Remarks Delivered at the Luxembourg Forum “Burden of Change: Time for New Thinking”

Remarks Delivered at the Luxembourg Forum “Burden of Change: Time for New Thinking”

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The title of this Forum – “Burden of Change” – is well chosen.  We do indeed have a “Burden of Change” to prevent the use of nuclear weapons for another 75 years.  To do this successfully, we must change the way we think about the risks of nuclear use.  We have a new security environment and new risks but an old way of thinking about and planning for managing nuclear risks.  The burden of change starts with us, the experts who have managed and sustained this field for so many years.

There is a growing sense of crisis within the nuclear security field and for good reason:  After five decades of regulation and reductions of the most dangerous weapons on earth, we have resumed an arms race.  As Dr. William Perry has said, this is part of the “new abnormal.”  The carefully constructed, multi-generational architecture for limiting nuclear weapons is being dismantled without a replacement plan, while the risk of nuclear use grows significantly.

There are many reasons for the current state of events, and political responsibility can be shared on all sides for our failings. But the challenge of the current moment is a result of more than just politics.  It also represents a collective failure of leadership and intellectual rigor among the expert community.  Our ability to achieve significant progress in reducing and eliminating nuclear threats is limited by a strict adherence to ways of thinking about nuclear risks that are now outdated by technology and world events.

New Risks and Dangers        

A growing number of experts, especially younger experts, have described the nuclear field as a stuck field, with frozen thinking.

We are operating from a strategy, doctrine and force planning that have remained essentially unchanged for 60 years, despite the evolution of a fundamentally different threat environment.  Some sixty years ago, when the theory of nuclear deterrence became the central organizing tenet for designing our forces and force posture plans, we had only half the nuclear weapon states of today, and a force based primarily on slow-flying strategic bombers.  The United States and Russia were primarily focused on preventing the intentional use of a nuclear weapon against each other.  Nuclear terrorism was not considered conceivable at that point.  And the computational power and cyber capabilities that now resident in a laptop computer were not imaginable in 1960.

Our thinking about the requirements for maintaining the so-called “Delicate Balance of Terror” was shaped by early intellectual contributors like Albert Wohlstetter and Bernard Brodie and quickly became deeply entrenched in the thinking of the expert community both within and outside of government. We convinced ourselves that a credible deterrent could be maintained only through the redundancy of a triad of forces in significant numbers, a willingness to use nuclear weapons first if need be, and a force in “ready-to-fire” mode to dissuade rational leaders from trying to strike first.

Today, we are still primarily focused on preventing the risk of intentional use, using the same script and logic from 1960.  How many other fields can we say this of:  60 years of the same way of thinking about an issue even though the threat and technology environments have changed dramatically?

Why Is This a Problem?

Why is relying on outdated security strategies a problem?  Because the world has changed significantly. 

Today, the risk of use is not primarily driven by the failure to deter the intentional use of nuclear weapons.  Today, the primary threat we should be focused on is the risk of unintended and un-deterrable nuclear use. As we design the forces, policies, and practices of the future, we should be focusing on reducing the risks and consequences of use from faulty or false information, either from cyber-attacks or equipment malfunction. We should work to reduce the chances of misinterpretation of events or information leading to a leader’s erroneous decision to launch, perhaps exacerbated by a sophisticated spoof against our forces, or a “deep fake” on social media.  The technologies to spoof and create deep fakes, combined with the current environment of strategic competition between the United States and Russia, the absence of ongoing channels of communication, and an overall toxic relationship all greatly increase the risk of blundering into nuclear use through the escalation of mistakes during a crisis.  We also must continue to focus and cooperate on preventing nuclear terrorism, against which deterrence is largely irrelevant.

In fact, nuclear deterrence wasn’t designed to address any of these new threat vectors.  Worse, our current practices for sustaining nuclear deterrence escalate both the risks and the consequences of a catastrophic accident, miscalculation, or blunder.  Yet the strategy of nuclear deterrence continues to be used as the primary driving rationale for declaratory policy, force structure, and force posture.  This primacy assigned to maintaining nuclear deterrence–to preventing intentional use of nuclear weapons by a state – compounds the very nuclear dangers they were designed to address. 

