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November 24, 2015

Could Trident nuclear weapons be disarmed by hackers?

News: Former defence secretary sounds stark warning.

By Charlotte Henry

Former Labour defence secretary Lord Des Browne has warned that the Trident nuclear weapons system could be disarmed by cyber attacks.

In an interview with the Guardian, Lord Browne cited a paper from January 2013 submitted by the US defense science board that warned that "the cyber threat is serious and that the United States cannot be confident that our critical Information Technology (IT) systems will work under attack from a sophisticated and well resourced opponent utilizing cyber capabilities in combination with all of their military and intelligence capabilities."

Browne said: "The government … have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat."

Ewen Lawson, senior research fellow at the defence think tank RUSI told CBR that while he thought that Browne’s logic was generally "sound", his warning was "a little bit of a scare story."

Browne currently chairs a group campaigning for the disarmament of nuclear weapons, and his comments have been met with some scepticism from some across the Atlantic too.

Former White House defence policy official Franklin Miller told the Guardian the Browne was "grasping at straws": "If our nuclear command and control system depended upon the internet or went through the internet then the report by the defense science board would be quite an important warning. However, for those reasons it is a standalone system. It is air-gapped."

However, Lawson said that the fact it was air-gapped does not make it entirely safe from cyber attackers.. "That’s too big a leap," he said.

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The MoD says that Trident remains safe and secure and under political control at all times. An MOD spokesperson said: "We wouldn’t comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber."

David Cameron made Trident renewal a key tenant of his Strategic Defence and Security Review(SDSR) yesterday.

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