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CISSM Forum | Is Arms Control for Emerging Technologies Possible?

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Emerging technologies, such as hypersonics and artificial intelligence, present unique challenges for arms control. Existing arms control tools, particularly verification, may struggle to incorporate novel technologies that create strategic asymmetries and could incentivize arms races and escalate crises. Additionally, arms control itself is breaking down due to growing distrust among international actors following Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and U.S. withdrawal from the INF and Open Skies Treaties. Any follow-on to New START will struggle to incorporate these technologies and/or additional actors. On the one hand, emerging technologies have the potential to undermine strategic stability and increase nuclear risks, therefore arms control could play an important role in managing those risks. On the other hand, states are unlikely to limit development of an emerging technology while in competition with others, therefore arms control is unlikely to be desirable or achievable. In principle, arms control is least likely where it is most needed.

Why do states participate in arms control for emerging technologies? Is arms control still a valuable tool for preserving strategic stability in this era of rapid technological development? This project takes an historical approach to understanding why states have engaged in arms control for emerging technologies in the past, such as the Hague Conventions and Washington Naval Treaty. It hypothesizes that states pursue arms control of emerging technologies when two conditions exist: there are economic benefits to doing so, and the agreement allows for continued technological development, particularly testing. Understanding the drivers and design of arms control for emerging technologies will contribute to scholarship on concepts of strategic stability and the drivers of cooperation, along with policy questions about the future of arms control and reducing nuclear risks. 


Dr. Heather Williams is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Security Studies Program (SSP). She is visiting from King’s College London, where she is a Lecturer in the Centre for Science and Security Studies and Defence Studies Department. She is also an adjunct Research Staff Member in the Strategy, Forces, and Resources Division of the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia, where she has worked since 2008 on U.S. nuclear policy for the U.S. Department of Defense. Dr. Williams is one of five non-governmental facilitators in the Track 1 dialogue Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND). She currently leads projects on emerging technology and the future of arms control, and on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Her research is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, MacArthur Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation of New York. She is also completing a book on the role of leadership in U.S.-Russia arms control.

From 2018 to 2019 Heather served as a Specialist Advisor to the House of Lords inquiry into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Disarmament, and until 2015 she was a Resarch Fellow at Chatham House. Dr Williams completed her PhD in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and she has a BA in International Relations and Russian Studies from Boston University, and an MA in Security Policy Studies from The George Washington University. Her recent publications include, “The Unavoidable Technology: How Artificial Intelligence can Strengthen Strategic Stability” in The Washington Quarterly (with Jessica Cox, March 2021); “What the Nuclear Ban Treaty Means for America’s Allies” in War on the Rocks (November 2020); and “Asymmetric arms control and strategic stability: Scenarios for limiting hypersonic glide vehicles” in Journal of Strategic Studies (September 2019). 

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Nancy W. Gallagher
Director, CISSM
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