New Dimensions of Strategic Stability
By Jerome H. Kahan, Ralph L. Tindal and Stephen W. Zavadil
Systems Planning and Analysis. Inc.
Much of the work over the past decades on strategic stability in the US addressed avoidance of all-out nuclear war between two adversaries, isolated from conventional warfare considerations. US strategic planning is now required to give an expanded role to non-nuclear capabilities as well in responding to strategic challenges. In addition, US strategic planning is also now required to address multiple potential circumstances, geographies, and adversary capabilities, all within a rich blend of political considerations. Traditional strategic stability theories are only useful at the extremes of this complex analytic space.
Modifying existing stability models and developing new analytic approaches to stability assessments both require a better understanding of the logical connections between the multiple elements than currently exists before the analytic challenges can be successfully met.
The concept of strategic stability originated during the Cold War. It was built upon the U.S.-Soviet bipolar model, focused on intercontinental nuclear offensive systems (with some attention to anti ballistic missile (ABM) systems), and was defined primarily in terms of whether the payoff from launching first exceeded the risk of waiting. Stability analyses and models were dominated by the Kent-Thayer First Strike Stability Index, which assesses the "value" of striking first versus striking second. Maintaining "Mutual Assured Destruction" leading to mutual and effective deterrence of nuclear war was the fundamental test of whether stability had been attained.
With the end of the Cold War, stability analysts began to consider new dimensions, such as
Impact of China on “triangular” U.S.-Russian-Chinese stability,
Implications of multi-polar stability as regional "Rogues" entered the nuclear scene,
Consequences of asymmetric capabilities and interests, and
Attention to the stability consequences of limited national missile defense (NMD).
However, a preliminary assessment by us concluded that that these post-Cold War stability analyses do not fully account for the changing strategic environment and that new models and metrics are required. We also observed that most stability efforts continue to rely upon complex quantitative models and methods, neither connected to real policy decisions nor providing useful tools for policy-makers.
Presentations and discussions at recent conferences confirmed our preliminary judgment that the strategic community has not adequately caught up with the contemporary era and the ways in which the international security environment is unfolding. Progress has been made in recognizing and attempting to analyze the complexities and characteristics of the current and evolving world environment. Nonetheless, many analysts in this field, both quantitative and qualitative, are either still applying bilateral Cold War approaches and models or moving beyond the Cold war into multinational stability but relying upon traditional techniques.
The Need for a New Look
In addition to the implications of the changing world environment, the Bush Administration's recently issued Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) has introduced a new set of issues that can affect the meaning of strategic stability and its relevance to U.S. policy and forces. The Administration's strategic framework establishes a dramatically new approach to strategic policy and forces, departing in major ways from the strategy and doctrine that have guided the U.S. since the 1950s. This new approach:
Puts forward the four key policy objectives to guide force planning, notably Assure, Dissuade, Deter, and Defeat
Incorporates conventional forces, defenses, infrastructure, C3I, and adaptive targeting into an overall strategic force architecture built around the New Triad.
Emphasizes Capabilities-Based rather than Threat-Based planning to reflect the changed U.S.-Russian relationship and to deal with the uncertainty and surprise.
Under the new framework, U.S. strategic policy will no longer rest upon the foundation of Mutual Assured Destruction, be forced to operate within the constants of the ABM Treaty, or focus solely on long-range nuclear weapons.
Notably, the NPR is silent on stability. Perhaps there was simply no time to investigate this issue. At the moment, therefore, it is unclear whether stability, under the traditional concept, or as an entirely new construct, has any relevance to the new U.S. strategic policy. Furthermore, to the extent that stability might have a role in the context of the NPR, it is uncertain how it should be defined, whether it is a desirable objective or something to be avoided, and how it might be integrated into practical strategic policy-making and planning.
Work available to others within the community seems to suggest that the analytic community had not yet considered the richness reflected in the NPR as it might affect the definition, importance, and assessment of strategic stability. At the end of one session, a Defense Department official from the policy branch challenged the community to develop new approaches for stability, tied to the NPR. This suggests the need for a new, "zero-based" look at the meaning of strategic stability, whether and how it affects and is affected by US policy, what are its implications for US security, how to assess/measure this concept, and what steps might be taken to incorporate this concept into strategic policy, targeting, and force structure decisions.
An Approach to Defining the Logical Connections
As depicted in the attached diagram, given the changing world environment and U.S. policy elements contained in the NPR, the overall "stability space" to be explored is far more multi-dimensional and complex than has been reflected in past or even ongoing stability assessments. Indeed, stability analyses have historically been confined to exploring only a small sub-set of this broader "space". Any new look at stability should open up the options to explore a wide range of issues that cover the entire space as a means of identifying key issues that might have relevance to U.S. strategic policy and security.
