Wormhole Escalation in the New Nuclear Age

Increasingly capable and intrusive digital information technologies, advanced dual-use military capabilities, and diffused global power structures will reshape future crises and conflicts between nuclear-armed adversaries and challenge traditional ways of thinking about escalation and stability. This emerging security environment will require new concepts and tools to manage the risk of unintended escalation and reduce nuclear dangers.

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The 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. 

In today’s highly competitive security environment, increasingly sophisticated sub-conventional tactics such as disinformation and weaponized social media, the blurring of nuclear-conventional firebreaks, and the continuing diffusion of global power to regional nuclear states suggest that that future strategic crises may defy the orderly, step-wise and even somewhat predictable process this image suggests. 

The challenges of managing conflict escalation in today’s strategic environment call for a metaphor. Drawing from science fiction and physics, a “wormhole” comparison may be apt.Escalation wormholes are 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.

Read the full article in the Texas National Security Review.

Listen to Rebecca discuss her research in War on the Rocks’ Horns of a Dilemma Podcast.

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