UK’s nuclear submarines are vulnerable to cyber-attacks, claim researchers

The UK's fleet of four Vanguard-class nuclear submarines is vulnerable to cyber-attacks that could lead to a catastrophic exchange of nuclear warheads.

The British American Security Information Council has warned that the country's nuclear submarines are not ‘air-gapped’ as claimed by the government.

In a paper titled 'Hacking UK Trident: A Growing Threat', researchers Stanislav Abaimov and Paul Ingram said that existing cyber-security capabilities are at present outmatched by an 'exponential growth in the complexity of cyber-attack techniques.' They have outlined various ways using which hackers can and may infiltrate nuclear submarines with disastrous results.

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A successful cyber-attack, the researchers warned, could neutralise operations, lead to loss of life, defeat or perhaps even the catastrophic exchange of nuclear warheads. It could also have 'a severe impact on the confidence of maintaining an assured second-strike capability and therefore on strategic stability between states.'

The government has so far contended that systems installed in nuclear submarines are ‘air-gapped’ as they are not connected to the internet or to outside systems. The researchers said that even though this is true, what is also true is that such submarines are still vulnerable to 'attacks from inside the submarine or the prior injection of malware into submarines, missiles, warheads or other infrastructure at the manufacturing, construction and maintenance stages.'

"Malware injection during manufacturing, mid-life refurbishment or software updates and data transmission interception allow potential adversaries to conduct long-term cyber operations. Future weaponized underwater drones may facilitate close proximity kinetic and cyber-attacks on ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Advanced nano and bionic technologies such as implantable and subdermal data storage and communication devices may be smuggled into the vessel and activated autonomously, manually or remotely," they said.

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They added that the government can counter the significant challenges posed by cyber-attack techniques though not only significant, vigilant and continuous cyber protection, but also strategies that build resilience within the systems and incorporating threats into broader assessments relevant to the choice of weapon systems, platforms and broader defence and security strategies.

Earlier this year, the Parliament passed a motion in favour of replacing the four Vanguard-class nuclear submarines at a cost of £40bn. These submarines are armed with nuclear-tipped Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles and are thus critical to the country's security and second strike capabilities. The motion was accelerated by a Trident missile failure in July last year which raised questions on the country's nuclear deterrence capabilities.

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