The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Future Technology and Nuclear Deterrence

  • Published
  • By Dr. Adam Lowther & Dr. Stephen Cimbala


When former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel launched the “Third Offset Strategy” in November 2014, the hope was that a third round of technological advancement would follow the development of nuclear weapons (first offset) and precision-guided munitions (second offset)—both of which the United States developed—as a game-changing technology that would allow the United States to maintain a significant military advantage over its rapidly modernizing adversaries.1 As then-Under Secretary of Defense Bob Work said in a 2015 speech, “But now to what I really want to talk about, and that is it’s become very clear to us that our military’s long comfortable technological edge—the United States has relied on a technological edge ever since, well even in World War II. We’ve relied upon it for so long, it’s steadily eroding.”2

At the time, the exact direction the third offset would take was unknown. Cyber, nanotechnology, robotics, unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and a host of other developing technologies were thought to hold promise. When Ash Carter followed Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense in February 2015, he too embraced the third offset and continued to advance its effort to develop game-changing technologies that might be relevant for the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and particularly useful for the modernization of nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3), that was getting underway.3 When Pres. Donald Trump took office, the pursuit of a third offset became increasingly less certain. New administrations invariably have their own priorities they bring into office with them. The president had several options; support the third offset, benign neglect, and purposeful dismantlement of the concept were all options for the administration.4 Now, three years into the administration, the third offset, as a concept, is long forgotten—even if the underlying desire to transform defense technology are well ensconced in the administration’s defense policy.

Although President Trump has taken more than a passing interest in nuclear modernization, as demonstrated by what may be the most muscular Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) since the strategic document was created, the underlying concept of a nuclear-focused third offset remains critical for the future strategic success of the United States. As world events make abundantly clear, neither American nor Russian nuclear modernization are proceeding in a technology or policy vacuum. American military experts writing about the implications of modernization are already identifying a number of emerging technologies that are likely to impact deterrence. These include: additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, cybertechnology, hypersonics, quantum computing, and human-machine collaboration.5

In thinking about the implications of these developments it is important to understand the changes that earlier generations of transformational technologies necessitated in rethinking military strategy, including conventional operations and nuclear deterrence. For example, the development of precision-guided munitions improved and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) allowed commanders to more discreetly target a specific adversary—increasing which targets could be struck. Stealth technologies created an improved template for American theater war, which was first demonstrated in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Earlier revolutions in military affairs in technology and/or tactics, marked as turning points in warfare by many historians, have included the advent of nuclear weapons (ending great power war), the Napoleonic wars (marking the creation of total war), and the emergence of the “modern system” of twentieth-century industrial warfare—during World War I.6

The following discussion is speculative in nature given the future orientation of the topic. In many respects it is policy-prescriptive in its focus. This is because there is little possibility of a future in which nuclear deterrence will diminish in importance to international security. On the other hand, nuclear weapons will compete for influence among a menu of capabilities that include smaller, lighter, smarter, and more versatile weapons and platforms, together with more agile command, control, and communication systems—some of which must be incorporated into the NC3 architecture. This will all occur in a strategic environment that is more opaque, as the Russian invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has demonstrated.7 Within this context, the following discussion first considers some of these technologies in more detail. Second, it assesses the continuing significance of nuclear weapons and NC3 in a post-post-Cold War world. Third, it offers some conclusions about the potential for peaceful coexistence between nuclear deterrence and the new strategies that are driven by technological change.

Implications of Emerging Technologies

What might be the implications of developing technologies for nuclear force modernization? Several possibilities exist.

Small Yields with Long-Range and Precision-Guided Delivery Systems

The appeal of nuclear weapons with smaller yields (or variable yields) mated to delivery systems of long-range and precision guidance could have two somewhat contradictory effects. On one hand, relatively smaller yield weapons might be perceived to lower the threshold for nuclear first use among some policymakers or empowered military commanders. On the other hand, nuclear weapons of relatively smaller yield (so-called micro-nukes or mini-nukes) would presumably minimize collateral damage to populations and infrastructure. Already American research and development has been moving in this direction, albeit not without controversy.8

Nuclear weapons of smaller or variable yield might also be combined with long-range, low-observable, precision-strike weapons.9 In theory, the combination of mini-nukes or micro-nukes with such delivery systems would make possible the improved targeting of high-value but highly protected targets, such as storage bunkers for weapons of mass destruction, with minimum collateral damage to nearby populations. The Russians have already fielded such weapons and included more capable systems that can specifically target American NC3 nodes.10 Some will suggest that “a nuke is a nuke,” and even limited collateral damage crosses a symbolic threshold. Instead, the same targets might be vulnerable to attack from a cross-domain attack from cyber, for example.

