Preparing for the Unpredictable: Accident Management in Great Power Competition

By: David P. Bull, Jr.
Read Time: 17 minutes

Excerpt: Great Power Competition between China, Russia, and the United States will result in many instances of competing forces operating in close proximity with one another. As the United States and its competitors further integrate capabilities and operations across domains, accidents in such complex environments are inevitable. This article implores planners and decision makers to imagine the potential nature of international accidents across those domains and identifies factors that decision makers will have to consider before and after an accident.

The United States (US) has responded to Russian and Chinese bids for control of the international order in multiple ways. One such approach uses American military forces to confront declared limitations on the freedom of navigation and demonstrating international resolve to resist aggression. In the Pacific, American ships have sailed in freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) while bomber and ISR aircraft have flown through Chinese-claimed (but not internationally-recognized) territorial waters and airspace in the East and South China Seas. In Europe, B-52s and other bombers of the Bomber Task Force conduct training with European allies and build “strategic relationships necessary to confront a broad range of global challenges,” ostensibly to ward against Russian interference in the region. American ships navigate the Black and Baltic Seas to counter Russian harassment and expansion in both bodies of water. In addition to using these operations to confront illegitimate claims and interference, American observers can gather valuable intelligence about their strategic competitors during such demonstrations. Both China and Russia have responded to these operations by deploying air and maritime forces to meet and confront the Americans in an aerial or naval intercept. When planning and executing such operations, American decision-makers must be clear-eyed about the risks and ramifications should an outcome unexpected by either the US or its competitors occur during the operation.

Competing with Chinese and Russian strategic goals will no doubt result in many instances of American and competitor forces operating in close proximity. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) identifies that long-term strategic competition with a resurgent Russia and an ascending China are the Department of Defense’s top priorities. This return to great power competition seeks to contest Chinese and Russian attempts to expand their influence and presence around the globe. Russia has challenged the existing international order by seizing the Crimean Peninsula and provided support for separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region. In the Baltic, they have also deployed advanced ballistic missile systems, ground maneuver forces, and non-kinetic, electronic warfare systems such as the R-330Zh “Zhitel” and the “Borisoglebsk-2”. China’s ascendance has been realized by their militarization of islands in the South and East China Seas as well as increased investment in ports around the world. Chinese expansion is perhaps best demonstrated by the Belt and Road Initiative which displays China’s aspiration to secure its economic prosperity by establishing sea and land trade routes. Given the friction and potential for confrontation between American and competitor interests, these are the settings for potential accidents.

Both military and civilian decision makers must take several factors into consideration, which become more complex as both America and its competitors further integrate capabilities and operations across domains. Senior American leaders seek to overwhelm or exploit an adversary’s vulnerabilities by better synchronizing operations across multiple domains. Accidents in such complex environments will require faster assessment and decision making on both sides of the conflict. This article implores planners and decision makers to imagine the potential nature of international accidents across those domains as well as identifies factors that decision makers will have to consider before and after an accident.

I scoped my consideration in this analysis to situations where confrontational encounters between US and Russia or China may result in accidents, events that may occur unexpectedly and unintentionally and result in damage, injury, or loss of life. The application of hybrid, gray-zone, or other unconventional warfare means that a potential competitor is not limited to the uniformed forces of that country’s military. Russian hackers-for-hire and Chinese commercial entities that are subservient to the same central party as the military can confuse the competitor’s identity. Additionally, US policy often includes the objective to build partner capacity, which means that partner or ally nations’ forces may be involved in a given operation. Namely, bomber presence and training missions in the Pacific often involve the participation of one or more regional allies. Ally involvement in an accident can further complicate an accident – this factor will be addressed later.

