Towards a Third Nuclear Age: Strategic Conventional Weapons and the Next Revolution in the Global Nuclear Order (NUCLEARREV)

• European Research Council, Consolidator Grant (August 2020-July 2025), €1,642,826.

• PI: Professor Andrew Futter, University of Leicester. Ajf57@le.ac.uk.

The world stands on the cusp of a major transformation in nuclear affairs. This paradigmatic shift is being driven by the development and deployment of an entirely new class of strategic weaponry and a very different real-time nuclear information ecosystem, both facilitated by the latest information revolution. The most important characteristics of the new weapons and their support systems are that they are hi-tech and non-nuclear; that they can be used against an adversary’s nuclear forces; that they are increasingly able to augment and even replace nuclear weapons for national security functions; and that they are being deployed into a nuclear information space where time pressures and the risks of miscalculation and inadvertent nuclear use is increasing.

We can think of these systems as Strategic Conventional Weapons (SCW), and when combined with developments in nuclear weapons technology, as representing a fundamental challenge to the way that our nuclear world is and will be managed. SCW include but are not necessarily limited to: the spread of active ballistic missile defences; prompt precision strike weapons on land, in the air, in space and under the sea; a new suite of more manoeuvrable and faster hypersonic warheads; new possibilities offered by “cyber” and Artificial Intelligence in the nuclear realm (both as or within weapons and support systems), and potentially other new “exotic” disruptive emerging technologies too.

The development and deployment of SCW raise questions about how we think about nuclear risk, and especially for deterrence strategy, Mutually Assured Destruction, arms racing and arms control, escalation and crisis management, and how to prevent nuclear weapons from being used again. At the same time, the SCW challenge opens up new avenues and possible pathways towards nuclear disarmament.

The project will provide the first systematic study of SCW and associated technologies, make the case for a paradigmatic shift in nuclear studies, and set the stage for a complete rethinking of the global nuclear order. The research question of this project is: How will SCW change the Global Nuclear Order? Its objectives are to:

• Put together a diverse team to chart the SCW phenomenon, globally; • Analyse how SCW will impact regional nuclear relations and balances;

• Examine what the development of SCW means for the frameworks, dogma, and orthodoxy that govern international nuclear relations;

• Make the case for a revolution in nuclear affairs and define the embryonic Third Nuclear Age.

• Build global intellectual capacity and train the next generation of experts on this issue. This research will provide the landmark study of this phenomenon and the centrepiece for a whole new generation of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work on nuclear affairs.

The project employs a multi-methods approach of semi-structured interviews, an innovative War Game exercise, as well as archival research and Regional Feedback Workshops. It is global in nature and includes analysis of SCW in the Euro-Atlantic, South Asia, Northeast Asia and the Middle East.

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