The Fog of (Cyber) War—Part 1 of 2

President Barack Obama addressed the threat of nuclear terrorism in a historic speech in Prague, Czech Republic, on April 5, 2009. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this summer, Carl Robichaud, Carnegie Corporation of New York’s program officer in International Peace and Security, and Scott Malcomson, Carnegie visiting media fellow, organized an online discussion of new technologies and nuclear security with security policy experts Ivanka Barzashka, Austin Long, Daryl Press, and James Acton. This is the first part of a 2-part discussion. Read Part 2 here.


Carl Robichaud: The Obama administration will leave behind a mixed nuclear legacy: it prioritized nuclear security and disarmament, from the president’s Prague speech in 2009 to his remarks at Hiroshima in 2016, but it also doubled down on a nuclear modernization program that critics say is too expensive and locks the nation into an outdated force structure. Meanwhile, tensions with both Russia and China have mounted, raising the potential for direct military conflict.

Grantees in this story

We are closer now to a nuclear crisis than we have been at any time in the past three decades.
— Carl Robichaud

I believe we are closer now to a nuclear crisis than we have been at any time in the past three decades. The biggest risk is not from changes in nuclear weapons themselves, but in the systems that enable or inhibit these arsenals. There have been major advances in precision, sensing, and targeting—as well as in new capabilities like cyber and anti-satellite systems designed to disrupt an adversary’s response—that are challenging assumptions about nuclear stability.

These systems are complex, often secret, and interact in ways that are poorly understood. There's a real risk that in the 21st century, the fog of war will roll in thicker and quicker than ever before. Nuclear use is becoming more imaginable, rather than less, and traditional approaches to arms control don’t really address these new technologies. We can’t reduce nuclear risks unless we acknowledge the profound changes being made by new systems and new counter-systems.

Ivanka, your research is on missile defense, which, while not new per se, is evolving in ways that make it qualitatively different, posing new challenges.


Ivanka Barzashka: We’re seeing a renaissance of missile-defense technology. The development of these systems is a disruptive technological change that could increase or decrease nuclear risks in new and important ways. I mean “disruptive” in the Silicon Valley sense: missile-defense technology could transform the way we think about nuclear deterrence and stability. In different contexts, disruption can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. But, whereas the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is an accepted fact, both scholars and policymakers have largely neglected the growing global interest in defenses. It’s not just the U.S. and its allies that are deploying defenses. Potential adversaries are also interested in ballistic-missile defense (BMD). Russia is investing in a new aerospace defense program. China has tested such systems. In fact, all nuclear weapons states—with the exception of North Korea—are showing interest in developing or deploying some BMD capability.

It is also increasingly difficult, in ballistic-missile defense, to separate “tactical” from “strategic.”
— James Acton

James Acton: It is also increasingly difficult, in ballistic-missile defense, to separate “tactical” from “strategic.” That distinction was pretty clear in the Cold War. Today, by contrast, there’s interest in forward defenses that can intercept a missile early in flight. For example, the SM-3 family of interceptors, currently being deployed in Europe and Asia, is an attempt to move in this direction. Such forward defenses make it more difficult to convince an adversary that we aren’t out to undermine their deterrent.

Ivanka Barzashka: Ironically, theater missile defense was seen as an uncontroversial area of military cooperation between NATO and Russia at the start of the 21st century.


Austin Long: Ivanka, good point. What do you think changed that perception?

Ivanka Barzashka: Until relatively recently, Russia was not considered an adversary and there was no significant prospect of war with it. NATO was exploring options for operational coordination with Russia against third-party threats like Iran. That has changed. The politics have changed. Now the question is: does NATO want some missile-defense capability against Russia, for example to protect forward-deployed troops in Eastern Europe?



Daryl Press: Another aspect that has been changing is the interaction between offenses and defenses. As offensive capabilities have soared, and target sets have shrunk as a result of arms reductions, the mission requirements for BMD have dropped.

James Acton: The more effective that offensive forces are in preemptively striking an opponent’s forces, the less good BMD needs to be. But I am skeptical of how far the offense has come in being able to reliably target nuclear forces, especially mobile missiles.

The “USS Oscar Austin”—a U.S. Navy destroyer equipped with the Aegis Combat System—visits Gdynia Port, Poland, after the Baltops 2014 exercises on the Baltic Sea. (Photo: Michal Fludra/NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images)

Ivanka Barzashka: The offense-defense distinction is further blurred by dual-use systems. Today’s BMD is an integrated system of systems that presents a fundamentally new and multidimensional dual-use challenge. For example, multipurpose Aegis ships sail in the Black Sea close to Russian coasts, and only the U.S. Navy knows how these ships are equipped. The Aegis ships’ ballistic-missile interceptors are ostensibly there to destroy nuclear and conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, but they could also destroy satellites. If fitted with a nuclear warhead, a Tomahawk cruise missile fired from an Aegis cruiser could become a surprise first-strike weapon. In a crisis, could Russia credibly tell if Aegis is only about defense? Inadvertently, the combination of large geographic scope with both defensive and offensive capabilities could make a ballistic-missile defense system deployed against one state appear threatening to other states. This can, and already has, prompted a multinational action-reaction dynamic. For example, the Russians are moving missiles to Kaliningrad to target U.S. BMD sites. NATO is in turn considering additional defenses to protect against these missiles.

