NSRI Key Takeaways From USSTRATCOM Deterrence Symposium

August 06, 2019

In a disruptive 21st century the context in which deterrence is viewed must change.

The Cold War is over, and emerging technologies transform the physical and digital landscapes. Yet, the need for deterrence remains.

The 10th Annual Deterrence Symposium in July 2019 revealed that USSTRATCOM seeks to reconcile these facts, evolving the perspective regarding the world order and the domains of deterrence. Since the end of the Cold War, the world has witnessed the rise of a multi-polar great power competition characterized by alliances.

Additionally, the warfighting domains that see deterrence as a useful tool are ever expanding. USSTRATCOM recognizes that increasing activity and competition in space and cyberspace demand greater consideration of their role in creating an effective deterrent for the United States. As a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC), the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska (NU) continues to support USSTRATCOM in answering this call.

Deterrence is usually seen as a tool used to prevent war between two similar nuclear powers. USSTRATCOM champions the concept of Great Power Competition as the preferred lens with which to view deterrence. This idea destroys any notion of a bipolar world order (such as that of the Cold War) or a unipolar world (such as that which existed immediately after the Cold War) and suggests that the current world order is multipolar.

At the Deterrence Symposium, our military leaders recognized that the United States is late in coming to this realization. A lynchpin in maintaining a competitive deterrence in a multipolar world order is the United States’ ability to attain and sustain alliances. Multiple panelists from the symposium suggested that alliances can serve as both an advantage and a weakness. To bring multiple nations together and advance common interests across multiple domains and against multiple threats presents the greatest opportunity for the United States to promote stability and credibility from a position of strength.

However, a dependency on other nations offers opportunities for adversaries to drive allies apart. For instance, Russia seeks to exploit differences between the United States and Germany, and China aims to do the same regarding South Korea and Japan. Aligning U.S. deterrence with this in mind will allow USSTRATCOM to bring about a more credible, capable and competitive strategy that fits the current world order.

Applying Great Power Competition in a multipolar world requires the United States to contemplate the trajectory of its adversaries’ capabilities. An incredible amount of discussion at the symposium explored Russia and China and each country’s plans to compete in a multipolar world. Russia seeks to field new weapons platforms to exploit gaps in the escalation ladder, and China is planning 10 to 15 years into the future with the intent on securing superpower status by 2049.

Yet, as one panelist put it, the United States can barely see 5 to 7 years into the future. The Deterrence Symposium made it clear that USSTRATCOM must put forward initiatives to consider the future, not just the current state, of deterrence. Deterrence strategies must seek to respond to adversaries’ concerns as they evolve over time, and to remain competitive, those strategies must anticipate the next evolutions in deterrence.

With the directive to not only explore but to direct the future, NSRI’s role in coordinating rapid response research efforts between the university and USSTRATCOM is more important than ever. Through NSRI, needs, expertise and resources are efficiently deployed.

In addition to a shift toward Great Power Competition, the symposium emphasized a desire to consider the role that space and cyberspace play in deterrence. Many at the symposium voiced concerns that adding space and cyberspace as domains in deterrence threatened to treat nuclear weapons as another tool of deterrence. However, several panelists explained that adding space and cyberspace as domains that deterrence is exercised serve to bring home the importance of a hybrid deterrence model. These different domains allow for a more creative approach to retaliation, and, consequently, a more thorough deterrence model.

Space has historically been seen as a demonstration of technological might. The Soviet Union and the United States “raced” to the moon. Today it is seen as a domain to assist the war fighter through a host of different functions. Private industry is spending billions of dollars annually to increase its capabilities in space, and the U.S. government is woefully behind in both spending and capability. USSTRATCOM must consider strategies to advance deterrence capabilities regarding space.

Since 2013, NSRI has positioned NU researchers across the four-campus NU system to conduct more than $12 million worth of research and development in the space and cyber realms across disciplines including biosecurity, law, policy and leadership. In total, NSRI has brought forward more than $152 million of sponsored activities.

But, for the sake of our combined future, we need more researchers and students to come forward in this effort.

In the future, space will become a weaponized domain. Conduct-based arms control presents an opportunity to control changes in the space domain; however, there is no incentive to generate norms of behavior because everyone has a perceived advantage. They seek to hold onto that advantage without limiting capabilities. If USSTRATCOM does not win the fight in space before it is fought, then it will lose.

Similarly, cyberspace presents another domain that, if left unaddressed, can be a crippling weakness. China is rapidly approaching U.S. capabilities in cyberspace and seeks to use its comparative advantages to supplant the United States as the leader in this domain. Through constant public cyberspace campaigns, China has created the perception that the United States is unable to deny China access to sensitive systems. Additionally, these campaigns claim that the U.S. government, and public at large, are not as interested in artificial intelligence (AI), creating the perception that we are behind, and China is the leading developer of AI. Future strategies of deterrence will have to utilize Cold War techniques (i.e. posturing) in new domains to compete with adversaries. USSTRATCOM must consider the perception of U.S. capabilities to prevent the creation of perceived advantages, and, consequently, destabilizing or escalatory actions.

The 10th Annual Deterrence Symposium made it clear that the deterrence strategies of the future will have to address Great Power Competition in a multipolar world and consider new domains to create a credible and capable deterrent. The changing perspective of the United States’ place in a multipolar world aims to align its goals with those of its allies. The focus on space and cyberspace serve to emphasize that the landscapes, on which deterrence strategies are built, are evolving, and deterrence strategies should evolve with them. USSTRATCOM recognizes that in order for the United States to compete, its deterrence rests on strengthening alliances by aligning interests and advancing capabilities in space and cyberspace.