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Revealed: Pentagon Push to Hack Nuke Missiles Before They Launch

A former U.S. official calls the 2017 Pentagon policy document an ‘exercise to legally justify a potential attack on a North Korean missile on the launchpad.’

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Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

The Pentagon has embraced a controversial policy of destroying enemy nuclear missiles before they launch, an internal policy document from May 2017 shows. It’s an effort that appears to include executing cyberattacks against missile control systems or components.

The Pentagon document does not name adversaries. But experts who reviewed it for The Daily Beast considered it aimed at North Korea—and may represent a fallback option for the Trump administration should its June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un fail to result in the denuclearization President Trump desires.

Former State Department nonproliferation official Alexandra Bell called the Pentagon plan an “exercise to legally justify a potential attack on a North Korean missile on the launchpad.”

Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association added, “Like the overall U.S. missile defense effort, the intended role and purpose is North Korea, and possibly Iran, too.”

For about four years, senior U.S. military officers have feared that the financial costs of developing interceptors to destroy incoming ballistic missiles could jeopardize a domestic missile shield. They’ve sought what’s called “left of launch” options to disable adversary missiles before they leave the launchpad. And they’ve intimated that a more cost-effective approach is to develop digital weapons to corrupt or disable launch controls, guidance systems or aspects of the missile supply chain.

The unclassified document from May 2017, acquired by The Daily Beast, asserts that “pre-conflict left of launch operations” would be legal against an “imminent missile attack,” without defining “imminent.” It explicitly cites “non-kinetic options” for destroying missiles that would fall short of a “use of force” under the United Nations charter.

The document appears to be the first official confirmation that the U.S. reserves the right to infect adversary missile networks with disabling malware.

Missile experts who reviewed the document understood it as representing what appears to be the first official confirmation that the U.S. reserves the right to infect adversary missile networks with disabling malware. It appears to confirm a March 2017 New York Times report that the Pentagon was looking to add digital-network assaults to its antiballistic missile arsenal.

“This looks to me like a very elaborate legal justification for left-of-launch cyberattacks,” said Bell, now with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

“This would certainly include cyberattacks on command-and-control or guidance of the missile,” agreed Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategy expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as corresponding physical or digital efforts to preemptively corrupt an adversary’s missile supply chain.

The Pentagon document, titled “Declaratory Policy, Concept of Operations and Employment Guidelines for Left-of-Launch Capability,” was acquired by Protect Democracy, a group founded mostly by Obama administration attorneys, through to a transparency lawsuit seeking internal material relevant to military planning about North Korea. The group provided it to The Daily Beast.

That report, which Congress mandated during the final year of the Obama administration that the Pentagon issue, refers to cyberattacks euphemistically, rather than explicitly, in its unclassified form. A classified annex to the policy document is almost entirely redacted, but includes a brief reference to a “Special Program for Missile Defeat,” without elaboration.

“Although left-of-launch actions that would constitute a use of force likely would require the President’s approval as an exercise of the inherent right of national or collective self-defense, certain actions would not necessarily constitute a use of force under the U.N. Charter, such as gathering intelligence or developing capabilities that could be used in response to an imminent attack,” the document reads.

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The military term “kinetic” refers to a physically destructive or violent event. A kinetic strike in an anti-missile context is visible—an incoming missile heading for a launchpad—and an adversary will instantly figure out the missile’s return address. The strategic appeal of a “nonkinetic” cyberattack on missile infrastructure lies in its invisibility and the corresponding doubt it would presumably instill in an adversary over whether the missile infrastructure was sabotaged or merely technically flawed.

“It’s a disruptive technology, the weaponization of which, along with other advanced missile concepts like offensive hypersonic weapons, are putting significant strain on strategic stability,” Reif said.

All this, experts said, represents an evolution of so-called counterforce, a nuclear strategy that seeks to destroy enemy missiles. Strategists consider counterforce a particularly dangerous approach, as it risks incentivizing an adversary to use their nuclear missiles before the U.S. can target them. Additionally, a counterforce approach needs to identify and successfully target all adversary missiles—something that, as with North Korea’s highly opaque and mobile missile program, may not always be possible.

