New Tech Will Erode Nuclear Deterrence. The US Must Adapt

Nuclear weapons are no longer enough to sustain U.S. strategic deterrence. Senior military leaders and pioneering scholars believe a new technological revolution is now unfolding, and they are right. If we are not attentive now, the United States may lose the ability to deter major attacks in coming years.

The old model of strategic nuclear deterrence is increasingly threatened by a new suite of military technologies, from hypersonic missiles and advanced missile defenses to non-kinetic cyberattacks. Individually, these technologies are potent. But together, they will revolutionize the way that great powers deter and conduct war. To avoid falling behind, the United States must hedge against disruptive capabilities by modernizing its existing nuclear arsenal and undertaking a systematic review of strategic capabilities for the 2030s. This vision for the future balance of strategic forces should then enable defense and diplomatic officials to determine investment priorities accordingly and decide when and how to engage Russia and China to avoid strategic instability in this new era.

These contemporary trends are best understood through the historical lens of revolutions in military affairs, or RMAs. While the history of warfare is mostly evolutionary, certain technological advancements—such as gunpowder, aviation, and precision-guided munitions—have revolutionized warfare and reshaped military balances and the geopolitical landscape.

Technology is not the only variable; RMAs require a convergence of technology, training, doctrine, and operational concepts, as well as a fundamental shift in underlying assumptions, to produce a new way of competing and fighting. For example, the United Kingdom invented tanks, but Germany revolutionized tank warfare by integrating armor, radio, and airpower with novel concepts for employing them. This produced the blitzkrieg of World War II.

The nuclear revolution was perhaps the most consequential RMA, since nuclear weapons could do what no other weapon had ever done: pose an instantaneous, existential threat. The preceding paradigm of strategic deterrence was instantly outdated, as large armies and navies no longer sufficed to deter major attacks. The advent and continual evolution of nuclear weapons ultimately precipitated a new approach to deterrence during the Cold War, wherein only a “triad” of nuclear delivery systems—strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles—was deemed sufficiently diversified to survive any enemy first strike and retaliate, thereby maintaining stability between nuclear-armed adversaries. These capabilities, which so uniquely affect the very decision to wage war, are termed “strategic forces.”

A new, second RMA in strategic forces is now underway on the backs of an array of emerging technologies like hypersonic weapons, advanced missile defenses, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, high-performance data analytics, quantum computing and sensing, space-based sensors and anti-satellite weapons, and cyberweapons. These threaten to undermine the long-standing nuclear deterrence paradigm and alter the balance of power among the United States, Russia, and China. New capabilities can destroy, intercept, or blind traditional delivery systems, potentially enabling a devastating first strike and precluding adversary retaliation. The country that first develops a new model for using these capabilities in tandem with each other, mastering the emerging “strategic forces balance,” may become the next military and geopolitical hegemon.

This RMA poses distinct threats to each leg of the current nuclear triad. First, advanced Russian and Chinese air defenses are already challenging the stealth capabilities of U.S. strategic bombers. One of China’s leading defense companies claims to have developed a prototype radar that relies on quantum physics to detect the incredibly faint (and normally undiscernible) signals of stealth aircraft. Without stealth, U.S. nuclear-armed bombers could operate outside contested airspace and still reach their targets with standoff cruise missiles, but even those missiles may be increasingly less likely to prevail against more sophisticated missile defenses.

Second, in the wake of the United States’ successful kinetic missile defense test last November, ground- and sea-based missile defenses are vastly improving their ability to shoot down ICBMs and SLBMs, threatening the triad’s ground- and sea-based legs. While it is still relatively easy to overwhelm existing missile defenses, new technological developments in directed energy are very likely to enable a more robust defense against massed ballistic missile attacks. Meanwhile, shooting down a missile is not the only way to stop it; in many cases, it is preferable to destroy the missile before it ever launches. Here again, emerging technologies soon will offer a solution: travelling at over five times the speed of sound, hypersonic missiles supported by synthetic aperture radar satellites are increasingly capable of hitting heavily defended or time-critical targets, thereby enabling preemptive “left-of-launch” strikes against ballistic missile launchers.