Nuclear and Cyber Capabilities Integration

Another effect of new technologies and their spin-offs might be the integration of nuclear and cyber capabilities. Nuclear weapons held by China, Russia, and the United States, are embedded in command and control systems intended to guarantee their responsive direction to authorized leadership. The command and control systems for nuclear weapons during most of the Cold War were products of the industrial, not the information, age. Today, these systems will necessarily rely on advanced cybersystems—offering potential strengths and weaknesses. Cyber is multifaceted: it is a domain of military action in its own right; in addition, it cuts across all the other potential domains of conflict (land, sea, air, and space).

The cyberization of the NC3 systems of China, Russia, and the US will have at least two effects. First, nuclear warning, communications, and response systems, already poised for prompt retaliation within minutes following an authenticated attack, will be even more stressed to keep faster time with the cyber-pacing of information and intelligence, compared to time requirements during the Cold War. Second, the possibility exists that hackers can penetrate an NC3 system and introduce malware in expectation of a future crisis. An enemy might also disrupt network connectivity—eradicating trust in information—and the fidelity of warning information immediately prior to, during, or post attack.11 Along with this, the use of a nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapon or others designed to destroy our communications systems over a wide area could precede, or accompany, a nuclear strike.

Nuclear and cyber systems can also interact with one another with unpredictable consequences. For example, consider the Russian Perimeter system, a type of automated “dead hand” providing for automatic nuclear retaliation in case the Russian leadership is killed or incapacitated by nuclear attack.12 Under this system, special command rockets would overfly Russia and send codes to intercontinental ballistic missiles that enable missile launches despite the absence of launch codes directly from Russian leadership. As Timothy L. Thomas has noted, “The development of this type of system makes one wonder if, in the age of weapons of mass disruption, is there a cyber-Dead Hand ready to initiate a retaliatory response against an adversary’s infrastructure in case Russia’s information/cyber infrastructure is somehow completely disabled?”13

Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, and Man-Machine Interface

Another possible development coinciding with new technologies is the improvement of ballistic missile defenses (BMD) by means of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and man-machine interface together with new “hardware” made possible by additive manufacturing. In the immediate present, strategic anti-ballistic missile defenses are subject to being overwhelmed by greater numbers of attacking delivery vehicles and warheads. Worse for the defender, the near-term prospect of maneuvering re-entry vehicles or hypersonic vehicles that can be launched over intercontinental distances, and with more precision than previously possible, creates additional disadvantages for strategic defenses based on midcourse intercept, hit-to-kill technologies.14

On the other hand, defenses might move toward a strategy of boost-phase intercept, based on additive manufacturing of large numbers (conceivably hundreds or more) of artificial intelligence–enabled drones. Such systems could operate autonomously in or around enemy air space and autonomously target adversary nuclear systems with conventional weapons—enhanced by artificial intelligence. Man-machine interface and autonomous learning systems might also enable future space-based interceptors for missile defenses, whether located on a small number of dedicated offensive satellites or a larger number of self-defending smart satellites.15

Increasingly competent missile defense technologies also represent an ambiguous but potential threat to current and prospective satellites on which the United States and others depend for integrated tactical warning and attack assessment, as well as reconnaissance, surveillance, and navigation.16 Loss of satellite networks would leave the United States blinded with respect to the alert or launch status of an adversary state’s forces. During a crisis, worst-case assumptions might be made about the other side’s intentions or actions based on degraded or missing information. As Rebecca Slayton has noted, missile defenses that are not actually capable of anti-satellite attacks might nevertheless spark a conflict: “If military leaders in Russia or China see a surveillance signal disappear unexpectedly—as occasionally happens when a satellite malfunctions—they might fear that the United States has destroyed the satellite in preparation for an attack. Such fears could encourage preemptive military action.”17

