Can Nukes Get Any Scarier? You Bet, and This Funder Is Paying Attention

When the Carnegie Corporation of New York was established over a century ago, the world was a scary place, with menacing new military technologies coming onto the scene—like machine guns, tanks and battleships. World War I was just around the corner. Today's a scary time, too, and in the view of some experts, one of the most familiar security threats of modern times—that posed by nuclear weapons—may be rising, thanks to emerging new technologies. Six teams of such experts recently won awards from Carnegie that total $3 million. 

What kind of technologies are we talking about? Carl Robichaud, the program officer who oversees this area of Carnegie's work, points to "cyber, high-precision conventional, hypersonic, space and anti-space weapons, and the next generation of ballistic missile defenses." And he warns, "Technological diffusion has given more countries access to these systems, which will soon be introduced into existing conflicts."

Other technologies could heighten nuclear risks, too. And what's scary is that it's hard to know exactly how any number of tech breakthroughs might lead to new nuclear instability. What we do know is that a lot of nuclear weapons remain a quarter century after the Cold War's end—over 15,000. Most are in the hands of the U.S. and Russia, but six other countries also have nukes, including Pakistan, with 120 warheads. 

“Today, we are seeing the development and spread of a suite of technologies that, taken together, accentuate the risk of nuclear accident or miscalculation,” said Robichaud. “No one knows which capabilities will emerge as risk multipliers, but given the pace of technological innovation, we must anticipate potential problems before they become crises.”

It's hard to argue with that logic. And with so few funders thinking about nuclear weapons these days, it's a relief that Carnegie has remained on this case and studied how the nuclear risk may be morphing in alarming ways. The foundation is also part of a funders collaborative that it is backing an effort at breakthrough thinking on nuclear weapons, called N Square. 

Hewlett and MacArthur are also part of that collaborative, and are the other two big funders working on nukes in recent years, although Hewlett has lately phased out its nuclear weapons work and ramped up a new program on cybersecurity—another scary realm where novel technologies are creating new kinds of risks. 


The winners of the latest Carnegie grants, selected by a jury of experts from over 50 proposals, include university research centers and think tanks from both the United States and Europe. Among these are Georgetown University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the RAND Corporation. Research topics include "The Dynamics of Command, Control and Coordination in Cyber-Conflict Escalation: A Scenario-based Examination."

Meanwhile, Carnegie continues to move forward with its other important security funding. In April, we told you about a Carnegie-backed effort to develop new systems for measuring peace and evaluating peacebuilding efforts. In June, we reported on a Carnegie grant to address the global security implications presented by a vast global youth population. Carnegie's security program has some other interesting things cooking, too, that we'll be writing more about in coming months.