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Jamie Shea : The nuclear deterrent has faltered in modern times

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Jamie Shea, Professor at the University of Exeter

Professor of Strategy and Security within the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter (since September 2018) Senior Fellow responsible for security and defence programmes at Friends of Europe and a Senior Advisor with the European Policy Centre Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and Security at the Institute of European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, BelgiumVisiting Professor, Department of Politics at the University of SurreySecretary General of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change (GMACCC) Associate Fellow of the International Security Programme at Chatham House, United Kingdommember of the Senior Mentors group, advising the NATO Special Operations Forces Headquarters at SHAPE, Belgium.


The nuclear deterrent has faltered in modern times

1. In your article, you have mentioned that the cyber and electronic techniques can “impair command and control systems” of nuclear. To what extent the impair could work and to what extent the effect of the implementation is robust?


The first thing is not to be reliant upon only one electronic system for nuclear command and control but to have backup systems as well. This is especially important for communicatimg with nuclear submarines in a crisis. Augmenting Internet based digital communication with older technologies such as very high frequency radio can help to provide redundancy and resilience. In designing command and control systems, engineers need to avoid building in a single point of failure whereby an outage in one area could bring down the entire system. So at each step by-passes and workarounds are needed. Here blockchain technology can be a real game changer. Encryption is also an important safety feature which may become more of a technical challenge once quantum computing becomes more widespread. In the final analysis, all command and control depends on a human being staying in the loop and making the key operational decisions. Machines can help by processing information faster and by focusing the commander’s attention on w sequence of events rather than random happenings. So machines cam help to clarify and prioritise issues for a commander and to indicate possible causal connections. AI is a significant advance here. But decisions having political implications or consequences for human life must be taken by humans themselves.

2. The article claimed that the nuclear deterrent force has been shaken in the modern society with the rapid development of science and technology. So what is the current role of nuclear deterrence?


Could you elaborate your analysis based on a specific country?Nuclear weapons are still the only thing that could bring human civilisation to an end in the space of a short afternoon. Cyber attacks or conventional weapons are very far from being able to do this, and they have a more localised and shorter term impact. We can recover from them faster. Nuclear weapons are still an effective form of deterrence because they make the risks and costs of war incalculable. No side attacks another side unless all its war gaming and strategic planning tell it that it has an 80%+ chance of winning. With nuclear weapons this calculus becomes highly problematic. The problem today is that new technologies seem to make nuclear weapons usable once more. One is low yield warheads, another is hypersonic missiles that travel at 5 times the speed of classical ballistic missiles and can overcome missile defence systems. Yet another is intermediate range missiles that are making a comeback now that the US and Russia are no longer bound by the INF treaty. Nuclear missiles converted to conventional strikes are also an issue because it is difficult to determine if they are carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead. So we need a new round of international arms control negotiations to devise new treaties to limit these new technologies. China has come under pressure to join these negotiations as it increases and modernises its own nuclear aresenal. But the overall objective is that nuclear weapons should exist to deter and not to fight wars.


3. In your opinion, is it possible to build an internal communication system free from external attacks? If not, why not?


It is difficult to build a totally secure system as most IT relies upon commercial, off the shelf technology which we know is often full of bugs and software vulnerabilities. The number of zero day exploits used by criminal gangs and intelligence services attests to this. Software is often designed for convenience and universal use rather than security so we need to incentivise software developers to build security into the design, rather than try to retrofit it later. Another problem is that to be effective and gather information, communication systems need to link up a large number of players; but this implies a trade off between efficiency and security. Also security is an illusion as it can never be absolute. Technology produces both methodologies of attack and of defence and this sword and shield cycle in military affairs is eternal. So security is about risk awareness and risk management. The case of Wikileaks in the US revealed that even the lowest level of soldier had access to millions of classified documents. So security cannot only be a technology issue. It also requires trained operators who are alert to intrusion attempts, such as social engineering or phishing campaigns, and proper security vetting of personnel. Access to the system must be restricted to the “need to know”. The human factor is always the weakest link.

4. What measures do you think can be used to safeguard domestic security within a country?


This is a vast and complicated question. The problem here is that there are so many threats and risks that governments need to guard against. They range from natural phenomena such as extreme weather events fuelled by climate change to man made interference in the form of cyber attacks, aggressive intelligence operations, use of chemical weapons and sabotage. Hostile propaganda and disinformation activities also come into play here. Western countries talk about “Hybrid Warfare” to describe these deliberate efforts to undermine societies by sowing tensions and undermining trust in government. Modern technologies such as the social media faciiitate these hybrid campaigns. They are a new type of warfare in that for aggressors they are low cost and potentially high impact. Hybrid campaigns can be conducted with a degree of anonymity. As a result, reliable attribution and “naming and shaming” are difficult. In the light of all these shocks to the smooth functioning of our societies and economies, resilience has become a major preoccupation of countries. This means ensuring a quick recovery after experiencing shocks, protecting critical national infrastructures such as energy, water, food and telecoms, and making sure that you have control over critical supply chains, for instance in pharmaceuticals and health equipment. That has been a lesson of the Covid 19 pandemic. Resilience is all about planning ahead, carrying out exercises to practice good crisis management procedures and joining up governments, local authorities and private sector in a whole of society and comprehensive approach. Resilient societies depend on resilient citizens.


Editor Assistant Research Fellow: Xianglin Gu

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