An Aging Cold War Policy May Make It Easier to Hack Nuclear Warheads

Illustration for article titled An Aging Cold War Policy May Make It Easier to Hack Nuclear Warheads

Floppy disks. Cheating schemes. Drunken bar antics. The security of America’s nuclear arms is... less than perfect. And now, more critics are questioning the outdated policies that regulate them.

Lead image: Deactivated missiles with their warheads removed in 1965. AP Photo/Ellis Bosworth.

It’s been almost 25 years since the Cold War ended, but America (and Russia) still keep thousands of nuclear warheads on “high alert,” meaning they can be launched within minutes if a missile launched by an enemy is detected using radar or satellite systems. It’s a policy that might not have attracted much attention, if it wasn’t for General James E. Cartwright and the anti-nuclear weapon organization Global Zero.


Cartwright has been ramping up his calls for a change to the policy on both sides, with a New York Times op-ed in April and an interview with the AP this week. In the interview, he described how the hair-trigger system means nations can launch their missiles as soon as a threat is detected—which makes it far easier for a hacker to fake a threat and set off a retaliation:

“The sophistication of the cyberthreat has increased exponentially” over the past decade, he said Tuesday. “It is reasonable to believe that that threat has extended itself” into nuclear command and control systems. “Have they been penetrated? I don’t know. Is it reasonable technically to assume they could be? Yes.”

Illustration for article titled An Aging Cold War Policy May Make It Easier to Hack Nuclear Warheads

A launch control facility near Minot, N.D., where 10 nuclear-tipped Minuteman 3 missiles are located. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel.


The fact that we’re doing a terrible job securing our nuclear arsenal is not new. Researchers have been saying that very explicitly for years. Not only is the infrastructure aging, the education of the people who run it have been exposed as deficient. The same goes for Russia—which doesn’t even have the correct satellite infrastructure to detect launches anymore. As Cartwright points out, the vulnerability of these aging systems is becoming a world-wide liability.

Unfortunately, tensions between Russia and the US are only growing, so it doesn’t seem likely that there’s a clear solution to the problem at hand. But when John Oliver shames you, you know it’s time to make some changes. [AP]

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Nuclear weapons are secured with a lock called a Permissive Action Link (PAL); old ones were mechanical locks, but by the ‘60s they were digital. In theory only the President had the code to unlock the warheads, but in fact he didn’t. General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command, worried that in a crisis his forces would be out of touch with the White House, making the weapons unusable. He ordered his technicians to set all the PAL codes to 000000. For much of the Cold War, Curtis was the only person in America who could actually launch a nuclear attack.