Skip navigation

Technology, Complexity, Uncertainty, and Deterrence

James Timbie

Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Admiral James O. Ellis Jr.

Annenberg Distinguished Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Published May 2023

In a future high-end, conventional conflict featuring advanced technologies and networked weapons and sensors, actions in different domains—on the ground, in the air, at sea, in space, and in cyberspace—would interact in complex ways. The outcome of such a conflict would be hard to predict. We examine how this complexity and uncertainty brought on by advancing technologies can complicate and undermine deterrence, and we suggest that the United States’ adaptation to this growing complexity and uncertainty must include increasing the resilience of U.S. forces and sharing more information within the U.S. government and with allies and partners.

We begin by briefly reviewing the evolution of deterrence analysis and then elaborate several reasons why future conflicts will not be like the warfare of the past, taking account of advancing technologies, new domains of conflict, and insights from current events surrounding Ukraine and Taiwan. We then focus on the impact of uncertainty on deterrence and suggest steps for adapting by increasing resilience, cooperating more on technology with U.S. allies and partners, sharing more information across the U.S. government and with allies and partners, making selective revelations of U.S. capabilities designed to enhance deterrence, and better understanding the perceptions of potential adversaries that the United States aims to deter.

Deterrence of Conflict in a World With Twenty-First-Century Technologies

Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.

Bernard Brodie, The Absolute Weapon, 1946[1]

The seminal work by Bernard Brodie and others in the tumultuous years following World War II marked the initial formulation and formalization of deterrence analysis in the international relations and strategic studies literature. This effort was undertaken in response to the terrifying new technology of nuclear weapons that, overnight, came to dominate the global national security landscape.[2] Under U.S. leadership in a bipolar world, nuclear deterrence of the Soviet Union, as a strategic objective, drove study and analysis and shaped national security policy and doctrine appropriately, if disproportionately, for the next forty-five years.

To be sure, the concept of deterrence has been employed and understood in armed conflict for centuries, in both of the term’s manifestations. Deterrence by denial has been the goal of fixed fortifications from medieval castles to the Maginot Line. Deterrence by the prospect of punishment has been an element of armed conflict and national policy from the time of Thucydides to the February 2022 full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both facets of deterrence continue to be evident and relevant today. What Brodie and his colleagues began was the formal study and analytical assessment of the challenges of deterrence in a new age, initially nuclear—a task that now has expanded beyond their work to include conventional conflict and counterterrorism as well as the new domains of cyber and space.

The evolutionary character of deterrence scholarship has been widely recognized, and this body of literature is often divided into chronological waves, each associated with the dominant national security threat of the day. Recent work focuses on the simultaneous and complex challenges of the return of great power competition, increasingly autocratic regimes, the dramatic development of new sensors and weapons, and the ability to connect them through increasingly sophisticated networks that incorporate artificial intelligence (AI). As Stephan De Spiegeleire, et al., have noted: “More recently in the 2000s and the 2010s, scholars, similar to policymakers, have been grappling with how to shape deterrence in the context of an ever more complex world, because of the greater number of actors (both great and emerging powers) with nuclear weapons in the Second Nuclear Age, who operate through old and new domains (e.g., space and cyber) using a greater variety of instruments and strategies (including those commonly referred to as hybrid), in a synergistic fashion.”[3]

In critically important ways, the current national and global security environment is much more demanding, the potential protagonists have grown in number and in their capabilities, and the direct and indirect costs of deterrence failure and subsequent military conflict have risen. As Karl P. Mueller has noted, “After more than 25 years of conflicts against relatively weak state and nonstate enemies, the US in its national strategy documents now identifies four potential countries that US armed forces must be prepared to fight: China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. While the military establishment is charged with being able to deter and, if necessary, defeat them, the likely costs of decisively defeating any of these states makes deterring them the more critical mission.” He went on to state, “Thus, the true measure of strategic success is avoiding fighting a war without sacrificing important US interests in order to do so. In short, the goal is successful deterrence.”[4]

The recent articulation of the concept of “integrated deterrence” within the Department of Defense and other agencies involved in national security brings additional complexity and potential complications to a cohesive deterrence strategy. A fact sheet accompanying the March 28, 2022, transmission to Congress of the classified U.S. National Defense Strategy defined the term as follows: “Integrated deterrence entails developing and combining our strengths to maximum effect, by working seamlessly across warfighting domains, theaters, the spectrum of conflict, other instruments of U.S. national power, and our unmatched network of Alliances and partnerships. Integrated deterrence is enabled by combat-credible forces, backstopped by a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.”[5] The concept of integrated deterrence is not new. The United States has long recognized the importance of combining military, economic, and political influence in times of crisis; the value of working with allies and partners to expand the competitive space geographically and economically; and the role of diplomacy as a first line of defense. However, several potential questions and considerations need to be addressed in terms of implementing an integrated deterrence strategy, including relative efficacy, varying speeds of action, required coordination mechanisms, adversary perceptions versus intent, and differing escalatory dynamics to name a few.

The rapid introduction of new technologies and the lack of a methodologically sound mechanism for isolating and predicting their specific effects has introduced more uncertainty into deterrence. As the fog of war has gone digital, so have many of the elements of classical deterrence. Though communication networks have always been at risk, now other elements are also in question including the veracity of the content these networks carry and the databases from which the AI-enabled analytical feedstock is drawn. The effectiveness of network-based attacks can be difficult to assess, and the lack of immediate kinetic effects can lessen restraint and reduce stability. Finally, as a 2022 RAND Corporation study noted, “Deterrence, moreover, hinges entirely on perceptions. Even if a given technology could objectively affect a military relationship, unless it also shapes the perceptions of decision-makers, it will not have a parallel effect on deterrence. Indeed, general military effects of a technology are not the same as effects on deterrence; existing analyses of the effect of technology on war outcomes or military effectiveness, for example, are largely irrelevant unless we can demonstrate that these capabilities shape perceptions.”[6]

The rapid introduction of new technologies and the lack of a methodologically sound mechanism for isolating and predicting their specific effects has introduced more uncertainty into deterrence.

Current events once again offer reminders that the outcome of armed conflict has always been somewhat uncertain. Former secretary of defense General James Mattis has quoted the observation of military theorist Carl von Clausewitz that “the trinity of chance, uncertainty, and friction [will] continue to characterize war and will make anticipation of even the first-order consequences of military action highly conjectural.”[7] Today, advancing technologies and the prospect for military operations that start in or escalate into space and cyberspace further increase the complexity of high-end conventional and, potentially, nuclear conflict. Actions on the ground, in the air, at sea, in space, and in cyberspace interact in complex ways, with the outcomes hard to predict and with attendant implications for both deterrence and stability.

We have spoken of the challenge of uncertainty, but there is one thing of which Washington can be certain: technology is transforming the U.S. economy and the U.S. military in fundamental ways. As the aforementioned RAND Corporation study opined, “At the same time, the emergence of new technologies, many focused on the information systems central to operating modern economies and militaries, is arguably transforming the character of deterrence. The world may be on the verge of an inflection point, moving into what has been called the fourth industrial revolution, wherein a host of interrelated technologies—networks of smart devices, AI, advanced manufacturing techniques, quantum computing, DEWs [directed-energy weapons] and many more—will ‘fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another’ and, by extension, change the character of warfare.”[8]

A Look at the Future of Conflict

In many respects, the warfare of the future will not be like the fighting of the past.[9] Technological advances have introduced fundamental changes to weapons systems and the ways they are employed.

Weapons Are Becoming Software in Disguise

The computing and communications technologies embedded in modern military systems are so critical to their performance that many weapons and platforms today can accurately be described as software in disguise, almost instantaneously reprogrammable to change operating characteristics and add enhanced capabilities. Despite their ability to reconfigure themselves, sometimes on the fly, they are potentially vulnerable to hacking at many points in their life cycle. Thanks to machine learning, these technologies adapt by analyzing their own data and changing their software every time they are used, but external updates may also introduce errors and vulnerabilities even as they enhance capabilities.[10]

Space-enabled Precision Strikes

Precision conventional strike systems today can hit targets with great accuracy from long distances. These precision strike capabilities are enabled by support from space for target location, navigation, and communication, providing strong incentives for adversaries to develop and deploy counterspace capabilities. Terrestrial conflict could spread quickly to space or, just as likely, conflict could begin there. What one protagonist considers a logical, measured, incremental, and defensive response against a satellite to thwart space-enabled precision strikes could be perceived by the other as a dramatic escalation. Public awareness of the threats to space-based capabilities has grown in recent years, as new programs, policies, and even military commands and services have been put in place. But significant vulnerabilities remain. As one of us has written, “A key aspect of space is that the speed of advances in access and spaceborne capabilities has significantly outpaced the creation of guiding national—let alone international—strategies and policies. The technological advances in space systems and increased reliance on them have created a space-enabled ‘critical infrastructure’ that has not been matched by coherent supporting protection and loss-mitigation strategies, clearly articulated and accepted policies, and robust defensive capabilities.”[11]

Disruption of Networks

In future conflicts, adversaries can be expected to actively work to disrupt each other’s networks, seeking to interrupt data flow, call into question the integrity of information, confuse situational awareness, disrupt logistics, and compromise the command and control of forces. Information networks could be compromised with AI-generated disinformation, including deepfakes that are difficult to distinguish from real video, audio, and data.[12] The results of such efforts to spread digital fog and friction are hard to predict and may well be difficult to fully assess in practice, but determined offensive cyberattacks can be expected to achieve significant disruptions of an adversary’s information and communication networks. These techniques will not be limited to the battlefield. Adversaries will also employ them to sow societal confusion, affect popular opinion, and, ultimately, create fear and discord so as to affect policy, if not strategic, outcomes. This environment will be further complicated by the ability of nonstate cyber actors to attack civilian and military targets separate from governments, complicating assessment and attribution efforts.

Rapid Decision-making at Machine Speed

Machine-assisted decision-making could facilitate faster and perhaps better decisions. This may be necessary for managing the vast amounts of data produced by modern sensors and may also be necessary for keeping pace with adversaries in a conflict unfolding at speeds ranging from hypersonic to the speed of light. Managing the tempo of confrontation or escalation is an important and often unappreciated factor. There can be tension between the competing goals of increasing the tempo of a conflict to win—by getting inside the adversary’s Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) loop—and of slowing the tempo to deter an adversary by giving them more time for considering, deliberating, and deciding to deescalate.