Counterforce had two components: disabling the adversary’s nuclear missile systems on the ground, coupled with a missile defense system that intercepts residual [missiles]... This is the unholy marriage of both.
Vipin Narang

“Counterforce has always had two components: disabling the adversary’s nuclear missile systems on the ground, coupled with a missile defense system that intercepts residual [missiles] that you miss in the early phase of a campaign,” Narang said. “This is the unholy marriage of both.”

Added Reif of the Arms Control Association, “We can’t counterforce or missile defense our way out of vulnerability to North Korea. Left of launch blurs the line between offensive counterforce and missile defense.”

Catherine Dill, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, worried less about incentivizing an adversary missile launch than in accelerating a digital arms race tied to nuclear war.

“If this is the declaratory policy of the United States, I’d worry that other states would try to match these capabilities. That’s where the escalatory potential is,” Dill said.

In a 2014 memo, the chief officers of the Army and Navy warned that an “acquisition-based strategy” of purchasing interceptor missiles, the backbone of the domestic U.S. missile shield, was increasingly “unsustainable.” They called for a new strategy, they wrote, that “incorporates ‘left-of-launch’ and other non-kinetic means of defense.” That accelerated a search for “left of launch” options in defense circles—something Defense Secretary Jim Mattis described to Congress last month as a priority.

“One of the primary efforts right now is in missile defense, for example. How do we take out missiles from the air, and do it a lot more cheaply then very expensive interceptor kill vehicles. We have to find a cheaper way to do this against a growing threat,” Mattis told a House panel on April 12.

Preemptively disabling or destroying adversary missiles may soon become an urgent issue if next month’s massive nuclear summit with North Korea collapses.

On June 12, Trump is scheduled to meet with North Korean dictator Kim in Singapore. While the administration initially raised expectations for ending Pyongyang’s nuclear program peacefully, North Korean officials have recently sent signals that no amount of U.S. inducement can cleave Kim from a nuclear arsenal bequeathed to him by his father and grandfather. Trump has recently worried the summit could “turn into a political embarrassment,” The New York Times reported.

After North Korean officials expressed acrimony at national security adviser John Bolton’s invocation of the “Libya Model”—which Pyongyang read as a reminder that the U.S. helped kill Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi after Qaddafi gave up his far less developed nuclear program—Trump mused: “that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely.”

In a 2014 memo, the chief officers of the Army and Navy warned that purchasing interceptor missiles, the backbone of the domestic U.S. missile shield, was increasingly ‘unsustainable.’

The Pentagon “Left of Launch” document cautions that a decision to attack an enemy’s missiles ahead of an outbreak of military hostilities “must be made at the highest levels of the U.S. Government.” But it does not envision any legal restraint on a president’s authority to order such an attack. And it explicitly explicitly declares a willingness for the U.S. to strike first, physically or digitally, to an “imminent” missile launch—though its definition of the term is unclear and occasionally opportunistic.

“An important factor to be considered in assessing whether an attack is ‘imminent’ is the amount of time available to take action to counter the threat, including whether there is substantial danger of missing a limited window of opportunity to prevent widespread harm,” the document states. The “nature and immediacy of the threat” and the “probability of an attack” are described as “other important circumstances.”

Dill, Reif and other experts consulted by The Daily Beast expected the “left-of-launch” document to be incorporated into an overdue and highly anticipated Pentagon document called the Missile Defense Review. A Pentagon spokesman, Tom Crosson, said that the department expected the document to be released later this month or in early June. Crosson did not respond to follow-up questions about cyberattacks or the “Left of Launch” document factoring into the review.

Alison Murphy, a lawyer for Protect Democracy, said its Freedom of Information lawsuit that produced the Pentagon document was designed “to ensure that Congress and the American people understand the legal basis, and constraints, for potential military conflict with North Korea. That's the least that our citizens, and the members of Congress representing them, are due in our democracy.”