World Systems

Nuclear Warfare and International Law

Protecting the systems that control the weapons
Nuclear weapons have been a well-known part of the international landscape for nearly 80 years. Much less well-known is the critical infrastructure surrounding nuclear weaponry – the personnel, hardware, and software that make up the framework of a nuclear-weapon State’s nuclear capabilities, known as Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications or NC3.

NC3 systems control all aspects of a State’s nuclear infrastructure, from detecting when a launch might be incoming, to conveying that information to the decision makers, to making the decision to launch and to maintaining and protecting existing arsenals within and without.  While nuclear weapons have not been used in combat since the Second World War, they remain an omnipresent part of the strategic security environment.  Current events in Ukraine and Taiwan have reemphasised the dangers nuclear weapons pose to humankind.

NC3 systems are of central importance to the strategic environment.  However, the processes that govern these systems are shrouded in secrecy, uncertainty, and vulnerabilities.  NC3 systems themselves face numerous challenges.  Existing NC3 hardware is frequently decades old, leaving them vulrnable to mechanical and operator failure.  Emerging threats like cyber-attacks and AI-driven autonomous weapons threaten the resilience of NC3 systems, and intermingling of conventional and nuclear weapons systems poses the threat of conflict escalation, potentially disrupting effective and accurate communications for nuclear weapons States.

This research project examines the current state of NC3 systems, proposing a code of conduct of best practice for States when dealing with nuclear weapons.  Drawing on Professor Emily Crawford’s recent research on non-binding instruments and codes of conduct in international law, this project, funded by the Nautilus Institute, will examine the existing law and practice regarding NC3, identify the gaps and vulnerabilities in those systems, and propose a model code of conduct for all States to adopt regarding engagement and interaction with NC3 systems – both their own, and those of other States.

Emily Crawford

Professor Emily Crawford

Visit Professor Emily Crawford's academic profile.