Senior Program Officer, Scientific and Technical Affairs
U.S. Nuclear Modernization: Security & Policy Implications of Integrating Digital Technology
An expansive, complex undertaking to modernize the United States’ nuclear bombs and warheads, their delivery systems, and the command, control, and communications infrastructure around them is underway. It is a project that carries the potential for great benefits through an increase in digital systems and automation, as well as the addition of machine learning tools into the U.S. nuclear triad and the supporting nuclear weapons complex. But it also is one that carries significant risks, including some that are not fully understood. If it does not take the time to protect the new systems integrated with some of the deadliest weapons on earth from cyberattack, the U.S. government will be dangerously outpaced in its ability to deter aggressors.
Given the stakes, why take on new risks at all? The reason to integrate digital technologies into U.S. nuclear weapons systems is clear: this is the first significant upgrade of U.S. nuclear weapons systems in nearly 40 years, and the old systems need replacing. The most efficient way to update the full nuclear triad of bombers, submarines, and ground-based missiles, as well as the bombs, warheads, and command, control, and communications network, is to use today’s technology, including digital tools. From digital displays on bomber aircraft to advanced early-warning sensors and machine-learning-enabled nuclear options planning tools, this U.S. nuclear weapons recapitalization, like past modernizations, will be a product of its time.
Once the process is complete, the modernized U.S. nuclear triad will rely on more digital components and will include limited automation. Machine learning applications will provide some essential functions relevant to nuclear decision-making, and analog systems at or beyond their expected end of life will largely be replaced.
In the recent past, the Departments of Defense and Energy have struggled to respond to cybersecurity and supply chain threats to major weapons development programs. In many cases, efforts to address cybersecurity have lagged behind the acquisitions process, creating challenges for protecting against vulnerabilities in new or modified weapons systems. In addition, outside pressures often place a premium on meeting ambitious cost and schedule commitments, sometimes at the expense of performance and reliability, even in the face of evolving cybersecurity risks and challenges presented by new tools such as machine learning. Risks to all digital and machine learning systems are myriad: attacker intrusions, lack of access to critical systems amid a crisis, interference with physical security systems that protect nuclear weapons, and inaccurate data and information, among others. All these risks, if not addressed, could undermine confidence in a nuclear weapon or related system.
Integrating new technologies with old is a perpetual engineering challenge, but for the U.S. nuclear deterrent, it is one with implications that go far beyond the significant risks posed by cyber threats and digital malfunctions. Effective nuclear deterrence requires confidence that nuclear forces will always be ready if needed but never be used without proper authorization.
If the new digital systems integrated into U.S. nuclear weapons are not protected from escalating cyber threats, or if added automation cannot be trusted, the high confidence U.S. leaders (as well as adversaries) place in nuclear weapons systems will erode, undermining nuclear deterrence and, potentially, strategic stability.
Given the multiple risks associated with today’s nuclear modernization program, NTI drew on open-source information, including budget requests, official statements, and press reports, to determine how digital systems and automation are included in the nuclear weapons enterprise modernization and to develop 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. It is crucial—now, before it becomes an even more difficult task to secure the modern systems, and before they are deployed or operational—that the technical risks posed by new technologies be recognized and mitigated. To ensure that as long as the United States has nuclear weapons, they continue to be safe, secure, and effective, it is important that as U.S. nuclear policies evolve, they take into account the benefits and risks of digital and advanced tools to the modernized nuclear deterrent.
This report provides three recommendations:
Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.
Nuclear and tech experts know that all digital systems are at risk for cyberattacks—including nuclear weapons systems.
Ernest Moniz says the Russian leader needs to back away from the nuclear button.
The first detailed, exclusively open-source assessment of the five new nuclear weapon systems announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018