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Alright, I'm writing a story that is in the style of one of those dumb disaster movies (e.g; Armageddon, Deep Impact, etc.) and I am stuck at a plot point. I'll give you a short backstory of what is happening in the story.

A big alien ship is in Earth's orbit (low orbit, but I can change that to suit the story) and it's causing a bunch of tsunamis and earthquakes. my characters are holed up in a military base where there are still a few military guys left: one of my characters is an ex-military hacker. The military guys agree to let him use their computer system to hack into and remotely launch a nuke at the ship.

The only problem is that, if I'm not mistaken, nukes or other types of missiles cannot be launched remotely by a hacker. Is this plot point too implausible for this type of story? Would you stop reading and say "that's so dumb!" Or would you let it slide? Or, alternatively, do you have any ideas for a way around this?

These kinds of disaster movies are usually pretty implausible anyways, but I didn't want anything too ridiculous. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

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closed as off-topic by Mołot, John Dallman, Hohmannfan, Durakken, JDługosz Oct 30 '16 at 5:21

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  • $\begingroup$ oh, and check out /r/itsaunixsystem for how to NOT show hacking $\endgroup$ – noɥʇʎԀʎzɐɹƆ Oct 29 '16 at 23:53
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    $\begingroup$ You need a pretty long code for each nuke, a set of keys, access to the launch site, etc. There is no "remote launching" a nuke, ever as it does not exist on a network and has 2 or 3 analog security measures that make it impossible. Try the writing SE or an SE that deals with military info, though I doubt you'll get much info considering that is a matter of world security... $\endgroup$ – Durakken Oct 30 '16 at 2:55
  • $\begingroup$ How long would it take to nuke an alien spaceship in orbit? $\endgroup$ – Mazura Dec 30 '18 at 4:48
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Just have the missiles be local.

My (admittedly vague) understanding of this kind of thing is it requires several kinds of authentication and multiple people. The whole classic "turn two keys at the same time" thing. So just have the base they're at also house the missile(s). They all agree to launch them, and they have the keys. Problem is, they're missing the Grand Poobah's electronic authentication. Insert cheesy, hand wavy, I-can't-believe-I'm-helping-you-write-this hacking montage here.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's a good idea. I need the hacker to play a role in launching it to help sort out some internal conflicts (he used to help the military kill people/now he's helping them save the world) and YES I know it's cheesy! $\endgroup$ – Jon James Oct 29 '16 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ It's my first time writing a novel so I decided I'd go with one of those dumb disaster-movie type stories, since they're already so cheesy and implausible anyways. $\endgroup$ – Jon James Oct 29 '16 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ Apply generous amounts of handwavium. $\endgroup$ – CaptClockobob Oct 29 '16 at 17:52
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I believe that the actual answer is that nuclear weapons can be accessed and fired remotely, but only through authorized control channels. This is a fallback in case the chain of command is decapitated, or the chaos of a nuclear strike makes establishing communications difficult or impossible.

In the US, the authority to release nuclear weapons for use sits with the National Command Authority, which is the President (or duly appointed, legal successor) plus the SecDef (or their duly appointed, legal successor).

However, they have the power to delegate launch authority to someone else. That is, the NCA does not have to immediately declare a launch. Instead, they can give a copy of the Authorization Codes and Weapon Enablement codes to another party, such as the a high-ranking general officer aboard one of the various flying command planes. In this case, they've effectively legally devolved the decision to someone else; this usually comes with instructions on what conditions the launch is to happen. Legally speaking, that person now has the right to declare a launch. This capability is retained until the NCA decides to revoke it, and take back control itself.

So, ultimate, the authority to launch sits with the NCA, but it can decide to delegate this authority to others, after the NCA has agreed that a launch is authorized. So, the actual launch order might come from someone other than the NCA itself, but the codes will always be the same, from the perspective of the people who launch the actual weapons. While this isn't quite the same as a general on board an aircraft launching the missiles himself, it puts the line of control and responsibility much closer to the weapons.

In the former Soviet Union (and so far as anyone knows in current Russia), an automatic system known as "Perimeter" (or colloquially "Dead Hand"). This is a remote launching system with the ability to automatically launch the Russian arsenal if there is no communications with the centre command authority, and if the sensor system detects the signs of a nuclear attack in Russian Territory.

It is not known if China has any systems in place analogous to Perimeter, or the elaborate chain of command in the United States. Other nations are thought to use an authentication system, permissive action links and multiple crew working simultaneously to fire nuclear weapons, but no one knows for sure (for obvious reasons).

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Why not have your hacker contact someone (surviving base, submarine - it's plausible that submarine commanders might have discretion to launch without external command codes, in case they survive after normal authorty has been nuked) that can launch a missile the normal way? Or if you must have a hackable launcher, handwave an experimental unmanned launch site (or drone sub, that doesn't have to worry about consumables/life support for the crew).

That just leaves you with the problem of how to get something that's designed to trash stationary cities or other ground based targets to find and detonate against something in orbit...

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I'd ditto Joel Harmon: Make the nukes local.

Other obvious alternative: Somewhere near the beginning of the story have a scene where the government changes the security protocols so that missiles CAN be launched remotely. This is exactly what they did in the 1983 movie "War Games". There's a scene early in the movie where the military conducts an experiment where they order nuclear missiles to be launched, where the launch sites are all dummies so no missiles will really be launched, and they find that a high percentage of crews lose their nerve. So the top brass change the system so that the missiles can be launched remotely from the Pentagon. Then later a hacker gets access to the computer system and almost starts World War 3, etc. How much time you devote to this depends on how important the plot point is.

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  • $\begingroup$ I spoke with a real-life launch control officer shortly after the movie came out. The movie is mostly nonsense. $\endgroup$ – EvilSnack Oct 30 '16 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ @EvilSnack Well, yes, of course. (a) The whole point of the movie was that that's not how it is, but a scenario they invented to make the story they wanted to tell sound plausible. (b) The technology in the movie was quite realistic for about the first 15 minutes. Then there's a scene where the hero plugs a speaker into his computer, which suddenly turns the computer into a sophisticated AI, and from there on the technology has no relation to reality. $\endgroup$ – Jay Oct 31 '16 at 12:51
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To answer the original question, nukes CANNOT be launched remotely by a hacker. Nuclear launch requires a LOCAL, PHYSICAL circuit connection to enable the launch circuit. That is, the circuit that activates launch is physically broken by a switch that must be shut manually. Without a local operator to physically close that switch, there is no way to launch the nukes.

Even with the president's nuclear football in your possession, you cannot remotely send a signal to launch the nuclear missiles without the connivance of the watch officers on the bomber/submarine/missile silo.

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  • $\begingroup$ To be more specific, the missiles are NOT connected to the Internet. $\endgroup$ – EvilSnack Oct 30 '16 at 13:26

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