Britain's Nuclear Submarines Susceptible to 'Catastrophic' Cyberattacks, Think-tank Warns

Claims that fleet is 'air-gapped' and somehow immune to hacks are false, British American Security Information Council says

Royal Navy personnel respond to a fire in a control room of a Vanguard Class ship simulator at Her Majesty's Naval Base, Clyde in Rhu, Scotland on January 20, 2016.
Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Britain's nuclear submarine fleet is susceptible to a cyberattack directed by other countries or intelligence networks, according to a U.K. security think-tank.

Such a cyberattack could “neutralise operations, lead to loss of life, defeat or perhaps even the catastrophic exchange of nuclear warheads (directly or indirectly)," according to  "Hacking U.K. Trident: A Growing Threat," published by the British American Security Information Council and quoted by the Guardian. 

"The very possibility of cyberattack and the growing capability to launch them against SSBNs, could have a severe impact upon the confidence of maintaining an assured second-strike capability and therefore on strategic stability between states," the report says.

The report noted that while the submarines aren’t connected to other networks while at sea, they are still susceptible to hacking, for example when docking.

"Recent suggestions that the fleet is vulnerable have sometimes been met with complacency and claims that the isolated ‘air-gapped’ systems cannot be penetrated. Whilst we recognize that it is important not to be alarmist, these claims are false," it added.

Britain is in possession of four nuclear submarines.

"We are not talking about a lone-wolf teenager in a basement hacking into the controls of a missile and warhead and starting a nuclear war. Rather, we consider the most significant threat by some margin originates from the expanding investments by leading states in their offensive cyber capabilities, alongside their exiting intelligence networks," according to the report.

In January, The Sunday Times reported that the British government covered up a failed test of a nuclear-capable missile last year, weeks before a vote in Parliament on the extension of the country's Trident submarine-based system.

The missile suffered a "serious malfunction" during a test off the coast of Florida in late June, but the government decided to cover up the failure to prevent possible damage to the public credibility of Trident, the newspaper quoted an unnamed senior naval source as saying.