Left unchecked, the diffusion of dual-use enabling technologies—such as additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and advanced communication technologies—may pose threats to strategic stability. The rapid development of these technologies by the United States and its allies and partners has taken place primarily in the private sector, and is largely stored and transported in easily-diffused digital formats. If diffusion occurs, it could lead to significant innovation in, or even transformation of, competitors’ military forces. Enabling technologies can be particularly dangerous since they can have a feedback effect by accelerating innovation itself. Rapid shifts in the balance of military forces due to adoption of these technologies by competitors can, in turn, threaten strategic stability. To counter these threats, the United States and its allies and partners need a common awareness of the factors that enable and constrain technological diffusion, adoption, and transformation. In order to deepen understanding of how these developments are most likely to impact international security and contribute to the creation of mitigating policies, this paper develops a model of the pathways through which enabling technologies could affect strategic stability, drawing on the literatures on technological invention, innovation, and evolution; nuclear proliferation; and conventional arms flows. Diffusion of inventions can occur through four pathways: buy, beg, steal or copy; yet none of these pathways guarantee successful diffusion of technological inventions, and are subject to a variety of countermeasures. Moreover, there are significant downstream hurdles to adopting these technologies and using them to transform military forces. Consequently, while some diffusions may have a significant multiplicative effect, many may have little or no net effect on strategic stability. Policymakers must carefully and consider specific technologies and strategically act to effectively limit those that pose the greatest danger.
School Authors: Amy J. Nelson