Main Findings: Meeting the Challenges of the New Nuclear Age, Phase One

Countries desire the security afforded by their own or their allies’ nuclear weapons, but as long as these weapons exist, there remains a chance that they could be used in limited or even vast numbers. This could result from:

  • escalation in the context of an ongoing conventional war, with one side concluding it had no choice but to strike first;
  • an erroneous conclusion made under time pressure that another state has launched a nuclear attack;
  • a miscalculation by a leader who is not realistically informed or who has rebuffed efforts to be so informed;
  • or even via an irrational leader coming to power and making heinous decisions.

All approaches to maintaining strategic stability have been affected by the transition from the largely bilateral nuclear rivalry of the Cold War to today’s more complicated nuclear world.

  • A future world in which stability is preserved through nuclear deterrence faces considerable known and unknown challenges.
  • Formal treaty-based bilateral arms control – a classic tool for managing strategic stability – may be difficult to pursue in the world in which we now live, while trilateral, regional, or multilateral arms control among the nuclear powers are largely untested.


In light of these general observations, the project calls attention to the following recommendations:

1) Russia and the United States should extend New START’s expiration date from 2021 to 2026. They should then use that time to pursue a successor treaty that would further extend the transparency, predictability, and numerical limits (and ideally, lower limits) that New START provides.

2) If formal bilateral arms control treaties prove impossible, Russia and the United States should work to put in place politically binding agreements to capture much of the security and stability benefits that will be lost with the formal treaty process. However challenging such agreements may prove to be, the two states should vigorously explore these options.

3) On a bilateral or a multilateral basis, the United States, Russia, and China should pursue further discussions intended to improve understanding of one another’s strategic concerns and views on which actions by an adversary would be especially concerning or dangerous. A widening gap in the outlook and actions of these three major actors will only make this new nuclear environment less manageable and more dangerous.

4) China, Russia, and the United States should also actively work to see whether and where common ground can be found concerning efforts to mitigate arms spirals and restrain the development, deployment, or use of destabilizing technologies. They should then pursue politically binding agreements to advance these goals, albeit with a clear eye to the limits of verification that would exist in this format.

5) The United States should strengthen resilience in its many forms – including to early warning, command and control, and communications – as a key mechanism both for deterrence (by denial) and for mitigating the risk of escalation from nonconventional attacks (such as cyber- or bio-attacks) or conventional warfare (including attacks in space) to the use of nuclear weapons.

6) While military intelligence and operations will increasingly incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) into the interpretation of large amounts of empirical data, AI should nevertheless not be allowed, either intentionally or inadvertently, to enter or creep into actual decision-making for nuclear weapons use.

7) Little is to be gained, and perhaps much lost, by insisting on the opposition between those who emphasize deterrence as the central element of strategic stability and those who see a necessity for nuclear disarmament. In the U.S.-Russian-Chinese context, steps that would enhance stability by constraining weapons numbers or deployment of specific destabilizing technologies, or by improving communication regarding concerns about, and likely responses to, an adversary’s possible strategic or tactical actions, could serve both causes.

This project examines some of the possible escalation pathways that could lead one or more nuclear weapons states to use nuclear weapons. Through dialogue and consultations with various domestic and international nuclear consistencies, it aims to articulate a set of recommendations for de-escalating possible nuclear crises mostly involving the United States and its allies.