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Wasteful and dangerous arms racing


Rayhan Ahmed Topader:


The United States detonated two nuclear weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, respectively. The two bombings killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians, and remain the only use of nuclear weapons in armed conflic. Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the U.S. nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Decades later, the world is still grappling with the presence of nuclear weapons and their associated risks. Although nuclear weapons have not been used in conflict for decades, the risk of their use persists. Around the world, countries are still building and modernizing nuclear arsenals. Making nuclear early warning systems and decision-making more automatic also brings risks. Human beings can make ethical judgments and question orders from superiors in a way machines cannot. Moreover, no technology is immune to failure. In the nuclear field where the stakes are incredibly high these failures can be particularly catastrophic.Of the new technologies, hypersonic weapons are particularly problematic for the nuclear realm. These new weapons, which can deliver conventional or nuclear payloads, differ from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Their speed and manoeuvrability enable them to have unpredictable flight paths, which can evade traditional missile defence systems. A target thousands of miles away can be hit in a matter of minutes, severely shortening the time for the target country to decide its response. This new class of weapons received significant attention in 2019 when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had deployed its own hypersonic glide vehicle known as the Avangard.

But growing arms racing in emerging technologies does not advance its desired goals of achieving strategic advantage and enhancing deterrence. In fact, it is strategically suspect, gratuitously risky and economically wasteful. Europe can and should play a leading role in encouraging restraint and advancing needed arms control in the high-tech sphere.Background Since the dawn of civilization there has been competition among nations in pursuit of superior weaponry. The race for ever greater weapon destructive power culminated in the development of nuclear weapons. This quest, motivated by age-old logic that superior force translates into battlefield success, encountered a dead end when mutually assured destruction took hold during the Cold War. Strategists quickly recognised a credibility problem with threatening the use of mutually-devastating force in response to minor provocations. The preferred workaround, exemplified by the Kennedy Administration’s flexible response policy, was to retain the pursuit of superior force, albeit in modified form. Instead of concentrating on nuclear superiority in now infeasible total war, the nuclear powers shifted focus to achieving the conventional upper hand in lower-level, more fightable conflict settings. These analysts highlight important concerns, but they tend to focus on the effects of arms racing decisions and less on the questionable nature of the underlying strategic thinking guiding them. Some direct fundamental questions are too infrequently asked is arms racing in emerging technologies a sound strategy? As the US Third Offset Strategy and 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) make clear, a core objective of competitive development in emerging technologies is the achievement of strategic advantage.

The NSS refers to this as overmatch, or the combination of capabilities in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success and to ensure that America’s sons and daughters will never be in a fair fight. Despite its unprecedented defence spending, however, the US prospect of securing durable advantages, just like those of its fellow competitors, is illusory.Just as the historical record shows in the nuclear and conventional arms race contexts, any advantage one state is able to carve out in the gamut of emerging technologies will almost certainly be ephemeral. The party that initially exploits a technical breakthrough in weapons design makes it easier for a competitor to field a comparable weapon. Particularly with modern advanced computing and accelerating additive manufacturing capacities, the first mover will only be providing proof of feasibility and general design information, however carefully this is guarded, which will allow adversaries to expeditiously develop comparable capabilities or asymmetric counters. Furthermore, unlike during the Cold War, competitors today, like the US and China, are better economically matched such that the prospect of outspending and, thus, outracing rivals is not realistic.It is commonly argued that great power competition demands competitive arms development.But it should be noted that, in this context, there is a significant range of competitive intensity. In the US, the NSS and Joint Vision 2020 make clear that maximal superiority, expressed in terms of overmatch and full spectrum dominance, is the goal. This aggressive posture gives military establishments in Russia and China cover for correspondingly ambitious, high-tech weapons programs, creating a vicious cycle of perpetual arms racing.

To mitigate the costs and dangers of this chimeric quest for dominance, arms competition should be constrained by rational calculus not only by the finite nature of national funding resources. While it is hypothetically possible that clandestine weapons programs could deliver strategic surprises, modern surveillance technologies make any deployment of these secret capabilities very difficult.If arms racing fails to yield durable competitive advantages, does it strengthen deterrence? Deterrence credibility is a function of capability and will. Arms racing strategies tend to focus myopically on the former while neglecting the latter. Formal theoretical analysis shows that the party with greater resolve (higher risk threshold) has the advantage, and analysts acknowledge that it is undoubtedly true that US competitors, like China, enjoy asymmetry of interest in potential conflict hotspots inevitably located in their more immediate geographical regions.That a strategy of increasing risk through progressively advanced capability development will enhance deterrence in a world where challengers possess similarly advancing capabilities, but different risk tolerances, is far from clear. The failure of US deterrence strategy to deter Chinese salami-slicing in the South China Sea is illustrative of this fundamental asymmetry of interest problem.The future of arms control involving parliamentarians and government representatives, as well as thinks tanks, researchers, military experts, and industry representatives. While constraining military applications of emerging technologies will inevitably be challenging, a possible arms control agenda might focus as a point of departure on restricting the deployment of new families of advanced high-tech weaponry.

While a prohibition on research and development in emerging capabilities is unrealistic, it is deployment that significantly increases costs and risks.Future arms control measures are going to have to be less about regulating capabilities and more about placing restrictions on certain types of behaviour. While formal arms control measures can be adapted to include new technologies informal arms control measures are probably best suited to deal with enabling dual-use technologies like cyber and AI.These more informal arrangements should, for example, include multi-stakeholder discussions and agreements on the acceptable parameters of AI or cyber use within the nuclear realm. The OSCE’s confidence-building measures that aim to limit conflict caused by cyber technologies could serve as a useful example. Finding a way to scale regional efforts like this one up to the international level will prove crucial.None of this will be quick, and it certainly will not be easy. However, if we want to be able to respond effectively to the new class of threats emerging technologies pose to the nuclear field, we have to start thinking more creatively about arms control.The dangers of these emerging technologies do not necessarily come from the intrinsic properties of the technologies themselves but rather from the applications of these technologies in the nuclear realm. Since these technological advances are happening against the backdrop of crumbling arms control agreements, and increasingly dangerous rhetoric from bellicose leaders, reducing nuclear risk is again urgent. Risk reduction today will have to address the threats posed by new technologies.Regulating a technology such as hypersonic missiles is comparatively more straightforward because it can be done using traditional arms control tools.

These include quantifying, tracking and checking items, where verification is conceptually easier and more straightforward. When it comes to hypersonic weapons in the nuclear realm, the question is only about finding the political will to engage in arms control.Cyber risks appear less amenable to the traditional approach to arms control that has dominated the post-Cold War period. Quantifying and controlling capabilities cannot be simply and neatly exported to the cyber realm. Moreover, given the decentralized nature of cyberspace and the multiplicity and diversity of actors, security challenges in cyberspace will most likely not be amenable to traditional state-centric arms control measures that have been in place for much of the twenty-first century. One cannot quantify or track intangible cyber activities the same way one can count and limit tangible nuclear hardware like missiles. A missile with a conventional warhead could easily be assumed to be one with a nuclear warhead.Research into the various immediate and long-term impacts of nuclear weapons use and testing is important in itself because it informs us of the unique characteristics of these weapons. Such research also provides a crucial basis for humanitarian preparedness and response, and is important in upholding the rights of the individuals and communities affected. The evidence of the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons is essential to assess the legality of their use under international humanitarian law.

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