Emerging Technologies and Next Generation Arms Control

This commentary is part of a series on emerging technologies. Read the previous piece on the Bureau of Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies here.

Cold War arms control agreements face two dilemmas. The first is that they do not cover the emerging technologies that will build the next generation of weapons. The second is that China is not a party to most of them and therefore not constrained in weapons development. From this perspective, concerns about the end of the Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty neglect to consider that this treaty no longer made sense.

In the list of emerging technologies published by the Commerce Department (a grab bag of technologies in varying stages of development), there are some that are appropriate for control under existing nonproliferation arrangements, such as hypersonics or some biotechnologies, but these nonproliferation arrangements restrict the transfer, not the use of emerging technologies. Other emerging technologies could create a destabilizing military advantage, but we have no venue for discussing them nor is there even agreement that they should be discussed with potential opponents before there are specific military applications.

The immediate problem involves missiles. In the last decade, China has surpassed the United States in its ability to field certain intermediate range missiles—in part because of INF Treaty restrictions that applied to the United States but not to China. China has developed systems that could overwhelm U.S. defenses. China has likely surpassed the United States in the development of a new class of weapons, hypersonic strike vehicles, and may be within months of deploying such systems. Russia has similarly developed and deployed advanced intermediate-range missiles.

Hypersonics refers to weapons that exceed the speed of sound by many times. Hypersonics are on the list of "emerging" technologies whose transfer the United States hopes to restrict, but the Chinese already have well-developed capabilities that they have been pursuing with some success for more than a decade. They do not need us. Russia is also developing hypersonic weapons that may be on par with what the United States is building—part of its larger effort to develop a variety of exotic weaponry.

Many analysts have commented on the potentially destabilizing effect of this technology. The great speed of hypersonic systems makes it easier for them to evade defenses. U.S. ships and installations will have only a few minutes warning before impact. Even with conventional warheads, the effect could be devasting. An astute opponent (and the Chinese are astute) will flood defenses by launching salvoes of multiple missiles to overwhelm defenders. The experience of the 1940s, when it was a normal and successful tactic for ships to launch a barrage of twenty or more torpedoes simultaneously against a single target, shows how difficult defense will be. While U.S. targets can probably defend themselves against one or two incoming missiles, they will find it harder to defend against a deluge of them. If hypersonic vehicles use some kind of augmented onboard intelligence, this would improve their ability to identify targets, compensate for evasive maneuvers, and themselves evade defenses. Smart, hypersonic missiles will make for a formidable opponent, and this is another area where the Chinese do not need us to advance.

Warnings signs of the disparity between the U.S. and Chinese (and Russian) capabilities were visible more than a decade ago. The Russians have been more obvious than China as in 2007 when Vladimir Putin said the INF Treaty was outdated and should be revisited. China has made no secret of its missile programs and is unconstrained by the treaty. That the United States did not respond to these Russian and Chinese developments until now has left it at a disadvantage.

Both Russia and China might claim that their new weapons programs are a reaction to U.S. technological developments. The United States has precision-guided munitions, long-range strike capabilities, unmanned aerial vehicles, cyberattacks, and military space programs that create new strategic capabilities. A concern for both Russia and China is that a combination of advanced conventional weapons, cyberattacks, and space assets will allow the United States to preemptively strike their nuclear forces and other high value targets. They believe that the United States can achieve strategic effect without the use of nuclear weapons, circumventing their nuclear deterrent capabilities and devaluing Russia and Chinese strategic forces. These were the emerging technologies of a few decades ago when the U.S. technological lead was undisputed. Unsurprisingly, our opponents reacted to this advantage, and while it has taken them years, they are catching up in key areas. Some Department of Defense sources suggest, for example, that stealth capabilities could be degraded by opponent technologies within a decade. The United States was too confident (or too complacent) about its technological lead, which has now been eroded in key areas.

The United States is neither negotiating to reduce risk or (until recently) building systems that counter our opponents improving capabilities. That means there is little incentive for either Russia or China to engage in negotiation or even meaningful discussions on controlling emerging military technologies. The United States does not possess a clear advantage; China and Russia are "near-peers" (if not actual peers in key technologies). Both countries realize the United States has fallen behind in some areas, and that will make them reluctant to make concessions or even enter into negotiations. The United States would be the demandeurs, in diplomatic terms, and they can easily rebuff U.S. demands.

Fears that U.S. missile tests will create a new arms race miss the point. There is already a military technology race, but until recently, the United States was not racing. Criticisms of the decision to end INF commitments reflect a failure to understand the dynamics of arms negotiations. Adversaries do not negotiate because they love peace; they negotiate to reduce the risk of attack or technological surprise. This may be counterintuitive for those of a more pacific bent, but building weapons is a proven path to negotiation. If the United States starts to deploy its own weapons based on emerging technologies, there may be more interest in talking. There is no incentive for China or Russia to negotiate if the United States is not in the game.

Just as with earlier strategic weapons, building programs should be accompanied by negotiation. Whether it is possible to begin talks on missiles and whether these talks could be broadened to other military technology concerns are open questions. There have been multilateral discussions in the United Nations on some emerging technologies, such as cyberattacks, autonomous weapons, and the military use of outer space. These are often “proxy" negotiations rather than direct, formal talks between states, but they are only a first step toward negotiations, and some recent talks have not been able to reach agreement. There are no direct negotiations between the three leading powers on any emerging technology. Even if there were, negotiations with Russia and China will be difficult, and the United States should expect (at least initially) China and Russia to work in tandem against the United States in any trilateral discussion. The Chinese are not as experienced as the Russians in arms control and have no record of agreement to build on, making them both suspicious and cautious, and the current bilateral climate will make them disinclined to even talk.

Emerging technologies change the equation for stability and deterrence in ways we cannot easily predict. These technologies make Cold War agreements—if they even apply—less useful. Discussions of the implications of these technologies for stability could form a new agenda for arms control. But there is no appetite in any capital to use negotiation to reduce risks from new military technologies. China and Russia will likely realize that any U.S. desire to negotiate reflects deficiencies, and while the Russians might be willing to engage since they see negotiations with the United States as affirming their great power status (and avoiding an expensive contest), the Chinese could be dismissive.

Before rejecting negotiations as useless, ask what the alternative is in a world where China is willing to outspend the United States. After years of underinvestment and misspending, the United States can no longer assume an unassailable lead in technology. The various restrictions it is deploying on exports and investments will not change this. Even Cold War embargoes did not prevent the Soviets from developing sophisticated weaponry, and the same is true today for Russia and China. U.S. relations with Russia and China are too parlous to begin a new generation of arms control talks for emerging technologies, but as arsenals accumulate and as the risk from emerging weapons technologies grows, this will change. The United States is already working with allies to deny emerging technologies to potential opponents. Eventually, it will also need to work with opponents to control them.

James Andrew Lewis is a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.