Tension as UK raises cap on nuclear weapons

Warning: Terror groups could use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons by 2030. © Getty

Will the next world war be a cyber-war? Britain’s defence review predicts increasingly volatile and aggressive digital conflicts – and imagines nuclear missiles as a desperate last resort.

The supervisor of the water plant in Oldsmar, Florida stared at her screen in consternation. What was happening to the lye levels? Instead of being at their usual 100 parts per million, they were heading for 11,000. At that point the chemical – harmless in its normal concentration – would make the town’s water supply poisonous, threatening the lives of 15,000 people.

The problem soon became clear. Hackers had broken into the plant’s computer system and were manipulating the lye levels remotely. Fortunately they had not done it in a very sophisticated way, and the plant’s IT team was able to shut them out again.

Tech experts say that the hack was only possible because the plant was using outdated technology. But the incident highlights something governments are all too aware of: the more connected the world becomes by the internet, the more potential there is for the dangerous disruption of infrastructure by cyber attacks.

It is not hard to imagine what larger-scale sabotage might look like. Cities could be deprived of electricity, traffic deadlocked and hospital computer networks paralysed. Even more alarmingly, missile systems and nuclear power plants could be interfered with.

Not only might defence chiefs find themselves unable to direct their weapons and personnel, they might take drastic action based on false information. Modern armies use algorithms to collect information and assess threats, and US intelligence services believe that Russia and China are already working to feed them fake data. If successful, they might be able to mount an attack without anyone being sure which country it was coming from.

As a result, governments face a dilemma. Should they continue to spend money on weapons of physical destruction, or divert it to cyber defence instead?

Britain’s answer, given yesterday when Boris Johnson outlined its new defence and foreign-policy strategy, was to invest more money in both. He had already announced a £16.5bn increase in the defence budget over four years, to be spent in part on a new National Cyber Force, an artificial intelligence (AI) agency and a “space command” capable of launching a rocket next year.

Now Britain is also set to increase its stockpile of nuclear warheads to 260, rather than reducing it to 180 as previously planned. It is a highly controversial move, ending 30 years of gradual disarmament, and critics warn that it could start a new nuclear-arms race. But the foreign minister, Dominic Raab, insists that it is “the ultimate insurance policy” against global threats.

One expert, however, believes that our main concern should be another type of security: epistemic. Elizabeth Seger argues that the rise of fake news could lead to “epistemic babble” – a situation in which nobody can tell the difference between truth and lies. That would make it all too easy for them to be led into conflict for no good reason.

Will the next world war be a cyber-war?

Touchpad touchpaper

Some say, no. Cyber-warfare can cause major disruption and might potentially bring a nation to its knees. But any country that wants to take over another’s territory is still going to have to send in physical troops, and at that stage it is likely to face fighters armed with traditional weapons which do not rely on the internet but can still do a great deal of damage.

Others argue that cyber-warfare is the obvious way forward. Someone with a high level of expertise can disguise where the attack is coming from, so their enemies do not know who they are fighting, making it impossible to retaliate. And since all sophisticated weapons are now controlled via the internet, even an apparently conventional war is going to have a cyber element.

You Decide

  1. Is there any realistic hope of stopping cyber warfare?
  2. Morally speaking, is cyber warfare any better than conventional or nuclear warfare?

Activities

  1. Write a story in which a hacker takes control of your school.
  2. Imagine that your country has £10bn to spend on defence. Dividing into teams of two or more, decide how the money should be divided between conventional weapons, nuclear weapons, cyber experts and counter-terrorism. Present your conclusions on a chart and explain them to your class.

Some People Say...

“The best defence of a free country in the 21st Century is a robust economy, an open border and civil rights.”

Simon Jenkins (1943 – ), British journalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the interconnectivity of the modern world means that apparently harmless devices can compromise anyone’s security. One expert, Max Heinemeyer, warns that even a smart TV or smart freezer could let hackers into your life; President Biden has been advised not to use his internet-enabled Peloton exercise bike. A cyber attack by Russia on Ukraine was comparatively unsuccessful because Ukrainians rely on the internet far less than people in, say, the US.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the US and its allies should sign up to a global ban on weapons systems controlled by AI. Campaigners insist that a ban is required to prevent computers making decisions about whom to kill. But a new report commissioned for the president and Congress argues that Russia and China would be unlikely to keep to such a treaty, and that countries without AI weapons would be “outmatched and paralysed by the complexity of battle”.

Word Watch

Consternation
Anxiety which causes mental confusion. It derives from a Latin verb meaning to throw down.
Lye
A strong alkaline solution, often of potassium hydroxide, used in this instance to purify water.
Infrastructure
The basic systems and services that a country needs to keep it going, such as electrical grids, roads, railways and sewers.
Hospital computer networks
In 2017 hackers from North Korea paralysed many of Britain’s National Health Service computers. Many hospitals around the world have suffered cyber attacks during the pandemic. According to Microsoft, state-sponsored Russian and North Korean hackers have attacked at least seven Covid-19 vaccine companies.
Algorithms
Formulae used for problem-solving by a computer. The word comes from the name of a 9th-Century Arab mathematician.
Controversial
Britain is a signatory to the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Epistemic
Relating to knowledge. It comes from a term in Greek philosophy.

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