The dependency of missile defenses on the quality of software has led to controversy about their performance in battle. British and American aircraft were mistakenly shot down by Patriot missile batteries during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The US Defense Science Board attributed the errors to failures in the Patriot Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) algorithms. American SM-3 interceptors deployed in Europe under the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) NATO missile defense plan will, like Patriot, be tasked for interception of short-to-intermediate-range missiles.18

Another aspect of missile defense cyber-dependency is the likelihood that, once having been deployed, missile defenses will be primary targets for “defense suppression” strikes that are the lead elements in a larger and more comprehensive air or missile attack—possibly nuclear. US proficiency in Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) in the early stages of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 was accomplished by electronic warfare and kinetic attacks on missile defense sites.

Years later, in September 2007, Israel carried out a “computer network operation” against Syrian air defenses as part of Operation Orchard, an air attack against a facility under construction at al Kibar for the purpose of processing plutonium. Instead of physically destroying the Syrian air defenses, Israel compromised Syria’s military computer networks and inserted its own data streams that created false and nonthreatening images on their radar screens–essentially cyberjacking the Syrian air defense system.19

The deployment of missile defense interceptors in space, if it ever comes to pass, will be even more dependent on the quality of software and network connectivity than hitherto. Space-based missile interceptors are potentially more capable as anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons than are terrestrially based or launched ASATs. Space-based BMD will require extensive network connectivity with ground-based commanders. Defending space-based weapons from cyber and kinetic attacks will require rapid decisions by senior leaders and fast-moving decision-making processes, almost certainly calling for delegation of some aspects of attack detection and characterization to the information systems themselves. New parameters for man-machine interface will have to keep pace with the increasing varieties and speeds of cyberbehaviors on the part of possible attackers or defenders. All of these possible requirements offer an opportunity for an adversary to penetrate and influence the information picture.

(Graphic courtesy of National Air and Space Intelligence Center, designed by Justin Weisbarth)

Figure 1. Competing in Space: Space-Based Weapons. This image was created for the Space-Based Weapons section of the Competing in Space unclassified report, depicting space-based antisatellite systems that target other space systems. Concepts for space-based antisatellite systems vary widely and include designs to deliver a spectrum of reversible and nonreversible counterspace effects. These concepts span from simple interceptors to complex space robotics systems, and can include kinetic kill vehicles, radiofrequency jammers, lasers, chemical sprayers, high-power microwaves, and robotic mechanisms.

Nuclear Legacies

If we reach the point where deterring wars in space becomes equally important to deterring nuclear conflict, then we may have reached a point where nuclear weapons are no longer the central tool for maintaining strategic stability. Whether this occurs or not, the enduring tenacity of nuclear weapons should not be underestimated even as technologies advance in non-nuclear warfighting domains.20 It is worth noting that President Trump saw the growing nuclear and conventional threats to American space assets so serious that he re-established US Space Command as a unified Combatant Command.

As some major powers shift their emphasis into advanced technologies that favor lighter, more numerous, and smarter platforms, nuclear weapons will retain their appeal for other states, including some status quo powers, rising powers, and anti-systemic nonconformists. Those status quo powers might include the “losers” or the second movers in the race for advanced non-nuclear technological modernization. Currently, the United States is facing a future where China and Russia may be first in deploying hypersonic weapons and artificial intelligence.21

China and Russia

The challenge of balancing technological innovation against legacy military technologies, while China and Russia modernize their nuclear arsenals and NC3 systems with cutting edge technologies presents the most interesting case study. Russia is now modernizing its strategic and other nuclear forces and rebuilding its conventional forces along modern, post-Soviet lines. This includes a post-2008 military reform creating armed forces more reliant on voluntary enlistment. However, Russia faces economic obstacles in affording its military improvements. Russia’s uneven legal climate for foreign investment, its “power vertical” system of political leadership that is concentrated on the president, and its dependency on hydrocarbons for economic security all point to a need for economic reform before Russia can stabilize budgets for its forward-looking military innovations and build a capability that truly challenges the United States. Despite these challenges and obstacles, Russia has demonstrated in Ukraine and elsewhere a capability for hybrid warfare, employing both conventional and unconventional military capabilities, to include “political warfare” of the traditional Soviet style (disinformation, deception, and covert actions), together with exploitation of the Internet for propaganda and cyberwarfare.

