12 September 2019 - 14 September 2019

The future of strategic stability: how must modern deterrence evolve as landmark treaties expire and new weapons technologies and doctrines are developed?

Conference in New York, in cooperation with the American Ditchley Foundation

The Cold War legacy of arms control treaties and conventions is either breaking down or shortly about to expire. At the same time, the digitisation of our economies and infrastructure – and many aspects of defence – has turned cyber and information warfare into powerful weapons that could upset our systems and habits of deterrence built up over decades. Russia is investing in new weapons, such as hypersonic missiles, combining strategic great power capabilities with an insurgent (“move fast and break things”) start-up approach to weaponising information warfare and cyber. In the context of persistent worries that Russia’s doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons could be evolving, the United States is committed to modernising and enhancing its capabilities to meet a new range of threats. The UK and France, as the other western nuclear powers, are presently committed to retaining and modernising their own nuclear deterrents but their defence budgets, doctrines and procurement practices are straining to deliver the new hybrid capabilities now needed by serious middleweight powers, with much of the money tied up in legacy capability.

All this is happening as we enter a new era of strategic competition between the US and China. Not enough is understood about China’s approach to nuclear deterrence and how strategic competition will cause it to evolve, although for the moment the public policy remains no first use. We do know that China is making major investments to match the US as a technological power. There are obvious strategic risks in this but also risks that push-back by the US could lead to a new technological Cold War and that, in itself, to further escalation.

The Ditchley Foundation and American Ditchley are convening a conference to explore these issues and how we can:

  • renew strategic stability so that nuclear deterrents continue to deter, taking account of the rise of China as well as the continued threat from Russia;
  • insulate nuclear deterrence from the turbulent and unpredictable development of cyber and information warfare and other emerging technologies such as AI and bio-engineering;
  • build cyber deterrence doctrine so as to contribute to stability;
  • contain regional nuclear stand-offs and threats that could pull in great powers;
  • contain further nuclear proliferation and especially keep fissile material out of the hands of non-state actors, against whom deterrence is not effective.

We see the evolution of nuclear deterrence and how to combine it safely with the evolution of cyber doctrine and other new capabilities as an urgent and first order challenge for our times. This conference will build on the discussion of modern deterrence held at Ditchley in November 2018 and on the follow-up workshop on modern middleweight power, focusing on the UK’s path to bringing new technologies into defence in a responsible way. Many of Ditchley’s discussions on technology have also highlighted the implications for state power. This discussion, held in the US, will enable us to convene, with a strong US presence, a cross-cutting group of Transatlantic policy makers, arms control and nuclear experts, cyber experts, tech leaders, academics and commentators. We plan to follow this with further discussions in 2020.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.