Emerging technologies & relevance of N-deterrence

Emerging technologies tend to produce technology pessimism and technology optimism

Dr Zafar Khan August 25, 2022
The writer is an Executive Director of BTTN, at BUITEMS

Will the revolution in emerging technologies undermine the relevance of nuclear deterrence? Although scholars and defence analysts have begun conceptualising about the emerging technologies and their implications on the country’s military policies, force posturing, and broader strategic stability, there is little discussion about whether or not emerging technologies undermine the relevance of nuclear deterrence. Arguably, since the Cold War, nuclear deterrence has played a significant role in preventing major wars particularly between nuclear weapon states. Scholars still need to further explore the essentials of emerging technologies vis-à-vis the longstanding value of nuclear deterrence. With the advancement of emerging technologies, new concepts regarding technologies in the existing canon of literature are emerging that are fairly connected with the military and Cold War nuclear history.

For instance, Keir A Lieber in his seminal work War and the Engineers calls this logic “technological opportunism” where states tend to acquire emerging technologies for enhancing their offensive capabilities at the expense of security competition. In his extended and must-read volume on Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Warfare: The USA, China, and Strategic Stability, James Johnson attempts to add value to the growing knowledge of AI and emerging technologies where he primarily argues that nascent technologies are the “enablers” and the “force multipliers” in the existing forms of conventional and nuclear weapons rather than a standalone weapons system. Jacquelyn Schneider piece on The Capability/Vulnerability Paradox and Military Revolution associates the information revolution as part of emerging technology with the theoretical framework conceptualised as “the capability/vulnerability paradox” while suggesting that “the degree of capability dependence created by a military revolution combined with the ability of adversaries to exploit vulnerabilities creates potential pockets of instability.” Therefore, it argues that “indicators suggest that greater centralization and data dependencies could move the information revolution towards incentives of instability.” Andrew Futter’s volume on Hacking the Bomb: Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons reflects the scary implications of cyber technology vis-à-vis nuclear weapons and its related delivery systems that may undermine strategic stability between the potential nuclear adversaries.

Emerging technologies tend to produce technology pessimism and technology optimism. The pessimists are not too sanguine about the emerging technologies. They perceive that newer technologies will have destabilising effects in the international system. States acquiring and possessing emerging technologies will have the greater incentives famously termed “the first mover incentives” where states could potentially gain the incentive for preemptive strike. Also, this could increase security dilemma, crisis instability, and potential arms race between states.

The optimists consider that emerging technologies may not make the classic concept of deterrence irrelevant between the potential adversaries. Therefore, it is easier to exaggerate about emerging technologies without considering the timeframe these technologies take before reaching up for mobility, penetrability, speed and lethality such as the nuclear weapons and the related delivery systems. Emerging technologies may be stabilising in one particular imperative while the same can be destabilising in other security paradigms. That said, if technologies are under the human intelligence and centralised human control (human-in-the-loop) without letting the emerging technologies to outmaneuver the human being, this could become stabilising with human intuitive ability and capacity to help manage and resolve technology related critical issues between the potential rivals.

Although many of these leading scholars conceptualise the scary implications of disruptive technologies, none of them argue that such technologies could make nuclear weapons irrelevant from international politics. It will be potentially dangerous and flawed to abruptly conclude that nascent technologies make nuclear weapons irrelevant without having to examine the strong empirical evidence.

In other words, simply, the nascent technologies may not replace the consistent essence of nuclear deterrence in the new era of emerging technology. Nuclear deterrence continues to hold the fort for ultimate security in the realm of realpolitik. As a first-mover or force-multiplier, emerging technologies provide opportunities (technology opportunism) for nuclear weapons states to enhance their offensive capabilities against the potential adversaries. Besides, there is no evidence that nuclear weapons states are planning to get rid of their nuclear weapons because of the advent of emerging technologies. If it were the case, nuclear weapons states would meet their promises for nuclear disarmament despite the life extension of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) bolstered by the NPT RevCons. Emerging technologies may provide incentives to further increase the value of nuclear deterrence in the new and modernised nuclear world order depending much on the treatment of nuclear deterrence versus these technologies.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 25th, 2022.

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