The implications of these advances are far-reaching for all military powers, but none more so than the UK, which depends on the invisibility and stealth of submarines for its Trident nuclear missiles. The government is in the process of placing a £31bn gamble that its submarines will stay invisible for the foreseeable future – a bet that might be splitting the Labour party but is little debated outside it. Yet these developments could drastically change the debate: from whether an independent British nuclear deterrent is good, bad or necessary, to whether Trident would even function as a deterrent in the long term.
Critics point in particular to the Royal Navy’s decision to install a variant of Windows XP as the operating system on its missile-carrying Vanguard-class submarines. It was cheaper than the alternatives, but Windows for Submarines, as it is called, is also more vulnerable to malware as it comes off-the-shelf. This also means there are more bugs in circulation that could affect it, and every time a submarine comes to port and gets a software patch, it is newly vulnerable.
But the Ministry of Defence insists that Trident “remains safe and secure. Submarines operate in isolation by design, and this contributes to their cyber resilience. We take our responsibility to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent extremely seriously and continually assess the capability of our submarines to ensure their operational effectiveness, including against threats from cyber and unmanned vehicles.” …
The renewed Trident deterrent is not due to be in service until the early 2030s. By then, the oceans are almost certain to be swarming with anti-submarine drones from many rival powers, with far higher capabilities than the ones being trialled at La Spezia. “Trident is old technology,” says Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, based in London and Washington DC. “The submarines are big, they’re expensive, with very long lead times. The technology chasing them will be will be 30 or 40 generations on by the time they hit the water.”
‘Trident is old technology’: the brave new world of cyber warfare