Pentagon: Counter massive cyberattack with nukes

Justification for a U.S. nuclear first-strike would include attacks on critical infrastructure.

by David Gilbert
Jan 17 2018, 11:54am

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The U.S. should be able to retaliate with a nuclear first-strike in response to a massive cyberattack, according to the Pentagon.

The proposed policy change is detailed in a draft version of the Nuclear Posture Review, written by the Department of Defense and currently under review by the White House.

The document suggests broadening the U.S. nuclear arsenal in response to the growing military threat of China, North Korea, and Russia.

It suggests the development of two new sea-based nuclear weapons: a “low-yield” warhead for the Trident missile carried on U.S. Navy submarines, and a new nuclear-tipped sea-launched cruise missile, similar to the system the U.S retired in 2010.

While much of the policy document echoes the views of the Obama administration, there are a few key changes, including when a nuclear weapon can be deployed.

The draft says the U.S. should “only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”

However, it expands the definition of “extreme circumstances” to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” such as “attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

Though the document doesn’t specifically reference cyberattack, current and former officials speaking to the New York Times insist the shift is an effort to update circumstances that call for a nuclear first-strike to include attacks on critical infrastructure, such as power grids that are vulnerable to cyber warfare.

“While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction,” the draft argues. “The United States must be capable of developing and deploying new capabilities, if necessary, to deter, assure, achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails, and hedge against uncertainty.”

The document references Russia’s development of a ground-launched cruise missile that the Pentagon says violates a 1987 treaty banning intermediate-range missiles.

The development of this weapon suggests the Kremlin’s willingness to use a nuclear-tipped missile to end a conflict on their terms, the draft warns.