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Some countries plan to decentralize control of nuclear weapons in a crisis. Here’s why that’s dangerous.

Bulletin, By Giles David Arceneaux | March 14, 2023

With the Doomsday Clock now set at 90 seconds to midnight—the closest it has ever been to marking imminent global catastrophe—the collapsing global nuclear order presents a dire challenge. Among growing nuclear risks, Russia’s persistent nuclear threats throughout its war in Ukraine have increased the likelihood of nuclear use and thus threatened to undermine the long-standing tradition of the non-use of nuclear weapons. For its part, North Korea—which tested more missiles in 2022 than in any other year on record—promulgated a new nuclear doctrine that explicitly allows for the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict.

But as scholars and policymakers grapple to confront these challenges, a reality complicates their policy responses: The current nuclear landscape presents different challenges for nuclear stability than during the Cold War—and policymakers and analysts alike are unprepared for it.

Even though it remains the most influential reference for US nuclear policymakers and scholars, the United States’ Cold War experience cannot explain—even less predict—behavior in the modern nuclear era. Analysts must now consider how new factors—such as resource limitations, domestic instability, and emerging technology—affect their old concepts and theories in nuclear politics.

………. Although numerous factors affect strategic stability, one component of nuclear policy has clearly gained importance in the modern nuclear era—although not in policy discussions: the command and control of nuclear weapons…………………………………………….

Nuclear-armed countries may desire robust command and control systems, but in doing so they face a fundamental problem known as the “always/never dilemma” to describe the dual imperatives of command and control. While leaders need to signal that their nuclear forces are reliable and capable of retaliating against an enemy’s attack under any circumstance, they also prefer to retain centralized political control over the decision to use nuclear weapons. That is, “always” promotes arsenal reliability, whereas “never” promotes the safety and security of nuclear weapons.

Because these two imperatives are fundamentally in tension, resolving this dilemma has proved nearly impossible. For example, delegating the authority to use nuclear weapons to lower-level military commanders to increase arsenal readiness necessarily reduces centralized political oversight that protects against accidental and unauthorized nuclear use.

Ultimately, leaders have no choice but to make difficult tradeoffs between arsenal safety, security, and reliability when establishing nuclear command and control systems……………………………………

Timing matters. The Cold War framework comes up short in the modern nuclear era because it asks the wrong question when classifying command and control systems.

Leaders might prefer to centralize political control over nuclear weapons, but military operators remain required to deliver nuclear weapons. Even in countries with highly centralized political oversight of nuclear weapons, such as China and India, leaders must eventually delegate control to lower-level commanders to use nuclear weapons.

March 17, 2023 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, weapons and war

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