Meanwhile, nuclear weapons will remain the symbols of Russia’s great power status and the recognition to which Putin aspires—connoting equality with the United States on at least one dimension of hard power. As Russia develops new nuclear capabilities that are low yield, low observable, and theatre range, it will become increasingly important for the United States to not only develop competing nuclear capabilities, but to build an NC3 system that can withstand an unexpected first strike or an asymmetric attack. The developing reality is such that the current NC3 system is increasingly susceptible to Russian conventional and nuclear attack.22

On the other hand, Russia is not without toeholds in the race for offset technologies. Its extensive cyber and information war capabilities were demonstrated against the United States and a number of other states before and after the 2016 presidential election.23 These capabilities should be of considerable concern to the United States because Russia, in some areas, may be well ahead of the United States. This is likely true in the area of artificial intelligence, hypersonics, and in nuclear weapons development.

China is another case of a rising power that is actively attempting to outpace the United States in advanced military technology. China can certainly afford to do so, unless a Black Swan event, like a political revolution, slows its economic growth over the long term.24 On the other hand, China is unlikely to give up entirely, or to significantly reduce in number, its deployed and stored nuclear weapons without a multilateral agreement that includes drastic reductions in American, Russian, and Indian nuclear weapons. Each of these three powers for different reasons poses a potential military threat to China and is a nuclear weapons state.

China is also aware that game-changing technologies may define the pecking order of great powers in the twenty-first century. China has advanced cyber capabilities, is expanding its space program (with plans for a moon landing), and has enhanced its anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategy with respect to its national territory and surrounding seas.25 Artificial intelligence is an area, along with hypersonics, where China may be the most advanced nation in the world. China supports its military modernization and technological innovation by a smart diplomatic and political strategy of speaking softly (for the most part) and slowly buying up resources and access to critical materials throughout the world.26 The worsening of Russia’s relations with the West has opened the door to Chinese-Russian economic and military cooperation, all to push back against a shared perception of American hegemony. However, neither China nor Russia fully trust each other in security matters, and each can be expected to try to use the United States and Japan as an occasional balancer against the other.27

Anti-Systemic Nonconformists

Other state actors that might want to retain or obtain nuclear weapons are the anti-systemic nonconformists. North Korea, an existing nuclear weapons state, is acting in defiance of UN resolutions and President Trump’s effort to bring the North Korean nuclear program to an end. Iran, a potential nuclear weapons state, is actively moving forward with ballistic missile development since President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In addition to nuclear capable or aspiring state actors, terrorists, criminals, or other non-state actors might seek to obtain fissile materials in order to fabricate a crude nuclear device for use or extortion.28

North Korea is an outlier and perhaps the most difficult country to understand and anticipate. It is both a basket case of an economy and a regime that is politically isolated and fundamentally self-destructive.29 The main concern is what happens if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) regime implodes and effective control over its nuclear weapons and infrastructure cannot be maintained by any centralized authority. One would hope that the US and China are quietly discussing this, but China is ambiguous in its policy toward North Korean nuclear disarmament. However, China has participated in previous Six-Party talks including with United States, North and South Korea, Japan, and Russia. China has also reluctantly agreed to UN sanctions against North Korea for prohibited nuclear and missile tests. But, on the other side of the equation, China regards North Korea as a useful buffer state and fears its disintegration will lead to refugee and other problems for China.30 Given North Korea’s recent missile tests, tension between the United States and North Korea is clearly escalating and may soon force China to play a more active role in mitigating what may turn into open conflict.

