Skip to content

Unpacking Technological Complexity & Approaches to Nuclear Policy Formulation

In 2020, the European Leadership Network (ELN) in cooperation with the Arms Control Association (ACA), the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR), the Center for Global Security Research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the Oracle Partnership, Prof. Andrew Futter, Dr Vladimir Kozin (Analytical Agency “Strategic Stability”), 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-Foundation set out on a journey to unpack technological complexity and propose practical policy approaches to deal with related nuclear risks.

The challenge we want to address

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.


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:

Dr Vladimir Kozin (MGIMO’s Military-Political Studies Center) is preparing a similar study capturing Russian 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 is partnering 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 a similar scenario and set of sophisticated, AI-based technological complexity trends and engage them in a similar conversation about impact, resulting risks and opportunities for high level nuclear decision making. We believe that the younger generation will bring a different perspective of, and expectations from, emerging and disruptive technologies and, unburdened by deep involvement in nuclear decision making, will offer a unique perspective on the challenge we face.

Strand 3: Methodologies to Deal with Multi-Tech Complexities

In this strand we want to look at methodologies for nuclear decision making 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 is looking at mitigation efforts and possible “arms control” mechanisms for regulation and use of emerging and disruptive technologies, in particular cyber offensive capabilities, hypersonic weapon systems, space weapons, artificial intelligence, drones and LAWS. This strand will assess the impact of these technologies on nuclear stability and evaluate and develop practical policy options that governments might pursue to mitigate related risks. The Arms Control Association is leading this work.

Nuclear and New Technology Publications


Emerging technologies and nuclear stability

Marina Favaro summarises her recent report “Weapons of Mass Distortion” for King’s College London that uses machine learning to explore which emerging technologies are most likely to escalate a crisis past the nuclear threshold.

19 July 2021 | Marina Favaro

New technologies, complexity, nuclear decision making and arms control: Workshop report

The ELN convened over 70 experts, researchers, and practitioners from around the world to look at the nexus between disruptive technologies, nuclear decision-making and arms control. This workshop report explores the challenges and opportunities new technologies pose to existing arms control and proposes six policy recommendations.

European Leadership Network

The European Leadership Network (ELN) is a network of over 300 past, present, and future European leaders and high-level decision-makers devoted to a safer Europe and working to provide practical real-world solutions to political and security challenges.

Go to website

Arms Control Association

The Arms Control Association (ACA) is the go-to place for research, reporting, analysis, outreach, and fact-based policy advocacy in the support of reduction and dismantlement of WMD.

The world’s major military powers are spending billions of dollars on military applications of hypersonic weapons systems, offensive cyber weapons, autonomous weapons, and other new and emerging technologies. Currently, the speed of development of these technologies is outpacing careful assessment of their risks and consequences, especially as they relate to strategic stability. There is an urgent need not only to assess the significant implications of these developments on the future of warfare and arms control, but also to develop practical approaches for establishing common understandings and putting in place regulations among key nations aimed at mitigating the adverse effects these new technologies may produce.

As part of an initiative of the European Leadership Network, the Arms Control Association is leading efforts with key experts to evaluate and develop practical policy options that governments might pursue in order to begin to responsibly regulate the weaponization of potentially disruptive emerging military technologies and their use in warfare.

Go to website

The Council on Strategic Risks

The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is a nonprofit, non-partisan security policy institute devoted to anticipating, analyzing and addressing core systemic risks to security in the 21st century, with special examination of the ways in which these risks intersect and exacerbate one another. In collaboration with ELN, CSR will explore new approaches to handling complex, high-risk decision-making brought about by a set of new technologies including social media, deep fakes, machine learning, cyber weapons, autonomous systems, hypersonics and much more. The project will unpack the many layers of complexity that could lead to an increase in the risk of nuclear war and devise ways to help nuclear decision-makers avoid miscalculations, misunderstandings, and escalation. CSR will produce a series of online training modules and a comprehensive scenario exercise to help train today’s nuclear decision-makers as well as the next generation.

