Skip to main content

Can the U.S. Military Strengthen Deterrence by Becoming More Operationally Unpredictable?

FULL DOCUMENT

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file0.1 MB
Technical Details »
RESEARCHBRIEF

Key Findings

  • Increasing Russian and Chinese perceptions of U.S. operational unpredictability to enhance deterrence might be possible but costly.
  • The most promising approach would be to increase the range of U.S. capabilities and demonstrate that they give the United States multiple options for achieving its objectives.
  • Activities and capabilities that contribute to operational unpredictability do not have to be hidden, and in some cases need to be public.
  • There are risks and costs associated with increasing U.S. operational unpredictability, including the possibility of decreasing U.S. readiness or increasing China's and Russia's threat perceptions.

The recent U.S. emphasis on strategic competition with China and Russia has renewed attention on how to dissuade adversaries from attacking U.S. allies, a concept known as extended deterrence. Some in U.S. policymaking circles believe that U.S. military activities have become overly predictable, allowing potential adversaries to anticipate where, when, and how U.S. forces will operate.

The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy suggests that the United States might strengthen deterrence by becoming more operationally unpredictable—that is, by increasing adversary uncertainty about how the United States would fight.[1] To implement this guidance, the U.S. Army asked RAND Arroyo Center to examine how the United States could increase operational unpredictability and what the effect would be on extended deterrence.

The RAND team developed a definition of operational unpredictability and then detailed four potential approaches for increasing operational unpredictability, identifying the range of conditions under which each approach could enhance deterrence and the key trade-offs involved. These assessments were based on the limited publicly available information on Russian and Chinese intelligence capabilities, methods for predicting how the United States might fight, and decisionmaking about the use of force.

What Is Operational Unpredictability?

The RAND team defined operational unpredictability as adversary uncertainty about how the United States would fight in the event of a conflict. For an adversary to be uncertain about how the United States will fight, the adversary needs, first, to believe that the United States has multiple options for achieving its operational objectives (e.g., stop an amphibious landing, suppress enemy air defenses) in wartime and, second, to be uncertain which option the United States will choose.

The team assessed four approaches for increasing operational unpredictability.

  • Employ irregular deployment patterns. For example, the United States could vary the length of deployments, the amount of time between them, and deployment locations, and it could employ stricter operations security procedures surrounding deployments.
  • Reveal and demonstrate new capabilities that enable additional ways of fighting. For example, the United States could announce and publicly demonstrate capabilities that enable multiple courses of action, or it could engage in multidomain operations.
  • Bluff about U.S. ability to conduct multiple courses of action. For example, the United States could use messaging, intelligence operations, or decoys to cause the adversary to detect false or inflated capabilities.
  • Regularly reveal covert capabilities. The United States could increase the rate at which it develops new capabilities so that it can reveal new capabilities repeatedly. It could also change U.S. Department of Defense acquisitions and procurement processes that might hamper the speed at which new capabilities are generated, and develop more capabilities covertly.

The rationale behind each approach is as follows:

  • Employ irregular deployment patterns. If the adversary is unsure where and when U.S. forces will be deployed, it will be uncertain about which U.S. forces will be available to respond to an attack at any given time and might thus delay an attack, devote more forces (increasing costs), or attack using approaches or in locations with lower chances of success.
  • Reveal and demonstrate capabilities that enable additional ways of fighting. An adversary will have to increase costs to counter multiple courses of action or limit its focus to combating only a small number of courses of action, decreasing the likelihood of a successful attack.
  • Bluff about U.S. ability to conduct multiple courses of action. If successful, this approach would have the same effect as generating actual capabilities, but with lower costs.
  • Regularly reveal covert capabilities. The adversary will doubt whether it knows the full extent of U.S. capabilities and options for how to fight, causing it to delay offensive action.

Effect on Deterring Key Adversaries

The table shows the research team's assessment of the likely effectiveness of the four approaches in increasing Russia's and China's perceptions of U.S. operational unpredictability and thereby increasing the United States' ability to deter attacks on its allies.

Likely Effectiveness of Alternative Approaches to Increasing Unpredictability

ApproachLikelihood of Increasing U.S. Ability to Deter Attacks on U.S. AlliesKey Findings
RussiaChina
Employ irregular deployment patternsLowLow
  • To succeed, the number of forces involved would have to be significant.
  • Limited available information on Russian and Chinese intelligence capabilities suggests that they could predict large-scale movements of U.S. forces in advance.
Reveal and demonstrate capabilities that enable additional ways of fightingModerateModerate
  • U.S. demonstration of more than one operational course of action could plausibly lead Russia or China to update its assessment of how the United States fights, thus increasing the costs and risks of any attack against U.S. interests. However, much remains unknown about the operational assessment and decisionmaking processes of these adversaries.
Bluff about U.S. ability to conduct multiple courses of actionModerateLow
  • Russian and Chinese analysts and decisionmakers are familiar with military deceptions and might be adept at detecting them.
  • Sophisticated deception efforts might be effective against Russia, which tends to overstate U.S. capabilities.
  • China is more likely to verify information it receives from U.S. messaging or deception efforts with information it collects from U.S. government and allied and partner sources.
Regularly reveal covert capabilitiesLowLow
  • This approach would require major changes to U.S. capability development programs.
  • Russia and China have sophisticated collection capabilities, making it likely that they would detect key aspects of covert programs and would not be caught off guard.

