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Unpacking Technological Complexity & Approaches to Nuclear Policy Formulation

In 2020, the European Leadership Network (ELN) in cooperation with partners set out on a journey to unpack technological complexity as it impacts nuclear decision-making and propose practical policy approaches to deal with related risks.

Project Team

The challenge we want to address

Nuclear decision-making is complex. Disruptive technologies pose both risks and opportunities to nuclear decision-making which need to be better explained, understood, gamed, and mitigated. The project’s focus is on the – so far under-examined – implications of the technological complexity that emerges when nuclear decision-making is affected by a plethora of new technologies which are all evolving rapidly and simultaneously. Building on existing work that looks at the impact of individual technologies on nuclear policy, this project assesses the impact of these technologies in the aggregate, seeks to overcome related risks and explores opportunities offered by technologies to mitigate these risks.

Leveraging on the ELN’s deep expertise, convening power, and network of seasoned, high-level practitioners from multiple countries and utilizing ELN’s partner organizations strengths, we have embarked on a path to study, analyze, describe, train, and recommend decision-makers on nuclear policy challenges of technological complexities.

The project will develop, test-drive, propose and promote practical policy approaches that governments might pursue to begin to responsibly regulate and steer the weaponization of potentially disruptive technologies and their use in nuclear decision making.

The objectives of this multi-year project are to reduce risk in the nuclear decision-making, identify mitigation strategies, de-escalation solutions and manage potential and unintended escalation. We also strive to engage and raise the voice of younger generation experts in the discussion.

To commence work, the ELN in partnership with the German Federal Foreign Office has organized and hosted a “Rethinking Arms Control” workshop in March 2021. This closed-door meeting brought a diverse group of experts of scholars, practitioners, former nuclear weapons decision-makers, and emerging leaders to ideate and analyse the challenges, opportunities, and pitfalls of technological complexity. The summary of the proceedings and major takeaways from the workshop ARE highlighted in the following report: New Technologies, Complexity, Nuclear Decision Making and Arms Control: Workshop Report, June 2021

How we want to achieve the goal

The project is built upon four strands which – like four legs of a stool – support the main goal. These are:

  1. Baselining Exercise
  2. Big Data Analysis of Emerging and Disruptive Technologies
  3. Methodologies to Deal with Multi-tech Complexities
  4. Mitigation Strategies & Arms Control

We begin by asking what the science (strand 1), practioners (strand 2) and current policies and tools (strand 3) tell us about the impact of and ways of dealing with technological complexity in nuclear decision making. We then craft policy approaches that governments might pursue (strand 3 and 4).

This comprehensive approach allows us to unpack technological complexity by harnessing the brightest minds around the world, test policy approaches with people who “have been there and done it” and use our networks to develop and promote solutions with current decision-makers.

Funding from the German Federal Foreign Office, the MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and in-kind contributions from project partners make this work possible.

The Four Strands

Strand 1: Baselining Exercise

What can expert literature tell us about the nexus between technological complexity and nuclear weapons decision-making in peacetime, crisis and war? How does expert thinking in the West, Russia and China differ?

Drawing on 75 open-source English-language literature sources available as of the end of 2020, the Center for Global Security Research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) conducted a baselining study on emerging and disruptive technologies and the complexity challenge:

We are working on a similar study capturing Russian and Chinese language expert literature.

 Strand 2: Big Data Analysis of Emerging and Disruptive Technologies

To facilitate a better understanding of technological complexity in nuclear weapons decision making practice, the ELN in cooperation with the Oracle Partnership – a world-leading strategic foresight expert – hosted a pilot workshop. It aimed to develop and initiate a process in which scenario-design and big data interacts with high level practitioners to generate insight into the unprecedented complexity now increasingly presented by emerging and disruptive technologies operating in aggregate on the interface with nuclear decision making.

Based upon a “worst case scenario” build upon a comprehensive technological trend analysis using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI) tools, 20 former high-level experienced nuclear practitioners (NATO SecGens, Joint Chiefs of Staff, SACEUR, MoD, MFA) explored challenges that an emerging technological environment would pose on a nuclear decision maker.

The process validated assumptions that technological complexity will create additional uncertainties, compress decision making time, generate unforeseen risks but also offer new opportunities. This high-level group of experts underscored the lack of sufficient understanding of the technologies and their implications by decision makers, wide concern about autonomous decision making, a strong desire to keep a human in the loop and a conservative approach to change within the decision-making process itself.

Believing that nuclear-decision makers of tomorrow are with us today, the ELN partnered with the Oracle Partnership, the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), the Emerging Voices Network (EVN), the Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security (YGLN) and the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung to expose a younger generation of experts to engage them in a similar conversation about impact, resulting risks and opportunities of technological complexity for nuclear decision making. The younger generation brought a different perspective of, and expectations from, emerging and disruptive technologies and, unburdened by deep involvement in nuclear decision making, offered a unique perspective on the challenge we face.

Strand 3: Methodologies to Deal with Multi-Tech Complexities

In this strand we look at how technological complexity will affect the nuclear decision-maker and develop methodologies that could help deal with technological complexity. The Council of Strategic Risks is leading this work.

 Strand 4: Mitigation Strategies and Arms Control

This strand of work analyzes risks for nuclear stability posed by individual technologies alongside those of other technologies, in particular cyber offensive capabilities, hypersonic weapon systems, space weapons, artificial intelligence, drones and LAWS. It will develop practical policy options that governments might pursue to mitigate related risks and offer possible “arms control” mechanisms for regulation and use of emerging and disruptive technologies. The Arms Control Association is leading this work.

Nuclear and New Technology Publications


How can we help science to save the world?

To launch the ELN’s new project “NEVER”, which seeks to unite young people working on global catastrophic risk from across Europe, Lord Martin Rees writes on the need for an alliance between science and the public sphere and the role young individuals and activists can play in this.

14 February 2023 | Martin Rees

The hooded man at the computer: What are cyber images telling us?

The importance of new technologies for conflict and security has grown in the past decade, but the images we use to represent them have remained the same. In this illustrated long-form commentary, ELN commissioning editor Esther Kersley interviews cyber security experts to explore what current cyber images are conveying and what impact this could be having on our ability to understand these issues and imagine the effects they may have on our future.

14 December 2022 | Esther Kersley

Emerging and disruptive technologies, nuclear risk, and strategic stability: Chinese literature review

With emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) increasingly becoming a new field of military competition among great powers, serious questions have been raised about whether they will fundamentally change the ways modern warfare will be conducted, in particular implications for nuclear deterrence. Fei Su and Dr Jingdong Yuan analyse Chinese academic and professional publications to explore new ways forward for mitigating the risks posed by EDTs.

13 December 2022 | Fei Su and Dr Jingdong Yuan

Collective cyber defence and attack: NATO’s Article 5 after the Ukraine conflict

The cyber side of conflict has become a prominent topic in recent years, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made the discussion of this topic all the more relevant. In this commentary, Michael Klipstein and Tinatin Japaridze argue that NATO should consider and create policy for collective cyber defence, and potentially offense, under Article 5 of the NATO Charter.


Nuclear decision-making, complexity and emerging and disruptive technologies: A comprehensive assessment

This report looks at how the complex interactions of emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) could impact nuclear decision-making, particularly in an escalating regional conventional conflict. In some scenarios, EDTs could exacerbate nuclear escalation, while in other circumstances they could encourage nuclear restraint.

Project Partners

The project team would like to thank the following organisations and people for making this programme possible:

Interested in the project?

For more information on the Nuclear and New Technologies project, please contact Project Lead Katarzyna Kubiak