The Next Round of the Military Competition: Considering Non-Nuclear Strategic Technologies


2015-09-25 By Richard Weitz

When considering China and Russia, new or dramatically enhanced strategic technologies could vitally affect U.S. security during the next 15 years.

Under certain conditions, revolutionary improvements in these capabilities could disrupt a strategic balance, but under different circumstances they strengthen stability and deterrence by making military planners even more cautious about taking actions that could risk strategic escalation.

At the strategic level, hypersonic, space-based, cyber, high-precision conventional, and substantially improved anti-missile weapons could have the greatest impact. Chinese and Russian officials have complained about the potentially disruptive effects of these non-nuclear technologies on their strategic deterrents, which they claim could leave them vulnerable to U.S. coercion.

But China and Russia are also developing these weapons.

Whether a new technology proves revolutionary depends on its military impact, how rapidly it evolves, how many countries acquire that technology, the operational constructs its possessors employ, and other variables.

Perceptions often differ on these subjective issues as well as the potential effects of strategic technologies. For example, some would see revolutionary improvements in strategic missile defenses as enhancing crisis stability, while others believe they would strengthen mutual deterrence.

At the tactical level, new capabilities create a wide range of military effects, from new cost-exchange ratios to novel time and depth advantages. We are seeing a transition from very few and precision-strike weapons to a proliferation of many cheap smart weapons.

For example, developments in science and manufacturing have driven down the price of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles. Nanotechnology can enhance lethality while reducing size, and rail gun projectiles are much less expensive than using missiles.

At the regional level, robotic, cyber, and directed-energy technologies are lowering the barrier for entry for states seeking to develop anti-access or area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities against U.S. forces.

At the strategic level, these new technologies could offer the United States great military advantages. For example, having hypersonic weapons with global reach would enable even U.S.-based systems to strike time-sensitive high-value targets throughout the world in less than an hour. This capability would make the United States less reliant on overseas-based systems — which require foreign permission to use — and less concerned by A2/AD threats.

However, new military technologies, such as missile defenses, anti-satellite weapons, and hypersonic delivery systems, could also raise the risks of conflict in future crises. Ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems may convince their possessors that they could launch a disarming first strike–expecting that their missile shields to protect them against any retaliatory strikes. Anti-satellite weapons could paralyze an adversary by jamming his communications sufficiently long to present the opponent with a fait accompli. Hypersonic weapons could significantly shorten the time one side would need to attack the other. Cyber weapons offer the potential of engaging in aggressive acts without attribution.

Looking at concrete cases, Russian and Chinese experts have expressed concerns about U.S. “conventional counterforce” strikes that employ hypersonic weapons or precision-guided cruise missiles against their nuclear forces resulting in U.S. missile defenses having to defeat a substantially weakened Russian or Chinese counterstrike.

However, both Russia and China are actively researching new strategic technologies to overcome U.S. military capabilities.

For example, Russia aims to produce hypersonic cruise missiles with India while China has concentrated its hypersonic R&D efforts on making “boost-glide” missiles akin to those being developed by the United States.

Chinese officials have increasingly joined Russian officials in denouncing U.S. missile defenses. Yet, both China and Russia have been acquiring surface-to-air missiles that have some capacity to shoot down low-flying ballistic missiles. Furthermore, they have been researching more advanced BMD systems to better understand these technologies in order to overcome U.S. missile defenses and potentially deploy their own.

China, Russia, and the United States all have counter-space capabilities that can be employed against satellites and other space-based enablers for reconnaissance, communications, navigation, targeting, and intelligence-gathering. Indeed, any system that can track and intercept a ballistic missile in mid-flight could also be used to target low-orbiting satellites. Modern militaries are highly dependent on these critical capabilities for conducting military operations, verifying arms control agreements, and providing tactical warning of foreign missile launches.

China destroyed one of its own satellites in 2007, generated an enormous debris cloud in the process, while the U.S. government used a sea-based BMD interceptor the following year to eliminate a failing satellite carrying a dangerous propellant. Chinese, Russian, and other analysts have interpreted the U.S. interception as a warning to Beijing and others that the United States retained retaliatory anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, which may have had the salutary effect of discouraging either country of conducting another such satellite shoot down.

While the potential for near-term technological breakthroughs in these capabilities is small, the pace and impact of these of revolutionary military capabilities are hard to predict. Few existing treaties explicitly constrain the quantitative or qualitative dimensions of these new strategic technologies.

It would be ideal to shape the deployment of potentially destabilizing systems with arms control agreements that constrain the most destabilizing capabilities and operational practices, but there are major impediments to progress in this area. However, it would be challenging to agree upon and enforce these arrangements since revolutionary strategic technologies are, by their nature, changing rapidly.In addition to uncertainty regarding their potential, countries tend to envisage different ways of using such systems due to their varying strategic traditions, geopolitical challenges, and technological strengths. Russia and China are seeking new strategic systems is to overcome U.S. missile superiority, while the United States wants to retain the freedom to develop sophisticated military technologies to overcome potential adversaries’ A2/AD capabilities.

Even without arms control, some strategic technologies could enhance rather than weaken strategic stability, such as making it more difficult to launch an effective first-strike (e.g., through mutual missile defenses) or by augmenting threats of retaliation (e.g., with possible cyber second-strikes).

Furthermore, decision makers of a country possessing robust missile defenses or counter-space weapons may feel less vulnerable to an adversary’s first strike. Similarly, if a country has multiple means of retaliation, such as cyber or hypersonic weapons in addition to nuclear forces, than its dependence on a guaranteed nuclear second strike for deterrence may decline.

The potential for technological breakthroughs in military technologies has spurred the Pentagon to launch a “Defense Innovation Initiative” designed to increase long-term investments in strategic technologies. One factor behind the new campaign was U.S. concern regarding the proliferation of strategic technologies that previously only the United States possessed.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called for a new “offset” strategy designed to enable the United States to stay ahead of potential adversaries such as China and Russia in critical military technologies, especially to overcome their A2/AD strategies. In Hagel’s vision, the first offset strategy was the U.S. buildup of nuclear forces in the 1950s to negate the Soviet advantage in conventional military power, while the second was the drive during the 1970s and 1980s to develop new revolutionary technologies such as stealth, long-range precision strike, and enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.

This work is continuing within the Department of Defense, and defense officials have encouraged U.S. allies, especially in Europe and Asia, to develop complementary multinational and national capabilities.

Furthermore, the progress by Russia, China, and other potential U.S. adversaries in developing strategic technologies elevates the importance of making U.S. military forces more “operationally resilient” to defend against and rapidly recover from strategic attacks.

Since World War II, the United States has enjoyed a relatively secure global network of bases, but the proliferation of strategic weapons means that the Pentagon increasingly needs to prepare to defend against, and recover from, attacks against overseas bases, including those outside the immediate theater of war.

Potential countermeasures against non-nuclear strategic weapons include dispersing forces over a wider geographic area, hardening military facilities and other critical infrastructure, concealing targets through stealth and electronic countermeasures, having the ability to rapidly launch satellites and replace other damaged networks, and of course, launching preemptive strikes to disrupt an attacker’s preparations.