Draft U.S. nuclear strategy calls for nuclear response to significant cyber-attacks

After the World Economic Forum highlighted cyber crimes as among the top three challenges the world will face this year, the U.S. is set to enforce a new nuclear strategy that will allow it to respond to crippling cyber attacks with nuclear weapons.

The U.S. wants to send out a message to cyber criminals and enemy nations that cyber attacks on critical infrastructure organisations like the power grid or communications would force it to use nuclear weapons in response.

The move by the United States may seem disproportional and that it is underplaying the significance of using nuclear weapons, considering that a single attack can kill hundreds of thousands of people and destroy entire nations.

However, considering that powerful cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure firms like nuclear power plants, the power grid, electricity transmission plants, or missile systems could also negatively impact millions of people, it would be interesting to see how security experts from across the world view the United States' new move.

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The draft Nuclear Posture Review, which is yet to be ratified by President Donald J.Trump, was made public last week by HuffPost. According to the document, the establishment wants to develop new 'low-yield' nuclear weapons that will not be as powerful as existing 'megabombs' but will still keep the nuclear threshold at existing levels.

'The United States will continue efforts to create a more cooperative and benign security environment, but must also hedge against prospective and unanticipated risks. Hedging strategies help reduce risk and avoid threats that otherwise emerge over time, including geopolitical, technological, operational, and programmatic.'

Describing the existing nuclear strategy as a relic of the Cold War, the document stressed that its capabilities need to be enhanced to make it survivable and effective. The new strategy, as such, will include a series of initiatives like strengthening protection against cyber threats, strengthening protection against space-based threats and improving command post and communication links.

While drafting the new nuclear strategy, the Pentagon also stressed the importance of existing external threats that necessitated the formulation of a fresh strategy. 'There now exists an unprecedented range and mix of threats, including major conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, space, and cyber threats, and violent non-state actors.'

'Russia and China are contesting the international norms and order we have worked with our allies, partners, and members of the international community to build and sustain. Some regions are marked by persistent disorder that appears likely to continue and possibly intensify. These developments have produced increased uncertainty and risk,' it added.

As far as cyber threats are concerned, the Pentagon wrote that both Russia and China seek to develop offensive cyberspace capabilities to deter, disrupt, or defeat U.S. forces dependent on computer networks. At the same time, both countries are also fielding an array of anti-access area denial capabilities to raise the cost for the U.S. to reinforce its European and Asian allies and partners.

Considering such threats posed by both countries, the U.S. wants to ensure that such countries recognise that their threats of nuclear escalation do not give them the freedom to pursue non-nuclear aggression. As such, significant cyber threats like attacks on U.S. military command and control and attacks on U.S. or partner infrastructure would force it to consider the use of nuclear weapons.

Once the Nuclear Posture Review is ratified by the President, it will be interesting to see how China and Russia will respond to it and if the spate of cyber attacks emanating from the two countries on U.S. and European firms and citizens will reduce in the coming years.