How advanced technology is changing deterrence

The bloodiest wars in history often begin with an understatement. The architects of World War I expected the fighting to last less than a year. By unleashing a war of aggression against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin mistakenly believed that kyiv lacked the will and the capacity to resist.

Changes in military technology will increase the frequency of these errors. Wars are increasingly decided by abilities that are difficult to observe or demonstrate before the conflict begins.

Today’s would-be Putins might count tank divisions, views of aircraft carrier strike groups or missile silos captured on satellite imagery – and think twice.

But the wars in Azerbaijan and Ukraine have demonstrated that victory often rests on intangible conditions: the ability to detect and communicate faster than the enemy and the ability to outrun the enemy’s speed of decision.

These are difficult to assess until the war has already started. More understatement wars will take place if leaders fail to appreciate the dynamics of this change.

Military leaders often describe combat operations as the result of a chain of kills: a set of discrete steps, beginning with the identification of a target and ending with the dropping of a bomb. Achieving each of these steps has always been difficult. Successfully detecting, tracking and engaging an enemy – and then communicating that information to the forces involved – is a rare occurrence in the fog of war.

The proliferation of precision-guided munitions has increasingly simplified the last step in this chain. It is demonstrably easier today to attack a target with a precision-guided missile once it has been detected, whereas previously fighters could have expended hundreds of unguided artillery rounds with little means to verify the destruction of the target.

As precision weapons saturate tomorrow’s battlefields, the most difficult aspect of combat will be the act of quickly gathering and sharing information about enemy targets, rather than the final act of striking them. Mastery of the upper links of the kill chain – find, repair, track and target – will determine victory or defeat on the future battlefield.

The elements that make up these links in the chain are often intangible. They are lines of code: code to translate a fighter’s radar signal into a track readable by a warship; code to adjust radio transmissions to resist enemy jamming; code to find needles in a haystack of intelligence information. And that’s data – like the intelligence and targeting data that Ukraine relies on and Russia consistently lacks.

How can we deter future aggressors if our military capability relies on systems that are difficult to demonstrate? Communication protocols, intelligence capabilities, and other links in the chain of destruction often cannot be revealed to adversaries without compromising their effectiveness. The true balance of power can become invisible to national leaders.

In the future, we may see more wars of understatement – wars that, if the warring parties had known the true strength of their adversary, might not have started.

It’s a huge problem. But Congress and the Biden administration could act to mitigate some of its impacts on our national security. The Department of Defense is currently launching a wave of initiatives to strengthen its information dominance – from acquiring new satellite constellations to improving command and control systems to developing improved cyber warfare and electronic warfare. Now is the time to consider their implications for deterrence, i.e. how to signal this capability to potential adversaries.

A small step would be to review the sprawling system of classification that surrounds the United States’ arms supply. Military leaders have long complained about their inability to disclose their capabilities in a way that deters adversaries. Given the classification’s close intertwining with political and political authorities, only presidential or congressional attention could break the impasse.

The political community could establish an independent commission to delineate the problem, create reporting requirements on the impacts of classification on deterrence, or fund a full account of the impacts of overclassification on budget and posture. Whatever the mechanism, this is a matter that requires high-level intervention.

How a country wins a war has always been a complex question: a combination of tangible assets and intangible determination. Technological changes in warfare – where intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications are central concerns – will make it even more complex.

The risk of accidental war increases. Only sustained attention to the problem – to the unseen roots of military power – can prevent these risks from becoming reality.

Masao Dahlgren is a research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he writes on missile defense, nuclear policy, and emerging technologies.

Masao Dahlgren
Defense News
August 23, 2022

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