£31 billion Trident defence system could be neutralised by mere computer hackers

Computer hackers could disable Trident.
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A former British Defence Secretary, Lord Browne of Ladyton, has argued that, if renewed, the nation’s ageing nuclear defence program Trident is potentially vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Such an attack would make it feasible for the system to be shut down by computer hackers, effectively neutralising its supposed value as a deterrent.

The former Labour Minister, who served at the Ministry of Defence from 2006 to 2008, told the BBC that unless all parts of the system are assessed against the risk of cyber-attacks, and appropriate protections put in place,

there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

It is perhaps a little unsettling that Lord Browne uses the word ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ in the above sentence. But far more unsettling is the overall premise that a defence program, which recently updated figures suggest will cost £31 billion to implement, could conceivably be shut down by a computer whizz with a decent internet connection. In reality, this is not as simple as it sounds, of course, but we should consider just how heavily terrorist organisations such as Daesh/Islamic State use computers.

That online hacking groups consider it worthwhile to declare ‘cyber-war‘ on Daesh is an indicator of just how intensively the Radical Wahhabist group rely on the worldwide web, and for it to be so important to them is in turn an indicator that there must be at least a handful of serious hacking experts among their number.

Given how wretchedly inappropriate nuclear weapons are for fighting the types of warfare that Radical Wahhabism gravitates towards, one might be forgiven for a shrug-of-the-shoulders at this. “It just proves what we already knew,” one might argue, “that the system is as expensive as it is useless in fighting terrorism.” There is something in that, and surely a good reason to support Jeremy Corbyn’s accepted role as the sole real-world voice in a Parliamentary fantasy land.

But of course, if hackers could access the innermost software of Trident, there is the possibility – it must be stressed much more remote – that they could go further than merely neutralising the system. If a shutdown is possible, is it not also possible that they might even be able to take over parts of the system? I stress again, the chances would be very remote indeed, but their realisation would make Trident more than just a useless waste of money spent on winning a Cold War that ended decades ago; it could actually be dangerous to the very people it is meant to protect.

Read on...

Another former Defence Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind – he of ‘getting-away-with-blatant-and sleazy-cash-for-access‘ fame – responded to Browne’s concerns in tones so reassuring as to be thoroughly casual. Casual enough, in fact, that even his choice of words was almost blasé;

The whole point of our nuclear weapons is not whether they would work – 100% guarantee – if they were ever required. You think they will do.

The question is whether an enemy contemplating aggression would be prepared to take the risk.

To repeat, the man who spoke the words above was, frighteningly, the Secretary of State for Defence between 1992 and 1995, and he is stating quite explicitly that whether nuclear weapons will work or not is a secondary concern. So for instance, if the guidance system on a cruise missile goes haywire and there is thus a danger that, instead of heading for an army base outside St. Petersburg, the missile is propelled at the Billingsgate Fish Market in Kingston-Upon-Hull, we should feel relaxed about it. The important thing is that our enemies think that the missile will work.

Rifkind’s reassurance, sticking strictly to the point, is absolutely useless because he is not actually indicating that a cyber-attack would fail. He just thinks enemies would be too scared to follow one up with a physical attack, just in case the attempted hack did not work as well as it seemed. While one can appreciate the idea that a possibly-hacked missile system would still be a powerful psychological deterrent against any sane enemy, Rifkind is perhaps overlooking the considerable dearth-of-sanity among some of the UK’s enemies. There is little doubt that the aforementioned Daesh, if they thought they could hack a nuclear weapons system, would try to do so. Certainly fear of reprisals would give them little pause-for-thought.

We already have reasons beyond measure for abandoning Trident. Its essential uselessness was underlined this week when the Prime Minister announced an implementation delay until the 2030’s for financial reasons. Surely, if Trident were as critical as its supporters are clamouring, such a delay would not be countenanced for mere reasons of money?

So, we are spending £31 billion for a defence system meant for a Cold War that has been over for around a quarter of a century. For a defence system almost non-deployable in modern warfare. For a defence system that, even if it could be used, would almost certainly trigger mutually-assured destruction. For a defence system that could conceivably be neutralised by computer hackers. For a defence system that could possibly be turned against its owners by computer hackers. For a defence system that is ‘vitally important’, and yet somehow not quite important enough to risk further damaging the already-failed program to eliminate the national deficit.

£31 billion for that? And when Jeremy Corbyn is one of the few in Parliament to oppose Trident’s renewal, he is the one accused of being ‘dangerous’ and ‘radical’? The implication that opponents of Trident are mad is not only offensive, it is downright back-to-front.

As a fictitious military man once said, “Who would have noticed another madman around here?’


Featured images via Wikimedia Commons.

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