Deterrence by Detection: A New Approach to Preventing Opportunistic Aggression

March 25, 2020
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As both the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the 2019 National Defense Strategy Commission conclude, the United States urgently needs to develop new operational concepts to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In an era of constrained resources, it makes sense to identify, develop, and implement concepts that make effective use of the forces and capabilities we already have.

One of the most significant challenges the United States and our allies face is the need to prevent China or Russia from launching opportunistic acts of aggression. Beijing and Moscow have used sub-conventional gray zone aggression to erode international norms, undermine the U.S-led rules-based order, and shift the balance of power in their favor, all without sparking open armed conflict with the United States or its allies. They are also developing the ability to launch aggression rapidly against states on their periphery under cover of increasingly capable defenses in an effort to achieve a fait accompli

The U.S. armed forces are poorly configured to meet the challenge of deterring such acts, which requires long-duration monitoring rather than episodic coverage.  Most information-gathering platforms, such as satellites and manned aircraft, are scarce, expensive, and can provide only periodic coverage. Moreover, their expense both reinforces a tendency to under-invest in them and breeds a reluctance to put them in harm’s way. 

The United States needs to rely more on capabilities that are less expensive, have greater persistence, and pose less risk if lost.  Equally important, the Defense Department needs to develop new concepts of operations and organizations to employ them effectively.  The solution may not involve fielding exotic new capabilities so much as employing the capabilities we already have in innovative ways.  It will also benefit greatly from approaches that allow allies and partners to participate fully.  If we do not adapt, we risk falling victim to potentially catastrophic surprise in a future conflict.

The concept of “deterrence by detection” represents a promising approach to meeting this challenge. The logic that underpins it, which should be familiar to policemen and parents, is that potential transgressors are less likely to act if they know they are being watched.  Specifically, the concept rests on the premise that adversaries are less likely to commit opportunistic acts of aggression if they know they are being watched constantly and that their actions can be publicized widely. 

Until now, real-time situational awareness was not available due to limited surveillance assets, lack of persistence, cost, absence of communications, and limitations to data processing.  Today, the means to provide round-the-clock situational awareness exist, in the form of proliferated sensors backed by communication networks and data analytics.  Indeed, today the ability to generate and maintain situational awareness, and deny the same to an adversary, is at the core of strategic and operational effectiveness.

Implementing the concept of “deterrence by detection” will require an ISR network composed of systems that are cost-effective, persistent, and interoperable with a broad array of allies and partners.  Any such network would include a variety of systems, including manned air, sea, and ground platforms; space assets; and cyber capabilities. Such a network would need to be supported by communications networks and feature recognition algorithms.

Force planners have overlooked the role that non-stealthy unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) such as the Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk can play in great-power competition because they consider them to be less survivable than other platforms in a contested or highly contested environment. Indeed, the Air Force is seeking to divest itself of many of these aircraft.  Certainly, any conflict between the United States and its allies on the one hand and China or Russia, on the other, would likely result in a highly lethal and contested warfighting environment. But since the aircraft would primarily function before the outbreak of major hostilities, they can be non-stealthy and yet still be effective. In fact, as argued below, their very visibility represents a key attribute in bolstering deterrence.

In order to implement the concept of “deterrence by detection,” an ISR network should be visible, ubiquitous, affordable, and interoperable.

First, visibility is a key attribute of platforms in an ISR network designed to deter opportunistic aggression.  Whereas there are many cases where it makes sense for ISR assets to operate covertly, in this case, there is value in being overt.  It is important for adversaries to know that they are being observed.  Moreover, "watching the watchers" would consume an adversary's resources and could distract it from other, less visible operations.

The fact that ISR aircraft are visible means they are vulnerable, and this vulnerability is also a valuable attribute.  On the one hand, it offers an adversary the opportunity to attack the nodes of the network; on the other hand, doing so would shift the onus of escalation on the adversary.  Attacking the network would be a concrete sign of aggressive intent. It would also be possible to build a self-defense capability into ISR systems, whether electronic warfare capabilities or active defense.

Second, maintaining a ubiquitous presence is another key attribute of such a network.  Whereas there are many cases where it makes sense for ISR assets to operate unpredictably to catch an adversary unaware, deterring through the threat of detection requires that a competitor have high confidence they are being observed. This implies that the ISR network should be composed of many rather than few ISR aircraft. Proliferating ISR assets will ensure that the loss of one or a few aircraft would not cause the network to fail.  The need for ubiquitous, proliferated ISR networks make UAS particularly attractive.  As the cost of space launch continues to fall, these networks could be augmented by proliferated constellations of low-earth orbit satellites.

Third, for an ISR network to provide the sort of ever-present, visible coverage needed to implement the concept of “deterrence by detection,” individual aircraft need to be affordable.  This also favors UAS over manned aircraft under many circumstances.

Finally, the argument in favor of including U.S. allies and partners in such a network is strong.  In light of the changing military balances in the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe, it makes sense for the United States to seek new ways of reassuring its allies and friends and generating collective responses to crisis and aggression. An ISR network represents a promising approach to do just this. Some of our allies in the Western Pacific and Europe have already begun to purchase UAS, sufficient quantities of which could augment or replace U.S. capabilities and ISR missions in those regions. Still, U.S. allies could invest further in these technologies and capabilities by increasing the number of existing long-endurance UAS in their inventory, whether they are U.S.-made or domestically produced. Other countries could also invest in them to boost their capabilities, further enhancing the global deterrence by detection strategy.

The United States and its allies face operational challenges in competing against China and Russia, including the need to deter opportunistic acts of aggression. “Deterrence by detection,” based upon the idea that our adversaries are less likely to commit opportunistic acts of aggression if they know they are being watched constantly and that their actions can be publicized widely, can contribute to solving the fait accompli challenge. Unmanned ISR aircraft capable of conducting wide-area persistent surveillance missions are best suited to implementing “deterrence by detection” by the United States, its allies, and partners. Although this concept is far from a panacea, it is a realistic, effective, and affordable step in the right direction.

Thomas G. Mahnken is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a Senior Research Professor at the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS.  Grace B. Kim is a Senior Analyst at CSBA.

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