Disruptive Technologies, Strategic Vulnerability, and the Future of Deterrence

In collaboration with Keir Lieber of Georgetown University, Brendan Green of the University of Cincinnati, and Daryl Press of Dartmouth College, Institute member Austin Long is conducting research on “Disruptive Technologies, Strategic Vulnerability, and the Future of Deterrence.”

Most analysts regard the survivability of nuclear arsenals as something akin to an existential truth of the atomic age. Nuclear weapons are small, easy to hide, and pack enormous destructive power. These characteristics mean that any attempted military strike by one country to disarm another is bound to fail – resulting in nuclear retaliation and mutual catastrophe. Fortunately, this condition of nuclear survivability is thought to create a stable balance of terror, where no rational aggressor would attempt such folly. In short, conventional wisdom holds that strategic deterrence is robust – and highly recalcitrant to technological change.

The core assumptions about nuclear survivability and deterrence were forged decades ago, in an analog world that is long gone. Today, a set of technological developments rooted in the computer revolution permit a much wider range of outcomes in a nuclear conflict – potentially including successful disarming strikes that cause few casualties. Cold War conventional wisdom is being turned on its head, with far-reaching and potentially alarming consequences for strategic balances, nuclear stability, deterrence, and escalation control. The current gap between dominant assumptions about nuclear weapons and the technological realities of deterrence has never been greater.

The analytical gap stems from two major developments: First, the key strategies used to secure nuclear forces from attack – hardening and concealment – are being undermined by revolutionary developments in remote sensing, weapons accuracy, and data integration. Second, many of these capabilities for locating and striking nuclear targets must remain secret in order to be effective, which constrains the ability of leaders to accurately perceive the nuclear balance and pursue appropriate strategies of deterrence and assurance. This combination – of revolutionary and increasingly clandestine technologies – means that neither non-governmental analysts (who are generally unaware of the changes) nor government officials (whose work on strategic systems is highly classified and compartmentalized) have adequately explored the military and political implications of the new era of strategic vulnerability.

To be clear, not all nuclear arsenals have suddenly become vulnerable. But every arsenal today is less secure than it was before the computer revolution, and those countries that face stronger, richer, and more technologically sophisticated opponents will find it increasingly hard to keep their nuclear deterrents secure. The age of easy survivability is over. The age of vulnerability has begun.

The project aims to bridge the gap between old intellectual assumptions and new strategic realities. The project has four main analytic components: (1) highlight the principal technological changes endangering the foundations of nuclear deterrence; (2) assess how those changes impact force survivability across salient geopolitical fault lines; (3) investigate how these fluid and less transparent nuclear balances are complicating strategies of deterrence, reassurance, and escalation control; and (4) identify options for mitigating these and other growing policy challenges.

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