Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are enabling previously infeasible capabilities, potentially destabilizing the delicate balances that have forestalled nuclear war since 1945. Will these developments upset the nuclear strategic balance, and, if so, for better or for worse?
In the coming decades, incorporation of artificial intelligence into nuclear security decisions has the potential to erode the condition of mutual assured destruction and undermine strategic stability. Improved sensor technologies could introduce the possibility that retaliatory forces such as submarine and mobile missiles could be targeted and destroyed.
Nations may be tempted to pursue first-strike capabilities as a means of gaining bargaining leverage over their rivals even if they have no intention of carrying out an attack. This undermines strategic stability because even if the state possessing these capabilities has no intention of using them, the adversary cannot be sure of that.
There are benefits in addition to the risks. Artificial intelligence could enhance strategic stability by improving accuracy in intelligence collection and analysis. While AI might increase the vulnerability of second-strike forces, improved analytics for monitoring and interpreting adversary actions could reduce miscalculation or misinterpretation that could lead to unintended escalation. Given future improvements, it is possible that eventually AI systems will develop capabilities that, while fallible, would be less error-prone than their human alternatives and therefore be stabilizing in the long term.
Maintaining strategic stability in the coming decades may prove extremely difficult, and all nuclear powers will have to participate in the cultivation of institutions to help limit nuclear risk. This goal will demand a combination of diplomatic, technological, and military measures that will require rival states to cooperate.
This Perspective is the first in a series of RAND’s Security 2040 initiative, a self-funded project that explores future threats and opportunities that policymakers and others might encounter in coming decades.
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For questions or to discuss this work, please contact Kurt Card.