Machines could also compress parts of the decision-making process. Human judgment will still be required in cases where military situations are complex, the data is questionable, and ethical considerations are in play. Some of those capabilities, preferences, and values will be built into algorithms, but even with humans in the loop, machines will play a large role in determining what information is presented to decision-makers. Some future engagements may involve swarms of autonomous systems and may, by necessity, be conducted at machine speed. The United States needs to be prepared to face adversaries capable of a high degree of automation on the battlefield without knowing to what extent, or even whether, they may be constrained by ethical or moral concerns.

As former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former Alphabet executive chair Eric Schmidt, and dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Schwarzman College of Computing Daniel Huttenlocher have written, “The introduction of nonhuman logic to military systems and processes will transform strategy. Militaries and security services training or partnering with AI will achieve insights and influence that surprise and occasionally unsettle. These partnerships may negate or decisively reinforce aspects of traditional strategies and tactics.”[13]

Electronic Warfare

Modern militaries exploit the full electromagnetic spectrum for surveillance, communication, navigation, and targeting, and they employ electronic warfare to create a hostile electromagnetic environment for adversaries. But the active use of the electromagnetic spectrum often creates its own vulnerabilities by revealing the location of platforms and inviting counterattacks, and the effectiveness of such tactics can be difficult to assess or attribute. Electronic warfare signatures, when coupled with commercially available satellites providing high-quality imagery and synthetic aperture radar detection, can significantly complicate battlefield concealment and dramatically increase the risk to headquarters, communications facilities, airfields, logistics infrastructure, and other critical targets. The outcomes of engagements between electronic countermeasures and efforts to counter those countermeasures are difficult to predict, and the effectiveness of electronic warfare depends in part on whether adversaries have detailed, accurate knowledge of each other’s systems in a spy-versus-spy competition.

The Potential for Conflict to Spread to the Homeland

Cyberattacks, counterspace attacks, and precision conventional strikes could potentially disrupt homeland civilian and military operations far from regional conflicts. Adversaries now have capabilities for escalation against the U.S. homeland, with the potential to disrupt civilian and military energy, logistics, communication, and financial networks. Regional conflicts will no longer necessarily be confined to distant locations, and the term will become an oxymoron as the sanctuary of distance and the barriers of oceans no longer obtain. These conditions introduce a new, potentially destabilizing political dynamic to the prosecution of even a distant war, especially for open societies that may be more vulnerable to such tactics. Ironically, as lethal, low-cost weapons proliferate widely as ways to counter an opponent’s expensive, high-tech capabilities, adversaries less dependent on sophisticated technologies may consider themselves less vulnerable to space and cyber counterattacks and may, therefore, be less cowed or deterred by a potential adversary with those capabilities.

Legacy Systems

The future will also continue to include legacy systems, which will play prominent roles alongside newer technologies for the foreseeable future. The integration of legacy weapons and platforms into advanced technological networks to support all-domain conflict greatly increases the complexity and costs of innovation. The integrity of sophisticated, advanced technological systems and networks could also be compromised by penetration of the legacy systems to which they are connected worldwide.

Advantages of Leadership in Technology

The United States has traditionally led the introduction of advanced technologies such as precision strike capabilities and networked systems. China is now a strong competitor in many emerging military technologies, including AI, directed energy, and quantum technology, and China even leads the United States in fielding fast and maneuverable hypersonic systems.[14] Capturing the military and economic advantages of leadership in advanced technologies will require investing in basic research; developing human capital; and exploiting commercial technologies in fields such as surveillance, communications, small drones, and autonomous systems.

Insights From the War in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 provides empirical insights on the impact of certain advanced technologies on the conduct of contemporary military operations and the difficulties of deterring conventional aggression.

Cyberattacks in a Kinetic Conflict

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has featured twenty-first-century precision strikes and information warfare alongside combat reminiscent of World War I. Starting the day before the invasion began, Russian entities launched hundreds of cyberattacks targeted at the Ukrainian government and civilians, aiming to degrade Ukrainian institutions and disrupt access to reliable information and critical life services.[15] Cyberattacks were often coordinated with kinetic operations, such as the March 1, 2022, cyberattacks against a major broadcasting company together with a missile strike against a television tower in Kyiv on the same day.[16] Another example is the penetration of the computer network of Ukraine’s nuclear power company on March 2 followed by the military attack and occupation of Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant the next day.[17] In parallel with cyberattacks in Ukraine, Russian intelligence agencies focused network intrusion and espionage activities on countries involved in supporting Ukraine’s defenses, including the United States, Poland, other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Sweden, and Finland.[18] In addition to destructive cyberattacks and espionage operations, Russian agencies made sophisticated use of the internet to create and spread false narratives, including claims that U.S.-funded biolabs in Ukraine were developing biological weapons.[19]

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has featured twenty-first-century precision strikes and information warfare alongside combat reminiscent of World War I.

It is apparent that extensive cybersecurity assistance from the U.S. government played a significant role in minimizing the impact of the Russian cyber offensive. For many years prior to the Russian invasion, the United States worked with Ukraine to enhance the resilience of its networks and improve the training of its personnel, while sharing threat information about potential or ongoing malicious cyber activity and helping to disrupt Russian efforts to spread disinformation and target the Ukrainian government and military. The U.S. government agencies involved included the Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Agency for International Development, the Department of Energy, and the Treasury Department. Moreover, a May 2022 State Department press release noted further collaboration in the cyber domain: “From December 2021 to February 2022, cyber experts from U.S. Cyber Command conducted defensive cyber operations alongside Ukrainian Cyber Command personnel, as part of a wider effort to increase cyber resilience in critical networks. Cyber professionals from both countries sat side by side, looking for adversary activity and identifying vulnerabilities. In addition to this effort, the team provided remote analytic and advisory support aligned to critical networks from outside Ukraine.”[20] As with the U.S. military assistance provided to Ukraine since the 2014 invasion of Crimea, the U.S. training and the cybersecurity tools and expertise that came with it were essential contributors to Ukraine’s ability to build resilient networks and blunt the Russian attacks.

In the hours before the broader February 2022 invasion, Russia successfully hacked ground equipment of the U.S.-owned ViaSat satellite communications network used by the Ukrainian military to communicate with its forces,[21] and Moscow conducted hundreds of cyberattacks against Ukrainian government, military, and civilian networks. U.S. technology companies moved quickly to support Ukraine in defending against cyberattacks. Microsoft, for example, has worked with Ukraine to identify and remediate threats against Ukrainian networks,[22] and the firm has helped Ukraine move important government digital operations and data from servers in vulnerable government buildings to the safety of the cloud.[23] Google has protected Ukrainian government entities and news and humanitarian organizations from distributed denial of service attacks and provided other cybersecurity services.[24] SpaceX has provided more than 11,000 Starlink stations that provide vital internet services to support Ukraine’s military, keep the Ukrainian people informed with accurate information, and connect Ukrainian leaders to the rest of the world.[25] ViaSat stabilized its network within a few days, restored modems of some customers over-the-air, and provided replacement modems for others.[26] The rapid support of technology companies coming to the defense of Ukrainian networks and providing internet services has largely negated the Russian cyber offensive.

The sight of U.S. technology companies rallying quickly and decisively to the defense of Ukraine contrasts with the perception that technology companies are reluctant to support the U.S. military. This perception is based in part on Google’s withdrawal in 2018, following worker protests, from Project Maven, a project that uses AI to interpret video images. Google, whose guidelines continue to preclude work on AI applications for “weapons,” is something of an outlier, however. When Microsoft employees protested a contract with the U.S. Army to supply augmented-reality headsets for soldiers, Microsoft’s leadership team continued to implement the contract, and a company leader made a statement supporting work for national security institutions.[27] Many technology firms work closely with the U.S. military and the intelligence community on a broad range of systems, in part due to the outreach efforts of the Defense Innovation Unit and the intelligence community’s In-Q-Tel. Google has revised its policies as well, including by forming a new division, Google Public Sector, to support government institutions, including the military. In 2018, following its withdrawal from Project Maven, Google declined to compete for a major Pentagon contract to use cloud technology to support the use of AI to gain advantages on the battlefield. Now Google is aggressively pursuing a Pentagon contract for the same purpose, the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability.[28]

Russia Was Not Deterred

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a reminder that deterrence is not necessarily a reliable way to prevent conventional conflict. Deterrence has been effective at preventing large-scale nuclear war, as there is a widely shared understanding that a general nuclear war would result in catastrophic destruction of one’s own country, so there is no alternative to avoiding nuclear war. As former U.S. president Ronald Reagan and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once put it, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”[29] But conventional conflicts are fought and can be won. Deterrence of conventional conflict relies on judgments that the costs of initiating or escalating hostilities outweigh the benefits. Such efforts to deter can fail in at least two ways: the costs and benefits can be misjudged, or one side can be determined to proceed at all costs. Both may have played a part in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

The invasion of Ukraine raises the question of the value of agreed-upon norms of responsible international behavior, such as those in the 1945 United Nations (UN) Charter, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe, and the 1994 Security Assurances for Ukraine in connection with Kyiv’s accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Moscow participated in the negotiations of these agreements and committed to abide by them. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violated all of these agreements. These and similar norms established by the U.S.-Soviet 1972 Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas, the multilateral 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and future norms that may be developed for responsible behavior in space and cyberspace are all intended to govern peacetime and gray zone activities. They have value in preventing and managing incidents, reducing the likelihood of misperceptions, and establishing rules for acceptable behavior in times of peace and gray zone competition. They are not laws of war, however, and there is no expectation that they would be respected in the event of kinetic conflict. Nor should there be an expectation that they would deter initiation or escalation of war.

The events leading up to the invasion of Ukraine also raise the question of the role of diplomatic statements in deterring conflict. In the weeks prior to the invasion, U.S. public statements emphasized four points. If Russia should invade Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden said in a February 15, 2022, statement, the United States would “not send American servicemen to fight Russia in Ukraine,” Washington would supply the Ukrainian military with “equipment to help them defend themselves,” along with “training and advice and intelligence for the same purpose”; together with allies and partners “impose powerful sanctions . . . [and] export controls”; and “defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power.”[30] Subsequent U.S. commitments included the intent not to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine to avoid direct and escalatory conflict with Russian forces.

This package of commitments, both positive and negative, failed to deter the invasion. It did, however, provide a basis for uniting allies and partners to enact unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia and to help facilitate the rapid provision of substantial amounts of military equipment to Ukraine. To date, Russia has not extended military operations to NATO territory. The very public sharing of American intelligence information likely did have an effect in deterring Russian false-flag operations that Moscow might have used before the war to justify its invasion.

