The Future of Arms Control

In recent years, Russia and the United States have withdrawn from many important arms control bilateral agreements which have led to uncertainty in the interna-tional security environ-ment.

Technological advancement with military applications has led to a dynamic debate among strategic and defense experts. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has received widespread attention from experts and scholars who doubt the first full-scale drone war and the first AI war because of the massive use of these technologies. Many technological advances which the world has made over the past two decades have featured in this war which includes the use of drones, cyber war, software-defined war, cyber-attacks, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and space-based technologies. Space operations have been an important enabler in this war in real-time. Although the traditional aspect of warfare is not reduced in relevance and significance and the ongoing war shows that many features of warfighting remain unchanged, the war presents us with a way to understand how emerging technologies impact conflicts and how they dominate modern warfare. The technological development thus raises questions about the wider impacts of emerging technologies on the future of warfare and arms control which is already crippling.

The technologically advanced countries are accelerating the pace of development for innovation. These technologies are underlying the existing weapons, platforms, and systems. Lethal Autonomous Weapons System (LAWS), Swarm drones, network surveillance tools, and various applications of AI—all of which can be employed for the development or enhancement of weapons and delivery systems. Cyber-attacks, advanced weapons systems, and the impact of AI on peace and security have created new challenges for humanity, as nuclear escalation is becoming more likely now. Emerging technologies can promote states’ military readiness to engage in offensive actions. They could equally result in conventionally weaker countries’ dependency on nuclear weapons. For instance, in the case of Ukraine and Russia, Russia has already signaled an increased reliance on nuclear weapons due to the ineffectiveness of its conventional forces. Emerging technologies are playing an important role in Ukraine`s defence against the Russian military. Moscow has realized the significance of AI capabilities in the battleground. It is using AI to help launch its attacks and now looking toward increasing AI capabilities to address deficits in its war with Ukraine.

The availability of these new and developing military technologies in the Russia-Ukraine conflict affects the arms control regime greatly. The technological advancement and the ever-expanding complexity of the difference between military and non-military usage have put various existing arms control treaties under stress as those have been developed mainly for conventional arms. Although these cutting-edge capabilities may give one edge to the states that control them, there is a growing concern that this perception of technological superiority could increase the potential for miscalculation and unintended nuclear escalation. The proliferation of new technologies may just provide a false sense of superiority and this might grow worse in the future and make it difficult to develop policies on how best to manage escalation, reduce risks, and arms control, and establish a strategic restraint regime.

On the one hand, these technologies provide the opportunity to create new approaches, especially to nuclear non-proliferation by enhancing safeguards and verification systems which play a crucial role in indemnifying compliance by the state parties. On the other, technological advancement is rapidly disrupting arms control arrangements, which are already crippling due to major withdrawals, violations, and non-compliance to arms control agreements. In recent years, Russia and the United States have withdrawn from many important arms control bilateral agreements which have led to uncertainty in the international security environment. The collective efforts by states over the decades have effectively restricted the arms race and threats in conventional and nuclear domains. However, the emerging technologies with military applications combined with the lack of consensus among the major powers, particularly after the Ukraine war are compounding the international security environment. Recently, the US State Department urged China and Russia to commit to the use of nuclear weapons only by humans, raising concerns about automatic systems such as AI-control. The US is also concerned about the Chinese machine-gun-toting robot dog which was recently showcased in China-Cambodia wargames.

Emerging technologies are already visible on the battlefield and it is more likely now that the scale and complexity of war will change in the future. The US, China, and Russia are innovating and adopting these technologies; while other countries are in the early stages of development and learning lessons. Thus, the technological development we see today will reshape the future of warfare. The world which is currently divided and lacking consensus and political will, needs to set standards and rules to strengthen the arms control regime and strategic restraint.

Sher Ali Kakar
The write is working as a Research Officer in Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN), at BUITEMS Quetta.

The writer is a Research Officer at the Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN) in Quetta, Pakistan.