Spring 2020

New Technologies & Strategic Stability

Christopher F. Chyba

A variety of new technologies, ranging from broad enabling technologies to specific weapon systems, may threaten or enhance strategic stability. In this essay, I analyze a technology’s potential to significantly affect stability along three axes: the pace of advances in, and diffusion of, this technology; the technology’s implications for deterrence and defense; and the technology’s potential for direct impact on crisis decision-making. I apply this framework to examples including hypersonic weapons, antisatellite weapons, artificial intelligence, and persistent overhead monitoring. Formal arms control to contain dangers posed by some of these seems technically possible, though currently politically difficult to achieve. Others, particularly enabling technologies, resist arms control based on effective verification. The major powers will therefore instead have to find other ways to cope with these technologies and their implications. These options should include exchanges with potential adversaries so that pathways to nuclear escalation, and possible mitigating steps, can be identified and discussed.

Christopher F. Chyba is Professor of Astrophysical Sciences and International Affairs at Princeton University. He is Cochair of the “Meeting the Challenges of the New Nuclear Age” project at the American Academy, and has previously served on the staffs of the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

New technologies can have direct and indirect military significance that in some cases may threaten strategic stability. Such technologies can arise anywhere along a spectrum extending from research in pure science to systems development driven almost exclusively by military goals. Genetic engineering, and in particular its powerful realization in the new CRISPR technology, exemplifies the former; airborne high-powered laser counterspace weapons would be an example of the latter.

Rather than choose a selection of these new technologies and examine their potential effects, which has now been done by many others, I choose to step back and suggest a framework for analyzing the impact of new technologies on strategic stability. If this effort is successful, others might modify or add to the framework in the future. My hope with this framework is to increase the likelihood that consideration of a new technology with possible significant implications for strategic stability would include a systematic assessment of that technology’s potential stabilizing and, especially, destabilizing effects. This assessment would need to be specific to capabilities of, and employment against, particular adversaries. By thinking systematically about these potential effects, it might be possible to make these choices more wisely, and to argue–domestically, bilaterally, or multilaterally–for appropriate restraint, transparency, or control.

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