The case of Iran is more complicated with respect to its nuclear ambitions. Iran seeks a nuclear weapons capability as part of its drive for hegemony in the Persian Gulf region and as a deterrent against Israel. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action slowed but did not prevent an eventual decision to develop nuclear weapons by Tehran.31 Once Iran becomes a declared nuclear weapons state, many fear the Middle East will witness a nuclear arms race including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as potential nuclear weapons states. Even short of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability changes the regional military equation. Israel, albeit an undeclared nuclear power, will no longer be the only nuclear weapons state in the region. Political leaders in Israel and Iran will now have to pay close attention, not only to their conventional military balance of power, but also to the problem of nuclear crisis management. It is worth noting, neither North Korea nor Iran possess nuclear or other capabilities that fundamentally threaten the American NC3 system.

Finally, with regard to this section, the approach taken by a state or government toward advanced technologies may be influenced by its autocratic or democratic character. Some assume that free-market democracies like the US will lead in the exploitation of offset technologies because democratic polities institutionalize innovation, protect intellectual property rights, and minimize government restrictions on private enterprise. On the other hand, autocracies may be equally attracted to the same technologies the United States is pursuing. Russia is the most experienced of the United States’ competitors in cyberized information warfare. Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election are but one example.32 China has also used its cyber capabilities to conduct extensive espionage which has allowed China to make significant advances in its aerospace capabilities. At present, China leads the United States and Russia in the development of hypersonic glide vehicles and is taking the lead in artificial intelligence, which can pose a serious threat to both the American nuclear arsenal and the NC3 system.33

An autocrat’s highest priority, and greatest fear, is their own survival and threats to that survival. Military robotic systems with artificial intelligence (AI) might appeal to dictatorships if those systems supported the centralization of command and the more efficient use of force against internal opponents. Autocrats and leading military commanders, assisted by such systems, could monitor and control the use of force at dispersed locations throughout the country without having to leave their central command posts or palaces. In addition, as Michael C. Horowitz has noted, “Harnessing AI to centralized military systems could reduce the number of troops that an autocrat needs to use military force—even beyond the possibilities for centralization offered by remotely piloted aircraft. Given the focus of autocrats on reducing their vulnerability to internal political threats, and their view of people as a weakness, automated solutions could appear especially useful—making advances in artificial intelligence particularly attractive.”34

If AI and robotics help to increase the ability of autocratic regimes to quell political dissent, they might also encourage inappropriate command-and-control procedures related to the use of nuclear weapons. For example, advanced AI and robotic systems might create dangerous optimism among political leaders and central commanders about the extent to which impromptu or impulsive courses of action could, or should, override standard operating procedures and institutional safeguards. Leaders could move beyond deterrence into nuclear first use without sufficient understanding of the procedures needed to double check warning and control systems for “false positives.” The potential exists with AI to suffer from the same cyberchallenges as with other systems.

Peaceful Coexistence?

The preceding overview of the continuing appeal of nuclear weapons to status quo powers, rising powers, and dissatisfied states seems to suggest that nuclear weapons have a bright future as preferred instruments of influence—even in a world where cyber plays an increasingly central role. That future is not guaranteed to happen. Nuclear fatalism can be overcome by political leaders who are determined to hold the line against additional proliferators and (in the best of all possible worlds) to roll back the North Korean nuclear arsenal. But our focus in this discussion is the likely impact of offset technologies, as they impact nuclear forces and the NC3 systems that command and control them. Here, too, there is some reason for optimism about less centrality for nuclear weapons in the arsenals of some states that “catch the wave” of post-nuclear innovation.

One example is the eventual clash between the requirements for new nuclear command, control, and communication networks and the continuing improvement in cyberespionage and cyberattack. This was alluded to earlier as possible complications for crisis management. But as technology for cyberattack improves, relative to that for cyberdefense, the danger may exist of an actual “takeover” of one state’s nuclear command, control, and communications system by another state. As far-fetched as this possibility now seems, we must remember that the information age is still in its infancy.

In the 2020s and 2030s, we can expect that malware will be more sophisticated and that techniques for hostile penetration of enemy networks will be more diversified and stealthy. Defenses will also improve, but attackers will have the initiative. By the 2030s some futurists imagine that human brain power can be expanded almost indefinitely by using nanotech implants that connect the brain directly to information stored in the “cloud.”35 Similar gains in artificial intelligence and cybersleuthing might permit the creation of NC3 “botnets” unknowingly under the control of foreign powers awaiting the right time to activate them.

