Recently, analysts have argued that emerging technologies with military applications may undermine nuclear stability (see here, here, and here), but the logic of these arguments is debatable and overlooks a more straightforward reason why new technology might cause nuclear conflict: by upending the existing balance of power among nuclear-armed states. This latter concern is more probable and dangerous and demands an immediate policy response.
For more than 70 years, the world has avoided major power conflict, and many attribute this era of peace to nuclear weapons. In situations of mutually assured destruction (MAD), neither side has an incentive to start a conflict because doing so will only result in its own annihilation. The key to this model of deterrence is the maintenance of secure second-strike capabilities—the ability to absorb an enemy nuclear attack and respond with a devastating counterattack.
Recently analysts have begun to worry, however, that new strategic military technologies may make it possible for a state to conduct a successful first strike on an enemy. For example, Chinese colleagues have complained to me in Track II dialogues that the United States may decide to launch a sophisticated cyberattack against Chinese nuclear command and control, essentially turning off China’s nuclear forces. Then, Washington will follow up with a massive strike with conventional cruise and hypersonic missiles to destroy China’s nuclear weapons. Finally, if any Chinese forces happen to survive, the United States can simply mop up China’s ragged retaliatory strike with advanced missile defenses. China will be disarmed and US nuclear weapons will still be sitting on the shelf, untouched.
If the United States, or any other state acquires such a first-strike capability, then the logic of MAD would be undermined. Washington may be tempted to launch a nuclear first strike. Or China may choose instead to use its nuclear weapons early in a conflict before they can be wiped out—the so-called “use ‘em or lose ‘em” problem.
According to this logic, therefore, the appropriate policy response would be to ban outright or control any new weapon systems that might threaten second-strike capabilities.
This way of thinking about new technology and stability, however, is open to question. Would any US president truly decide to launch a massive, bolt-out-of-the-blue nuclear attack because he or she thought s/he could get away with it? And why does it make sense for the country in the inferior position, in this case China, to intentionally start a nuclear war that it will almost certainly lose? More important, this conceptualization of how new technology affects stability is too narrow, focused exclusively on how new military technologies might be used against nuclear forces directly.
Rather, we should think more broadly about how new technology might affect global politics, and, for this, it is helpful to turn to scholarly international relations theory. The dominant theory of the causes of war in the academy is the “bargaining model of war.” This theory identifies rapid shifts in the balance of power as a primary cause of conflict.
International politics often presents states with conflicts that they can settle through peaceful bargaining, but when bargaining breaks down, war results. Shifts in the balance of power are problematic because they undermine effective bargaining. After all, why agree to a deal today if your bargaining position will be stronger tomorrow? And, a clear understanding of the military balance of power can contribute to peace. (Why start a war you are likely to lose?) But shifts in the balance of power muddy understandings of which states have the advantage.
You may see where this is going. New technologies threaten to create potentially destabilizing shifts in the balance of power.
For decades, stability in Europe and Asia has been supported by US military power. In recent years, however, the balance of power in Asia has begun to shift, as China has increased its military capabilities. Already, Beijing has become more assertive in the region, claiming contested territory in the South China Sea. And the results of Russia’s military modernization have been on full display in its ongoing intervention in Ukraine.
Moreover, China may have the lead over the United States in emerging technologies that could be decisive for the future of military acquisitions and warfare, including 3D printing, hypersonic missiles, quantum computing, 5G wireless connectivity, and artificial intelligence (AI). And Russian President Vladimir Putin is building new unmanned vehicles while ominously declaring, “Whoever leads in AI will rule the world.”
If China or Russia are able to incorporate new technologies into their militaries before the United States, then this could lead to the kind of rapid shift in the balance of power that often causes war.
If Beijing believes emerging technologies provide it with a newfound, local military advantage over the United States, for example, it may be more willing than previously to initiate conflict over Taiwan. And if Putin thinks new tech has strengthened his hand, he may be more tempted to launch a Ukraine-style invasion of a NATO member.
Either scenario could bring these nuclear powers into direct conflict with the United States, and once nuclear armed states are at war, there is an inherent risk of nuclear conflict through limited nuclear war strategies, nuclear brinkmanship, or simple accident or inadvertent escalation.
This framing of the problem leads to a different set of policy implications. The concern is not simply technologies that threaten to undermine nuclear second-strike capabilities directly, but, rather, any technologies that can result in a meaningful shift in the broader balance of power. And the solution is not to preserve second-strike capabilities, but to preserve prevailing power balances more broadly.
When it comes to new technology, this means that the United States should seek to maintain an innovation edge. Washington should also work with other states, including its nuclear-armed rivals, to develop a new set of arms control and nonproliferation agreements and export controls to deny these newer and potentially destabilizing technologies to potentially hostile states.
These are no easy tasks, but the consequences of Washington losing the race for technological superiority to its autocratic challengers just might mean nuclear Armageddon.