Will disruptive technology cause nuclear war?

Recently analysts have begun to worry, however, that new strategic military technologies may make it possible for a state to conduct a successful first strike on an enemy. For example, Chinese colleagues have complained to me in Track II dialogues that the United States may decide to launch a sophisticated cyberattack against Chinese nuclear command and control, essentially turning off China’s nuclear forces. Then, Washington will follow up with a massive strike with conventional cruise and hypersonic missiles to destroy China’s nuclear weapons. Finally, if any Chinese forces happen to survive, the United States can simply mop up China’s ragged retaliatory strike with advanced missile defenses. China will be disarmed and US nuclear weapons will still be sitting on the shelf, untouched.

If the United States, or any other state acquires such a first-strike capability, then the logic of MAD would be undermined. Washington may be tempted to launch a nuclear first strike. Or China may choose instead to use its nuclear weapons early in a conflict before they can be wiped out—the so-called “use ‘em or lose ‘em” problem.

According to this logic, therefore, the appropriate policy response would be to ban outright or control any new weapon systems that might threaten second-strike capabilities.