A second example lies in the former Soviet theory of reflexive control, which seeks to influence the perceptions and decisions of one state such that its situational awareness and net assessment are in keeping with the desires of another state.36 The deceiver in this case is not attempting to completely overtake or physically destroy the networks or computers of the deceived state. Instead, information management, including propaganda, disinformation, and strategic deception are combined with covert actions and “active measures” to create uncertainty in the minds of the deceived state leaders about the deceiver’s intentions and capabilities. Cyberattacks can be part of the plan for reflexive control, but they are not necessarily the leading edge or crux of the endeavor. Something like reflexive control was practiced by Vladimir Putin in the early stages of his annexation of Crimea in 2014 against Western leaders and media.

A third example, relevant to optimism about the military exploitation of third offset technologies lies in thinking already advanced in the Pentagon about ways to improve conventional deterrence. An offset strategy could counter opponents’ A2/AD capabilities, and their growing numbers of offensive missiles, by improving core competencies in automation and robotics, in extended range and stealthy air operations, in complex systems engineering and integration, and in undersea warfare.37 As one expert analyst explains, US conventional deterrence capability would also be ameliorated by adopting a strategy that is less dependent upon the threat to restore the status quo ante through the direct application of force. Instead, the United States should place more emphasis on decreasing an adversary’s perception of the probability of achieving its war aims in the first place (i.e., deterrence by denial) and increasing the anticipated costs of attempting to do so by threatening asymmetrical retaliatory attacks (i.e., deterrence by punishment).38

The challenge of increasing the credibility of conventional deterrence is not only applicable to kinetic operations in the domains of land, sea, air, and space, but also to the cyberspace “domain” that penetrates all others. What, for example, is the appropriate response to a cyberattack that creates actual physical damage to infrastructure and/or personal injury and loss of life? Attribution of the attacker might be difficult, and even if not, the cost of retaliation by asymmetrical means (conventional military attack) might seem disproportionate and risk undesired escalation by the other side.39

On the other hand, a “symmetrical” cyberresponse would be difficult to calibrate, given the potential for information weapons to wander from their originally specified targets, as occurred with the Stuxnet worm that migrated into networks outside Iran. As another example, what would be the appropriate response to an apparently successful attempt to hack into the US nuclear command-and-control system for purposes of computer network exploitation (CNE), mapping the system, and extracting information about its operations? Or, would it even be prudent for the US to acknowledge that this had happened and/or to point public fingers at possible culprits—compared to patching the vulnerabilities quietly—and secretly exploiting the other side’s NC3 networks for counterespionage? Such questions may not be mere hypotheticals for future policymakers. These and other issues, many of which are not yet fully explored, could play a central role in the nuclear weapons debate in the years ahead.


Whether offset technologies are ultimately subversive of nuclear deterrence or contributory to the complexity of nuclear deterrence remains an issue for future technology developers and governments to decide. The implications of these technologies for the earlier “nuclear revolution” in military affairs are far from obvious, and there is considerable variation among offset technologies in their degree of maturity and in their applicability to military affairs. Nuclear weapons, like other weapons and NC3 systems, will be facing a threat matrix that includes cyberattacks and cyberdefenses. Few states will be able to afford to modernize their nuclear forces and to keep pace with the threat posed by cyber and other new technologies. It will occur to some states that nuclear weapons are an expensive path to security compared to improved conventional weapons of longer range and greater accuracy. For wealthier and larger states, nuclear and advanced conventional weapons will coexist in uneasy juxtaposition: the most devastating weapons of mass destruction, combined with the smarter, smaller, stealthier, and more numerous kinetic, electronic, and bio-behavioral attackers-in-waiting. Whatever the case may be, the Trump administration has an opportunity to play a central role in ensuring the United States remains well ahead of its peers as they seek to close the technological and military gap.