Will this policy of clearly announcing limits on U.S. actions, reducing current ambiguity and future flexibility, achieve the twin goals of defending an independent Ukraine without triggering a direct NATO-Russia military conflict and heightened risk of nuclear escalation? There are ample historical precedents, including those involving former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and former Yugoslavian and Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević, cases in which threatened U.S. and allied actions failed to convince, much less compel, the desired actions on the part of Iraq and Serbia, respectively. Perhaps the United States needs to realize that, ultimately, one does not deter or compel nation states but rather individuals and that deterrence is less a system or a capability than an understanding of a given adversary’s culture, values, and priorities and a strategy to shape their incentive structures by military, economic, and other means. As Melanie W. Sisson has recently written for Brookings, “The deterrence problem the United States actually has, that is, is the tendency to treat deterrence as though it were a capability and not a strategy. When the relative U.S. advantage in material capabilities doesn’t then translate into the target’s forbearance, commentary tends to overlook the possibility of misalignment between U.S. strategy and the target’s perceptions, values, and goals, and proceeds directly to indict policymakers for being inadequately forceful or to absolve them by making claims about the target’s irrationality.”[31] Understanding the “perceptions, values, and goals” of the cultures of adversaries is central to deterrence strategies and is a topic that merits prioritized attention.


The United States also warned of—but did not specifically reveal in advance—“swift and severe” sanctions,[32] though this warning did not deter Russia from invading either. The United States and its European and Asian partners then imposed the most extensive and globally supported sanctions ever.[33] Sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies and partners on financial transactions (including a freeze of hard currency reserves), on imports of semiconductors for military and commercial products, on oil and gas exports, on individuals, and on competition in international sports increased the cost of the war, but these measures did not prevent the conflict. The sanctions have broad international support, though purchases of large volumes of Russian oil by China and India are important exceptions. Major international companies ended business operations in and with Russia. The initial impact on the Russian economy was substantial, but Russia adapted, in part by turning to alternative trading partners. Russia also has benefitted from high oil prices and has retaliated by cutting natural gas supplies to Europe. As a result, the economic cost of the war is substantial for both sides, but how the war ends now appears to depend primarily on the military outcome rather than on the sanctions, although sanctions relief may well be part of future negotiations. This state of affairs extends the tradition of sanctions alone not achieving the desired result but instead playing a role in imposing costs and encouraging negotiations, with sanctions relief becoming part of the ultimate resolution.

Public Limits on U.S. Actions

In recent modern conflicts, there has been a willingness to detail publicly precise limits on what the nation, coalition, or alliance intends to do. While often necessary to engender public support or create alliance unanimity, what is the effect on deterrence when options are taken off the table? Rather than fueling uncertainty about what is to come, do such limiting actions clarify in the mind of an adversary precisely what is and is not to be expected? While such limiting decisions are often essential tools to influence public or global opinion and avoid unintended escalatory confrontation, do they need to be clearly and publicly laid out and, often, debated? Are some U.S. allies and partners correct when they advise Washington to do more and talk less? To the extent that public declarations of what the United States will and will not do lead adversaries to perceive that they may achieve their objectives at acceptable costs, such declarations have the disadvantage of weakening deterrence, a drawback to be weighed against advantages in gaining public and allied support and reducing risks of escalation. The evolution of the conflict in Ukraine will inform assessments of whether the declaratory approach adopted by the United States proves successful in ultimately securing Ukrainian independence without risking wider conflict and whether an alternative approach would have produced a better outcome at a lower cost.

Pace of NATO Decision-making

NATO policy is that “all NATO decisions are made by consensus, after discussion and consultation among member countries.”[34] As a relevant NATO document went on to elaborate, “Consensus decision-making means that there is no voting at NATO. Consultations take place until a decision that is acceptable to all is reached. . . . In general, this negotiation process is rapid since members consult each other on a regular basis and therefore often know and understand each other's positions in advance.” In its response to the invasion to date, NATO has succeeded in supporting Ukraine’s surprisingly effective resistance without precipitating a wider war. NATO’s consensus-based decision-making processes have proved up to the task of providing timely equipment and training to Ukraine. A question can be asked about whether NATO can adapt its decision-making processes to the speed that will be demanded for a future conflict that may unfold much more quickly.

Nuclear Threats

Russian nuclear threats have added a new and dangerous dimension to the conflict in Ukraine. In the opening days of the invasion, Putin raised the specter of using nuclear weapons when he said, “No matter who tries to stand in our way . . . they must know that Russia will respond immediately. And the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”[35] He ordered the transfer of Russia’s deterrence forces to a “special mode of combat duty.”[36] Such nuclear threats designed to discourage NATO countries from assisting Ukraine are irresponsible and are contrary to stated Russian policy of using nuclear weapons only in retaliation against nuclear attack or when the very existence of the state is threatened. Six months into the broader conflict, Putin seemed to dial back the nuclear rhetoric, saying, “there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it should never be unleashed.”[37] As Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu elaborated in August 2022, “From a military point of view, there is no need to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine to achieve the set goals. The main purpose of Russian nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack.”[38] Shortly thereafter, however, following military setbacks and efforts to annex parts of Ukrainian territory, Putin asserted that Russian territory would be defended “by all the systems available to us.”[39] The possibility remains that Russia could turn to nuclear weapons in an effort to win (or to avoid losing) in Ukraine, notwithstanding the risk of a wider war, with potentially catastrophic regional and global consequences.

Insights From the Challenge to Taiwan

The risk of conflict with China over Taiwan offers additional insights on how technology is complicating deterrence.[40]

Potential for Conflict

China remains the “most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge” for the United States.[41]The most plausible path to the type of unpredictable, technologically advanced high-end conflict outlined in this paper’s introduction would be a military clash with China over Taiwan. The challenge is “to preserve Taiwan’s political and economic autonomy, its dynamism as a free society, and U.S.-allied deterrence—without triggering a Chinese attack on Taiwan.”[42] Given the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) enduring interests in Taiwan, meeting that challenge requires both military and economic preparation to increase the perceived costs, and reduce the perceived efficacy, of military actions in the minds of China’s leaders—in short, to take away their confidence in a military solution.

The most plausible path to the type of unpredictable, technologically advanced high-end conflict outlined in this paper’s introduction would be a military clash with China over Taiwan.

At the strategic level, where classic deterrence theory began, the situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Revelations that China is expanding, modernizing, and diversifying its nuclear arsenal—potentially increasing it to “at least 1,000 warheads by 2030,”[43] or just over one-quarter of the United States’ arsenal of about 3,800 active warheads[44]—have raised numerous questions about “what is motivating China to pursue such capabilities, how nuclear modernization connects to the larger regional security dynamic, and how Washington should respond.”[45] These complexities and uncertainties have been further exacerbated by China’s expansion of its intercontinental ballistic missile force in a manner that suggests that Beijing may be moving to a launch-on-warning posture,[46] by the establishment of a nuclear triad, and by technological enhancements demonstrated in Chinese tests of a hypersonic fractional orbital bombardment system.[47] The as-yet unanswered but related question is whether Beijing’s renewed focus on nuclear policy and significantly enhanced capabilities could lead CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping to emulate Putin and other Russian government and political figures in actively threatening nuclear escalation as a deterrent strategy, essentially threatening to abandon the unspoken “taboo” against the first use of nuclear weapons.[48]

A second significant challenge is adapting classic strategic deterrence concepts to the ongoing evolution of China and Russia’s “no-limits friendship.” This so-called “three body problem” of trilateral deterrence does not, in itself, obviate deterrence concepts, but it does cast them in a new light.[49] The most important element may not be the potential for combining Sino-Russian nuclear capabilities but rather the important shift in Chinese (and Russian) objectives. In the regional Taiwan scenario, Chinese objectives appear to have shifted from deterring Taiwanese independence to compelling cross-strait unification. At the strategic level, a similar shift on the part of China and its newfound junior partner raises the specter of increased Chinese and Russian assertiveness in pursuit of their geopolitical ends. Keith Payne has posed the not-so-rhetorical question, “How do we simultaneously deter two revanchist great powers that are driven by the common belief that their goals are of existential importance, and that limited nuclear threats and possibly employment are the way to defeat defensive U.S. deterrence policies?”[50] While some observers have opined that the Sino-Russian “marriage of convenience” is already showing signs of connubial discord over the Russian war in Ukraine, it is likely that there remain many areas of shared interest and potential collaboration.[51] Despite Chinese concerns over the Russian war and likely Russian concerns about being labelled a Chinese “vassal,” the strategic alignment of the two powers will remain a continuing concern.[52]

At the regional level, China has pursued the classic gray zone strategy of creeping incrementalism for nearly two decades. Using a graduated strategy of declaration, then placation, and, finally, escalation, China has effectively created and delivered a fait accompli to its neighbors, including Taiwan, and the world. Routine seaborne harassment, fishing exclusion, illegal oil and gas drilling, aerial penetration of air defense identification zones (ADIZ), the unilateral creation of islets, and the assertion of rights to regulate military activities within its exclusive economic zone have dramatically increased the presence and scale of Chinese influence, heightened global concerns, and increased the potential for error or accident.[53] Much has been said about the potential for inadvertent escalation between China and Taiwan. The United Kingdom’s national security adviser, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, has touted the treaties, other safeguards, and regular dialogue that were a part of the Cold War landscape. “This gave us both a higher level of confidence that we would not miscalculate our way into nuclear war,” he said. “Today, we do not have the same foundations with others who may threaten us in the future—particularly with China.”[54]

Others believe that there is little likelihood that a conflict could begin by accident. Any decision by China to go to war, they feel, would be carefully considered by the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP based on the assumption that its centralized control makes it unlikely that a single event would spiral out of control. That assumption coupled with the degree of difficulty in executing an assault; the economic impact on China, both directly and indirectly, following an inevitable global recession; and the concomitant societal impact, diminishing the credibility of the CCP leadership, all strengthen the case against a Taiwan invasion scenario. Finally, proponents of this viewpoint note, if China is convinced that the West is in decline, and given the uncertainties surrounding an invasion’s success, why would Beijing risk an extended conflict and potential failure before achieving full readiness? This view is summarized by Charles Parton in a recent article: “The economic consequences of blockading or invading Taiwan would be catastrophic for the CCP. The direct effects on its own economy would be magnified by a vicious global recession, further restricting its exports. Decoupling—financial, technical, commercial, geopolitical—would become stark. Unemployment, already just under 20% for youth, would rise substantially. In the absence of a social security net, the masses would protest and demonstrate. Hitherto, the CCP has kept unrest localised. But if unemployment and poverty became pervasive, the chances of riots crossing city and county borders would be high. This could constitute an existential threat to the CCP.”[55]

The August 2022 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) exercises following then House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan unarguably further altered and reset the status quo with respect to historically observed midlines dividing the Taiwan Strait and normalized increased air and sea activity, including the firing of ballistic missiles, in close proximity to Taiwan and Japanese-claimed territory. It is also noteworthy that Chinese government officials responded to what they claimed was a diplomatic provocation with a military provocation and, in response, received a mixed or muted reaction from the international community.[56] Some Chinese observers argued that Pelosi’s visit would “trigger” this military response, as if Chinese leaders lacked agency in the choice to carry out these exercises.[57] The fact that the exercises were announced forty-eight hours in advance, however, indicates that the Chinese government likely had the exercises already planned and ready for execution, perhaps in response to the runup to the January 2024 Taiwanese presidential elections. Rather than indicating a new level of cross-military integration and a precursor to a potential blockade or quarantine, it seems more likely that the events were carefully scripted and on the shelf ready for a deployment that required only an excuse.

