The overarching question imparting urgency to this exploration is: Can U.S.-Russian contention in cyberspace cause the two nuclear superpowers to stumble into war? In considering this question we were constantly reminded of recent comments by a prominent U.S. arms control expert: At least as dangerous as the risk of an actual cyberattack, he observed, is cyber operations’ “blurring of the line between peace and war.” Or, as Nye wrote, “in the cyber realm, the difference between a weapon and a non-weapon may come down to a single line of code, or simply the intent of a computer program’s user.”
For over a decade the United States has sought to develop non-nuclear weapons that could hit distant targets in a short period of time. Debate about this Conventional Prompt Global Strike Program has been dominated by one issue—the possibility that Russia (or another observing state) might mistake one of these weapons for a nuclear weapon and launch a nuclear response. Unfortunately, this narrow focus ignores other, more serious strategic risks as well as strategic benefits. James Acton, author of the recent Carnegie report Silver Bullet: Asking the Right Questions about Conventional Prompt Global Strike?, will discuss these risks and benefits, and analyze the extent to which the risks can be mitigated by unilateral and cooperative approaches.