Skip to content

Responding to new technological threats without nuclear weapons

Nuclear weapons are unique. The potential destructive power and long-term effects of nuclear weapons use would be catastrophic. In 2022, the five NPT nuclear weapons states reaffirmed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Despite this, there have been policy developments that suggest that nuclear weapons may be used in response to comparable threats. We believe there has not been sufficient public debate about the potential comparability of such threats, and the implications for nuclear deterrence.

What?

The ELN is currently engaged in a project responding to recent policy developments in the United Kingdom and other nuclear weapon states which may consider the use of nuclear weapons in response to comparable non-nuclear threats such as new technological threats.

The main effort of this project is to create public and parliamentary awareness and debate on the issues and feed key findings into international fora. We continue to build and evolve an ecosystem of experts, academics and practitioners who share an interest in this topic, including our intergenerational network of over 450 of Europe’s leading defence and security experts.

This project sits within our wider ‘Emerging Disruptive Technologies and Risk Reduction’ programme.

Why?

Recent developments in both the United States and the United Kingdom’s nuclear policy postures have included the possibility of the threat of the use of nuclear weapons to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction and emerging technologies which might constitute a comparable threat. With this development, it is possible that other states possessing nuclear weapons may adopt similar policies. 

Whilst there are potential significant and catastrophic impacts from the malicious use of emerging disruptive technologies and other non-nuclear strategic attacks, there is a lack of consensus or transparent definition of what would quantify a comparable threat to that of nuclear weapons. It remains unclear what the threshold would be to respond to non-nuclear attacks with nuclear weapons. This ambiguity introduces an increased risk of nuclear use, which would be catastrophic to European and global security. 

How?

Since 2022, the ELN has been engaged in research assessing nuclear weapon states’ policy positions on responding to non-nuclear strategic threats and whether these threats constitute a comparable risk. This work concluded that 1) more work is required to understand the potential impact of emerging technologies to cause strategic-level damage, 2) the current model of nuclear deterrence may not be suitable for non-nuclear states and actors who could use emerging technologies maliciously, and 3) a new approach is needed for governing emerging technologies and proliferation.   

The ELN will continue research exploring the comparability of non-nuclear threats, the implementation of failsafe reviews in nuclear weapon states, the suitability of the deterrence model, and a review of international law and norms.  

Harnessing the full power of the ELN’s network, we will conduct workshops to guide analysis, policy proposals, and op-eds to shape public and parliamentary debates. We will present our findings at a launch event in London and at various international fora. 

Project publications

Policy brief

Resisting the risks of nuclear mission creep: UK deterrence and emerging strategic threats

In recent years the US and the UK have said they might deter threats arising from emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) with nuclear weapons. This policy shift signals an increased emphasis on nuclear deterrence and challenges the UK’s non-proliferation and disarmament commitments. Instead of aiming to deter the extreme use of EDTs with nuclear weapons, this policy brief argues that the UK and other nuclear weapons states should focus on developing their national resilience to mitigate threats.

8 December 2023 | Julia Berghofer
Commentary

Existential threats beyond the bomb: emerging disruptive technologies in the age of AI

To better understand emerging technologies, NEVER members Konrad, Anemone, Emil, Arthur, and Joel outline the evolution of the risk landscape around emerging disruptive technologies and draw parallels between the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and those posed by novel biotechnologies. They explore the broader challenge of governing emerging technologies and suggest potential ways forward.

Commentary

Beyond nuclear deterrence: New approaches for tackling non-nuclear strategic threats

In our latest commentary from the ELN’s New European Voices on Existential Risk (NEVER) network, Shane Ward and Eva Siegmann, explore how the emergence of non-nuclear strategic threats (NNST) has undermined the normative taboo surrounding the use of nuclear weapons, and why new methods extending beyond deterrence are needed to ensure international stability.

23 October 2023 | Shane Ward and Eva Siegmann
Who's involved?

Funders