Wormhole Escalation in the New Nuclear Age

National Defence Academy of Latvia Center for Security and Strategic Research – Opening Remarks (edited)

October 15, 2020

Rebecca Hersman

Rebecca Hersman at National Defence Academy of Latvia Center for Security and Strategic Research

Watch the full presentation here.

 

Herman Kahn’s “escalation ladder” is an enduring, but increasingly unhelpful, image to describe strategic crisis and conflict between nuclear armed states. While many have dismissed the false precision of Kahn’s original 44 rung ladder, the linear, orderly, and indeed almost predictable process it suggests has deeply penetrated our collective strategic subconscious and undergirds many of our deterrence concepts. Fueled by an increasingly competitive security environment, transformational technologies, and a more fragmented global order future strategic crises may defy the orderly, stepwise and even somewhat predictable process this image suggests. The challenges of managing conflict escalation in today’s strategic environment call for a new metaphor. Drawing from science fiction and physics, I propose wormhole escalation. Wormhole escalation is an alternative metaphor for framing the way we think about escalation – or at least potential escalation – in the modern age.

Escalation wormholes are sudden openings in the fabric of deterrence through which competing states could inadvertently enter and suddenly traverse between sub-conventional and strategic levels of conflict in accelerated and decidedly non-linear ways. Wormhole dynamics between nuclear-armed states are driven by:

  1. The pursuit of subconventional asymmetric advantage.
  2. Advancing technology.
  3. The diffusion of global power.

If a traditional, predictable escalation ladder ever existed, it certainly no longer does today. Instead, today’s competitive and highly asymmetric security environment suggests the need for new concepts and metaphors to understand and manage emerging escalation risks. Fueled by an increasingly competitive security environment, transformational technologies, and a more fragmented global order, escalation wormholes may appear, likely with little warning. Asymmetries of tools, domains, and stakes will complicate this landscape as nuclear-armed states, both large and small, seek to navigate this new escalatory terrain. Wormholes are inherently, and indeed catastrophically, unstable. Whether in terms of space travel or nuclear escalation, they seem best avoided.

Watch the full presentation here.

Read the full article here:  Rebecca Hersman, “Wormhole Escalation in the New Nuclear Age,” Texas National Security Review, July 9, 2020, https://tnsr.org/2020/07/wormhole-escalation-in-the-new-nuclear-age/