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 organisation 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."
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 ageing, 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 ageing 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]