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US nuclear deterrence is at risk of being undermined, and Dr Ben Zala is headed to Harvard University to explore the cause. For Zala, the problem is the increasing importance of advanced conventional weapons, at first in US defence thinking but increasingly beyond Washington as well. The role of these missile defence systems, conventional strike missiles, offensive cyber capabilities, as well as anti-satellite and antisubmarine technologies greatly expanded during the Obama era. Their increased importance to the US defence posture can seriously impact the nuclear balance between states. As Zala argues, “these conventional weapons technologies can undermine the mutual vulnerability that underpins nuclear deterrence relationships.” In doing so, they can increase levels of risk and instability in the global system.
Zala is taking up a year-long research fellowship at Harvard’s Belfer Center, headed by Barack Obama’s former Defence Secretary Ash Carter. Building off recent research, his sole project will investigate the adoption of these advanced technologies further afield. Specifically, that will mean looking to their spread and adoption beyond the US, to countries such as Russia, China and India. One challenge, Zala says, will be to “think through what effects we can anticipate this might have on deterrence relationships involving the US.”
While at Harvard, he will write an article based on his research, with his findings also feeding into a book project on advanced conventional weapons with co-author Dr Andrew Futter from the UK. “I’ll be exploring directly the different policy responses available to Washington as it faces the globalisation of advanced conventional weapons technologies,” Zala says. As a key American ally, Australia has a strong interest in the effectiveness of US nuclear deterrence, too. When US President Donald Trump compared the size of his ‘nuclear button’ to that of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Twitter in January, even Australians shuddered. It was a farcical display of how easily deterrence could go wrong. To assist decision-makers in getting it right, the policy-relevant research of scholars like Ben Zala can go a long way.