21st Century Strategic Deterrence: “Beyond Nuclear”

The U.S. needs to start writing the guidelines for 21st century strategic deterrence, focusing on methods beyond nuclear options.

Estimated time to read: 11 minutes

By Aryan Dale and Brendon Herbeck

For half of the 20th Century, Warsaw Pact and NATO countries alike wrote the book for how deterrence theory should be applied. In particular, nuclear deterrence played a significant role in the way the U.S. built its national security strategy. Nuclear deterrence was so pervasive that the very word “deterrence” itself became synonymous with nuclear deterrence. However, according to General John Hyten, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, strategic deterrence in the 21st century does not equate to 20th century deterrence. Strategic deterrence is a multi-polar, multi-domain problem and it is fundamentally different now than it was in last century. The myopic focus on nuclear options in a national deterrence strategy falls short of the critical thinking required to provide U.S. national leaders with the options necessary for effective decision making. Today’s complex social-political environment requires more than just a nuclear element for strategic deterrence to be effective against a diverse set of adversaries. Deterrence today must leverage all six domains of warfare.

So what is deterrence? According to DoD Joint Publication 1, deterrence “influences potential adversaries not to take threatening actions” for fear of the overwhelming retaliation from U.S. military might. More simply, deterrence could be any action that convinces an adversary to not act due to perceived unacceptable costs or because “the probability of success [is assessed to be] extremely low.” For an adversary to believe costs will be unacceptable or that there is a low probability of success, it must assess the U.S. threat as credible and capable, regardless of whether it is nuclear or conventional. Deterrence hinges on the adversary’s assessment of credibility and capability. During the Cold War the Soviet Union believed that use of nuclear weapons would lead to an overwhelming retaliation from the U.S.; and therefore, striking any NATO allies with nuclear weapons was not worth the cost.

Effects of a Multi-Polar Environment
The end of the Cold War brought to a close 50 years of a bi-polar world, and with it the simplicity of employing one strategy to deter a single adversary. The multi-polar world of today brings adversaries who are motivated differently. Both rational and irrational actors must be considered, which also causes national leaders to question the level of success strategic deterrence has on an adversary. Generally, it is believed strategic deterrence is effective only against a rational actor, and not an irrational actor. This is due to the perception that a rational actor will take into account some form of cost-benefit analysis prior to acting versus the irrational actor who might act without any consideration of the losses.

Further complicating the world environment is that potential adversaries are watching and learning from U.S actions. This is not a new concept as adversaries have been studying each other for thousands of years to gain advantage. But General Hyten reminded us in a speech last fall that “in a multi-polar world, everybody watches you [the U.S.] everywhere.” His point was to highlight that since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has had a spotlight on it where adversaries have been studying the asymmetric advantages of the U.S. and creating specific capabilities and methods to counter those advantages. Thus, we must now recognize that a deterrent method of the past may not be viable in the future. The U.S. must seek out new deterrent strategies.

Nuclear versus Strategic Deterrence
Nuclear deterrence remains the foundation of U.S. deterrence strategy. However, nuclear deterrence cannot be the sole pillar of strategic deterrence since nuclear deterrence is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The most recent National Security Strategy (NSS) reflects this requirement to expand deterrence. As Brian Willis points out in the recent “Multi-domain ops at the Strategic Level” article, the recent NSS and Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) make strides to extend deterrence to the space and cyberspace domains. Creating non-nuclear deterrence options for use against potential adversaries is critical, especially against those actors who do not possess nuclear weapons. Michael Gerson suggests the nuclear taboo reduces the credibility—and therefore the utility—of nuclear weapons, especially against regimes not possessing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. This thought process feeds back to the concept of credibility. The adversary must know the capability exists and the U.S. is willing to use it. The U.S. must consider a more balanced approach to deterrence as two of its near-peer adversaries have done. China and Russia are starting to demonstrate new ideas and concepts about strategic deterrence. This new “deterrence” does not solely focus on nuclear weapons or even the military instrument of power. China defines this new way of thinking as “Integrated Strategic Deterrence” while the Russians have called it “Cross-Domain Coercion.”

People’s Republic of China Approach to Deterrence
The PRC’s approach is not focused on preventing actions in a given domain but about achieving certain political goals. Around 2001, PRC military literature started discussing a concept known as “Integrated Strategic Deterrence” which focuses on nonmilitary aspects of national power—diplomatic, economic, and scientific and technological strength—contributing to strategic deterrence alongside space and cyber capabilities. These actions could include demonstrating new capabilities through tests and exercises where international observers are watching, owning the majority of mineral mines that hold a certain type of element, or working with partner countries to launch a new satellite that helps map future droughts and plots areas that are farmable.

In 2007, the PRC tested an antisatellite (ASAT) technology demonstrator against a non-operational weather satellite. This test was publicized as a future scientific technology demonstration. This test demonstrated the PRC had a capability to engage satellites in Low Earth Orbit, which has now been turned over to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and is considered an operational military capability. It is also now a credible strategic deterrent in the space domain.

Another piece to the PRC’s deterrence is their dam building operations for water control and hydropower. According to open sources, the PRC owns 45% of the world’s dams with its nearest competitors being the United States at 14% and India at 9%. Dams have the potential to turn water into political weapons to be wielded in war, or instruments during peace to influence actions or behaviors of a neighbor. India is currently concerned with a number of China dam projects and their ability to reduce river flows into India.

