secure anywhere. Yet there is broad agreement among technical experts that perfect network security is “impossible.” As a result, the possibility of cyber interference with nuclear forces and C3I systems is real.