‘Catalytic nuclear war’ in the age of artificial intelligence & autonomy: Emerging military technology and escalation risk between nuclear-armed states

James Johnson* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

This article revisits the Cold War-era concept of ‘catalytic nuclear war,’ considered by many as unworkable, and reconceptualizes it in light of technological change, as well as improved understanding of human psychology and other factors. It argues in the modern digital era, the catalyzing chain of reaction and counter-retaliation dynamics set in motion by the deliberate action of a non-state or third-party actor is fast becoming a more accessible and plausible alternative to acquiring a nuclear weapon or manufacturing an improvised atomic device – or ‘dirty bomb.’ The article concludes that artificial intelligence (AI) technology is creating new – and exacerbating old – escalation pathways that risk catalyzing accidental nuclear confrontation between nuclear-armed powers, particularly under irrational (or sub-rational) conditions. Are existing notions of accidental and inadvertent nuclear escalation still relevant in the age of AI and autonomy?
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages41
JournalThe Journal of Strategic Studies
Early online date13 Jan 2021
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Jan 2021

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