Since Chinese military policy and operational decision-making fall to the Central Military Commission and responsibility to declare war rests with the Politburo or its Standing Committee, there should be significant interest in the structure, authorities, and membership of each body following the personnel changes that accompanied the CCP’s October 2022 Twentieth National Party Congress. Of particular importance is the future influence of Xi. Taiwanese observers believe that Xi exercised his personal authorities as chairman of the Central Military Commission in defining precisely the character and location of the military demonstrations that followed the Pelosi visit to Taiwan, possibly against the recommendation of some other members of the Standing Committee.

The now-clear new membership of the Standing Committee offers little cause for optimism. As a recent China Brief from Foreign Policy noted with some concern, “Chinese President Xi Jinping ran the tables at the 20th National Congress of the . . . CCP last week: purging the final remnants of the once-strong Communist Youth League faction; publicly humiliating his predecessor, Hu Jintao; and seeing his role further enshrined in the Chinese Constitution.” The brief went on to say, “Likewise, the new Standing Committee—which is comprised of the party’s seven most important leaders and includes Xi himself—is dominated by figures close to the president.”[58] As noted earlier, at its heart, deterrence must influence the decision-making calculus of an adversary’s collective leadership. If China’s actual governance model is one-person authoritarian rule, then the target of deterrence efforts must be, primarily, Xi.

Lessons for Taiwan From the Ukrainian War

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has stimulated many questions concerning the implications for the prospects for the use of force by China against Taiwan. Articles have been written postulating questions such as: Will Beijing be encouraged by the example of moving to subjugate nearby territory by military means, or will it be chastened by Russia’s failure to achieve its goals quickly at low cost? Would Taiwan resist as Ukraine has? Would—or can—Taiwan’s regional partners support the island of Taiwan as Europe has supported Ukraine? What is the proper balance between military and economic means to deter— and if necessary, to counter—the use of force against Taiwan?

To many American analysts, the parallels between the two regional crises seem obvious. As our colleague Kharis Templeman wrote before the Russian invasion, “Like Ukraine, Taiwan faces an existential threat from one of Eurasia’s great autocratic powers, and it is also a Western-oriented democracy that the United States has an interest in keeping free from coercion. Both Ukraine and Taiwan are being framed as critical test cases of America’s willingness to uphold global norms against the use of military force to seize territory. Some observers have even gone so far as to argue that their fates will be linked: a failure to respond to military action against Ukraine would weaken American credibility and invite an attack on Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China.”[59]

Templeman, however, countered this conclusion, calling it “lazy analysis,” and instead noted that Taiwan is a different kind of partner as a result of its longstanding security relationship with the United States and the island’s successful transformation to a flourishing democracy. Furthermore, he argued, China is not Russia. The former is a rising power, and its leaders have reason to believe that time is on their side. The Chinese economy is already the second-largest in the world, and it has benefited immensely over the last three decades from the existing global economic and security architecture.[60] Finally, he argued that the range and depth of American interests in Taiwan also dwarf those in Ukraine. Taiwan’s economy is closely intertwined with the rest of East Asia and North America. The island sits in a strategically crucial location astride busy sea routes in the First Island Chain, with U.S. treaty allies directly to its north (Japan) and south (Philippines). And Taiwan’s continued existence as a prosperous liberal democracy also offers a compelling alternative to autocratic China.

To the contrary, Hal Brands and Michael Beckley have argued that the time of maximum danger will come in the 2020s, as a result of China’s looming demographic decline, economic slowdown, and the growing unity of the West, suggesting that the United States will soon face “the most treacherous stage in the life cycle of a rising power—the point where it is strong enough to aggressively disrupt the existing order but is losing confidence that time is on its side.”[61] 

Notwithstanding the uncertainty about the timing of the threat to Taiwan, and despite the differences in geography, economic interdependence, evolving security linkages, current and postulated adversary behaviors, and the level of American interests, the Ukraine and Taiwan crises have common elements that bear detailed review in the crafting of applicable deterrent concepts.

  • Sanctions: China’s economy is far more interconnected with the rest of the world than Russia’s, including dependence on foreign sources for the materials, energy, and intermediate goods it needs and markets for the products it produces. Financial and commercial measures that would inevitably accompany a war between the United States and China would have a much greater impact (on both China and the United States as well as other countries) than the economic disruptions triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Again, as Parton put it, “It is difficult to know what proportion of the [People’s Republic of China’s (PRC)] US$3.5 trillion (£2.9 trillion) annual exports would be hit if war disrupted PRC-Taiwan trade, but the figure would be far higher than the US$188.9 billion (£160.5 billion) of Taiwanese exports. But it is not just exports which would suffer. Semiconductors are vital components for products in both the PRC’s domestic and export markets. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) supplies over 60% of the world’s advanced semiconductors. It has significant operations in the PRC. In the event of blockade or invasion it is very unlikely that either Taiwan or the US would allow its capabilities to fall into the hands of the CCP. At the very least the TSMC’s Taiwan based manufacturing facilities would be shuttered, if not deliberately destroyed; the US and the Netherlands would ban future use of their intellectual property, equipment, and support. The effect on the Chinese (and global) economy would be immense.”[62] 

    Philip Zelikow further argued, “the war in Ukraine has also revealed that well-prepared global economic action may be a more powerful and less provocative way to deter conflict than reliance on more traditional military tools.”[63] Visible preparations, in coordination with allies and partners, to implement a freeze on Chinese assets and a cutoff of business and dollar transactions with China, along with other economic sanctions, would help to deter Beijing from considering an attempt to take Taiwan by force. Some have pointed to recent domestic crackdowns on leading private sector technology firms and the real estate sector, however, as evidence that Xi may personally underestimate the importance of economic impacts compared to other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, a possibility that has implications for the communication of such a deterrence strategy. 
  • Self-Defense: As the world has seen in Ukraine, highly motivated defenders armed with many small, lethal, distributed systems can be effective, even against a larger adversary. Javelin and Stinger missiles, precision missile strikes, coastal-defense missiles, small drones, and mines in the hands of a determined opposition have denied Russia a quick victory. A well-trained Taiwanese force armed with a comparable mix of distributed and resilient anti-air and anti-ship systems networked with modern technologies that leverage Taiwan’s technological and geographic advantages could lead China to assess that the cost of using force would be high and that the outcome would be uncertain.[64]

Despite some variability in the meaning of “asymmetric” defense capabilities, Taiwanese military and civilian leaders, perhaps in response to the priorities of the U.S. presidential administration and Congress, now seem to have generally accepted the concept, largely in accord with the Overall Defense Concept long articulated by retired Admiral Lee Hsi-min.[65] The larger issue is now the timely acquisition of and training on the required distributed and resilient systems. Along with other U.S. allies, Taiwan shares a deep frustration with the Pentagon’s process of foreign military sales, particularly with the long delays in weapons procurement. This has recently struck a resonant chord in the Department of Defense. According to Tony Bertuca at Inside Defense, “Senior defense officials say they are working on ways to accelerate foreign military sales, including the Pentagon acquisition chief, who says now is a ‘golden opportunity’ to reform the notoriously bureaucratic system, especially if the administration can focus its efforts around equipping Taiwan.”[66] Other options that could be considered are direct commercial sales or licensed co-production utilizing Taiwan’s highly capable defense industry.

Two other lessons from the Ukrainian experience are, first, to consider whether to supply Taiwan with operational and stockpiled weapons to help deter a conflict rather than trying to transport armaments to a potentially beleaguered island through uncertain resupply channels after a crisis or conflict begins. Second, whether the United States chooses to actively come to Taiwan’s defense or not, a related area of focus must be the creation of capabilities for U.S. forces, as in the case of Ukraine, to seamlessly integrate with those of Taiwan and other potential regional partners to share sensor and targeting data, real-time intelligence, encrypted communications, a common operating picture, and strategic and tactical planning. The existence of such linkages, whether exercised or not, can be an essential element of deterrence.

An effective self-defense capability goes well beyond the acquisition of equipment. It is worth emphasizing that Ukrainian troops had benefited from receiving eight years of American armed forces training following the annexation of Crimea, which allowed them to progress from basic marksmanship to small-unit tactics to battalion-level maneuvers, command post exercises, and strategic force integration. In its isolation, Taiwan has not been afforded those opportunities and is only now beginning to explore expanding the length of conscripted service and reforming its reserve force model. All of this, especially the training, exercising, and integrating of new military systems, will require considerable time and the full-time allocation of appropriate U.S. military or contract personnel.

  • Regional Partners: Just as European nations have provided essential support for Ukraine against Russia, the role that Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and others in the region would play in the military, economic, and diplomatic response to any use of force by China against Taiwan would be crucial. While precise steps would depend on the circumstances at the time, working together on preparations now can generate options for future decision-makers. 

