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Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

NTI warns of risks associated with digitization, upgrades of U.S. nuclear weapons systems

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In a new report, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) warns of the risks related to the digitization and automation upgrade plans for U.S. nuclear weapons systems.

The report, U.S. Nuclear Weapons Modernization: Security and Policy Implications of Integrating Digital Technology, calls on the U.S. government to prioritize protecting new digital systems from cyberattacks before integrating with the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

“There’s no question that many older systems need updating or replacing. But digital security against sophisticated adversaries must be as high a priority as performance,” Ernest J. Moniz, co-chair and CEO of NTI, said. “Updates must be carefully evaluated and tested to ensure they don’t introduce new vulnerabilities to the most lethal weapons on the planet.”

The United States is embarking on a trillion-dollar program to update and modernize its entire nuclear arsenal of bombers, submarines, and ground-based missiles, as well as bombs, warheads, and command, control, and communication networks. The upgrade will increase reliance on digital components and incorporate limited automation. Machine learning applications will provide some essential functions relevant to nuclear decision-making, and analog systems will largely be replaced with digital systems.

There are various cyber risks associated with the upgrades. For example, a cyberattack could deny access to critical systems in a crisis, interfere with physical security systems that protect nuclear weapons or insert inaccurate data and information.

The authors — Erin D. Dumbacher and Page Stoutland – make several key recommendations for military and civilian leaders in the Departments of Defense and Energy, as well as those in oversight roles in the executive branch and Congress. One is to prioritize digital security and reliability alongside cost, schedule, and performance. Another is to establish tailored test and evaluation controls. The third is to consider the implications of digitization for U.S. nuclear policy and posture.

“If the new digital systems integrated into U.S. nuclear weapons are not protected from escalating cyber threats, or if added automation can’t be trusted, the confidence that leaders in the United States and other nuclear weapons states place in nuclear weapons systems will erode, undermining nuclear deterrence and, potentially, strategic stability,” Stoutland, NTI vice president for scientific and technical affairs and co-author of the report, said.

Dumbacher, senior program officer at NTI, added that it is essential to recognize and mitigate the technical risks posed by new technologies early in the development and acquisition process—before they are deployed or operational. After that, they will become much more challenging to address, she added.