The Case for Preventive Arms Control

By: Paul Kumst, Columnist

Photo Credit: United Nations

In 1995, the United Nations (UN) adopted Protocol IV of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to prohibit the deployment of permanently blinding laser weapons. What makes this protocol unique is its preventive character. Despite their availability to some military forces, no such weapons had yet been deployed on the battlefield. The international community was concerned that, while adding only little military value, eye ball penetrating laser beams would open a new horrific chapter of warfare.[i] Today, rapidly accelerating rates of technology innovation that surpass notoriously slow and insufficient international arms control processes create an even stronger case for a greater conceptualization and institutionalization of preventive arms control.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the global community realized how slender the thread of the nuclear sword of Damocles was indeed, greatly boosting the development of major arms control regimes and making it a central pillar of internationals security policy.[ii] Resting on the assumptions that a stable system of mutual deterrence was achievable—and acceptable—and that the dynamics of militarization could be translated into a manageable process, the focus of Cold War regimes like the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) or the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty (INF) were mainly quantitative in nature, limiting particular weapons systems to a certain number.[iii] However, with the beginning of the first US Offset Strategy, the end of the Soviet Union, and the Revolution in Military Affairs that accompanied the first Gulf War, counting warheads was no longer a sufficient limit on preventing destabilizing arms races. Now, a comprehensive arms control approach must increasingly include research and development as a crucial variable, paying more attention to the qualitative characteristics of weapons technology.[iv]

In today’s fast-paced, knowledge-based, and digital society, the assumption of a manageable arms race dynamic must be questioned and avoided. Trends like Moore’s law or Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns describe that the speed of technological progress continually increases.[v] These rules not only hold true for mere computational power through the exponential improvements of microchip transistors, but also apply to the identification of human genes, wireless capacity, resolution of brain scans, or the number of available personal and service robots.[vi] With more technology being available faster, the chances of game-changing military innovations are greater than ever. Whether it is drones, autonomous robots, cyber capabilities, human enhancement, drugs, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, or nanotechnology, there is an enormous bandwidth of technological paths that deserve closer attention. If the invention of nuclear weapons has taught us anything, it is how difficult it can be to move away from a technological achievement once it was widely deployed. If any of the expected emerging technologies pose a similar threat to strategic stability, the world would be better off with internationally agreed upon regulations that aim to prevent and prohibit such systems before they are invented or deployed.

Developed in the late 1990s in a study of the German Office of Technology Assessment, as well as by several German peace research institutes, preventive arms control embraces the qualitative dimensions of weapons systems and considers potential applications of developing technology as a key variable for future military capabilities.[vii] Instead of focusing on already existing and deployed weapons technology, the research and development aspect is perceived as crucial, thereby enhancing the reactive character of arms control.[viii] Emphasizing precaution rather than aftercare, the goal of preventive arms control is to prevent or adequately regulate the development of new military technologies with potentially hazardous applications, just like the blinding lasers that were prohibited by the CCW.[ix] At the concept’s core, an early technology risk assessment is conducted before military covetousness and incentives for proliferation make it very hard to make an informed and deliberate decision in this regard.

More precisely, states with advanced technology capabilities should establish domestic interdisciplinary boards of scientists that broadly monitor cutting edge research in their civil and military spheres. They should attempt to identify potential weapon technologies and determine their readiness and chances of realization. For these technologies, an impact assessment would then anticipate potential negative implications and special dangers from the object of study: what is its potential for the prevention of war, the minimization of damages, cost reduction, sustainable development and humanitarian security?[x] Within such a framework, the expected impact on global stability or humanitarian norms can be compared to the legitimate interest of the military to improve its capabilities. As a result, decision makers could make a more holistic decision about future acquisitions and deployments, while operating in a less pressured and path dependent context of a final product phase.

There are many existing cases where the concept of preventive arms control could be put into action. The current case of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), which will be discussed by a group of governmental experts in the CCW in April 2017, is probably the most pressing one. Depending on the definition and degree of full autonomy, such potential ‘killer robots’ are not yet developed.[xi] However, their expected military uses make it extremely important that, if not completely banned, adequate international regulations are in place when they ultimately get deployed. While LAWS are already close to their last life-cycle stage and thus relatively specific in their final form, another example still requires more scientific assessment: CRISPR, a new gene editing method that might have severe security implications as well. It currently revolutionizes gene research by making this technique much more accessible, less expensive, and much faster.[xii] As the so-called gene-scissors become increasingly decentralized, they could spread to rogue non-state actors. With the US Intelligence Community already recognizing gene editing as a security risk on par with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities or the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the international community should clearly care about negative implications enabled by this technology.[xiii]

Undoubtedly, future technologies will offer many opportunities and benefits. At the same time however, the future of warfare will severely challenge international society and its institutions. To sufficiently address future weapons, new approaches of arms control must be considered. Preventive arms control would put decision makers back in control, countering the trend of accelerating research and development cycles and enabling informed debates as early as possible. Only by preventively analyzing new weapons technology, will society be wise enough to shape a peaceful future.

[i] D. Drollette, “Blinding them with science: Is development of a banned laser weapon continuing?”, Bulleting of the Atomic Scientists, September 14, 2014,

[ii] C. Daase, “Der erweiterte Sicherheitsbegriff”, Projekt Sicherheitskultur im Wandel, Working Paper 1, 2010, p. 5.

[iii] U. Becker, H. Müller, E. Rosert, “Einleitung: Rüstungskontrolle im 21. Jahrhundert”, Die Friedenswarte, 2008, p. 4.

[iv] F. Sauer, N. Schörnig, “Rüstung und Rüstungskontrolle”, Internationale Sicherheit: Eine Einführung, 2014, p. 150.

[v] G. Moore, “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits”, Electronics (38), 1965; R. Kurzweil, “The age of spiritual machines: When computers exceed human intelligence”, 2000.

[vi] P. Singer, “Wired for War: The Robotic Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century”, Penguin Books, 2009, p. 99.

[vii] T. Petermann, M. Socher, C. Wennrich, “Präventive Rüstungskontrolle bei Neuen Technologien. Utopie oder Notwendigkeit”, Studien des Büros für Technologiefolgenabschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag, 1997, p. 11; G. Neuneck, C. Mölling, “Methoden, Kriterien und Konzepte für präventive Rüstungskontrolle”, Wissenschaft und Frieden Dossier (38), 2001, p. 3-5.

[viii] H. Müller, N. Schnörnig, “Rüstungsdynamik und Rüstungskontrolle: eine exemplarische Einführung in die internationalen Beziehungen”, Nomos, 2006.

[ix] J. Altmann, “Nanotechnology and preventive arms control”, Forschung DSF 3, 2005.

[x] G. Neuneck, C. Mölling, 2001.

[xi] P. Kumst, “Banning Killer Robots? A Way Forward”, Georgetown Security Studies Review, November 29, 2016,

[xii] P. Kumst, “CRISPR—A Rogue One?”, Georgetown Security Studies Review, November 08, 2016,

[xiii] Senate Armed Services Committee, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the UC Intelligence Community”, February 09, 2016,

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