While there is considerable variation in these Indo-Pacific regional partners’ views on Taiwan, all of them have voiced support for the concept attributed to the late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.”[67] Australia and Japan, members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the Quad), have expressed more vocal support, tempered by domestic political constituencies. Both nations would be essential to any significant U.S. response to Chinese military action against Taiwan. The attitudes of both nations have shifted in recent years in reaction to Chinese political and economic pressure. After China’s August 2022 missile-firing exercise, both nations signed a “joint statement with the United States that condemned [the] firing of missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zones and accused China of ‘raising tension and destabilizing the region.’”[68] The foreign ministers representing the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while avoiding mentions of China specifically, issued a statement that “calls for maximum restraint, refrain[ing] from provocative action and for upholding the principles enshrined in [the] United Nations Charter and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.”[69] NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept adopted at the Madrid Summit identifies the economic and military challenge posed by China and says the alliance will stand up for its shared values, including freedom of navigation.[70]

  • The U.S. Response: As in the case of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and despite its historic policy of “strategic ambiguity,” the United States would surely respond to the use of force by China against Taiwan with a mix of military, economic, and diplomatic actions that would depend on the circumstances at the time. The United States would once again seek to calibrate that response, in this case to support the continued autonomy of Taiwan while minimizing the risk of a wider war with a nuclear-armed strategic competitor. 

A second-order effect of Washington’s intentional policy of ambiguity is that Taiwan itself may be unsure of whether and how the United States would respond. The answer to that question drives a number of national security, economic, and political judgments. Indeed, the allegation that the United States would not come to Taiwan’s aid is an often-heard theme of Chinese information operations, both from the mainland and in Chinese-run Taiwanese outlets. Observers may be seeing strategic ambiguity being brought to the tactical level. While not violating established policy, some increased level of assurance, perhaps expressed across the Indo-Pacific as part of a clear and consistent regional security strategy, would contribute to deterrence.

  • Information Operations: China, too, would prefer to achieve its objectives without resorting to force. But Taiwanese leaders understand that China’s vision of so-called “peaceful unification” does not necessarily mean such an arrangement would be voluntary. Beijing’s campaign of disinformation, intimidation, and gray-zone provocation has been underway for some time and continues to increase in intensity. The presence in Taiwan of Chinese-funded mainstream outlets and social media, and the potential for fifth-column mainland sympathizers, make it more challenging to distinguish between legitimate political discourse and information or disinformation operations. However, recent public opinion polling seems to suggest a new level of recognition and resolve among the Taiwanese public. Among the factors contributing to this are Xi’s tone-deaf January 2019 one-country, two-systems formulation for Taiwan; the demise of Hong Kong as a positive example for the Taiwanese people; the escalating pace of PLA intrusions into Taiwan’s ADIZ and coastal waters; and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Together, these developments have not just caused temporary deviations in public sentiment; rather, they have put public sentiment on a wholly separate track. This trend was perhaps sealed by the August 2022 PLA exercises following Pelosi’s visit.

Deterring China

Addressing the full spectrum of potential threats from China requires a whole-of-society determination by Taiwan to preserve its autonomy—including resistance to disinformation and economic pressure, close coordination with the United States and regional partners, and a combination of traditional defense forces such as F-16 fighter jets to counter gray-zone intrusions and smaller, more numerous, more resilient, networked defenses to deter (or counter) an invasion. It is unlikely that ongoing coercive gray-zone tactics by China can be credibly deterred; they must simply be defended against.

Contemplating how best to prevent China from using force against Taiwan is another reminder that deterrence is not necessarily a reliable way to prevent conventional conflict with an adversary that is determined to achieve political objectives and that is perhaps miscalculating the outcome and the costs. In addition to visible preparations with Taiwan and with U.S. allies and partners to shape China’s perceptions of the economic and military costs and risks, the United States needs to be prepared to respond if China nevertheless should decide to resort to force.

Uncertainty and Deterrence

The rapid pace of technological change introduces complexity and uncertainty in the calculation of the costs and benefits of aggression that underlie deterrence.

Uncertainty About What Is Considered a “Proportional” Response Across Domains

The lack of a common understanding on what is a commensurate or proportional response in the space and cyber domains raises the potential for unintended escalation. Proportionality is a two-sided coin called by both the attacker and the defender. It is the effect in the eyes of those affected rather than the intended result that enters into the calculation of next steps. For instance, is an attack on a spacecraft supporting precision strikes on land and sea targets a prudent defensive measure or a major escalation of the conflict into the space domain? What about an attack on a ground station operating the spacecraft located in a country not engaged in the conflict? Does it matter if the counterspace operation temporarily interferes with the function of the spacecraft (a soft kill) or destroys it (a hard kill)? What about a cyberattack on military facilities in the homeland involved in supporting the precision strikes? It is easy to see how cross-domain counterspace and cyber operations could be intended as defensive, commensurate responses and perceived by the other side as escalating a conflict and justifying further steps up the escalation ladder.

The rapid pace of technological change introduces complexity and uncertainty in the calculation of the costs and benefits of aggression that underlie deterrence.

There are several characteristics of cyber warfare that make a priori assessments of proportionality difficult. First, the precise operational effectiveness of an employed cyber weapon on the system it is targeting is usually unknown. Unlike a kinetic weapon, a cyber round’s effectiveness is a function of the current configuration of the target system, its network connections, and any robustness or resiliency built into the system. A complete understanding of all these elements requires what is termed exquisite intelligence, which is often difficult to obtain. The precise effects of a cyber operation could easily differ in ways large or small from those that were intended. A second challenge is that a cyber weapon, unlike a bomb or a missile, has not likely been fully tested on a tactically realistic target, so its predicted effects are at least partially hypothetical.

The Uncertainty of Effects, Particularly for Cyber Operations

Offensive cyber operations have the potential for effects substantially greater and more widespread than expected. Stuxnet, for example, was narrowly targeted at centrifuges in Iran, and yet it spread to infect networks worldwide, including in the United States. While the spread of Stuxnet was mostly inconsequential outside Iran, the Russian NotPetya malware in 2017 spread far beyond its intended targets in Ukraine to severely damage computers worldwide, including in Russia. Similarly, future cyberattacks could cascade across networks in unpredictable and unintended but harmful ways, possibly including blowback affecting the country initiating the attacks and its allies and potentially drawing unexpected responses not necessarily confined to the cyber domain. Once used in combat, cyber tools can and have been picked up by others and used for offensive purposes, adding further uncertainty to assessments of the ultimate effects of cyber operations.

On the other hand, the target of a cyberattack is dynamic and might rapidly change depending on the skill and preparation of the defender. As previously noted, cyber-related events surrounding the war in Ukraine indicate to some observers that with proper preparation the potential impact of cyberattacks may be significantly less than long anticipated, calling into question both the escalatory potential and cross-domain deterrence effectiveness of cyber tools.[71] Furthermore, it is certainly true that for many tasks “even the most sophisticated offensive cyber operations can’t compete with conventional munitions,” as analyst Erica Lonergan has observed. “It’s far easier to target the enemy with artillery, mortars, and bombers than with exquisite and ephemeral cyber power.”[72] And there is often no analog in the cyber world for the damage assessment that follows a kinetic strike, leaving the actual effects of a cyberattack unknown to the attacker.

The Ukraine experience to date illustrates that cyber tools cannot compete with guns, missiles, and bombs once kinetic conflict is underway. (“If you’re already at a stage in a conflict where you’re willing to drop bombs, you’re going to drop bombs,” as our colleague Jacquelyn Schneider has put it.)[73] But cyber operations can be quite consequential for other tasks in future high-end conflicts, particularly in confusing intelligence and communication networks, disrupting air-defense systems, and taking the fight to the homeland of the adversary by disrupting military and commercial operations far from regional battlefields. The disabling of Syria’s air defenses by electronic and cyber means to open the way for Israeli aircraft to destroy a nuclear reactor has demonstrated the high potential impact that the disruption of networks can have.[74]

A further complication is that both the cyber and space domains are notable for the advanced capabilities of commercial and even civilian actors. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example, U.S. firms and entrepreneurs have provided commercial space-based imagery and internet connections to Ukraine. Individuals from many countries have conducted offensive cyberattacks of various kinds that are not necessarily coordinated with their governments, complicating assessments of origin, intent, and impact.

Incentives to Strike First

The economies and the militaries of the United States, China, and Russia have become increasingly dependent (to differing degrees) on information networks for intelligence, communications, situational awareness, and operations.[75] Military and commercial space assets play crucial roles in the operation of these networks. These space-enabled networks provide synergies and efficiencies that greatly enhance kinetic capabilities in the traditional domains.[76]

In a future high-end conflict, both sides would have strong incentives to use counterspace and cyber means to disrupt each other’s networks in order to gain a significant military advantage and avoid ceding this advantage to the adversary. And they would have strong incentives to employ counterspace and cyber capabilities early, as the effectiveness of these capabilities (particularly for cyber) may diminish with time.[77] Wargaming suggests that moving first in counterspace can be a significant advantage.[78] These incentives for early use of counterspace and offensive cyber operations to disrupt the networks on which modern militaries depend could lead to instability and rapid escalation from a crisis to a low-level confrontation to high-intensity conflict.

Concealment and Deception

The widespread proliferation of advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, both terrestrial and space-borne, have made long-term concealment of tactical units, headquarters, and logistics pathways all but impossible. Global multispectral imagery and synthetic aperture radar coverage, much of which is now commercially available, coupled with coherent change-detection algorithms, demand ever-more-sophisticated camouflage techniques and draconian electromagnetic emission control policies. Efforts at concealment are further complicated by the ubiquity of internet-linked devices. As General Mark Milley noted in 2016, “Almost everyone and everything is a potential ISR platform capable of transmitting real-time information, that if properly analyzed can be useful intelligence which can significantly help or seriously hinder military decision-making and operations. . . . In a future battlefield, if you stay in one place for longer than two or three hours, you’ll be dead.”[79] Technology is dramatically reshaping the visibility of the battlefield in ways that can favor the agile and disadvantage the large and slow.

The obverse effect of the future data-centric battlefield is that the greater the collection capability of an adversary, the greater the possibility of inserting false or misleading information to deter or distract. While a potential adversary’s use of “dual phenomenology,” requiring more than one source of information prior to acting, demands a carefully constructed, multi-axis deception, the ability to insert disinformation directly into the enemy command element opens new possibilities for deterrence and dissuasion. As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception. Therefore, when capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity. When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are near. Offer the enemy a bait to lure him; feign disorder and strike him.”[80] An important corollary, especially in pursuit of integrated deterrence, is that deception and concealment are also applicable techniques across all domains, and the effective cross-domain use of these techniques will require careful collaboration and coordination to ensure mutual corroboration or, at least, no contradictory signals.

