Fourth, to the extent that the attacker’s initial cyber, space and precision-strike attacks were successful in negating a portion of the other side’s military, the attacked side would fear further debilitating attacks, and could worry that it must use or lose its strategic-level attack capabilities, including not only cyber and space, but also long-range strike capabilities. In the extreme, it may feel its conventional capabilities so weakened that it would consider the use of nuclear weapons. By the same token, nuclear forces use IT and space assets for warning and communications. As a result, a cyber or space attack could put nuclear use-or-lose considerations into play early in a crisis.
Russian strategists are especially cognizant of these dynamics and recognize that a drawn-out conflict will likely force both sides up the escalation ladder. To avoid this outcome, a number of Russian military theorists argue for the use of defensive preemptive strikes—especially using nonnuclear capabilities—on enemy military and/or socioeconomic targets. Some suggest that these strikes could degrade adversary power-projection capabilities, such that Russia could avoid being forced into a situation where it had to use or lose its strategic-level assets in the first place. Others say—as previously mentioned—that tailored preemptive strikes could deter aggression by communicating to target policymakers and publics alike that the costs of attacking or escalating a military confrontation with Russia would outweigh the benefits.
Fifth, inadvertent escalation could result from a misattributed attack or third-party false-flag operation. Chance errors in a key system, in the midst of crisis, such as an internal fault in a side’s command-and-control system or one induced by natural causes (e.g., a solar flare or an electrical surge), could be construed by one side to be an intentional act by the other. In addition, the diffusion of offensive cyber capabilities could allow smaller powers or nonstate actors to provoke a conflict—for instance, by conducting a “false flag” digital operation designed to trigger a crisis. Alternatively, once a conflict has begun, they could use their own capabilities to expand the scope or scale of the conflict.
The possibility of escalation to large-scale war stemming, even inadvertently, from lower-order conflicts or tensions has long been appreciated in the context of the United States and Russia. The contention here, however, is that technological advances, their integration into military postures and doctrines on both sides, and the often-unanticipated ways in which such integrations may interact are together heightening the possibility of inadvertent, rapid and dramatic escalation in the event of crisis or conflict between the United States and Russia.
STRATEGIC STABILITY between the United States and Russia has long rested on each side’s confidence that it could absorb even an all-out nuclear first strike by the other side and then unleash a devastating nuclear second strike. That confidence, however, is being tested by the deployment of new military systems. As these capabilities mature, each side is likely to have growing fears that the other side might employ these capabilities (with or without also using nuclear weapons) in a first strike to attempt to negate its nuclear second-strike capabilities, thereby obviating mutually assured destruction.
Cyber weapons could be used against vulnerable nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and command, control and communications (NC3). The potential vulnerability of these systems, particularly as both countries’ offensive cyber capabilities mature, may exacerbate each side’s fears about the vulnerability of its nuclear deterrent to the other side’s potential preemptive attack. For instance, if a cyberattack on NC3 could delay the other side from giving an order to execute a nuclear strike for even thirty minutes, it could potentially negate the other side’s ability to launch its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) under attack, increasing the risk to such ICBM and narrowing the potential response options for the victim’s leadership. In a future crisis, in which one side believed that the other was able and willing to stage such an attack, it could perceive itself as having extremely little time to make a decision and might employ cyber or other capabilities (e.g. nonnuclear or nuclear weapons) preemptively, or more extensively than otherwise might be the case.
Counterspace attacks also pose serious escalation risks given space systems’ relevance to nuclear operations, especially for the United States. There appears at this time little prospect that either side could substantially impact the other’s second-strike capabilities through counterspace attacks, and unclassified reporting suggests that neither the United States nor Russia has a robust counterspace capability. Moreover, even if it were able to disrupt or destroy key elements of the other side’s space architecture, each side has ground-based radars to support early warning and substantial terrestrial and/or airborne communications to support secure communications. However, as ASAT technologies improve—for instance, with the deployment of space-based interceptors or directed-energy systems—the risk of an adversary using counterspace operations to disable critical NC3 systems, intentionally or otherwise, will grow commensurately.