Overall, the analysis found that increasing Russian and Chinese perceptions of U.S. operational unpredictability to enhance deterrence might be possible but costly. Many of the approaches would require major investments or other changes to U.S. military capabilities. Small changes to U.S. exercises, deployment patterns, capabilities, and other activities in the steady state would have low costs but are likely to have low impact.

The most promising way to enhance deterrence would be to increase the range of U.S. capabilities and demonstrate that they give the United States multiple options for achieving its key objectives. If alternative U.S. courses of action were to require substantially different adversary countermeasures, the adversary might conclude that it would face higher costs to prepare for conflict and/or have a lower likelihood of success. Increasing U.S. interoperability across services and improving the flexibility and agility of U.S. forces would be consistent with this approach. Other approaches, such as irregular deployment patterns, are less promising because of Russian and Chinese intelligence capabilities, as well as U.S. institutional and bureaucratic hurdles.

Activities and capabilities that contribute to operational unpredictability do not have to be hidden, and in some cases need to be public. Publicized investments in new capabilities, security cooperation, exercises, and deployments that enable a new course of action could make U.S. alternative ways of fighting more credible to the adversary. Public messaging, especially by senior leaders, might even shape adversaries' interpretations of U.S. activities.

There are risks and costs associated with increasing U.S. operational unpredictability. For example, increasing perceptions of U.S. operational unpredictability could entail significant resource commitments. In addition, activities that increase operational unpredictability could have negative side effects, such as reducing the effectiveness of preferred U.S. courses of action or increasing China's and Russia's threat perceptions.

Recommendations

The RAND team made the following recommendations for the Joint Force:

  • Compare the use of operational unpredictability with alternative approaches to deterring U.S. adversaries.
  • Develop a clear logic linking activities intended to enhance U.S. operational unpredictability to desired outcomes, and consider potential trade-offs.
  • Review existing intelligence and consider increased collection on Russia's and China's intelligence, military planning, and decisionmaking processes.
  • Continue initiatives on Army and U.S. Department of Defense flexibility and agility, which might also increase U.S. operational unpredictability.

Note

  • [1] U.S. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military's Competitive Edge, Washington, D.C., 2018, p. 5.

https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RBA448-1.html

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Menon meets Karzai, discusses security of Indians

Kabul/New Delhi/Washington, March 5 (IANS) India Friday said that the Feb 26 terror attack in Kabul will not deter it from helping rebuild Afghanistan as National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon met Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul to review the security of around 4,000 Indians working in that country. Menon, who arrived here Friday morning on a two-day visit, discussed with Karzai some proposals to bolster security of Indians engaged in a wide array of reconstruction activities, ranging from building roads, bridges and power stations to social sector projects. The Indian government is contemplating a slew of steps to secure Indians in Afghanistan, including setting up protected venues where the Indians working on various reconstruction projects will be based. Deploying dedicated security personnel at places where Indians work is also being considered. Menon also met his Afghan counterpart Rangin Dadfar Spanta and enquired about the progress in the probe into the Kabul atta

Iran is losing the game to regional actors in its strategic depth

Rethink before It’s Too Late http://www.irdiplomacy.ir/index.php?Lang=en&Page=21&TypeId=15&ArticleId=7108&BranchId=19&Action=ArticleBodyView Iran is losing the game to regional actors in its strategic depth –Afghanistan. By Houman Dolati It is no more a surprise to see Iran absent in Afghanistan affairs. Nowadays, the Bonn Conference and Iran’s contributions to Afghanistan look more like a fading memory. Iran, which had promised of loans and credit worth five-hundred million dollars for Afghanistan, and tried to serve a key role, more than many other countries, for reconstruction and stabilization of Afghanistan, is now trying to efface that memory, saying it is a wrong path, even for the international community. Iran’s empty seat in the Rome Conference was another step backward for Afghanistan’s influential neighbor. Many other countries were surprised with Iran’s absence. Finding out the vanity of its efforts to justify absence in Rome, Iran tried to start its

Pakistani firm whose chemicals were used to kill US troops seeks subsidy for Indiana plant

By Jennifer Griffin, Justin Fishel Published March 22, 2013   A Pakistani fertilizer maker whose chemicals have been used in 80 percent of the roadside bombs that have killed and maimed American troops in Afghanistan is now seeking U.S. taxpayer subsidies in order to open a factory in Indiana.  The request appears to be on hold pending further review, but the situation has stirred outrage in Congress, where some accuse the Pakistani government of halting efforts to clamp down on the bomb-making.  For the past seven years, the U.S. government has known that the raw material calcium ammonium nitrate, or CAN, is making its way across the border into Afghanistan where the Taliban use it to fuel their most deadly weapons, namely the improvised explosive device. IEDs have long been the number one killer of U.S. and coalition troops.  The material largely comes from Pakistani fertilizer maker the Fatima Group. But the Pakistani government has stymied attempts by the Pentagon to stop the