In today’s disinformation operations, conflicts can and do begin long before the first shot is fired (and might end without any shots being fired). Sophisticated combinations of real and fake information can be targeted at various elements of society to distract, confuse, and intimidate; call into question democratic processes and the legitimacy of leaders; and compromise an adversary’s will and ability to fight. Such tactics could soften an opponent in advance of kinetic conflict or may achieve political objectives without recourse to force.

Limited Nuclear Use and the Uncertainty of Deterring Conventional Aggression

Scholar Thomas Schelling devoted considerable effort to the study of the effects of uncertainty on nuclear decision-making and nuclear deterrence. Echoing Clausewitz, he noted, “Violence, especially war, is a confused and uncertain activity, highly unpredictable, depending on decisions made by fallible human beings organized into imperfect governments, depending on fallible communications and warning systems and on the untested performance of people and equipment.”[81]

Schelling argued that the limited use of nuclear weapons with the objective of deterring the continuation of conventional aggression would increase the risk of large-scale nuclear war.[82] Uncertainty plays a crucial role in this argument. If large-scale nuclear war were the inevitable result of limited nuclear use, a nuclear response to conventional aggression would not be rational or credible. The risk, but not the certainty, of escalation allows for other outcomes besides general nuclear war and, therefore, allows the prospect of limited nuclear use to be potentially credible and to have a deterrent effect on both conventional aggression and nuclear escalation.

The uncertainty that Schelling foresaw in assessing the effects of the prospect of limited nuclear use to deter conventional aggression was due in large part to the unpredictable decisions of leaders in an intense and evolving crisis. For the situation examined in this paper— the prospect of the use of all available conventional, space, and cyber technologies to deter conventional aggression by a strategic competitor—the potential for misperceptions by decision-makers remains, and there is the substantial additional uncertainty as to the outcome of an engagement across multiple domains, given the speed and complexity of modern conflict and the lack of empirical experience.

This uncertainty of the outcome of a high-end conventional engagement undermines deterrence of conventional aggression by conventional means. The essence of deterrence is to establish that aggression will have consequences, including costs that outweigh any gains. It becomes difficult to align consequences with actions in a situation where the outcome of a prospective conflict is uncertain to all parties.

Seeking to deter conventional aggression by the prospect of nuclear use in response raises another set of difficult problems, including risk of further escalation. Some experts, over many decades, have argued that a normative basis of restraint, termed a nuclear taboo, is responsible for the lack of nuclear conflict between nations. Others aver that the nuclear taboo has eroded in recent years, as evidenced by the on-again, off-again Russian rattling of the nuclear saber in the ongoing Ukrainian war. Still others believe that the fundamental concepts of nuclear deterrence are no longer adequate and that a rethinking of nuclear deterrent strategy and the attendant capabilities is necessary to restore deterrence in a world where nuclear-capable states can and do invade non-nuclear neighbors while feeling sheltered from potentially escalatory third-party retaliation under their own nuclear umbrella. As Gerald Brown noted in 2020, “Nuclear deterrence is often assumed to work automatically, but in practice, nuclear states are inherently difficult to deter. Deterrence is not a condition achieved from simply possessing nuclear weapons; it is based on the perception of military power in general. Nuclear weapons drastically enhance a state’s strength by creating the capacity to cause catastrophic amounts of damage in a very short period of time, with strikes that are largely indefensible. Due to the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons, nuclear states become less likely to engage in conflict with each other. However, this makes it even harder to deter a nuclear state from campaigns against non-nuclear states.”[83]

Perhaps prudent leaders of strategic competitors would hesitate to initiate conflict in situations where the outcome is unpredictable. But there are other possibilities, including the potential that adversaries could come to a different (possibly incorrect) assessment that the benefits of military action would outweigh the costs. Emotion may outweigh logic and analysis in leaders’ decision-making, and misperceptions and biases may lead to flawed judgments. It is therefore in the interest of the United States to consider steps that could enhance deterrence notwithstanding the complexity and uncertainty of modern conflict.

We note that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, looking at the future of the battlefield, came to the same conclusion that advanced technologies and new domains of conflict may lead to “heightened risk of miscalculation and escalation.”[84] The office suggested, “The increasing availability of advanced weapons systems and growing employment of hybrid and non-kinetic warfare are likely to further challenge long-held understandings of inter-state deterrence, possibly risking unintended escalation into direct inter-state conflict.”

Steps for Adapting to Technological Challenges to Deterrence

We offer several suggestions intended to mitigate the challenges to deterrence brought on by the complexity and uncertainty introduced by today’s technologies.

Building Resilience

Vulnerable systems become tempting targets. Expensive satellites, capital ships, large bases, and many other systems that have been developed over a considerable period of time and that provide capabilities on which the United States has become quite reliant can fall into this category. Vulnerable U.S. systems not only tempt potential adversaries to strike or to escalate but may also provide incentives for the United States to strike first in order to break the kill chain that threatens them.

The precision strike systems of U.S. adversaries threaten both fixed and mobile systems, and their counterspace capabilities threaten valuable U.S. space assets. Rebalancing U.S. military investments to give more priority to large numbers of low-cost, distributed systems could substantially increase resilience. Former Chief of Space Operations General John W. Raymond has emphasized the importance of resilience for the U.S. space posture: “Resilience is important because it denies the adversary the first mover advantage, the benefit of a decisive attack in space.”[85] Commandant of the Marine Corps General David H. Berger similarly has seen the importance of resilience for naval and ground forces, stating, “The vulnerability of large fixed bases and shore-based infrastructure to long-range precision strike . . . necessitates that the stand-in force be able to perform these functions from a strictly expeditionary and highly mobile resilient naval posture.”[86]

Vulnerable U.S. systems not only tempt potential adversaries to strike or to escalate but may also provide incentives for the United States to strike first in order to break the kill chain that threatens them.

The resilience of U.S. forces could be enhanced in a variety of ways to reduce vulnerability.

  • Distributed Systems: New systems in space, on the ground, at sea, and underwater could emphasize large numbers, low costs, and low signatures. Commercial space enterprises have demonstrated technologies for small, low-cost spacecraft deployed in large numbers, and similar approaches could be applied for distributed systems on land and at sea. Drones and undersea systems could be prioritized more. In some cases, costs and signatures could be reduced by making systems autonomous or nearly autonomous. As the 2021 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence noted, “The proliferation of high-speed and highly accurate, lethal weapons will call into question the survivability of expensive, high-value, and difficult to quickly replace platforms and weapons systems. One potential mitigation strategy could be the further development and implementation of distributed forces and operations.”[87] The report added an important cautionary note, however, and characterized the Achilles’ heel of distributed systems as follows: “there is a risk that if any of the critical enablers—particularly communications—required to facilitate distributed warfare are damaged, disrupted, or destroyed by hostile action, then a military’s overall warfighting system could devolve from an interlinked, cohesive network into a disconnected and broken mosaic incapable of conducting effective combat operations.” 
  • Alternative Backup Systems: Resilience requires agility and excess capacity. Preparations could be put in place for military use of commercial systems in times of conflict, comparable to the establishment of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, where designated civilian aircraft are available for emergency military use. In addition to routine supplemental use for tasks not requiring high-end capabilities, contractual arrangements could be expanded for commercial space surveillance and communications capabilities to be promptly made available for military use in the event of conflict. Specific dual-use capabilities could be incorporated in the proliferating low-earth-orbit constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Kuiper systems. In addition, terrestrial backup communications and navigation capabilities could be deployed for emergency use. Finally, if the challenges of encryption can be managed, the United States could configure its weapons systems to use an adversary’s positioning, navigation, and timing systems. Both the Russian GLONASS and the Chinese BeiDou systems have global coverage and, in the case of BeiDou, claim to offer accuracy down to the millimeter. Indeed, the systems are to be further integrated and interoperable as a result of the “no-limits” partnership agreement China and Russia inked in January 2022.
  • Undetectable Communications: The military trends toward increasingly effective networked systems bring a concomitant increase in risks and vulnerabilities. In response, research into low probability of intercept/low probability of detection communication techniques are at the forefront of military communication enhancement efforts. As Dr. Brett Walkenhorst has written, “Though invisible to the eye, the airwaves above today’s battlefields are often as congested as the terrain below. The U.S. military gains a great strategic advantage by harnessing the electromagnetic spectrum for communications, but transmissions from commercial and military RF systems sap our precious bandwidth. Not only is the spectrum congested, but it is also contested. Adversaries constantly vie to thwart or corrupt our communications, whether by denying us access to the spectrum via electronic attack or passively detecting and geolocating our systems. Whether the spectrum is congested or contested, however, the consequences are the same: the lives of U.S. forces are at risk, and key tactical or strategic information may be compromised.”[88]

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in jamming, detecting, geolocating, and offensive homing capabilities designed into kinetic anti-radiation weapons, including loitering drones. When coupled with the potential decryption capabilities that may be offered by emerging quantum-computing techniques, it is clear that enhanced broadband and spread-spectrum techniques that attempt to bring stealth into the world of communications will need to be an essential element of current and future battlefield concealment.

Working With Allies and Partners on Advanced Technologies

Many U.S. allies and partners offer significant capabilities and resources in advanced technologies with military applications. Mutually beneficial cooperation with allies and partners could allow new systems exploiting leading-edge technologies to be developed and fielded more quickly.

As drones and missiles become smaller, smarter, faster, and more lethal, the trend is for offensive systems to have a growing advantage over defenses, especially when considering costs. One result of cooperation in the development and application of advanced technologies could be increased offensive capabilities of U.S. alliances, which would have a deterrent effect. Allies and partners could also contribute to advanced technologies with defensive applications as well.

The policies and processes of the Department of Defense do not currently align with leveraging the capabilities of U.S. allies. Technology cooperation with allies and partners would require a new U.S. attitude toward sharing data and technology.

Sharing Information

Classified wargames reveal that sensitive capabilities are often closely held in narrow compartments that do not necessarily include the relevant decision-makers and operators.[89] Few single individuals have a detailed understanding of all cutting-edge capabilities in multiple domains. This silo effect has adverse implications for strategic planning and policy making and for decision-making in conflict involving actions and responses across multiple domains.

To address the problem of these compartmentalized silos, the Department of Defense could establish an institutional arrangement charged with three tasks.

  • Sharing With Decision-makers and Operators: The first task would be to conduct a review of classified information in closely held compartments on sensitive capabilities for land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace operations in order to reassess the extent to which information should be made available on a classified basis to military and civilian decision-makers and operators to support preparation for, and execution of, modern multidomain conflict.

