By Matthew Cottee, Research Analyst, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

In a packed day and a half, the EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference addressed the entire range of current proliferation challenges in Brussels last week. A ‘Next Generation’ event that took place on the periphery of the main conference did that agenda one better, also exploring future challenges far beyond the realm of nuclear dangers.

The workshop, which brought together young scholars and officials from 19 countries, explored a variety of topical issues. Mirroring some of the sessions at the larger EU Conference, presentations covered chemical weapons use in Syria, challenges to strengthening nuclear security and how best to balance the peaceful use of nuclear energy against proliferation risks. The final session, however, incorporated new and forward-looking themes. The panel was encouraged to consider future threats that may challenge the traditional focus on nuclear arms control.

Three emerging technologies were identified as having the potential to make us rethink the concepts of stability and deterrence, traditionally related to nuclear weapons. These were cyber threats, the potential for an arms race in space, and the future risk posed by the advancement of conventional weaponry. Cyber capabilities are outpacing those of nuclear weapons and have a much lower barrier to entry – limited investment is required to develop offensive cyber capabilities. Anti-satellite tests have reignited questions about weapons in space and the disastrous consequences of resulting space debris. Most recently, tests of hypersonic weapons suggest that in the future, missions currently reserved for nuclear warheads could also be carried out by long-range conventional missiles travelling at speeds of Mach 5 or more.

Each of the technologies presents unique security challenges, but several crosscutting themes also emerged throughout the discussion. For example, is it possible to differentiate between offensive and defensive capabilities? The boundary is blurred by concepts such as ‘active defence’ and it is difficult to believe that a state can develop truly defensive capabilities without also creating offensive expertise.

A second important issue relevant to the cyber, space and advanced conventional domains is the desperate need to establish governance and regulatory norms in all. The Convention on Cybercrime was mentioned in one of the main conference sessions as a first step, but its limited power and scope mean that there are no binding international conventions governing cyberspace. Similarly, the EU is leading a multilateral initiative on an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities and discussions regarding a Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) continue. A new Chinese–Russian draft of the treaty suggests banning the placement of weapons in outer space, but fails to address ground-based weapons that could destroy satellites. Perhaps of greatest concern, advanced conventional weaponry lacks international oversight. The development of non-nuclear boost glide weapons, for example – which are launched on a ballistic trajectory using a conventional rocket but fall back to Earth at incredible speed – is not regulated by any existing treaty.

Given the current lack of governance or regulatory framework in any of the three issue areas, there is a good chance that these technologies will continue to develop unchecked. Throughout the ‘Next Generation’ discussion on future risks, it became clear that China, Russia and the United States are all competing to develop advanced conventional strike weapons as well as furthering capabilities in the cyber and space domains. This trend shows little chance of slowing given the current international security environment. It is also unlikely that international legislation would be practicable on any issue without first obtaining agreement between these three key parties. However, initiating negotiations and generating consensus limited to the major powers runs the risk of creating a two-tier system, akin to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which should be avoided if at all possible.

The session highlighted that there are several serious threats on the horizon. These will present additional challenges alongside existing nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament and arms control aims. In response, participants at the ‘Next Generation’ workshop may have generated more questions than answers, but by encouraging early-career academics and policymakers to think about these issues now, they will be better equipped to deal with them in the future. The non-proliferation and disarmament community has a responsibility to take note of broader issues shaping the contemporary security environment. Cyber security, the militarisation of space and hypersonic missiles are just three emerging threats that may soon be competing with nuclear weapons for equal consideration.

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