Is It a Nuke?: Pre-Launch Ambiguity and Inadvertent Escalation

James M. Acton
Content Type
Special Report
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Ambiguity about whether a weapon is nuclear-armed prior to its launch is an underappreciated, serious, and growing danger. Rising geopolitical tensions and the decay of arms control are exacerbating the risk that such pre-launch warhead ambiguity could lead to nuclear use in a crisis or conflict. Recent developments in technology—as well as potential future advances, such as the development of ambiguous intercontinental missiles—further add to the danger. A first step toward reducing these risks is to enhance awareness among decisionmakers of the causes and potential consequences of ambiguity. Unilateral and cooperative risk-mitigation measures could further reduce the danger of escalation, including in conflicts between the United States and Russia or the United States and China.
Conflict Prevention, Arms Control and Proliferation, Nuclear Weapons, Geopolitics
Political Geography
Russia, China, United States of America