There is some expectation among some futurists that man-machine interfaces will define the future of technology related to military affairs as well as civilian pursuits. Expectations about man-machine interfaces range from optimistic projections of future synthesis between human and ultra AI systems, on one hand, to pessimistic dystopias about the displacement of human control over robotic technology.40 What this debate implies for the future of nuclear weapons in United States strategy or national security policy is not entirely clear. Some scientists and policy analysts will doubtless conclude that nuclear weapons are atavistic symbols of mass destruction in a future that privileges brains over brawn. Others will note that nuclear weapons did not go away with the end of the Cold War, that no current nuclear weapons state is in a hurry to dismantle its existing arsenal, and that the politics of international security policy require states to rely on sovereignty and self-help for survival. Therefore, we can anticipate that futuristic systems for command, control, communications, warning, attack assessment and response will be more AI-dependent and smart machine-embedded than in the past. In addition, the prospective arrival of space as a theater of military action or war, already anticipated in Trump administration policy guidance, creates additional challenges for the mastery of the relationship between brain and brawn, including nuclear brawn, as the twenty-first century progresses.41

Dr. Adam Lowther

Dr. Adam Lowther is a professor of political science at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies, the former director of the US Air Force’s School for Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies, and the former director of the Air Force Research Institute’s Center for Academic and Professional Journals. He holds a PhD in international relations from the University of Alabama. Dr. Lowther is the author of numerous journal articles and books focused on international relations and military affairs.

Dr. Stephen Cimbala

Stephen J. Cimbala is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Penn State Brandywine, an American Studies faculty member, and the author of numerous books and articles in the fields of international security studies, defense policy, nuclear weapons and arms control, intelligence, and other fields. He is a graduate of Penn State, having received his BA in journalism in 1965. He received an MA in 1967, and his PhD in 1969, both in political science, from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He serves on the editorial boards of various professional journals, has consulted for a number of US government agencies and defense contractors, and is frequently quoted in the media on national security topics.


1 Ryan Faith, “Introducing the Pentagon's New 'Third Offset Strategy': Welcoming Your New Robot Overlords,” Vice News, 14 November 2014.

2 Bob Work, “The Third U.S. Offset Strategy and its Implications for Partners and Allies” (remarks delivered at the Willard Hotel, Washington, DC, 28 January 2015).

3 Tyler Rogoway, “Secretary Of Defense Carter Keeps Touting the Secret Weapons He Has Up His Sleeve,” Drive, 30 September 2016.

4 Mark Pomerleau, “The Fate of the Third Offset under President Trump,” C4ISRNET, 18 January 2017.

5 See T. X. Hammes, “Cheap Technology Will Challenge U.S. Tactical Dominance,” Joint Force Quarterly 81, no. 2 (2016): 76–85; P. W. Singer and Allan Friedman, Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 120–138; John R. Benedict Jr., “Global Power Distribution and Warfighting in the 21st Century,” Joint Force Quarterly 83, no. 4 (2016): 6–12; Brent D. Sadler, “Fast Followers, Learning Machines, and the Third Offset Strategy,” Joint Force Quarterly 83, no. 4 (2016): 13–18; Robert Martinage, Toward a New Offset Strategy: Exploiting U.S. Long-Term Advantages to Restore U.S. Global Power Projection Capability (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2014); Martin C. Libicki, Crisis and Escalation in Cyberspace (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2012), 123–142; and John Arquilla, Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008), 109–131 and 156–181.

6 Historians, political scientists, and others writing about war have produced a large literature on military revolutions and RMAs. For an overview and critique of pertinent concepts and arguments, see Colin S. Gray, Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History (London: Frank Cass, 2002), Ch. 2–3.

7 Daniel Wiser, “How Russia Invaded Ukraine,” Washington Free Beacon, 18 September 2015.

8 William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy,” New York Times, 11 January 2016.

9 See Amy F. Woolf, Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 26 August 2014), 7-5700, R41464.

10 Alexa Lardieri, “Putin Threatens to Target U.S. if it Deploys Nuclear Weapons in Europe,” US News and World Report, 20 February 2019.

11 For additional discussion on this topic, see Andrew Futter, Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons: New Questions for Command and Control, Security and Strategy (London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, July 2016). For Russian perspectives on cyber, see Timothy L. Thomas, Russia Military Strategy: Impacting 21st Century Reform and Geopolitics (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), 2015), 253–299 and 432–435. In early December 2016, Pres. Vladimir Putin signed an updated information security doctrine and cyber defense plan for Russia. See Andrew E. Kramer, “Russia Updates Plan to Counter Cyberattacks and Foreign Influence,” New York Times, 7 December 2016.

