Could Cyber Warfare Nullify Nuclear Weapons?

We all know the downside of cyber war, but there may be a significant upside too.

Is it outrageous to believe that cyber weapons, such as malware or computer worms, have the capacity to render nuclear war a relic of the past? Recent cyber attacks, including Stuxnet and Flame, have not only made governments reassess their security vulnerabilities, but have invited an important question: Could cyber warfare supplant nuclear warfare? Cyber weapons have the capacity to stop or delay a nuclear attack before launch. And if this is possible, countries may need to start stockpiling cyber weapons.

If you’ve ever bought security software from Symantec or Norton Anti-Virus then you know that any computer connected to the Internet is susceptible to a computer virus. Be that as it may, computer systems can be comprised without being connected to the Internet. Stuxnet, for example, was reportedly developed by the United States and Israel with the aim of infecting the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in Iran. The Natanz facilities, however, were not connected to the Internet. Therefore, someone had to upload the computer virus from within the Iranian nuclear complex -- intentionally or not, likely using a memory stick -- in order to infect the system. Upwards of about 5,000 spinning centrifuges used to clarify uranium apparently were destroyed, perhaps setting the program back several years.

Recently, Flame, a virus used to mine documents and communications for sensitive information, penetrated the computers of high-ranking Iranian officials. In August, Kaspersky Lab said it discovered a new cyber weapon, named Guass, which targets computers in the Middle East. Apparently, Guass is a complex data-mining toolkit designed to collect sensitive information like browser passwords and online banking credentials. Guass, believed to be a descendant of Flame, has infiltrated Lebanese banks.

The development of cyber weapons is not reversing. Many of the most highly publicized are state-sponsored and appear to be very effective. Great power warfare has traditionally been dominated by the threat of nuclear attacks and the notion of mutually assured destruction or strategic stalemate; could cyber weapons displace that threat, transforming nuclear weapons into radioactive paper weights? The United States and the former Soviet Union operated under a nuclear deterrence triad that included land, air, and sea launch capabilities. Each of these avenues would need to be susceptible to viruses for cyber weapons to neutralize nuclear threats. As seen in Iran recently, the facilities that develop land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles can be compromised -- even when they are not connected to the Internet. Recently in India, another computer virus -- spread through another memory stick -- infected the navy’s Eastern Naval Command, which is responsible for testing India’s first ballistic missile submarine. This is a new phenomenon without clear implications. Still, if cyber weapons can be relied upon to stop nations from developing or launching nuclear weapons, that would be a good thing.