In this research article, Jon Lindsay and colleague Eric Gartzke explore the relationship between cyber operations and nuclear deterrence.
Nuclear command and control increasingly relies on computing networks that might be vulnerable to cyber attack. Yet nuclear deterrence and cyber operations have quite different political properties. For the most part, nuclear actors can openly advertise their weapons to signal the costs of aggression to potential adversaries, thereby reducing the danger of misperception and war. Cyber actors, in contrast, must typically hide their capabilities, as revelation allows adversaries to patch, reconfigure, or otherwise neutralize the threat. Offensive cyber operations are better used than threatened, while the opposite, fortunately, is true for nuclear weapons. When combined, the warfighting advantages of cyber operations become dangerous liabilities for nuclear deterrence. Increased uncertainty about the nuclear/cyber balance of power raises the risk of miscalculation during a brinksmanship crisis. We should expect strategic stability in nuclear dyads to be, in part, a function of relative offensive and defensive cyber capacity. To reduce the risk of crisis miscalculation, states should improve rather than degrade mutual understanding of their nuclear deterrents.