The cyber threat to nuclear weapons is real and growing, challenged by new cyber tools, capabilities and hacking threats.

The cyber threat to nuclear weapons is real and growing, suggests new research into the challenge posed by information warfare and cyber weapons to the safe and secure command and control of nuclear forces. "Cyber threats are revolutionising the nuclear order and creating a host of new problems, vulnerabilities and risks," says researcher Dr Andrew Futter.

The safe, secure and reliable management of nuclear weapons has always been a complicated business, plagued by uncertainty and risks, Dr Futter points out. But these challenges are being magnified and aggravated by new cyber tools, dynamics and capabilities, and from the threat posed by hackers, seeing to gain access to, or interfere with, nuclear systems.

Defining 'cyber threat' is in itself problematic. "At present, there's a lot of hype and misunderstanding particularly around the term cyber-attack which can be interpreted as anything from spam emails to sabotage, destruction and possibly war," he explains. Lack of consensus on the scope and challenge of cyber underpins much of the current disagreement about the level and nature of the threat.

He says that as cyber threats increase then everybody in the world will become less secure. Terrorist threat aside, even ever-increasing software and coding complexity increases the likelihood of accidents. People may believe, for example, that nuclear submarines are invulnerable, but everything that relies on computer coding can never be 100% secure.

"At present we seem to be marching towards a new era of instability and insecurity. Cyber is exacerbating problems already inherent in nuclear systems as well as creating new concerns. Now is the time to recognise the problems that will arise in a world where nuclear weapons will always remain vulnerable and consider how far such weapons continue to represent a viable means of security," he says.