Fighting cyber attacks with nuclear weapons

Let’s hope it never comes to this.

Graham Cluley
Graham Cluley
@[email protected]

Fighting cyber attacks with nuclear weapons

The New York Times reports that a new strategy could see the United States deploying nuclear weapons in the event of an enemy launching a crippling cyber attack against key infrastructure:

A newly drafted United States nuclear strategy that has been sent to President Trump for approval would permit the use of nuclear weapons to respond to a wide range of devastating but non-nuclear attacks on American infrastructure, including what current and former government officials described as the most crippling kind of cyberattacks.

For decades, American presidents have threatened “first use” of nuclear weapons against enemies in only very narrow and limited circumstances, such as in response to the use of biological weapons against the United States. But the new document is the first to expand that to include attempts to destroy wide-reaching infrastructure, like a country’s power grid or communications, that would be most vulnerable to cyberweapons.

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There’s a fundamental difference between meatspace attacks against your country and cyberspace attacks.

It’s much easier with an internet-based attack to hide where the attack originated. Reliable attribution can be a nightmare.

If countries are going to start opening the possibility of launching nuclear counter-attacks if hit by a cyber attack they better be pretty darn sure that they’ve reliably identified who the true culprits are.

Mind you, if we ever come to a time when one country is using nukes to fight internet attacks maybe it doesn’t matter if they blow up the wrong country.

We’ll all be pretty much doomed anyway.

Let’s hope such a strategy never has to be put into action, and that those proposing it are doing so more in an attempt to warn the United States’ enemies against state-sponsored cyber attacks.

Graham Cluley is an award-winning keynote speaker who has given presentations around the world about cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. A veteran of the computer security industry since the early 1990s, he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows, makes regular media appearances, and is the co-host of the popular "Smashing Security" podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Threads, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

2 comments on “Fighting cyber attacks with nuclear weapons”

  1. Chris Pugson

    Evidence of the origins of cyber attacks would be dangerously unclear but why let that stop an ignorant impulsive nut case from having fun?

    1. coyote · in reply to Chris Pugson

      That's sadly and scarily the question that matters. Would anyone be so stupid to do that? Who can tell? It might be they don't expect it to turn to that but they're not above the temptation either. From the BBC my understanding is it's not as simple as the decision of one person and I can only hope that's the case and those who also would be involved would realise the severity of it (and the criminality of it too). Of course if they don't it wouldn't matter anyway as we'd all be gone soon enough. This world truly is barking mad… and using nuclear weapons is really barking up the wrong tree too. That humans would not be content with splitting the atom is telling but clearly that's the case given thermonuclear weapons exist…

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