Based on our preliminary investigation of previous and ongoing stability research, an understanding of the changing strategic environment, and an appreciation of the elements of the new U.S. strategic policies, we offer the following observations about the scope, significance, and implications for strategic stability as illustrative of the set of issues that should be taken into account in conducting a new look at this concept. The issues are organized under the three dimensions or axes of the "stability cube" depicted in the Attachment.
a. Emphasis on qualitative (i.e., conceptual, pol-mil) vice quantitative analysis
Fundamental questions need to be asked about the relationship between security and stability. Is stability achieved when all nations who can affect global or regional security perceive themselves as being "secure", however they may define this? Other basic questions include describing unstable systems or relationships, understanding whether there are prerequisites for achieving what is meant by stability, and analyzing the connection between stability and deterrence on the nuclear and non-nuclear level.
Connections between stability, deterrence, and nuclear use need to be reexamined. Stability may not equate to deterrence, and unstable situations may no longer mean failures of deterrence in crises that lead to nuclear use. Threats of retaliatory nuclear weapons use to deter nuclear challenges have been seen as a necessary aspect of stability. Threats of nuclear first use in response to an egregious act, such as a BW attack against the U.S. forces, have been questioned by some as incredible and unjustified but accepted in other quarters as stabilizing. In any case, there has been a general association in the stability community that actual use of nuclear weapons is "bad". However, rather than triggering a massive nuclear war or causing more nations to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD), appropriate nuclear use may have stabilizing consequences, compared to non-use, in terms of saving lives controlling escalation, restoring deterrence, and slowing proliferation.
Stability is dynamic and needs to be examined at different points in time. This includes a reexamination of the traditional concept of crisis stability (i.e., snapshot of a situation that could lead to an unwanted breakdown in nuclear deterrence. It also includes a new look at the issue of arms race or dynamic stability (i.e., multi-year longer-term weapons acquisition actions and reactions that have been thought to have dangerous or costly consequences). Given the new U.S. policy, there is a particular need to pay attention to the implications of long-term infrastructure programs, since future programmatic and infrastructure plans, both real and perceived, can have what might be termed a "virtual impact" on near-term stability.
The political and perceptual aspects of stability need to be integrated into the military-technical-operational dimensions. Broad political issues, both real and perceived, affect stability including the political-military context of crises, overall relations among states, domestic political dynamics, and differing national values and risk-taking propensities. Declaratory (i.e., public) policies of the U.S. and other actors can affect stability. Security challenges that might create instabilities can emerge as much from misperceptions and misunderstandings as from military, technical, economic, or political realities.
Stability implications of the changing nature of arms control need to be analyzed. Formal strategic arms control has for decades been based upon traditional objectives of enhancing crisis and "arms race" stability with ensuring mutual (even multinational) assured retaliation as the doctrinal foundation. The movement away from formal arms control, and the shift in U.S. strategic doctrine, raises questions as to whether and how less formal cooperative agreements short of treaties are related to strategic stability. With the limits imposed by the ABM Treaty removed, other objectives than assured retaliation may have to be considered as governing future arms control arrangements, depending on the adversary and the agreement.
The implications on stability of the U.S. concept of capabilities-based and adaptive planning, which provide flexibility and hedges against uncertainty, should be identified and assessed. Threat-based planning, which has guided the U.S. for decades, has the effect of focusing attention on those nations seen as adversaries and on the military capabilities the U.S. acquires to meet these threats. By definition, capabilities-based planning targets no particular adversary. This can work against "stability", which has tended to be seen as benefiting from such predictability. Conversely, there can be stabilizing features of adaptive planning, such as maintaining flexibility to meet new challenges and making deterrence more credible.
Stability analyses, approaches, and models need to be "user-friendly". The quantitative and mathematical focus of stability work needs to be simplified and expanded to include more emphasis on policy, political, contextual, perceptual, and other "soft" dimensions of stability. All levels of stability analyses should be aimed at providing timely and relevant tools to assist planners and policy-makers.
b. Number of actors (i.e., nations, non-state actors) considered
The multi-party dimensions of strategic stability need to be better understood, with special emphasis on whether and how other nations define and apply this concept. Stability is no longer a bilateral, U.S.-Russian issue, given the changing international picture. Multilateral "stability" relationships among asymmetric nations need to be assessed as these might affect U.S. security and our ability to achieve strategic policy goals. Some argue that stability can be one-sided, since the U.S. as the sole superpower can impose its strategic policies and enforce its definition of "stability". This proposition should be analyzed. Differing views of potential adversary states on both the definition and desirability of stability must also be considered. Actions of others can affect the success of our actions. If U.S. interpretations of stability are not understood or shared, supposedly "stabilizing" actions or policies we take can be ineffective or result in adverse consequences for our security.
