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195 9 The Cyber Commitment Prob­lem and the Destabilization of Nuclear Deterrence erik gartzke and jon r. lindsay In March 2017, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration initiated, and the Trump administration inherited, a covert action program to “remotely manipulate data inside North ­ Korea’s missile systems.”1 Cyber and electronic warfare techniques to sabotage missile components, impair command and control systems, or jam communication signals offer a “left-­ of-­ launch” capability to preempt ­ enemy weapons before or shortly ­ after they are launched. Since the beginning of the U.S. program, code-­ named Nimble Fire, North ­ Korea has suffered numerous unsuccessful tests, including some catastrophic failures. Although it is impossible to rule out accident as the cause of ­ these incidents, it is tempting to suggest that U.S. left-­ of-­ launch efforts have been successful. The authors would like to thank William J. Perry, Scott Sagan, participants of the Stanford Workshop on Strategic Dimensions of Offensive Cyber Operations, and two anonymous reviewers for comments on previous drafts of this chapter. This research was supported by SCPP and a grant from the Department of Defense Minerva Initiative through the Office of Naval Research [N00014-14-1-0071]. 09-3547-2-ch09.indd 195 11/08/18 9:31 pm 196 Bytes, Bombs, and Spies As reported, the United States used such techniques to interfere with North Korean missile tests, but in princi­ ple the same methods could be used to disrupt an ­ actual war­ time launch. Left-­ of-­ launch cyberattacks could complement kinetic counterforce missile strikes to neutralize a North Korean missile before it departed its launch pad. This is an attractive military alternative to ballistic missile defense systems like Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD), the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System deployed on warships and Aegis Ashore batteries, and the Ground-­ based Midcourse Defense system. President Trump claimed in October 2017, “We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 ­ percent of the time, and if you send two of them, it’s ­ going to get knocked down,” but he wildly exaggerates the testing success rate ­ under even controlled peacetime conditions.2 Ballistic missile defense systems must solve a very difficult physics prob­ lem, described as “hitting a bullet with a bullet,” and be able to differentiate decoys from real weapons amidst the “fog of war” encountered in combat conditions. Given that even a single North Korean missile might destroy an entire city (in South­ Korea, Japan, Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, or California), the prospects of relying completely on right-­ of-­ launch missile defense are not reassuring. The United States is thus investigating numerous alternatives, including using drones to intercept missiles ­ after launch and cyberwarfare to disrupt command and control before launch.3 A U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff paper from 2013 clearly states the military rationale for preemption: If deterrence fails, neutralizing an adversary’s offensive air and missile assets prior to use continues to be the preferred method to negate them, and with the increasing growth in numbers, is the only practical means to defeat large inventories. . . . ​ Initial offensive operations should place a priority on attacking air and missile systems and their supporting command and control structures, employing all means.4 Malware and jamming means do indeed seem desirable “if deterrence fails,” especially since relying totally on ballistic missile defense systems to “hit a bullet with a bullet” is risky. While the technology ­ here is new, the counterforce concept is not. The electronic attack and offensive cyber operations tested as part of the Nimble Fire program are updated analogues of Cold War programs like Canopy Wing that targeted Soviet nuclear command and control. The U.S. military has a long history of developing tar09 -3547-2-ch09.indd 196 11/08/18 9:31 pm The Cyber Commitment Prob­ lem 197 geting capabilities to “find, fix, and finish” ­ enemy missile systems, even as deterrence theorists have long warned that counterforce strategies can undermine the stability of deterrence.5 Unfortunately, as we ­ shall argue, deterrence failure becomes even more likely when one side depends on covert counterforce capabilities to preempt the other side’s nuclear deterrent. Left-­ of-­ launch cyber operations are just such a capability. Moreover, strategic instability is greatest in confrontations between asymmetric nuclear powers, where only the stronger side has effective covert cyber counterforce capabilities. This is, more or less, the situation with the United States and North ­ Korea. In the language of game theory, the ability to...


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