Andrew Futter: Deterrence, Disruptive Technology and Disarmament in the Third Nuclear Age

The Hiroshima Organisation for Global Peace has published a new paper by Andrew Futter, Professor of International Politics at the University of Leicester, on new and disruptive technologies and military capabilities in the Third Nuclear Age, as well as the role of deterrence and the challenges of nuclear disarmament in the nuclear future. Atomic Reporters works with Professor Futter on his concept of the Third Nuclear Age and in particular on bringing this idea to a broader audience. AR has been given permission to publish this article. Here an excerpt; the full article can be downloaded here.

Introduction: A global nuclear order in flux

We are living in an era of flux in the global nuclear order where nuclear risks are changing and the methods, mechanisms and frameworks that have been devised to manage the nuclear condition are under pressure. A perfect storm of rapid widespread technological innovation and the emergence of a global system of great power nuclear competition is calling into question how we prevent future nuclear use, and whether the traditional organization of global nuclear politics around a “managed” system of nuclear deterrence and mutual vulnerability, can continue to provide stability and peace in the ways that many believe it has in the past. At the same time, technological and geopolitical shifts are unfolding in a global normative nuclear environment where dominant hegemonic ideas of past control are being challenged – both theoretically by the emergence of the academic field of “critical nuclear studies” and practically through agreements such as the 2017 Nuclear Ban Treaty.1 The result is pervasive, and has implications for how we think about nuclear weapons and the way that we keep ourselves safe (whether this be through better managed deterrence and stability, or by a renewed drive towards abolishing nuclear weapons entirely). This suggests that we may be at a pivotal moment in our nuclear history where political choices about the nature of our nuclear future, nuclear deterrence, and especially nuclear disarmament, will be fundamental to what lays ahead.

Of course, there have been periods of worrying technological and political change that have impacted global nuclear politics in the past; the development of long-range missiles, multi- megaton bombs, stealthy submarines, and maneuverable warheads, to name just a few, but the current challenge appears to be more pronounced. For one, most previous technological innovation largely served to enhance the perceived security of nuclear second-strike capabilities, and therefore as strengthening deterrence through mutual nuclear vulnerability between nuclear- armed countries. Technological change was also primarily limited to the two superpowers (the US and the Soviet Union/Russia) and to a lesser extent their allies and the non-great powers, in what was effectively a bipolar or dyadic world. But perhaps most fundamentally, the new capabilities or strategic missions that resulted from technological progress in the past were principally in nuclear weaponry and for nuclear missions and served to bolster the credibility of delivering nuclear warheads or bombs. Today the impact is quite different: technological innovation across a range of weapons and supporting capabilities has the potential to undermine nuclear weapons systems previously thought of as being relatively secure, this in turn may create the political space for greater risk taking, strategic coercion, or even facilitate pre-emptive or disarming conventional counterforce strikes; these capabilities are being developed by all leading nuclear-armed states, but most importantly by the nuclear “great powers” as part of an unfolding competitive multipolar nuclear world; and lastly, many new strategic military capabilities are non- nuclear, dual-capable (can be used for nuclear or conventional applications) and, in some cases, non-kinetic, and may augment or even replace the role and functions of nuclear weapons in the future.

This shift and challenge are slowly being recognized in academic, NGO and government forums and literature, but it remains fundamentally under-theorized and poorly understood as a general global phenomenon. This is partly because it is a complex – some would say “wicked”2 – challenge with many different moving parts and dynamics, and something that is experienced differently by different stakeholders in different parts of the world. However, one way of seeking to develop a suitable framework of understanding and analyzing this transition in the strategic nuclear environment is as a move into a “Third Nuclear Age” and as something distinct from what has come before. It does not necessarily follow that everything we have established to manage nuclear risks in the past is wrong or defunct in this new era, or that a “Third” nuclear age means that the challenges and remedies of the past simply disappear or become anachronistic. But it does mean that we need to reassess what works and what needs to change in a world that is potentially going to be quite different to that of the Cold War when many aspects of what we might think of as “nuclear orthodoxy” were conceived, or the 1990s and 2000s when the focus and nature of nuclear risks appeared to shift again. Given this changing threat environment, the Third Nuclear Age is likely to be an era that will require genuine political engagement to ensure that we don’t sleep walk into a world where nuclear use becomes more likely through accident, miscalculation or even deliberately. On the flip side, there is no reason why the Third Nuclear Age cannot become synonymous with a genuine and concerted move towards nuclear peace, possibly through nuclear disarmament.

This paper proceeds in four sections: the first outlines the current shift in global nuclear order and places it in historical context before explaining the significance and value of conceptualizing this transition as a move toward a new “nuclear age”; the second explains and unpacks the technological drivers of this shift in global nuclear politics, with particular focus on the emergence of a range of “disruptive technologies” that might be used for different strategic capabilities, missions and effects; section three puts these technological challenges into political and geopolitical perspective and shows how the return of nuclear great power competition is challenging and changing notions of deterrence, security, and regional and global stability between the US, Russia, China and India; section four begins to think about the different ways that nuclear politics might unfold in the Third Nuclear Age by contrasting alternative nuclear futures characterized by restraint and transformation; finally, the conclusion considers what the shift into a new nuclear age will mean for the idea of a sustainable and manageable “nuclear peace”.

Continue reading here.

Andrew Futter is Professor of International Politics at the University of Leicester, UK, where he has worked since 2012. He has written widely on issues of nuclear politics and the intersection between technology and security, including the recent books “Hacking the Bomb” (2018), “Threats to Euro-Atlantic Security” (2020), and “The Politics of Nuclear Weapons” (2021). He is currently leading the team working on the European Research Council funded “Third Nuclear Age” research project.