Strengthening Resilience in 21st Century Crisis Communications
Alexa Wehsener, Sylvia Mishra
On May 3 and 4, 2023, the Institute for Security and Technology (IST) hosted a workshop in London examining vulnerabilities of existing communications channels relied on by leaders of states with nuclear weapons in times of crises. Participants included a diverse group of high-level policymakers, scholars, diplomats, and technical experts from across the world, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Switzerland, India, Pakistan, China, and Russia as well as relevant multilateral organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), amongst others. Sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office and Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, IST conducted the workshop under the Chatham House Rule. As a result, this document does not identify or attribute elements of this summary to specific individuals or their institutional affiliations.
The London workshop had two goals. First, to provide a forum for open, frank discussions without judgment, creating an opportunity for participants to question standing orthodoxy and voice ground-breaking, perhaps non-traditional ideas. Second, to ideate tangible avenues of conversation that provide states with nuclear weapons creative options for advancing risk reduction. In order to achieve these goals, the workshop focused on generating a more practical understanding of existing communications approaches and failure modes, as well as political and technical risks and opportunities.
We derived 4 significant takeaways from this engagement:
- Nuclear crisis communications are of growing importance in the 21st century. Participants agreed that existing channels for crisis communication are not sufficient for 21st century political and technical dynamics, which include increasing vulnerability to manipulation by modern technologies, such as cyber attacks, deep fakes, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. States must understand and address the practical implications of these vulnerabilities now as a means to reduce the risk of crisis mismanagement in the future.
- Backchannels play a significant role in diplomacy and defusing crises and sometimes rely on commonly used commercial messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Signal, amongst others. These commercial platforms are not uniformly adopted across geographies and are not necessarily sufficient for use in times of crisis, especially during escalation prior to nuclear launch in which cyber campaigns may mitigate or eradicate the ability of cellular networks to function well. Furthermore, such services are not dedicated for true crisis moments and thus lack necessary signaling mechanisms. Especially concerning is the security of the endpoint device being used, which in most cases are personal cell phones.
- CATALINK—an internationally-driven, secure, resilient, novel crisis communication concept being developed by IST and an array of partners—provides a basis for conversation on additive technical concepts to existing crisis communications systems. Working through the technical and political challenges related to the CATALINK system encourages discussion of broader and more tangible responsible nuclear risk reduction efforts.
- Further work is urgently required to expand the understanding of use cases for nuclear crisis communications, to best identify what technical and political requirements exist, to elucidate gaps, and to more earnestly and collaboratively update existing technical and political mechanisms to meet the challenges of 21st century multi-polar nuclear dynamics.