Long-range nonnuclear weapons could also pose a threat to strategic stability. Neither side has yet deployed conventional-prompt global-strike (CPGS) capabilities—either conventional weapons on long-range ballistic missiles or hypersonic cruise missiles—that could realistically threaten to disarm an opponent’s strategic deterrent or decapitate its NC3. However, nonnuclear precision strike appears likely to become an increasingly severe problem over time, for two reasons. First, there is concern that the launch of a CPGS missile could be mistaken for the launch of a nuclear-tipped missile, leading the side that fears attack to launch nuclear-tipped missiles in response. Second, the United States and Russia could develop and deploy sufficient numbers of highly capable CPGS weapons to imperil the strategic nuclear deterrent of the other side. Many nuclear delivery platforms, such as road- and rail-based ICBM launchers, might readily be destroyed by conventional forces if they could be effectively targeted. Moreover, future CPGS systems, some Russian and other analysts believe, might ultimately be able to destroy even more defended targets, such as hardened ICBM silos. Missile defenses could “mop up” residual second-strike forces, in turn. The counterforce threat posed by a combination of long-range nonnuclear strike and improved missile defenses is a priority concern for Russian (and Chinese) officials.
As with long-range nonnuclear weapons, neither the United States nor Russia has sufficiently capable or extensive missile-defense systems to deny the other side from being able to conduct a devastating nuclear attack, including in a second strike. Three possible future developments in missile defenses could, however, undermine strategic stability. The first is the deployment of large numbers of kinetic-kill or nuclear-tipped interceptors with the sensor capability, burnout velocity and other features required to engage CPGS and SLBM. The second is the deployment of space-based kinetic-kill interceptors. Third is the deployment of directed-energy systems for missile defense, which appear increasingly plausible as advances are made in solid-state lasers. Any of these developments could seriously threaten the viability of a nation’s second-strike capability.
Finally, the advent of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence may allow states to more reliably target adversary SSBNs and mobile ICBMs. Inasmuch as these systems form the backbone of the U.S. and Russia nuclear forces, respectively, such a breakthrough would pose a severe threat to one or both sides’ nuclear deterrents. Ultimately, however, it is very difficult in an unclassified article to assess the plausibility of developments in strategic antisubmarine warfare or the ability to target mobile ICBMs. It is possible that advances in big-data analytics, for example, yield a breakthrough in antisubmarine warfare and/or time-critical targeting of mobile missiles. Even in this case, however, it is one thing to locate a system, for instance in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean or the Siberian forest. It is another thing to be able to deliver a sufficiently destructive and accurate weapon against the targeted system before it is able to fire or conceal itself.
STABILIZING U.S.-Russian relations requires actions along each of these three pathways, conducted in parallel. Shaping and managing the overall relationship is fundamentally important. But whatever the course of U.S.-Russian relations in the future, there will remain a possibility (one, we argue, that is growing over time) of sliding into crisis and even armed conflict. Moreover, if a crisis or conflict does occur, there is a possibility (also growing over time) that escalation to strategic attack could occur. The following recommendations seek to manage these risks by helping shape the ongoing debate regarding U.S.-Russian relations and guide actions affecting U.S. nuclear posture, ballistic-missile defenses, cyber deterrence and space resilience. The recommendations also address the American role in NATO and NATO-Russia relations, both of which are of critical importance to all three pathways.
To safeguard American interests in the face of Russian actions, the Trump administration should begin by articulating a clear policy on Russia, in close coordination with Congress and NATO allies. In the absence of a coherent American approach, Russian leaders are less likely to cooperate on common interests, since Russian advocates of cooperation will wonder whether the United States will reverse itself and make them appear naive. Russian leaders are also less likely to be deterred, as advocates of a more aggressive approach can argue credibly that Russia should take advantage of a window of incoherence in Washington. And of fundamental importance, in the absence of a clear U.S. policy, Russian leaders are more likely to miscalculate how the United States will respond in a crisis—and, if a crisis does occur, be more likely to miscommunicate.