Specifically, nuclear deterrence, in its current form, has been used to:

  • justify the need to reserve the right of first use;
  • maintain a triad of forces;
  • posture forces on prompt launch; and
  • maintain sufficient numbers of nuclear weapons to assure that a sustained nuclear war could be prosecuted.

Against this backdrop we are moving toward nuclear deregulation—an unrestrained strategic competition, new and more dangerous kinds of nuclear systems in Russia, expanded missile defense by the United States, all of which intersect with new and more dangerous technologies, such as cyber, artificial intelligence, and hypersonic systems.  In sum, we are at a highly dangerous moment—and moving in the wrong direction.

Hard Questions

It is worth considering why we have been unable to move toward more effective nuclear risk reduction and a safer form of deterrence.  We must consider a number of hard questions and think critically about how to construct a safer nuclear strategy, one that is more responsive to today’s undeterrable nuclear risks.

  • Why do we still need thousands of weapons whose primary purpose is to never be used?  Surely deterrence can be credible at much lower levels of weapons.
  • How did we decide to give our leaders only 7-10 minutes to make the most consequential decision ever made by any leader on earth and why do both leaders and citizens tolerate that?
  • Can’t we devise a survivable system that doesn’t require this prompt-launch posturing?
  • Why have we delegated the authority to use nuclear weapons to a single person in each of the countries that have them?  We require our scientists to make our weapons “one-point” safe so that they do not accidentally detonate if they are dropped or shot at.  But we have engineered a single point of failure for decision-making.  Is that rational?
  • Why do our citizens tolerate living with the terror of sudden and indiscriminate nuclear annihilation?
  • And given all that uncertainty, how can we possibly say we have personal and national security today? 

Surely, we can invent a system that is more responsive to today’s threats, decreases the risk of use, and reduces the consequences of a nuclear catastrophe if, in fact, a detonation occurs.

The Burden of Change:  Time for New Thinking

It’s time for a fundamental rethinking of doctrine, strategies, practices, and belief systems about nuclear weapons.  We need a new approach to nuclear threats that is designed to fit today’s world.  We need to systematically explore alternatives to the status quo.

As if this grim backdrop were not enough of a challenge, we also have a second, parallel crisis:  a capacity gap.  There is currently a deeply diminished human capacity to manage the challenges of the current nuclear era.  Unlike at the height of the Cold War, when the best and the brightest were dedicating their lives to managing the nuclear threat, today, the United States government has lost much of its deep expertise, due to retirements, forced departures, and a hollowing out of a mid-career cohort.  Outside of government, there is a palpable sense of crisis, due to the lack of a clear career path for those interested in entering the field.  Just as the institutional memory of long-time career officials is either retiring or dying, our field’s early career cohort is opting out from frustration and despair.

This capacity crisis has three different dimensions related to age, gender, and diversity.  Why should we care?  Because without a new generation of experts and a diversity of perspectives dedicated to problem solving, we are much less likely to unstick our stuck problem, and we are less likely to successfully prevent a nuclear crisis or manage one, if it occurs. 

What Can We Do? 

We, the community of experts around this table, all must encourage new thinking.  We must together lead the movement to challenge old paradigms to create a safer nuclear future.  We also must work to support diversity of thought and diversity of voices within the expert community–to make a conscious effort to invest in developing the next generation of nuclear experts and leaders.

I look forward to innovating our thinking together and to using the Luxembourg Forum to serve as a beacon for positive change to make the world safer in the years to come.

Thank you.



Joan Rohlfing is president and chief operating officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).  NTI works to protect our lives, environment, and quality of life now and for future generations. We work to prevent catastrophic attacks with weapons of mass destruction and disruption (WMDD)—nuclear, biological, radiological, chemical, and cyber. Learn more at www.nti.org.

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