recommended reading

Officials Worry About Vulnerability of Global Nuclear Stockpile to Cyber Attack

James Clapper, national Intelligence director, testified before the Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.

James Clapper, national Intelligence director, testified before the Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. // Susan Walsh/AP

Senators requested a national intelligence assessment of foreign nations’ abilities to protect their nuclear weapons from digital strikes after the Pentagon's chief cyber officer said he does not know whether China, Russia or other nuclear powers, aside from the United States, have effective safeguards in place. 

What’s more, the resiliency of most U.S. nuclear systems against a nuclear strike is untested, a new Defense Science Board report concluded.

Gen. C. Robert Kehler, chief of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees Cyber Command, told lawmakers that he agrees a comprehensive assessment is in order. But, he added, "we do evaluate" the potential for a cyber-related attack on U.S. nuclear command and control systems and the weapons systems themselves. He could not tell Congress, however, if other nuclear nations are as prepared for the risk of a digitally-triggered atomic explosion.

"What about the Russians and the Chinese? Do they have the ability to stop some cyberattack from launching one of their nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles?" probed Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Armed Forces Committee. 

"Senator, I don't know," answered Kehler, who was testifying on Tuesday at a committee hearing.

Questions about cyber doomsday scenarios arose as the top U.S. intelligence official, in another Senate chamber, named cyber first on his list of current transnational threats.

There is a danger that unsophisticated attacks by highly motivated actors would have “significant outcomes due to unexpected system configurations and mistakes” or that a vulnerability in one spot “might spill over and contaminate other parts of a networked system," James Clapper, national Intelligence director, testified before the Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. 

Nelson and Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., decided their panel will request a broad intelligence community assessment about the ability of foreign powers to safeguard networked nuclear systems. "In this new world of cyber threats, we of course have to be responsible for ours, but we have to worry about those others on the planet that have a nuclear strike capability, of protecting theirs against some outside player coming in and suddenly taking over their command and control," Nelson said. 

Kehler told lawmakers that, based on recent piecemeal reviews, he is confident U.S. command and control systems and nuclear weapons platforms "do not have a significant vulnerability" that cause him to be concerned. He said that in the years since the Cold War, "we've had fairly decent transparency" with Russian government officials on missile capabilities and understand “they are very careful about the way they provide what we would call nuclear assurity as well.  This is also one of the reasons for why we would like to see additional transparency with China."

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats


Close [ x ] More from Nextgov

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.