The effects of regional stability/instability on global stability and vice versa should be explored. This relates to the need to consider multiple, asymmetric actors, some with the potential to ultimately effect global stability, but most with only regional capabilities and consequences. Among the issues to be considered are questions of U.S. commitments to countries in regions facing stability challenges and whether there are risks of vertical or horizontal escalation.
US extended deterrence commitments to allies in the post-Cold War, post-NPR environment should be included in any assessments of strategic stability. Allies with their own nuclear forces, as well as allies without these weapons, both represent other actors that affect stability. We have various types of formal and informal security commitments (i.e., "nuclear umbrella") to both sets of nations. Is this form of commitment still necessary, desirable, and feasible in the current international context? Do these commitments require the US to retain a nuclear first-use option and can this be made both credible and effective without undercutting elements of stability? To what extent can non-nuclear offensive options and missile defenses for the U.S. and its allies reduce or remove the need for nuclear first use?
c. Scenario Assumptions (contingencies, doctrines, and weapons types)
Assessments of stability should not be limited to face-offs among nuclear weapons states, but include dynamics among states with Chemical-Biological Warfare (CBW) as well as "strategic" conventional capabilities. Traditional stability analyses have emphasized nuclear weapons, notably intercontinental systems. Broadening the unit of account to including non-strategic nuclear forces (NSNF) as well as CBW reflects the reality of an increasing number of potentially adversarial states armed with or seeking to acquire all forms of WMD and a need to understand how this might affect stability in ways harmful to U.S. interests and objectives. Adding strategic conventional strike weapons, as well as special operations forces (SOF) and information operations (IO), is consistent with U.S. policy and the fact that other nations have or could acquire non-WMD capabilities affects strategic "stability".
Stability assessments should orient towards consideration of contingencies involving flexible and limited strike options involving non-nuclear as well as nuclear weapons, at least on the part of the U.S. Traditional stability models built around large-scale counter-military and counter-value nuclear strikes that exhaust weapons inventories have become increasingly irrelevant to understanding the dynamics of potentially plausible situations. There is a need to evaluate stability implications of small-scale, selective nuclear employments as well as adaptive, flexible strategic targeting options.
Analyses of the stability implications of offense-defense interactions need to differentiate between limited defenses of the US against regional "Rogues" and larger nationwide defenses that could have capabilities against China or potentially against Russia. Against the background of U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, there is a need to revisit and place in the new context the issue of whether, why, and under what circumstances strategic defenses designed to protect value targets (in contrast to directly protecting deterrent forces) are judged to be destabilizing.
The impact on stability of different operational alert levels and transitions between them should be considered with fresh perspectives. In the past, high-alert forces have either been considered "stabilizing" (i.e., improve survivability) or "destabilizing" (i.e., imminent launch). These have been primarily considered as end-states, but some assessments have been made of the implications of transitions from one alert level to another. As a related issue, the impact of Launch on Warning (LOW) and/or Attack as policies or necessities needs to be reexamined. Traditional stability analyses have concluded that reliance on LOW to prevent fixed ICBMs from being destroyed is a destabilizing doctrine that can endanger stability by heightening the so-called "reciprocal fear of surprise attack". However, it may be possible that for some nations in certain circumstances, this doctrine can strengthen deterrence and reduce risks.
The impact on stability of rapid reconstitution forces also needs to be re-examined in the new policy context and world environment. Is maintaining such rapid reconstitution a way to reinforce deterrence and a hedge against uncertainty, which might have stabilizing effects? Or are these forces likely to be perceived as provocative, suggesting a policy of aggressive breakout, which can have destabilizing effects? Can agreed verification/confidence-building measures allow for flexibility in uploading, while reducing fears of unexpected breakout?
Increased attention needs to be given to the broad impact of nuclear C3 on stability. This should go beyond the investigations that have been done on accidental and inadvertent nuclear war mainly in the superpower context. Instead, there is a need to consider systematically the implications for the definition and assessment of "stability" when considering the speed, reliability, safety, and security of strategic C3 in the U.S. and in other nations with WMD capabilities, across a spectrum of operational situations.
Uncertainties in estimating and/or perceiving capabilities and intent in traditional stability analyses should be made a high priority feature in future stability analyses. Planners tend to worry about the worst case when faced with uncertainty, and this has tended to be seen as a driving factor in stimulating arms races and contributing to "instabilities" in crises. Some stability models have sought to incorporate planning and estimative uncertainties. Treatment of uncertainty is becoming more important, given a world defined by growing numbers of asymmetric nations capable of affecting stability.
The complexity of the challenge of assessing strategic stability in our current and projected world is daunting. Although modifications of existing methodologies may give insights at the extremes of the analytic space, the hazard of being unaware of unstable regions within this complex environment is substantial. Careful work is needed to better define to logical interconnections between the many factors discussed above in order to establish the parameters within which existing methodologies can be adapted and new tools developed.