Many U.S. nuclear command-and-control assets are dual use, that is, they facilitate nonnuclear operations as well. In a conventional conflict, therefore, China or Russia would have an incentive to attack these assets for the purpose of reducing the effectiveness of U.S. nonnuclear operations. Such attacks would, however, have the effect of undermining the U.S. nuclear command-and-control system—creating serious risks of inadvertent escalation. The escalation risks of attacks against the U.S. early-warning system would be particularly serious because (i) in a conventional conflict, China or Russia would have strong incentives to launch kinetic strikes against this system; and (ii) even limited strikes could undermine the United States’ ability to monitor nuclear attacks by the adversary. In considering how to modernize its early-warning system, the United States should consider the trade-offs associated with a range of alternative architectures in light of the risks of nonnuclear attack.
James Acton holds the Jessica T. Mathews Chair and is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A physicist by training, Acton’s current research focuses on the escalation risks of advanced conventional weapons. His work on this subject includes the Carnegie edited volume, Entanglement: Chinese and Russian Perspectives on Non-nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Risks, and an article, “Escalation through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-and-Control Systems Raises the Risk of an Inadvertent Nuclear War,” in the journal International Security. An expert on hypersonic conventional weapons and the author of the Carnegie report, Silver Bullet? Asking the Right Questions About Conventional Prompt Global Strike, Acton has testified on this subject to the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee and the congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.