The prospect of a cyber-attack on the UK’s Trident-armed Vanguard submarines 

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A London Friend, Paul Ingram, currently attending the nuclear ban treaty negotiations in New York, is the executive director of the British American Security Information Council. He is responsible for developing BASIC’s strategy to help to reduce global nuclear dangers through disarmament and collaborative non-proliferation. Read more about his work here.

Hacking UK Trident, a Growing Threat is his latest report, co-authored with Stanislav Abaimov, PhD researcher in Cyber Security and Electronic Engineering in the University of Rome, Tor Vergata and MSc in Information Security, Royal Holloway, University of London. 

Many have questioned the vulnerability of nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations – thinking in terms of conventional attack – but this report relates to the prospect of a cyber-attack on the UK’s operational fleet of Vanguard-class submarines armed with nuclear-tipped Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles.

The authors point out that cyber-attacks with any hope of success could only be mounted by a highly-sophisticated group probably with the backing of a major state. This report will have no impact upon the awareness or capabilities of any such group, as only publicly available information has been used in the research behind this publication.

They explain: “A successful attack could neutralise operations, lead to loss of life, defeat or perhaps even the catastrophic exchange of nuclear warheads (directly or indirectly). But the very possibility of cyber-attack and the growing capability to launch them against SSBNs (Ed: ballistic missile submarines), could have a severe impact upon the confidence of maintaining an assured second-strike capability and therefore on strategic stability between states. Recent suggestions that the fleet is vulnerable have sometimes been met with complacency and claims that the isolated ‘air-gapped’ systems cannot be penetrated. Whilst we recognise that it is important not to be alarmist, these claims are false” (more online)

Covert and secure patrols are of crucial importance to an effective nuclear deterrence posture based upon submarines, but the continuous and rapid development of new cyber technologies will inevitably result in some loss of confidence in future patrols, with negative results on strategic stability.

The report calls for the highest level of priority to be given to cyber protection at every stage in the construction of the UK’s Dreadnought class, across the whole supply chain. This will inevitably have major implications for the programme budget – and complete security cannot be guaranteed.

 

 

 

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