12 Nicholas Thompson, “Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine,” Wired, 21 September 2009.

13 Thomas, Russia Military Strategy: Impacting 21st Century Reform and Geopolitics, 290. Thomas also references work by David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand (New York: Doubleday, 2009), 422, and pertinent interview research by Bruce Blair.

14 See Mark J. Lewis, High-Speed Maneuvering Weapons: A Threat to America’s Global Vigilance, Reach, and Power, Unclassified Summary (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2016). See Bill Gertz, “Air Force: Hypersonic Missiles from China, Russia Pose Growing Danger to U.S.,” Free Beacon, 30 November 2016.

15 Brian Chow, “Stalkers in Space: Defeating the Threat,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 11, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 83–117.

16 Nick McCamley, Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers (Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword, 2013), 58–65.

17 Rebecca Slayton, Arguments that Count: Physics, Computing, and Missile Defense: 19492012 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 220.

18 Ibid.

19 Singer and Friedman, Cybersecurity and Cyberwar, 26–127.

20 Christine Leah and Adam Lowther, “Conventional Arms and Nuclear Peace,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 11, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 14–29.

21 Rebecca Kheel, “Russia, China Eclipse US in Hypersonic Missiles, Prompting Fears,” Hill, 27 March 2018).

22 Adam Lowther and Curtis McGiffin, “America Needs a ‘Dead Hand,’” War on the Rocks, 16 August 2019.

23 Andy Greenberg, “How an Entire Nation Became Russia’s Test Lab for Cyberwar,” Wired, 20 June 2017.

24 “The Impact of a China Slowdown,” Economist, 27 November 2014.

25 Jeremy Bender, “These Are the Chinese Military Advancements That Could Shift the Balance of Power in Asia,” Business Insider, 17 September 2015.

26 Aaron Jed Rabena, “China’s Diplomatic Strategy and Expanding Philippines-China Political Cooperation,” China Policy Institute, 12 July 2017.

27 June Dreyer, “China and Russia: The Partnership Deepens,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, 7 January 2016.

28 Stephen Mulvey, “Could Terrorists Get Hold of a Nuclear Bomb?” BBC, 12 April 2010.

29 See Kongdon Oh, Understanding North Korea (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 2013).

30 Leyang Wang, “China’s View of North Korea,” Australian Outlook, 3 January 2017.

31 David E. Sanger and Michael R. Gordon, “Iran Nuclear Deal Is Reached with World Powers,” New York Times, 14 July 2015. See Lawrence Korb and Katherine Blakely, “This Deal Puts the Nuclear Genie Back in the Bottle,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 15 July 2015.

32 David Nakamura and Abby Phillips, “Trump Acknowledges Russian Involvement in Meddling in U.S. Elections,” Washington Post, 11 January 2017.

33 Erika Solem and Karen Montague, “The Ultimate Guide to China’s Hypersonic Weapons Program,” National Interest, 3 May 2016.

34 Michael C. Horowitz, “Who’ll Want Artificially Intelligent Weapons? ISIS, Democracies, or Autocracies?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 29 July 2016.

35 Richard Gray, “Dawn of Human 2.0? Nanobot Implants Could Soon Connect Our Brains to the Internet and Give Us ‘God-like’ Super-intelligence, Scientist Claims,” Daily Mail, 2 October 2015.

36 On the Russian concept of reflexive control, see Timothy L. Thomas, Recasting the Red Star: Russia Forges Tradition and Technology through Toughness (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: Foreign Military Studies Office, 2011), 118–131.

37 Martinage, Toward a New Offset Strategy, v.

38 Ibid.

39 Pano Yannakogeorgos and Adam Lowther, eds., Conflict and Cooperation in Cyberspace (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2014), 49–78.

40 See David Ewing Duncan, Talking to Robots: Tales from Our Human-Robot Futures (Dutton: Penguin Random House, 219).

41 Air Force Space Command, The Future of Space 2060 and Implications for U.S. Strategy: Report on the Space Futures Workshop, 5 September 2019, See also David Montgomery, “Trump’s Excellent Space Force Adventure,” Washington Post, 3 December 2019,



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