Data has become the essential enabler of future high-end conflict. The side that can share data across platforms and weapons while denying the adversary such capabilities would likely prevail. Today’s platforms and weapons systems largely have been designed to use data that is proprietary and unsharable. In future all-domain conflict, weapons systems must be able to access data from a variety of sources and connect, share, and learn (with AI) to achieve success. The Department of Defense and industry partners can reimagine a networked architecture for platforms and weapons and can jointly craft acquisition procedures that incentivize a new way of system development that rewards sharing of data across networks, platforms, and weapons systems.

While one can reimagine a network architecture, it is difficult in today’s world of compartmentalization and stovepipes to imagine a command and organizational structure where multidomain information is shared across all entities that have a legitimate role in integrated deterrence in support of a more broadly defined conception of national security. It is no longer sufficient and, indeed, likely presages deterrence and operational failure if the available exquisite intelligence and awareness of highly classified systems is known to only a privileged few. Cross-domain concepts, capabilities, and collaboration must be a part of detailed planning, rigorous war gaming, and insightful analysis if the combined effects of exotic capabilities are to be deconflicted and if the United States is to avoid unintended or disproportionate effects. The RAND Corporation report cited earlier asserted that the combined effects are of most concern, saying, “First, collections of emerging technologies—especially in the realms of information aggression and manipulation, automation (including automated DSSs [Decision Support Systems]), hypersonic systems, and unmanned systems—hold dramatic implications for both the effectiveness and stability of deterrence. These risks may call for changes in U.S. policies, operational concepts, and technology development programs. In some cases, they may point to the value of arms control or confidence-building regimes.”[90]

  • Sharing With Allies and Partners: Recognizing that the United States’ strategic strength depends on its ability to build coalitions with allies and partners, a second task would be to review and reassess the extent to which such information could be shared on a classified basis with allies and partner nations to facilitate pre-planning for high-end and cross-domain operations. Future coalition operations unfolding at the speed of light will require sharing of timely information. Can the United States develop risk analysis technology to change the question from “what can we share” to “what can’t we share and why?” 

Former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James E. Cartwright has emphasized, “if we don’t start sharing unprocessed sensor data with all of our allies and friends . . . we are not going to be successful. . . . We cannot do this on our own.”[91] Former under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment Ellen Lord has made a similar call for “making technology releasable, and then being able to export without getting too tied up in ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] to our closest allies and partners.” Building on the data-sharing and technology-sharing provisions of the AUKUS partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom, she encouraged reconsidering “somewhat outdated policy and law” to make it easier to share data and technology with allies and partners.[92] Notwithstanding such high-level encouragement, overcoming obstacles to sharing information with allies and partners remains difficult, and accomplishments to date are not keeping pace with the speed of technology. The solution pioneered by consumer internet firms in response to the need to share large pools of real-time data with a flexible set of partners with unique capabilities is the application programming interface (API)—a software intermediary that governs the sharing of data between two functionaries or with third parties. How should an API for U.S. and allied data and intelligence sharing be structured for peacetime or conflict?

The ongoing, if nascent, efforts by the Department of Defense to create a Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) capacity offers a unique opportunity to share capabilities and design in collaboration with allies and partners. A 2022 Center for Strategic and International Studies report highlighted the opportunity, saying, “To demonstrate its commitment to allied and partner battle network integration, DoD should redouble its efforts to bring key allies and partners into early discussions, exercises, and experimentation for JADC2. For example, it could formally create positions for key allied and partner nations in JADC2 development programs, as the U.S. military did with the F-35 program management office. The inclusion of allies and partners early in the process demonstrates commitment and makes combined battle networks an integrated priority rather than an afterthought. Moreover, interoperability is easier to facilitate at the outset of network architecture design than it is to implement after the architecture has been established.”[93]

  • Revealing for Deterrence: Recognizing that the United States reveals capabilities to deter and conceals them to win, a third task would be to review and reassess what capabilities for land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace operations could be declassified to enhance deterrence of modern multidomain conflict. Since revealing capabilities can lead to the development of countermeasures by adversaries, enhancements to deterrence have a shelf life. Such a reassessment would require a careful balancing act between revealed and concealed capabilities to support the twin goals of both deterring conflict and prevailing should conflict occur. Revealing nuclear and conventional war plans can also support deterrence.

Transparency and information sharing are competitive advantages the United States and other democracies enjoy over authoritarian systems. The U.S. government could consider increased transparency as part of its response to the heightened complexity and uncertainty of modern warfare. Sharing information with the public could also increase understanding of adversary capabilities and support for U.S. resources. The U.S. interagency efforts to publicly share intelligence on Russian forces and intentions before the invasion of Ukraine was a successful example of establishing shared clarity on a complex and evolving military situation. Private sector technology and media firms also contributed to countering disinformation. In the end, these efforts did not deter the invasion but may have deterred false-flag provocations involving chemical or biological weapons and certainly provided a basis for a stronger and more unified allied response.

Finally, the perceptions, values, and goals of the leaders that the United States seeks to deter are strongly influenced by the cultures they live in. The more that policymakers understand the cultures of U.S. adversaries, the better the U.S. government will be able to shape their incentive structures.Without the depth of expertise on Russia and China that U.S. officials developed on the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the country faces significant risks of misperception and unintended consequences. Working with U.S. allies and partners on assessments of the perceptions, values, and goals of adversaries could be mutually beneficial.

The more that policymakers understand the cultures of U.S. adversaries, the better the U.S. government will be able to shape their incentive structures.


Perhaps the most famous quotation from Clausewitz’s canonical On War said the following: “We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrumenta continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”[94] The inference that, in the final analysis, the decision to go to war is always, at its heart, a political one does not devalue the role of deterrence. To be sure, deterrence does not always succeed. Mueller, in his comprehensive assessment of conventional deterrence cited earlier, acknowledged that deterrence sometimes fails, but he postulated an important caveat: “There is little basis for thinking that our problems with deterrence derive from our well-developed theories about it being obsolete. Deterrence does fail, because it can be hard to convince people who are strongly motivated to go to war that doing so is a bad idea, especially if one does not correctly understand their expectations and fears, and this has always been true.”[95]

Further to the theme of this paper, Richard Ned Lebow has written, “History indicates that wars rarely start because one side believes it has a military advantage, rather, they occur when leaders become convinced that force is necessary to achieve important goals.”[96] The important point is that entities that start wars believe that they have the military means to achieve political goals, not necessarily a matching or dominating advantage. Indeed, as decades of conflict and confrontation have repeatedly offered reminders, a widespread insurgency and weapon asymmetry, coupled with political and societal will, can be an effective counter to the most modern of combat systems.

Deterrence in the twenty-first century continues to be the art of persuading an adversary not to use force “by making it appear unlikely that the action will succeed (deterrence by denial), by making the expected costs of taking the action appear prohibitively high (deterrence by punishment), or by a combination of both.”[97] But it is clear that the evolution, proliferation, and combination of technologies, old and new, are challenging the effectiveness of deterrence. Those technologies and their actual impact require a sound understanding on the part of strategists. As one analyst has noted, “Technology shapes warfare, not war. War is timeless and universal.”[98] However, a deep and profound understanding of technology and the impact it has on an adversary’s calculations, is now, more than ever, an essential element to the creation of deterrent strategies for this new age. Over centuries, new warfighting technologies have repeatedly emerged and brought with them expectations of dramatic impact; a few, such as nuclear weapons, have actually had such an effect.

Large-scale nuclear war continues to be deterred by maintaining retaliatory forces and the determination to use them so as to make clear to an adversary that under any circumstances the initiation of a large nuclear attack would be suicidal. The thornier issue of how to deter a nuclear-armed state from a conventional attack on a neighbor without threatening that self-same suicide still remains.

Deterring conventional conflict is a complex endeavor that is prone to failure against an adversary strongly motivated to pursue political objectives by military means. As the United States seeks to persuade adversaries that they cannot achieve their political objectives by force, or that the costs of doing so would outweigh the gains, through military capabilities and other steps that shape their calculations of risks and rewards, the U.S. government confronts the combination of increasingly advanced technologies, new space and cyber domains of potential conflict, networked weapons and sensors, sophisticated information operations, machine-made and machine-supported decision-making, speeds ranging from hypersonic to the speed of light, and the global spread of advancing technologies.

These advances complicate deterrence and stability by introducing considerable complexity and uncertainty into an adversary’s calculations, compressing decision-making times, and giving rise to concerns about moving second and temptations to move first, all of which add complexities and uncertainties that could easily lead to misperceptions and miscalculations. Adversaries might be wary, prudent, and cautious in the face of uncertainty as to the outcome of modern conflict with advanced technologies and networked weapons and sensors, but there is also potential for an adversary’s leaders to miscalculate costs or to proceed at any cost. We suggest that U.S. efforts to adapt to growing complexity and uncertainty include increasing resilience, sharing information within the U.S. government and with allies and partners, working with allies and partners on advanced technologies, and increasing the United States’ understanding of the cultures and psychologies of those Washington seeks to deter. Continuing assessments of this evolving landscape will no doubt reveal further steps for adapting U.S. deterrence posture to advanced technologies.

About the Authors

James Timbie is an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. As a senior adviser at the State Department from 1983 to 2016, he played a central role in negotiating the nuclear arms reductions agreements with the Soviet Union and Russia, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. He has a PhD in physics from Stanford University.

Admiral James O. Ellis Jr. is an Annenberg Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His thirty-nine-year Navy career included service as a fighter pilot, commander of the USS Abraham Lincoln nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the battle group commander that led the 1996 contingency response operations in the Taiwan Strait, and a final assignment as commander of the United States Strategic Command. He subsequently has served on the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board and the vice president’s National Space Council. He has a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.


[1] Bernard Brodie (editor), Arnold Wolfers, Purcy E. Corbett, and William T. R. Fox, The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (New Haven, CT: Yale Institute of International Studies, February 1946),

[2] Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 24–32.

[3] Stephan De Spiegeleire et al., Reimagining Deterrence: Towards Strategic (Dis)Suasion Design (The Hague: The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, 2020), 26,

[4] Karl P. Mueller, “Conventional Deterrence Redux: Avoiding Great Power Conflict in the 21st Century,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 12, no. 4 (2018): 77,

[5] “Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy,” U.S. Department of Defense, March 28, 2022,

[6] Michael J. Mazarr et al., Disrupting Deterrence: Examining the Effects of Technologies on Strategic Deterrence in the 21st Century (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, RR-A595-1, 2022), 4,

[7] Jim Mattis and Bing West, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (New York: Random House, 2019), 182.

