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Nuclear and New Technologies

In 2020, the European Leadership Network (ELN) in cooperation with partners set out on a journey to unpack technological complexity as it impacts nuclear decision-making and propose practical policy approaches to deal with related risks.

Project Team

The challenge we want to address

Nuclear decision-making is complex. Disruptive technologies pose both risks and opportunities to nuclear decision-making which need to be better explained, understood, gamed, and mitigated. The project’s focus is on the – so far under-examined – implications of the technological complexity that emerges when nuclear decision-making is affected by a plethora of new technologies which are all evolving rapidly and simultaneously. Building on existing work that looks at the impact of individual technologies on nuclear policy, this project assesses the impact of these technologies in the aggregate, seeks to overcome related risks and explores opportunities offered by technologies to mitigate these risks.

Leveraging on the ELN’s deep expertise, convening power, and network of seasoned, high-level practitioners from multiple countries and utilizing ELN’s partner organizations strengths, we have embarked on a path to study, analyze, describe, train, and recommend decision-makers on nuclear policy challenges of technological complexities.

The project will develop, test-drive, propose and promote practical policy approaches that governments might pursue to begin to responsibly regulate and steer the weaponization of potentially disruptive technologies and their use in nuclear decision making.

The objectives of this multi-year project are to reduce risk in the nuclear decision-making, identify mitigation strategies, de-escalation solutions and manage potential and unintended escalation. We also strive to engage and raise the voice of younger generation experts in the discussion.

To commence work, the ELN in partnership with the German Federal Foreign Office has organized and hosted a “Rethinking Arms Control” workshop in March 2021. This closed-door meeting brought a diverse group of experts of scholars, practitioners, former nuclear weapons decision-makers, and emerging leaders to ideate and analyse the challenges, opportunities, and pitfalls of technological complexity. The summary of the proceedings and major takeaways from the workshop ARE highlighted in the following report: New Technologies, Complexity, Nuclear Decision Making and Arms Control: Workshop Report, June 2021

How we want to achieve the goal

The project is built upon four strands which – like four legs of a stool – support the main goal. These are:

  1. Baselining Exercise
  2. Big Data Analysis of Emerging and Disruptive Technologies
  3. Methodologies to Deal with Multi-tech Complexities
  4. Mitigation Strategies & Arms Control

We begin by asking what the science (strand 1), practioners (strand 2) and current policies and tools (strand 3) tell us about the impact of and ways of dealing with technological complexity in nuclear decision making. We then craft policy approaches that governments might pursue (strand 3 and 4).

This comprehensive approach allows us to unpack technological complexity by harnessing the brightest minds around the world, test policy approaches with people who “have been there and done it” and use our networks to develop and promote solutions with current decision-makers.

Funding from the German Federal Foreign Office, the MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and in-kind contributions from project partners make this work possible.

The Four Strands

Strand 1: Baselining Exercise

What can expert literature tell us about the nexus between technological complexity and nuclear weapons decision-making in peacetime, crisis and war? How does expert thinking in the West, Russia and China differ?

Drawing on 75 open-source English-language literature sources available as of the end of 2020, the Center for Global Security Research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) conducted a baselining study on emerging and disruptive technologies and the complexity challenge:

We are working on a similar study capturing Russian and Chinese language expert literature.

 Strand 2: Big Data Analysis of Emerging and Disruptive Technologies

To facilitate a better understanding of technological complexity in nuclear weapons decision making practice, the ELN in cooperation with the Oracle Partnership – a world-leading strategic foresight expert – hosted a pilot workshop. It aimed to develop and initiate a process in which scenario-design and big data interacts with high level practitioners to generate insight into the unprecedented complexity now increasingly presented by emerging and disruptive technologies operating in aggregate on the interface with nuclear decision making.

Based upon a “worst case scenario” build upon a comprehensive technological trend analysis using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI) tools, 20 former high-level experienced nuclear practitioners (NATO SecGens, Joint Chiefs of Staff, SACEUR, MoD, MFA) explored challenges that an emerging technological environment would pose on a nuclear decision maker.

The process validated assumptions that technological complexity will create additional uncertainties, compress decision making time, generate unforeseen risks but also offer new opportunities. This high-level group of experts underscored the lack of sufficient understanding of the technologies and their implications by decision makers, wide concern about autonomous decision making, a strong desire to keep a human in the loop and a conservative approach to change within the decision-making process itself.