Go to website

The Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)

The Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) serves as a bridge between the science, technology, and national security policy communities focusing on emerging national security challenges in the areas of deterrence, assurance, and strategic stability.

“While the United States and NATO were focused on counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism, Russia was focused on countering the European security order, re-making the global order, and preparing for armed confrontation with the US and its allies.  Toward that end, it revolutionized its approach to regional war, introducing a strategic dimension that combines robust nuclear forces with significant non-nuclear strike capabilities as well as cyber space, counter-space, and information warfare capabilities.  A war between Russia and NATO would likely unfold with a suddenness and intensity intended to overwhelm the alliance’s capacity to act in a coherent and effective way.  Coming to terms with the complexities of modern war is essential if NATO is to be successful in deterring such a conflict and prevailing if it proves unavoidable.” – Brad Roberts, Director

Go to website

The Oracle Partnership

The Oracle Partnership is a world-leading strategic foresight expert using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI) tools and focusing on strategic risk and innovation.

Go to website

Professor Andrew Futter, University of Leicester

Prof. Andrew Futter researches contemporary nuclear weapons issues and how disruptive technologies are impacting nuclear strategy, stability, and arms control.

The Third Nuclear Age team at the University of Leicester are working on a European Research Council funded project designed to examine the political and technological drivers of a new generation of global nuclear risks and attempting to theorise this transition in the global nuclear order and what it means for how we prevent future nuclear use.  The Third Nuclear Age team have been working closely with partners at the ELN for several years, particularly in exploring the framing of the “disruptive and emerging tech” challenge and look forward to continuing this highly productive partnership going forward.

“The challenges posed by a suite of disruptive technologies, some new, some emerging and some more established, are fundamentally changing the nuclear risk landscape.  As a result, all stakeholders urgently need to understand our increasingly complex nuclear world, and how this shift to a new chapter in the nuclear story will impact deterrence strategy, Mutually Assured Destruction, arms racing and arms control, escalation and crisis management, and how to prevent nuclear weapons from being used again.”

Go to website

Dr Vladimir Kozin (Analytical Agency “Strategic Stability")

Dr Vladimir Kozin (Analytical Agency “Strategic Stability”) is a leading expert on Russian foreign policy and arms control. Analytical Agency “Strategic Stability” is an independent research unit based in Moscow, analyzing the offensive and defensive weapons’ impact upon strategic stability and security on a global scale.

“It will help to better understand the current issues in arms control, especially in the nuclear domain and related hi tech, and concentrate multinational ideas and suggestions as to how effectively consolidate strategic stability and ameliorate the global security in the foreseeable future for the benefits of all nations”

Go to website

The British American Security Information Council (BASIC)

The British American Security Information Council (BASIC) is a non-partisan think tank promoting meaningful dialogue to build international trust, reduce nuclear risks, and advance disarmament. BASIC has a global reputation for convening distinctive and empathic dialogues that help states overcome complex strategic and political differences and leverage our established networks to get the right people in the room and facilitate effective, meaningful exchange.

BASIC works with the ELN on the 2NT project to bring fresh, globally distributed voices to the table through our Emerging Voices Network – and facilitate their engagement in the Young Generation Workshop. The Emerging Voices Network (EVN) is a highly diverse digital network of high-potential, next-generation leaders on nuclear issues that promotes collaboration, dialogue, and bridge-building between the Global North and South.

Go to website

The Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security (YGLN)

The Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security (YGLN) develops a new generation of leaders and bridges the divide between Russia and the West.

Go to website

The Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (HBS)

The Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (HBS) acts as a catalyst for Green visions and projects, a think tank for policy reform, and as an international network to promote the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Since the cultural roots of HBS’s foundation lie in the German peace movement, the organisation has been engaged in arms control and disarmament discussions for decades. HBS has been cooperating with several international think tanks and advocacy groups in the arms control field, inter alia with the ELN in 2019 on the INF Treaty. HBS is also partnering with the ELN on the Young Generation Workshop.

Go to website

Interested in the project?

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