[8] Mazarr et al., Disrupting Deterrence, 16.

[9] This analysis is based in part on interviews with current and former officials and in part on publicly available information cited in the endnotes.

[10] Author interviews with former senior defense and defense industry officials.

[11] National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences Committee on National Security Space Defense and Protection, National Security Space Defense and Protection: Public Report (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2016), 2,

[12] Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher, The Age of AI: And Our Human Future (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2021), 198.

[13] Kissinger, Schmidt, and Huttenlocher, The Age of AI, 156.

[14] Kelley M. Sayler, “Emerging Military Technologies: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, November 1, 2022,

[15] Brad Smith, “Defending Ukraine: Early Lessons From the Cyber War,” Microsoft, June 22, 2022,

[16] Tom Burt, “The Hybrid War in Ukraine,” Microsoft, April 27, 2022,

[17] Smith, “Defending Ukraine.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “U.S Support for Connectivity and Cybersecurity in Ukraine,” U.S. Department of State, May 10, 2022,

[21] Patrick Howell O’Neill, “Russia Hacked an American Satellite Company One Hour Before the Ukraine Invasion,” MIT Technology Review, May 10, 2022,

[22] Burt, “The Hybrid War in Ukraine.”

[23] Smith, “Defending Ukraine.”

[24] Phil Venables, “Google Cloud’s Security and Resiliency Measures for Customers and Partners,” Google Cloud, March 3, 2022,

[25] Christopher Miller, Mark Scott, and Bryan Bender, “UkraineX: How Elon Musk’s Space Satellites Changed the War on the Ground,” Politico, June 9, 2022,

[26] “KA-SAT Network Cyber Attack Overview,” ViaSat, March 30, 2022,

[27] Roberto J. Gonzalez, War Virtually (Oakland: University of California Press, 2022), 68–69.

[28] Kate Conger and Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Google Executives Tell Employees It Can Compete for Pentagon Contracts Without Violating Its Principles,” The New York Times, November 15, 2021,

[29] President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, “Joint Soviet–United States Statement on the Summit Meeting in Geneva,” Reagan Presidential Library, November 21, 1985,

[30] President Joe Biden, “Remarks by President Biden Providing an Update on Russia and Ukraine,” White House, February 15, 2022,

[31] Melanie W. Sisson, “America’s Real Deterrence Problem,” Brookings Institution, June 15, 2022,

[32] “Readout of President Biden’s Call with President Vladimir Putin of Russia,” White House, February 12, 2022,; and Kamala Harris, “Remarks by Vice President Harris at the Munich Security Conference,” White House, February 19, 2022,

[33] Bruce W. Jentleson, “Russia-Ukraine Sanctions,” Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2022,; and U.S. Treasury Department, “Treasury Imposes Swift and Severe Costs on Russia for Putin’s Purported Annexation of Regions of Ukraine,” U.S. Treasury Department, September 30, 2022,

[34] “Consensus Decision-making at NATO,” NATO, June 14, 2022,

[35] Max Fisher, “Putin’s Case for War, Annotated,” The New York Times, February 24, 2022,

[36] Geoff Brumfiel, “As Russia’s Ukraine War Intensifies, Some Warn Nuclear Escalation Is Possible,” NPR, March 1, 2022,

[37] Reuters, “Putin Says, ‘There Can Be No Winners in a Nuclear War and It Should Never Be Unleashed,” NBC News, August 1, 2022,

[38] “Russia Says ‘No Need’ to Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine,” Reuters, August 16, 2022,

[39] “Read Putin’s National Address on a Partial Military Mobilization,” Washington Post, September 21, 2022,

[40] This analysis is based in part on interviews with current and former U.S. and Taiwanese officials and in part on publicly available information cited in the endnotes.

[41] “Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy,” U.S. Department of Defense.

[42] Robert D. Blackwill and Philip Zelikow, “The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 2021, 6,

[43] “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021,” U.S. Department of Defense Office of the Secretary of Defense, viii,

[44] “Fact Sheet: The United States’ Nuclear Inventory,” Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, July 2, 2020,

[45] Jacob Stokes, “China’s Nuclear Buildup Is About More Than Nukes,” Just Security, January 4, 2022,

[46] “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021,” U.S. Department of Defense Office of the Secretary of Defense, viii.

[47] Jeffrey Lewis, “China’s Orbital Bombardment System is Big, Bad News—But Not a Breakthrough,” Foreign Policy, October 18, 2021,

[48] Nina Tannenwald, “Is Using Nuclear Weapons Still Taboo?,” Foreign Policy, July 1, 2022, 36,

[50] Keith B. Payne, “Rethinking Deterrence: How and Why,” National Institute for Public Policy, Issue Number 533, September 7, 2022, 2,

[51] Anton Troianovski and Keith Bradsher, “Putin Nods to Xi’s ‘Concerns,’ and the Limits of Their Cooperation,” New York Times, September 15, 2022,; and
[52] Alexander Gabuev, “China’s New Vassal,” Foreign Affairs, August 9, 2022,

[53] “U.S.-China Strategic Competition in South and East China Seas: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, January 26, 2022,

[54] Nadeem Badshah, “Risk of Nuclear War From Cutting Off China and Russia, Says Security Tsar,” The Guardian, July 27, 2022.

[55] Charles Parton, “Taiwan: Invasion Is Not Likely, But Deterrence Remains Vital,” Council on Geostrategy, September, 2022, 7,

[56] All references to the Chinese government and China in this analysis refer to the CCP-led People’s Republic of China.

[57] Hu Xijin, @HuXijin_GT, Twitter post, July 19, 2022, 1:59 a.m.,

[58] James Palmer, “China Brief: Who’s Who on the New CCP Standing Committee,” Foreign Policy, October 26, 2022,

[59] Kharis Templeman, “Taiwan Is Not Ukraine: Stop Linking Their Fates Together,” War on the Rocks, January 27, 2022,

[60] World Bank, “GDP (Current US$) - China,” World Bank, 2021,

[61] Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, Danger Zone (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2022), xiv.

[62] Parton, “Taiwan,” 6.

[63] Philip Zelikow, “The Hollow Order: Rebuilding an International System That Works,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2022, 115,

[64] James Timbie and Admiral James O. Ellis Jr., “A Large Number of Small Things: A Porcupine Strategy for Taiwan,” Texas National Security Review 5, no. 1 (Winter 2021/2022): 89,

[65] Lee Hsi-min and Eric Lee, “Taiwan's Overall Defense Concept, Explained,” The Diplomat, November 3, 2020,

[66] Tony Bertuca, “Senior DOD Officials Mobilize to Reform FMS Process With Eyes on Taiwan,” Inside Defense, September 8, 2022,

[67] Government of Japan, “Towards Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” Government of Japan, November 2019,

[70] “NATO 2022 Strategic Concept,” NATO, June 29, 2022, 5,

[71] Erica D. Lonergan, “The Cyber-Escalation Fallacy: What the War in Ukraine Reveals About State-Backed Hacking,” Foreign Affairs, April 15, 2022,;

and Jon R. Lindsay, “Stuxnet and the Limits of Cyber Warfare,” Security Studies, August 1, 2013, 402–404,

[72] Erica D. Lonergan et al., “Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Didn’t Rely on Cyberwarfare,” The Washington Post, March 7, 2022,

[73] Sue Halpern, “The Threat of Russian Cyberattacks Looms Large,” The New Yorker, March 22, 2022,

[74] “Operation Orchard/Outside the Box (2007),” Cyber Law Toolkit, September 6, 2007,

[75] James N. Miller and Richard Fontaine, “A New Era in U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability: How Changing Geopolitics and Emerging Technologies Are Reshaping Pathways to Crisis and Conflict,” Center for New American Security, September 19, 2017, 16,

[76] Phillip C. Saunders, “U.S.-China Relations and Chinese Military Modernization,” in After Engagement: Dilemmas in U.S.-China Security Relations, edited by Jacques deLisle and Avery Goldstein (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2021), 290–291.

[77] Miller and Fontaine, “A New Era,” 16.

[78] Bruce McClintock, Krista Langeland, and Michael Spirtas, “First Mover Typology for the Space Domain,” RAND Corporation, 2023, 6,

[79] “General Mark A. Milley Chief of Staff of the Army,” Association of the United States Army (Remarks Delivered at the AUSA Eisenhower Luncheon), October 4, 2016,

[80] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Samuel B. Griffith (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 66,

[81] Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 93.

[82] Schelling, Arms and Influence, 105.

[83] Gerald Brown, “Deterrence, Norms, and the Uncomfortable Realities of a New Nuclear Age,” War on the Rocks, April 20, 2020,

[84] “The Future of the Battlefield,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, April 2021, 11,

[85] Shaun Waterman, “US Must ‘Slash Costs’ to Afford Space Superiority, Raymond Says,” Air Force Magazine, April 5, 2022,

[86] General David H. Berger, “Statement of General David H. Berger Commandant of the Marine Corps as Delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Posture of the United States Marine Corps,” Senate Armed Services Committee, June 22, 2021, 12,

[87] “The Future of the Battlefield,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 9.

[88] Dr. Brett Walkenhorst, “The Impact of LPI/LPD Waveforms and Anti-Jam Capabilities on Military Communications,” The Modern Battlespace, September 24, 2020,

[89] Author interview with a senior defense industry official.

[90] Mazarr et al., Disrupting Deterrence, 58.

[91] “The Next National Defense Strategy and the Imperative of Closer Cooperation With Allies,” YouTube video, 2:05:40, posted by the Atlantic Council, January 5, 2022,

[92] “The Next National Defense Strategy and the Imperative of Closer Cooperation With Allies,” Atlantic Council (on YouTube).

[93] Todd Harrison and Christopher Reid, “Battle Networks and the Future Force,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2022, 8,

[94] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, translated by Colonel James John Graham (London: N. Trübner, 1873), Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 24,

[95] Mueller, “Conventional Deterrence Redux,” 89.

[96] Richard Ned Lebow, “Windows of Opportunity: Do States Jump Through Them?,” International Security 9, no. 1 (Summer 1984): 149.

[97] Mueller, “Conventional Deterrence Redux,” 78.

[98] Alex Roland, “War and Technology,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 27, 2009,