Third, and most surprisingly, even the submarine leg of the triad is becoming less survivable. Technological advancements portend swarms of unmanned underwater vehicles, drawing on greater remote sensing capabilities and high-performance data analytics and processing, that will more effectively, continuously, and rapidly track and hunt nuclear-armed submarines. The proliferation of undersea, floating, and space-based sensors will make the oceans far more transparent.

When combined, these technologies could enable a devastating first strike for any nation that seizes this first-mover advantage. Imagine Russia or China uses cyberattacks to blind the U.S. nuclear command, control, and communications architecture, hypersonic weapons to preemptively eliminate ICBM launch sites, underwater drones and advanced sensors to hunt submarines, and advanced air and missile defenses to “mop up” any retaliatory strikes. It is questionable whether the triad could survive, and thus its deterrent power would be fatally compromised.

Such a comprehensive first-strike capability is not with us yet, but current technologies foreshadow its looming likelihood. As friends and foes alike adopt these systems, it is imperative for the United States to develop a new paradigm for understanding and utilizing strategic forces. Only from a position of technological and doctrinal advancement vis-à-vis its competitors can the United States negotiate with them to mitigate strategic instability. Heretofore the realm of academia, now is the time for policymakers to seize the initiative, encourage public and private debates like those of the early Cold War, and realign the nuclear paradigm that still grips the academic and policy communities.

The United States should hedge against this disruptive RMA in the short term by sustaining plans for robust nuclear modernization of the triad. Fortunately, technologies develop at different rates; not all legs of the triad will be threatened simultaneously over the next decade. If one leg is threatened first, the other two legs could provide short-term redundancy in the nuclear deterrence mission. Thus, in its upcoming 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Biden administration should continue U.S. nuclear modernization policies, while resisting pressures to reduce to a “dyad,” to decrease the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, or to further delay recapitalization programs

However, modernizing the nuclear triad is only one necessary step; developing a new construct for strategic forces is essential to sustaining an effective deterrent into the 2030s. Over the long term, U.S. policymakers need to move beyond the limited parameters of the Nuclear Posture Review, which views new technologies through the lens of the increasingly outdated traditional nuclear paradigm. The strategic forces balance of the future will include both nuclear weapons and a suite of capabilities comprising the emerging non-nuclear technologies outlined above. Integrating the NPR within the NDS, as the Pentagon announced it would do earlier in the year, is a positive step but is insufficient to develop a new strategic forces paradigm.

Therefore, the Pentagon should replace the nuclear posture element of its NDS review with a broader Strategic Posture Review or “Strategic Deterrence Review” to explore how strategic forces, both existing and emerging, can complement each other, threaten what adversaries value, and thereby realign deterrence for a new era. This more holistic review can be a foundational pillar in Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s “integrated deterrence” concept, by which the U.S. military would develop “the right mix of technology, operational concepts and capabilities – all woven together and networked in a way that is so credible, flexible and so formidable that it will give any adversary pause.”

Questions this new review should answer include: which capabilities, and in what quantities, would be most survivable and credible against enemy counterforce weapons; which targets they should prioritize to have the greatest effect on adversary decision-making in both war and peace; and where and how they would need to be postured, depending in part upon allied and partner willingness to host and/or operate them. And perhaps most importantly, with careful guidance by the senior leadership of the Pentagon, this review should determine what strategic deterrence strategy, policy, and posture constructs accounting for these new capabilities could serve to both protect American and allies’ national security while also initiating a new form of strategic stability with Russia and China.

The answers to these questions should inform investment and modernization priorities over the next decade and beyond, while providing the foundation for dialogue with China and Russia to avoid instability in a new era of strategic forces. That, however, is a topic for another day, and will be the subject of further analysis by these authors.

It is not too late for the United States to lead the next RMA in strategic forces, just as it capably led the last. But the time for action is now.

Barry Pavel is senior vice president and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

Christian Trotti is assistant director of the Forward Defense practice at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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Barry Pavel and Christian Trotti