Left of Launch: Artificial Intelligence at the Nuclear Nexus
International Security at the Nuclear Nexus Series
Popular media and policy-oriented discussions on the incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) into nuclear weapons systems frequently focus on matters of launch authority—that is, whether AI, especially machine learning (ML) capabilities, should be incorporated into the decision to use nuclear weapons and thereby reduce the role of human control in the decisionmaking process. This is a future we should avoid. Yet while the extreme case of automating nuclear weapons use is high stakes, and thus existential to get right, there are many other areas of potential AI adoption into the nuclear enterprise that require assessment. Moreover, as the conventional military moves rapidly to adopt AI tools in a host of mission areas, the overlapping consequences for the nuclear mission space, including in nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3), may be underappreciated.
AI may be used in ways that do not directly involve or are not immediately recognizable to senior decisionmakers. These areas of AI application are far left of an operational decision or decision to launch and include four priority sectors: (1) security and defense; (2) intelligence activities and indications and warning; (3) modeling and simulation, optimization, and data analytics; and (4) logistics and maintenance. Given the rapid pace of development, even if algorithms are not used to launch nuclear weapons, ML could shape the design of the next-generation ballistic missile or be embedded in the underlying logistics infrastructure. ML vision models may undergird the intelligence process that detects the movement of adversary mobile missile launchers and optimize the tipping and queuing of overhead surveillance assets, even as a human decisionmaker remains firmly in the loop in any ultimate decisions about nuclear use. Understanding and navigating these developments in the context of nuclear deterrence and the understanding of escalation risks will require the analytical attention of the nuclear community and likely the adoption of risk management approaches, especially where the exclusion of AI is not reasonable or feasible.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force)