This paper reviews the growing potential for cyber-attack on the UK’s operational fleet of Vanguard-class submarines armed with nuclear-tipped Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles, and some of the implications for strategic stability.
A successful attack could neutralise operations, lead to loss of life, defeat or perhaps even the catastrophic exchange of nuclear warheads (directly or indirectly). But the very possibility of cyber-attack and the growing capability to launch them against SSBNs, could have a severe impact upon the confidence of maintaining an assured second-strike capability and therefore on strategic stability between states. Recent suggestions that the fleet is vulnerable have sometimes been met with complacency and claims that the isolated ‘air-gapped’ systems cannot be penetrated. Whilst we recognise that it is important not to be alarmist, these claims are false.
The challenge of maintaining covert and secure patrols under reliable operational control is of utmost importance to an effective nuclear deterrence posture based upon submarines. The continuous and rapid development of new cyber technologies will inevitably result in some loss of confidence in future patrols, with negative results on strategic stability. It is crystal clear that the highest level of priority must be given to cyber protection at every stage in the construction of the UK’s Dreadnought class, across the whole supply chain, if the UK is to contain this hit on confidence. This will inevitably have major implications for the programme budget, with uncertain success.