Would America Really Start a Nuclear War over a Cyber or Satellite Attack?

    Michael Peck

    Security, North America

    Is America making nuclear threats that it can’t back up?

    Critics say that a draft nuclear policy, which suggests the U.S. could use nuclear weapons to respond to a massive cyberattack or an attack on U.S. satellites, is a hollow threat. According to the January 2018 draft Nuclear Posture Review:

    The President will have an expanding range of limited and graduated options to credibly deter Russian nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attacks, which could now include attacks against U.S. NC3[nuclear command, control and communications], in space and cyber space. These requirements put a premium on the survivability, flexibility and readiness of Western nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities to hold diverse types of Russian targets at risk throughout a crisis or conflict, and point to the continuing great value of the flexibility inherent in the combination of the U.S. nuclear Triad, U.S. and other NATO non-strategic nuclear forces deployed in Europe, and the nuclear forces of our British and French allies.

    Not so fast, warns arms control expert James Acton, codirector of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. Suppose Russia or China did attack U.S. satellites, or launched a massive cyberattack against the electrical grid? Would an American president really retaliate with nuclear weapons? The choice would be between unleashing the nukes and risking global Armageddon—or backing down and ruining U.S. credibility.

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    “In this case, threatening to use nuclear weapons is completely disproportionate,” Acton says. “There is no credibility there.”

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