On 18 October 2021, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) organized a side event entitled “Nuclear Risk Reduction: Friction Points” in the margins of the First Committee on Disarmament and International Security of the 76th United Nations General Assembly.
The side event aimed to contribute to informed discussion on nuclear weapons risk reduction, and ways to bridge friction points and strategic perception gaps between nuclear-weapon States. Expert speakers covered three key topics namely, the current state of affairs, the impact of technological developments – including in other domains – that are increasing the risks of nuclear weapons use, as well as ways forward in risk reduction.
In opening remarks, Ms. Cécile Aptel, Deputy Director of UNIDIR, highlighted the Institute’s research on nuclear challenges, which has increasingly focused on reducing the risk of the use of nuclear weapons. Ms. Aptel noted discussions on nuclear risk reduction during the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Cycle, the Stockholm initiative group of States working paper for nuclear risk reduction package, the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative, and the P5 process on strategic risk reduction.
Ms. Anna Péczeli, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Center for Global Security Research, opened the discussion by stating that although there is a broad consensus that nuclear risks have grown over the last decade and are rising, States have different views on the origins of these risks, making it difficult to implement a comprehensive nuclear risk reduction agenda. Focussing her presentation on China, the Russian Federation, and the United States, the speaker identified challenges that exist between these States, which include ongoing military competition as well as varying levels of awareness and perceptions about existing nuclear risks. Considering this, Ms. Péczeli underscored three key elements for those three States to address these challenges, namely, to base strategic stability on mutual restraint, to recognize some degree of mutual vulnerability, and to initiate a structural mechanism or some degree of formal engagement. On the topic of the way forward in risk reduction, Ms. Péczeli believed informal measures capable of addressing asymmetries to be the most useful tools in tackling the complexity of today’s environment and underscored the need for a broader dialogue that addresses risks and threat perception as well as crisis management.
Ms. Polina Sinovets, Head of the Odessa Center for Nonproliferation, drew attention to the issue of ambiguity of States’ nuclear doctrines, including an increasing lack of clarity around no-first-use policies. Additionally, she cautioned that the threshold for using nuclear weapons may be lowered by the introduction of new types of nuclear weapons capable of fighting in regional domains and developments of hypersonic technologies. Ms. Sinovets further highlighted two examples of ways in which emerging technologies could impact strategic stability. Cyber-sabotage, for example, could lead to artificial intelligence making decisions based on false data. In another example, Ms. Sinovets pointed to the combination of artificial intelligence and space surveillance systems, which could be used to track and destroy the second-strike capabilities of all States possessing nuclear weapons. Ms. Sinovets continued by noting regional conflicts as the most likely pathway in increasing the risk of a possible nuclear war. In light of this, Ms. Sinovets recommended providing a platform for States to communicate and exchange information and intentions as a way to ease tensions.
Mr. Jiang Tianjiao, Assistant Professor at The Fudan Development Institute, underscored the importance of the P5 mechanism to initiate a trilateral conversation on the current nuclear challenges. He also recommended that the P5 coordinate their positions on maintaining strategic stability, the NPT regime, to respond to the demands of non-nuclear-weapon States, and to prevent any use of nuclear weapons. Mr. Tianjiao also drew attention to the risk of an arms race in cyberspace, noting that the blurring line between cyber offence and defence capabilities coupled with a lack of communication could fuel misperceptions and miscalculations that could result in the escalation of unexpected conflict.
In the ensuing Q&A, the speakers and the audience explored potential opportunities that emerging technologies and conflict resolution mechanisms might provide to strategic stability.
Text drafted by Ms. Zainab Rauf Tramboo