New Technology and Nuclear Weapon Risks

By Joanne Dufour

The following is a summary of a paper delivered by a UN staff member to a meeting of Non-Governmental Organizations at the United Nations. The portions in italics were added by this blogger.

One of the most important norms related to international peace and security created in the last 70 years is the norm against the use of nuclear weapons and the commitment to their total elimination. It’s THE most important norm from my viewpoint.

Lately there is an apparent rollback of this norm – undermining the historic arms control and non-proliferation gains of the last 30 years. It is difficult to strike a balance between being an alarmist and an optimist.

Nuclear deterrence is an intrinsically risky policy and the only way to eliminate nuclear risks, I contend, is to eliminate nuclear weapons. Consider the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) report, Understanding Nuclear Weapon Risks.

Nuclear order is no longer dominated by two States but is increasingly multipolar. Each of these States is engaged in campaigns to modernize their nuclear arsenals and, in some cases, actively expanding their number of warheads.

Regardless of whether you believe in the concept of Cold War bipolar nuclear stability, that context no longer exists. Today’s increasingly multipolar world has introduced nuclear weapons into some of the globe’s most dangerous flashpoints.

“Launch on warning” still persists. As the name implies, it is the option to launch a nuclear response at the first sign of attack. The highly compressed window for decision making, coupled with the high stress environment of a potential nuclear crisis in situations where there is a substantial possibility of false alarm, raise serious risks for the use of nuclear weapons.

The paper discusses three categories of new technology that increases nuclear risk:

  • Modernization of existing nuclear arsenals
  • Military non-nuclear technology that could increase the prospects of nuclear use
  • Civilian innovations that have been repurposed for military ends and that could also make a nuclear detonation, including an inadvertent one, more likely.
Graphic depicting the amount of spending in 10 years to solve various world problems - World Hunger is the smallest circle $50billion and the largest (shown in black) is Nuclear Weapons Modernization $352billion.

Graphic from the American Friends Service Committee depicting how much money it would take to solve society's problems (World Hunger: $50 billion, Infrastructure: $155 billion, Homelessness $210 billion, College Education $250 billion), meanwhile we spend $352 billion on Nuclear Weapons Modernization. (Source)

  1. Modernization is effectively a qualitative nuclear arms race. There is a real difference between maintenance and modernization. I think there is an argument to be made for the maintenance of a safe and secure nuclear stockpile on the road to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. However the modernization campaigns being currently undertaken do not appear to be about maintaining the status quo—they seem to be aimed at increasing the effectiveness of nuclear warheads and their delivery vehicles to destroy targets. We are talking here about weapons with a longer range and greater accuracy than their predecessors as well as weapons that make current defense systems obsolete and new forms of weapon delivery on submarines carrying more missiles. This would ensure the existence of the nuclear weapon industry well into the 2070s. NB: All nuclear-armed States are engaged in modernization campaigns at this time.
    The ramifications of new nuclear capabilities are twofold:
    • These modernization programs perpetuate the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies. The lifetimes of some new systems extend into the 2070s, clearly at odds, if not in direct contravention – at least for the NPT (Nuclear Proliferation Treaty) nuclear-weapon States – with commitments made to multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament.
    • States are receiving the message that these weapons are not just for deterrence but are usable, increasing a State’s ability to conduct a first strike, thereby heightening the risk of misperception.​
      The Pentagon’s recent release of the Nuclear Posture Review states the US policy now of “first use” and proposes conditions for a nuclear response to some attack with conventional weapons on –for example – our electrical grid. It also calls for new kinds of warheads.
  2. New non-nuclear military technology such as the so-called “hypersonic” missiles which would allow a State to strike any target globally in minutes or hours is the second risk area. Currently only three nuclear States are pursuing this: the United States, Russia, and China. Their rationale varies but includes: reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, evading current missile defense systems, removing the need for forward basing (which means you can launch from the safety of home territory rather than from forward deployed military forces (e.g. the US in Japan) thus reaching what were unreachable targets). However these developments could easily lead to more distrust, unintended escalation through miscalculation, an increase in problems posed by “launch on warning”, and undermining existing current arms control treaties – to name a few. The times are indeed dangerous.
  3. The risk of cyberattacks is the third area of concern. Cyber vulnerability in nuclear weapon systems is all about connectivity and data integrity. Reliable, trustworthy, and accurate data is vital for targeting, command, and control. If such data can be manipulated so that operators believe they are under attack it could spark a nuclear exchange. Such a situation would be made even worse by a “launch on warning” posture. This coupled with the prospects of Artificial Intelligence and the turning over to machines decision making abilities previously done by humans is wrought with negative consequences.

It is apparent to conclude that the only way to successfully eliminate nuclear risks is to eliminate nuclear weapons. Two-thirds of the world’s governments have made this appeal in the drafting of the Convention to Ban Nuclear Weapons. It is up to us to tell our governments the path we find the most logical, wise, and desirable.