China-USA nuclear war fears as experts warn cyber intel could spark conflict

Cyber attackers could trigger nuclear war between the US and China by sparking "state alarm", a new study warns.

The superpowers could be pressured into firing their nukes immediately if they believe they are being hacked, researchers said.

Cyberattacks can "expose the attacked state to significant pressure to escalate" over fears their nuclear deterrent was about to be compromised, said the three-year study.

The report was created by the major think tanks Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).

Their researchers issued the warnings after speaking to military and technical experts from both countries.

In the report, SIIS President Chen Dongxiao said: "Cyber attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) systems have become a potential source of conflict escalation among nuclear powers.

"Because of the unique nature of nuclear weapons, any cyber incidents concerning nuclear weapons would cause state alarm, anxiety, confusion, and erode state confidence in the reliability and integrity of nuclear deterrent.

"Cyber attacks against a nuclear command and control system would expose the attacked state to significant pressure to escalate conflict and even use nuclear weapons before its nuclear capabilities are compromised."

Thomas Carothers, CEIP Interim President, said hackers trying to gain intelligence on a potential nuclear strike could inadvertently spark all out nuclear war as military chiefs would "assume the worst".

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He said: "Military and national security experts increasingly warn that the most likely cause of major warfare—conventional or nuclear—between the United States and China is a minor conflict that escalates sharply, even despite the desires and efforts by one or both countries to avert such a spiralling disaster.

"Cyber operations, whether by China against the United States, or vice versa, are especially prone to provoking an escalation.

"These intentions might be primarily defensive—seeking to gain warning of a future attack.

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"Without knowing what an intruder is seeking to do, those who detect the digital footprints of an intrusion may well assume the worst. Pressure could thus mount quickly to strike first, before the other side can make this more difficult or even impossible."

The report summarised: "Cyber threats to nuclear command, control, and communications systems (NC3) attract increasing concerns.

"Prominent experts in the West have published reports and articles analysing the full scale of risks. They conclude that cyber operations could threaten—intentionally or unintentionally—the functions of nuclear systems and thus unleash highly adverse strategic dynamics.

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"Recognising the shared interest in diminishing the prospects of accidents, inadvertent conflict, and escalation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace convened experts from the United States and China to discuss generic cyber-nuclear challenges, analyse pertinent scenarios of cyber threats to NC3, and recommend possible steps that both countries could take unilaterally or collaboratively to ameliorate them.

"Drawing on public sources of information, we have developed a common base of pertinent unclassified knowledge in both English and Chinese that could serve as a platform for more discreet engagements between the respective authorities of both countries."

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