BY STRATEGIC ALTERNATIVES BRANCH, STRATEGIC PLANS & POLICY
The Coming Twenty Years Crisis
Consider the following Scenario: Classified intelligence indicates China is on the cusp of fully integrating quantum-enhanced AI into its nuclear command and targeting systems. Following a series of cyberattacks believed to stem from Macau and Vladivostok on U.S. and NATO missile defence systems in South Korea, Alaska and Romania, Washington raises the DEFCON level. As a consequence, the U.S. President calls for an emergency NAC meeting to discuss the rise of a multipolar nuclear deterrence environment and how NATO’s deterrence policy must now adapt.
Traditional perspectives on the implementation of emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) into nuclear deterrence are usually considered to be the work of science fiction, ranging from The Terminator to Dr. Strangelove. Reality though is likely to become stranger than fiction. EDTs have already transformed thinking on nuclear deterrence, and future technology developments and applications involving quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI) are expected to revolutionize aspects of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) intrinsic to nuclear deterrence. The impacts of quantum and AI empowered ISR on nuclear decision-making are less fully explored and may pose significant risks due to the possibilities of escalation, disinformation and enhancing cognitive biases, which could lead to changes in the way escalation management is considered. In the scenario, it could be envisaged that nuclear decision-making, the rationale underpinning the development of nuclear policy and ‘use once’ nuclear deterrence has failed, which sparks a fundamentally important conversation to address whether existing policy and the cognition of key decision-makers is resilient enough to cope with such circumstances. This is especially true for NATO’s nuclear decision-making, a multistep political process geared towards managing the escalation between NATO and its adversaries through the use of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement.
NATO faces a unique challenge from technologies like quantum and AI because of the possibility an entire state’s defence network or critical infrastructure may be attacked, destroyed, or disrupted, including its nuclear arsenal. The challenge, therefore, becomes a race to harness technologies that increases resilience beyond that of your adversaries’ offensive capabilities. Encouragingly, NATO’s technological innovation lies at the forefront of development, giving NATO the opportunity to be the first to militarise these emergent and significant technological advances. The revolutionary impacts of quantum and AI will likely prompt ground breaking reassessments of what NATO could be capable of in the future and fundamentally shape the future operating environment.
Quantum represents the largest leap forward in computing potential and power, and the first actor to successfully develop a general-purpose quantum computer will immediately become incredibly influential. From a generalized perspective, the development of quantum communications will revolutionize the protection of distributed data systems as quantum cryptoanalysis has the potential to preclude transmission interception and data decryption. Effectively, any transmissions that are not protected by post-quantum cryptography run the real risk of having its classified information compromised. This is already forcing a reassessment of how information is protected and highlights the inherent vulnerabilities within growing interconnectedness of critical infrastructure. Likewise, quantum sensing advancements hold the potential to obtain positional data of all aircraft and submarines which would deliver transparent skies and oceans facilitating rapid support to decision-making through the enhanced understanding of the real-time operational environment. While quantum’s maturity remains decades away, if NATO is able to win the race for adoption and military capability integration then NATO will gain an edge in having the wealth of knowledge needed to successfully tackle any emerging crisis while researching new technologies. However, the inverse is also true as potential adversaries could use such technology to find and exploit any vulnerability within the Alliance. Therefore, the race to a general-purpose and integrated quantum capability represents one of the most important milestones for the future.
AI is already being integrated in some civilian and military spaces. Applications of AI have focused on machine learning aspects of the technology, applying these ideas into strategic-level decision making enables rapid modelling of multiple outcomes to determine the best courses of action for decision-makers. Yet, AI has powered deep fake videos as part of disinformation campaigns from adversaries with the hope of manipulating the popular opinion of the Alliance and pressure governments. From an operational perspective, rivals could plant deep faked, bad information in systems while obscuring the true information gathered through sensors, compromising the information required to make decisions. While countermeasures to detect deep fakes and other misinformation exist and are capable, bad information will likely spread faster than the corroborated truth and may not be discovered until too late. AI-combined with quantum computing raises additional considerations, ranging from quantum-empowered AI to make hypersonic missiles harder to eliminate with traditional missile defences to increasing missile defence capabilities through more effective targeting. Thus, the coupling of these two technologies poses the opportunity for major benefits for the Alliance in fulfilling its core tasks, especially when considering the dimensions of nuclear decision-making and deterrence.
The web of impact of both AI and quantum is large and holds the potential to revolutionize NATO’s thinking on its core tasks. In effect, the combination of both these technologies will disrupt the security environment and pose unique challenges that must be understood, especially within nuclear decision-making. If the Alliance successfully harnesses these technologies to facilitate its own goals then quantum and AI will enhance deterrence in the same vein as the Nuclear Sharing Agreement, making the Alliance more secure and capable within a changing security environment.Interested to see whether EDTs have the potential to be Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and what this means for the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept (NWCC)? Follow this link: Future of Emerging Disruptive Technologies on Weapons of Mass Destruction