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Hainan Incident EP-3 in Chinese Custody

An example of an accident occurred on April 1, 2001, when a US Navy EP-3 and Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-8 collided 70 miles off the coast of China’s Hainan Island. The J-8 launched to intercept the EP-3, which China suspected of conducting an intelligence-gathering mission over Chinese territorial waters. An American investigation found that on the fighter’s third close pass of the EP-3 (the first coming within 5 feet), the fighter struck the larger aircraft sending metal shards into the EP-3’s fuselage while the J-8 pilot ejected into the sea, and was presumed dead. The EP-3 made an emergency landing on Hainan Island where Chinese authorities detained the crew for 11 days and the aircraft for over a month before careful diplomacy secured their release. The American investigation concluded that the most probable cause for the incident was an error the Chinese pilot’s judgement about aerodynamics during unsafe intercept behavior. In the aftermath, American leaders presented a pattern of unsafe behavior by Chinese pilots. In 44 intercepts between December 2000 and the incident date, eight had come within 30 feet, and two of those were within 10 feet of American aircraft. There is no doubt the J-8 pilot did not intend to crash into the EP-3; however, this incident demonstrated the unintentionality, unpredictability, and the strategic ramifications of an accident between two strategic competitors. The probability for accidents such as these will continue to increase as American operations challenge Russian and Chinese bids to expand their influence and by increasing their global presence.

Decision makers and planners must consider the potential for and impacts of accidents in and across the domains. While the air, land, and maritime domains are more readily understood, the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) and space domains are less so – unless they are not available to users expecting to use their effects. However, this does not relieve the need to expand one’s imagination as to what accidents in these domains could look like. Just as the Hainan J-8 pilot’s incomplete understanding of aerodynamics resulted in a catastrophic blind spot, so too can an incomplete understanding of operational concepts result in a blind spot with catastrophic results. This article cannot comprehensively consider all probable causes or descriptions of accidents, but can be a starting point to consider accident causes and types.

Time and speed elements apply to each domain differently, whether it is in decision making or maneuvering combat forces. In the air domain, aircraft are subject to gravity as well as aerodynamic forces. While aerodynamic forces free the aircraft from the ground, they also require the aircraft to travel at great speeds and altitudes which force rapid decision making and can result in significant kinetic effects upon collision; accidents in the air often result in loss of the aircraft and life. In terms of combat, air- and ground-fired munitions are designed to subdue an adversary by destruction or disablement, not by pushing them out of a given airspace or altitude. As such, accidents could look like the Hainan incident, where two aircraft unintentionally collide. There are multiple examples of unprofessional, dangerous behavior by Russian and Chinese pilots in intercepting American aircraft. Also, given the speed of decision required by shooters, the potential for mistaken identity comes into play for both air and ground shooters.

Maritime forces encounter the element of speed differently than forces maneuvering in the air domain. While an aircraft cannot force another aircraft to maneuver by making contact without nearly guaranteeing a crash, seacraft can “bump” each other to enforce sovereign maritime borders and survive. The Black Sea has been the venue for multiple intended collisions between maritime vessels in 1988 between Soviet and US ships and recently in the Kerch Strait between Russian and Ukrainian boats. Neither of these resulted from unintended collisions, however there is a potential for the push to result in unintentional damage, loss of life, or one or both vessels sinking. Even when collisions are not intended, potential for accidents can increase, particularly in the South China Sea, where Chinese vessels have navigated within 45 yards of American ships. As with the Hainan incident, these maneuvers may not always turn out as intended, and an accident may result from unforeseen sea conditions or poor seamanship. Or, given China’s rhetoric about ramming American ships in the contested Pacific, American vessels may suffer the same fate as Vietnamese fishing vessels.

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Chinese ship within 45 yards of US Navy destroyer

The need to quickly identify and determine a land force’s intent complicates decision-making in the land domain, often as one land force may see another about to take action to kill them. Land forces aim to remain unidentified to their adversary and identified to their allies; however, sometimes these distinctions are not upheld and can result in fratricide. Similar to maritime forces, land forces can use non-lethal physical force to deny access to the physical domain – such as a line of troops pushing back rioters in an urban setting. In this scenario, an armed force must make potentially life or death choices in a tense environment; an incorrect understanding of the threat posed by rioters and unclear communication may result in the unintended injury or death of a rioter. Additionally, considering a scenario where a supposed “civilian” demonstration may seek to elicit an accidental escalation that can be exploited, similar to the Boston Massacre.