Believing that nuclear-decision makers of tomorrow are with us today, the ELN partnered with the Oracle Partnership, the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), the Emerging Voices Network (EVN), the Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security (YGLN) and the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung to expose a younger generation of experts to engage them in a similar conversation about impact, resulting risks and opportunities of technological complexity for nuclear decision making. The younger generation brought a different perspective of, and expectations from, emerging and disruptive technologies and, unburdened by deep involvement in nuclear decision making, offered a unique perspective on the challenge we face.

Strand 3: Methodologies to Deal with Multi-Tech Complexities

In this strand we look at how technological complexity will affect the nuclear decision-maker and develop methodologies that could help deal with technological complexity. The Council of Strategic Risks is leading this work.

 Strand 4: Mitigation Strategies and Arms Control

This strand of work analyzes risks for nuclear stability posed by individual technologies alongside those of other technologies, in particular cyber offensive capabilities, hypersonic weapon systems, space weapons, artificial intelligence, drones and LAWS. It will develop practical policy options that governments might pursue to mitigate related risks and offer possible “arms control” mechanisms for regulation and use of emerging and disruptive technologies. The Arms Control Association is leading this work.

Nuclear and New Technology Publications

Commentary

Deterrence of non-nuclear strategic threats: the case against deterring new technologies

The US, Russia, and the UK have explicitly stated their intention to deter non-nuclear strategic threats from new technologies with nuclear weapons. ELN Senior Policy Fellow Julia Berghofer writes that this could have destabilising effects, opening the door to new vulnerabilities and escalation risks. The N5 should discuss these policies as part of their longstanding dialogue on nuclear doctrines, and a public debate is required to explore potential alternative approaches.

23 July 2024 | Julia Berghofer
Report

Technological complexity and risk reduction: A Guardrails and Self-Assessment Framework for EDTs in NC3 and nuclear weapons decision-making

Emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) are changing our lives – including in the worlds of defence and security. The ELN has been working since 2020 to understand how future nuclear crises may be affected by the intersection of multiple rapidly evolving new technologies. Building on years of work, this report presents a new Framework to help guide the safe use of EDTs in nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) systems, aiming to reduce risks and manage escalation.

19 July 2024 | Belén Bianco and Rishi Paul
Commentary

The fast and the deadly: When Artificial Intelligence meets Weapons of Mass Destruction

Ahead of the German Federal Foreign Office’s Artificial Intelligence and Weapons of Mass Destruction Conference 2024, the ELN’s Policy and Research Director, Oliver Meier, argues that governments should build guardrails around the integration of AI in the WMD sphere, and slow down the incorporation of AI into research, development, production, and planning for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

27 June 2024 | Oliver Meier
Commentary

Ok, Doomer! The NEVER podcast – Biological threats: Going viral

Listen to the fourth episode of the NEVER podcast – Ok, Doomer! In this episode, we explore biological existential and global catastrophic risks. Featuring an introduction to the topic and an exploration of some of the technological mitigation techniques we have available for biological risks, a panel discussion exploring the current state of the international governance of biological risks, and we will also delve into whether humanity’s recent brush with COVID-19 has better or worse prepared us for future pandemics, be they man-made or natural.

Commentary

Unstable systems: Why geoengineering will solve neither climate change nor climate geopolitics

As more attention is paid to geoengineering technologies that claim to mitigate the existential risks posed by climate change, Jakob Gomolka, from our New European Voices on Existential Risk (NEVER) network, argues that policymakers needs to understand the geopolitical implications of these technologies, let alone their climatic side-effects, and calls for more alignment in the international governance of geoengineering technologies.

6 June 2024 | Jakob Gomolka
Commentary

The potential terrorist use of large language models for chemical and biological terrorism

In our latest New European Voices on Existential Risk (NEVER) commentary, Nicolò Miotto explores the potential existential risks stemming from the terrorist use of large language models (LLMs) and AI to manufacture chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. In the commentary he explores how LLMs and AI have enabled terrorist groups to enhance their capabilities so far, and what governments, the private sector, and NGOs need to do to mitigate future risks.

5 April 2024 | Nicolò Miotto

Project Partners

The project team would like to thank the following organisations and people for making this programme possible:

Interested in the project?

For more information on the Nuclear and New Technologies project, please contact Project Lead Katarzyna Kubiak