The PRC’s “Integrated Strategic Deterrence” does not come without challenges. Unlike the U.S. who has the Department of Defense and Department of State coordinating different types of deterrent actions, the absence of an entity in the PLA to integrate and coordinate the employment of these capabilities makes it difficult to execute. However, it would come as no surprise to the casual observer to see the PLA start executing military, space, and cyber coercive activities in national level exercises in order to move “Integrated Strategic Deterrence” from theory and conjecture to fully operational in limited regional conflicts.

Russia’s Approach to Deterrence
The PRC is not the only competitor thinking about strategic deterrence from a non-nuclear perspective. About 30 years ago, Soviet literature introduced a concept we now know as Reflexive Control. This notion centers on the idea of driving your opponent to make decisions that are advantageous to you. This is commonly achieved through misinformation, either via “leaks” or providing a possible explanation to an unrelated event that causes your opponent to divert attention or respond. That concept has now evolved into “Cross-Domain Coercion.”

Cross Domain Coercion” is Russia’s ability to orchestrate non-nuclear and informational influence to coerce an adversary. It maintains opaqueness that clouds the nature of aggression as well as the aggressor’s identity. This informational influence was apparent during both the United States elections in 2016 and Catalonia’s bid for independence from Spain in 2017. Multiple United States intelligence agencies have noted Russian misinformation on social media and mass media outlets. This campaign is a prime example of “Cross Domain Coercion” and used a soft instrument of power, in this case information, as a form of deterrence on a global scale. The purpose of this interference is still clouded but it must have satisfied Russian objectives if it was used in Catalonia months after the United States election.

Another form of this type of deterrence is Russia’s cyber-attacks in both Estonia in 2007, and Georgia in 2008. In both cases, the attacks were not solely focused on military targets but against government institutions, banks, ministries, newspapers, and broadcasters. These attacks were meant to confuse the population and drive the government towards compliance with Russian demands.

Whatever the objectives, Russia has telegraphed that future attacks will fall under “Cross Domain Coercion”. The threats against financial and economic institutions as well as those of energy sources will be activated in conjunction with the military component of coercion, such as special operations forces and strategic strike systems in order to influence the target country. With both the PRC and Russia, strategic deterrence is no longer monopolized by nuclear weapons. 21st century deterrence is dam building that has regional implications on precious resources and misinformation campaigns such as Deepfakes where machine learning systems can be trained to paste one person’s face onto another person’s body, complete with facial expressions, and could change the outcome of democratic elections.

U.S. Multi-Domain Strategic Deterrence
Consideration of deterrent effects other than kinetic weapons must be explored. Strategic deterrence “applies to cyber, it applies to missile defense, and it applies to electronic warfare. It applies to every mission in U.S. Strategic Command.” Currently, an adversarial attack can come through any domain, and that is why the U.S. must leverage the multiplicative advantages of all domains. An adversary who is not deterred by a nuclear response may be deterred by fear of a cyber effect which degrades or destroys a country’s economic stability. Or it could be negotiations in the human domain which threaten sanctions against a country’s ability to trade. Maybe it is the threat of an information operations campaign with the goal of removing a governmental regime from power and destabilizing a nation state. Regardless of deterrence method, the adversary must perceive the U.S. as capable and willing to commit to the action for it to be an effective deterrent. The first step for the U.S. is talking about capabilities more openly so adversaries know about our capabilities and the conditions under which they would be employed. This does not mean we share the technical details of a capability, those should remain secret, but a general understanding of the effect created by the capability must be understood. Adversaries are not deterred by a capability if they do not know it exists.

Future Technologies and Deterrence
Technologies on the horizon have huge implications for the future of strategic deterrence. Hypersonic weapons have the capability of delivering multiple payload types to worldwide targets while rendering missile warning detection and missile defense programs obsolete.

Quantum computing has the ability to make encryption unbreakable unless you have quantum technology and increase transmission speeds to levels unheard of in today’s environment. This could deter an adversary from ever trying to break your encryption unless they spend the money to harness quantum computing. Finally, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and “combat cloud” services allow computers to easily share information and make decisions involving civil and economic processes to military tasks without ever needing human interaction. AI comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. According to Putin, whoever becomes the leader in AI will become the ruler of the world.

Leading the Target
The one commonality in the previous paragraph is that the U.S. is arguably not the leader in any of the technologies listed above. The question is why. The U.S. recognizes the threat but does not seem to recognize deterrence in the same lenses as our adversaries. With all of the historic examples above plus the developing technologies, our adversaries are coming up with new deterrence strategies that go beyond nuclear weapons. If the U.S. wants credible 21st century strategic deterrence, we need to look no further than recent PRC and Russian actions. They have shown us that the blueprint to strategic deterrence lies in economic expansion, information attacks, and future technologies. The U.S. needs to start rewriting the textbooks on what strategic deterrence means and start exploring new technologies such as Quantum Computing and AI and how we can leverage them through all instruments of national power and all domains. If the U.S. does not act soon, we could be deterred from intervening in future conflicts that protects our vital interests or closest allies.

Aryan Dale is a space operations officer in the United States Air Force. He a graduate of the Air Force Weapons School and has operational experience in intercontinental ballistic missiles, space-based intelligence collection, and operational level planning at the 609th Air and Space Operations Center. He is currently in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist Concentration at Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.

Brendon Herbeck is a space operations officer in the United States Air Force. He a graduate of the Air Force Weapons School and has operational experience in both ground-based and space-based missile warning, and operational level planning. He is currently in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist Concentration at Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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