In the space and EMS domains, understanding the nature and implications of an accident are a greater challenge because they are not easily observed. Also, unlike the terrestrial domains, spacecraft are not only subject to gravity, but also Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. More countries and companies gain access to space, deploy numerous microsatellite platforms, and aspire to employ rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) to sustain space operations. Such advances could cause space to become more crowded with potential actors and victims of a space accident. Spacecraft may move at seemingly slow speeds relative to the Earth’s surface, but they are moving at incredible speeds to maintain their orbits, and increase the stakes for an accidental collision. Each collision has potential to damage or destroy the victim vehicle, but also will most likely create more space debris to threaten other space vehicles. While space agencies catalog space debris and vehicles, the potential for collision cannot currently be mitigated besides maneuvering the victim spacecraft – a decision that could use valuable limited fuel resources. In 2009, two Russian satellites collided on accident, while in 2013 two Chinese satellites “bumped” as a potential RPO demonstration. Additionally, even defunct Russian satellites have threatened US satellites. Threat assessments of Russian and Chinese space programs assess that both have or can deploy offensive weapons in space as well as non-offensive systems such as communications satellites. Given the principles of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), that “States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities; [and] shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects,” the implications of irresponsible management of space vehicles could have significant strategic ramifications. The OST was written prior to the idea of cross-linked satellite constellations and on-orbit jammers; how would the OST treat damage that resulted from accidental electromagnetic interference (EMI) by another country’s transmitter?

In the EMS, accidents can occur without any apparent cause, and can occur without any indication that an accident is about to occur. As the EMS is an enabler to the other domains, EMI may result in an accident in another domain, such as the space EMI previous mentioned. A demonstration of competition in the EMS is reported Russian interference with GPS reception in the Baltics. During NATO’s Trident Juncture 2018 exercise, NATO assessed that GPS interference originated from Russian-controlled territory adjacent to the exercise operating area, which had also been observed during Russia’s ZAPAD exercise in 2017. This resulted in the Norwegian Aviation Authority to issue warnings to civil aviators about potential interference with critical navigation systems. One aspect of accidents in the EMS is that some effects may be targeted while others, such as GPS jamming, are agnostic to the victim. That is, the signal does not discriminate between a military or civilian target. While a military aircraft crash caused by GPS jamming during combat may not be unexpected, a collateral civilian naval vessel that runs aground during peacetime may result in more significant strategic response.

Though it is part of the EMS domain, cyber accidents may be different than those resulting from EMI. Similar to other EMS accidents, they can manifest outside of the cyber system they originate in. A cyber effect designed to gather data may interfere with a power grid’s ability to distribute power during extreme weather. Blackouts during heat and cold have been known to cause deaths, such as the 2003 New York City blackout. However, accidents in cyber may also be contained to only cyber systems. If that same effect accidentally prevented customers from paying their bills, it could cause issues with the ability for the power company to operate financially, but its mechanical and electrical capabilities would be largely unaffected. More development of the nature of cyber accidents is worthwhile as cyberspace is a significant vehicle for Chinese and Russian competition.

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Russia Electronic Warfare systems, R-330Zh “Zhitel” and “Borisoglebsk-2”

The last domain analysis further extends from the EMS and space domains. Accidents may not be restricted to just one domain, but can span across two or more domains. A vehicle, person, or effect may originate in one domain, and may cause an accident whose victim is in another domain. For instance, Russian aircraft tactics in intercepting the American destroyer, USS Donald Cook in the Black Sea, opened the possibility of an aggressive maneuver going awry and the aircraft crashing into the American ship. Furthermore, an aircraft may accidentally fire upon ground or maritime forces, a space collision may interrupt key infrastructure on Earth, or an EMS effect may prevent an aircraft from making an emergency landing because of GPS jamming. Planners should examine potential impacts across domains when considering risk and ramifications of accidents.

Now that we have considered the nature of accidents across domains, we can focus on the factors that decision makers can consider in their risk acceptance and post-accident assessment. First, and most vexingly, is the accident actor’s intent. While an accident may appear to be a result of innocent action, it may also be a convenient cover to incite popular discontent as well as influence information operations. Analyzing intent following an accident requires analysis of the tactical details of the accident to determine motivation or negligence, as well as public statements by the state’s public officials. This still may not be fruitful as there may be disconnect between a decision maker and an accident actor. Determining intent requires the assessor to confront significant uncertainty as public statements or obvious evidence may hide the truth.

