How Not to Deter Cyberattacks By Austen Givens
We’ve entered an era in which the United States may use nuclear strikes to counter devastating cyberattacks.
This is a terrible idea.
On January 11th The Huffington Post published excerpts of the draft Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a Department of Defense-prepared document designed in part to shape strategic understanding of how, when, and why the United States might use nuclear weapons. New in this NPR is the notion of using nuclear weapons to counter crippling cyberattacks, such as those that disable large chunks of the U.S. electrical grid or contaminate drinking water supplies in major cities. But is this just? And is it useful?
War theorists tend to agree that right conduct in armed conflicts includes a combination of discrimination among targets, proportionality, and necessity. Launching even a limited nuclear strike in retaliation for a massive cyberattack fails all three criteria. Nuclear weapons are among the least discriminatory weapons available in the U.S. arsenal. On its face, there is a clear disconnect in proportionality between a big cyberattack and a nuclear attack. And with respect to necessity, it is hard to see the value in incinerating a foreign city for any reason.
But beyond these three conventional criteria, there are more fundamental reasons to eliminate entirely the stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. Atomic weapons are simply antithetical to human life. Pope Francis has pleaded for their elimination, and for good reason. To suggest that they could be used under any circumstances, as the draft NPR does, is to play a dangerous game.
The NPR, as drafted, is clearly intended to have a deterrent effect, with the aim of discouraging U.S. adversaries from attempting to launch a big cyberattack against the United States. Instead, it may stoke an already smoldering cyber arms race among nations like the United States, Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea. But that will be a discussion for another day.
Austen D. Givens is Assistant Professor of Cybersecurity at Utica College.