Update: Apparently the issue of using nukes in response to cyber attacks is so outlandish that both Travis and I posted on it at the same time!
Gen. Chilton is at it again. During a Defense Writers Group breakfast last Thursday (May 7) he told reporters that the U.S. should reserve the right to respond with nuclear weapons in the event of a devastating cyber attack against U.S. computer networks.
“I think you don’t take any response options off the table from an attack on the United States of America,” he proclaimed. “And I don’t see any reason to treat cyber any differently. I mean, why would we tie the president’s hands? I can’t. It’s up to the president to decide.”
There’s no nice way to say this so I’ll just say it: Threatening a nuclear response in the event of a cyber attack is bat-shit crazy.
First, some background. The idea of not taking any response off the table is known as “calculated ambiguity,” and it has become part of the taken-for-granted of post-Cold War U.S. nuclear policy. Until recently, calculated ambiguity has almost always been discussed in the context of chemical and biological weapons, not cyber attacks. However, the growth in the number of real and alleged cyber hacks, together with claims that the U.S. is vulnerable to attack from weapons designed to produce electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects, have prompted some to reexamine what threats might merit a nuclear response.
In addition to Chilton, James Schlesigner, former Secretary of Defense and Vice-Chairman of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, has also jumped on board the “you hack, we may nuke you” train.
At last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Strategic Posture Commission’s final report Schlesinger stated:
The ambiguity to which you refer deals not with a nuclear attack on the United States but with other types of attacks. For example, the possibility, and I stress the possibility, of EMP attack. Cyber warfare, there is no defense against a sophisticated cyber warfare attack. And the Russians and the Chinese and perhaps others have developed cyber offensive capabilities. We may need to use a nuclear response to such things, biological warfare.
The Commission seemed to be of two minds on the issue of calculated ambiguity. On the one hand, the report argued that the U.S. “should retain calculated ambiguity as an element of its nuclear declaratory policy,” presumably even against cyber threats. On the other hand, the report recommends that “[t]he United States should underscore that it conceives of and prepares for the use of nuclear weapons only for protection of itself and its allies in extreme circumstances.” At one point the report even states that nuclear weapons would only be used as a “last resort.”
In my view there is only one legitimate purpose for nuclear weapons: to deter, or perhaps respond to, the use of nuclear weapons by another country.
The idea that a U.S. president would even consider, let alone authorize, consigning millions of people to their deaths because hackers shut down the northeast is so ludicrous I have difficulty even writing it down. Second, so long as the U.S. insists on maintaining a declaratory policy of calculated ambiguity, other nuclear armed nations may be prompted to adopt such a policy as well.
Finally, and most importantly, retaining the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical, biological, or cyber attack increases the likelihood that the U.S. would actually use nuclear weapons in response to such attacks. As Scott Sagan has written:
The central argument is that the current nuclear doctrine creates a “commitment trap”: threats to use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack are credible, because if CW or BW are used despite such threats, the U.S. president would feel compelled to retaliate with nuclear weapons to maintain his or her international and domestic reputation for honoring commitments. (“The Commitment Trap: Why the United States Should Not Use Nuclear Threats to Deter Biological and Chemical Weapons Attacks.” International Security, Vol. 24, No. 4, Spring 2000, pp.85–115.)
P.S. Apparently Gen. Chilton commented on some other issues close to the heart of yours truly. Stay tuned for more info.