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Russian Su-27 intercepts US Air Force RC-135

Second, reactions to accidents may vary depending on whether the accident involved the death of a person. In a study of military responses to an aircraft lost in combat, Erik Lin-Greenberg examined the difference in responses to the loss of a manned platform (crewed ISR aircraft) as compared to the same scenario involving an unmanned platform instead (ISR RPA conducting a similar mission). While this study looked at an attributable, overt action in combat, the results of the wargame are nevertheless relevant. When faced with a situation involving an unmanned platform, subjects were less likely to retaliate with significant military power and cause further escalation. Conversely, though teams faced with the loss of American lives sought to tie their response to military and political objectives, they were more likely to recommend direct military action to settle the score. In applying this concept to accident responses involving manned or unmanned platforms, decision makers must consider their potential bias in an accident scenario. Furthermore, accidents in space and EMS may result in the loss of life indirectly by disrupting key resource distribution systems. Assuming that the actors in the accident can be determined, the response must consider how their bias plays out with the indirect impacts of the accident.

While the presence and potential for loss of human life weigh heavily in decision makers’ minds, so too does the identity of the accident participants with regard to military status. Military members are expected to behave in certain ways according to standards while understanding the international law that applies to their behavior. Because military members potentially take violent action resulting in the loss of life, members have the requirement to apply the Geneva Conventions on War as they relate to taking another human life. Civilian actors are not exempt from their relevant expectations; however, an individual’s knowledge of legal rights and expectations may vary. This factor is not inherently easy to understand when considered in the context of an accident. The blurring of civilian and military distinctions by Russian operations challenges the core assumptions that an actor will be able to identify the role of individuals involved in an accident.

Another key factor to a decision maker’s risk evaluation is the probability of unprofessional, unsafe behavior by their competitor through the analysis of safety in the operation. Two key subfactors that are not mutually exclusive play into this consideration are discipline and training. An actor known for recklessly assuming high risk in their interaction with a competitor may take unnecessary risks that do not support a military or political end state. Likewise, an actor that is known for having limited resources for training could suffer from a lack of understanding or skill that would be necessary to avoid a given accident. These factors should inform both the risk evaluation as well as determining an appropriate response by bounding the decision maker’s expectations of their competitor’s behavior.

Decision makers should also consider three aspects of publicly acknowledging an accident. First, the first party to release information dominates the narrative early; regaining dominance over a narrative of misinformation requires more work to overcome a lie because it must be disproven before correct information can be presented. Second, assuming that an actor wants to publish factual, objective information, they must consider how confident they are in the information. If objective, truthful conclusions cannot be presented due to lack of evidence, the victim state will have a hard time proving that all of the particular aspects of an accident occurred in a way that supports a favorable narrative. Finally, decision makers should consider the sensitivity of the information as well as the sources and methods used to gather the information. Acknowledging and confirming an accident may expose sensitive sources and methods used to analyze facts. As such, it may not be valuable for an actor to acknowledge that an accident even occurred.

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U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Mike Karnes, US Air Force B-1s, US Marine Corps F-35, and Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-2 fighters fly in formation

Finally, decision makers should consider the implications of coalition or partner involvement in an accident. In many bomber presence missions, partner countries such as Japan or South Korea have integrated into aerial formations. A Chinese aircraft could be involved in an accident with a US partner while they are flying with the US bomber conducting training. In this situation, the response to the accident is complicated by the relationship between the competitor and the US as well as the China and the partner. Blind involvement in the partner’s response could involve the US in a situation that is outside of specified US political or military objectives. Failure to act could result in a loss of confidence in that partner as well as others in the US for failing to come to the aid of a partner.

In summary, as the NSS drives the US to confront Russian and Chinese aims through competition, there will be an increased potential for accidents as military and civilian assets encounter each other in the global commons. It is imperative that military planners and decision makers include the potential for accidents in their risk calculus prior to a mission as well as develop contingency plans in response to the potential accident. This should not singlehandedly deter the US from conducting FONOPs or ADIZ penetrations; however, ignoring the potential for unintended outcomes is not a responsible assumption of risk.

David “Gomer” Bull is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He is a senior Nuclear and Missile Operations officer with previous Minuteman III ICBM qualifications on the ground- and air-based command and control systems. He is a graduate of the USAF Weapons School.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.

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