Carl Robichaud: Essentially, we can’t understand the implications of ballistic-missile defenses without a comprehensive assessment of overall capabilities to identify, target, and destroy an adversary’s nuclear platforms. BMD capabilities cannot be assessed in a vacuum. Is this the sense I am getting from these comments?

Austin Long: I think that’s right, Carl. In particular, Russian capabilities have advanced a lot in the past decade or so. China is advancing, albeit more slowly. The Russians maintain the only comprehensive missile defense capability in the world around Moscow and have spent a lot on missile defense elsewhere. So, they are in the game if they want to be in the game—and if oil prices come back up. Their big limit now against the U.S. is in anti-submarine warfare. But against China, Russia’s counterforce capabilities are not far behind those of the U.S.

Daryl Press: Offense and defense always work in tandem and must be assessed together.

Ivanka Barzashka: And yet NATO strategy maintains that BMD is a “purely defensive capability.”


Carl Robichaud: U.S. officials often appear baffled by Russian opposition to the limited missile defenses that the U.S. is deploying in Europe. But if I am reading the implications of this conversation correctly, the Russian position may be more than just a political stance aimed at undermining NATO relations. Russia may actually feel threatened by these missile defenses because they are looking at the whole picture: how limited missile defenses can be combined with a comprehensive system of technologies whose aim is escalation dominance (and perhaps even preemption). And, as Ivanka notes, there has been increasing talk of using missile defense systems, such as Aegis, as dual-purpose weapons that could also hit ships or satellites. In this light, Russia’s concerns do not seem so irrational.

Ivanka Barzashka: U.S. and NATO policy maintain that BMD is not directed against Russia. BMD is designed to fight and win a conventional war—under the nuclear shadow—against a regional opponent. So, it is part of the broader U.S. strategy aimed at securing air superiority and keeping nuclear weapons out of a conventional conflict. And yet Moscow is developing integrated aerospace defenses and offenses that it clearly says are directed against the U.S. and its allies. However flawed Russia’s understanding of the West may be, my main concern is that it is in fact resulting in doctrinal innovation and new capabilities.


Scott Malcomson: Is this the general understanding of American intentions with regard to BMD? That it is not seen as deterring conventional conflict at all, but rather as keeping nuclear weapons out of a conventional regional war when that war is with a nuclear peer?

The main operational role of missile defense is to enable initial offensive operations against an adversary’s air and missile systems and command structures.
— Ivanka Barzashka

Ivanka Barzashka: American policy is aimed at keeping nuclear weapons out of a war with a nuclear non-peer—like North Korea. But Russia finds all of this deeply threatening. American missile defense strategy and doctrine aim to ensure U.S. freedom of action while denying the enemy freedom of action. It’s about deterring and, if deterrence fails, defeating a conventionally inferior nuclear-armed regional opponent. And it’s about reducing the reliance on nuclear weapons to do so. But Russia is now in some sense a nuclear-armed regional opponent. It sees missile defense as having the potential to undermine its strategic deterrent generally, as opposed to just defending against its immediate nuclear retaliatory capability. U.S. military doctrine sees missile defense not as a separate element of military power but as a part of joint counter-air operations, which include offensive and defensive actions to maintain air superiority. The main operational role of missile defense is to enable initial offensive operations against an adversary’s air and missile systems and command structures. The doctrine says that preemptive strikes are the preferred method to negate missile and air threats.



Scott Malcomson: Austin, you’ve studied the impact of increasing secrecy about military capabilities, including but not limited to cyber, on deterrence and escalation. Can you share any insights from your South Korea meetings earlier this month?

Austin Long: The main insight so far is the difficulty, not in sharing information for deterring adversaries, but in sharing information to reassure allies. The South Koreans are very interested in counter-mobile-missile technology, for example, but I think are not fully informed about the state of the possible.

Scott Malcomson: So what is the mechanism for informing them? And what does this dynamic of discussions with allies—the difficulty of them, given secrecy—suggest about nuclear-power relationships and players other than the US?

Deception with allies is a fundamentally different challenge. . . . That doesn’t seem like a good alliance management strategy.
— Austin Long

Austin Long: This is a big complication. Daryl Press and I (along with Brendan Green and Keir Lieber) have been looking at deception as a means to inform adversaries of clandestine capabilities without compromising their effectiveness. This seems like it may be worthwhile. However, deception with allies is a fundamentally different challenge: “Trust me, I tricked you about how I do things but don’t worry about it because it keeps you safe.” That doesn’t seem like a good alliance management strategy.

Scott Malcomson: Indeed, it doesn’t.

Austin Long: So this is going to be a focus of our next round of work, particularly talking to European and possibly Middle Eastern allies.

James Acton: I would love to do a debate about mobile-missile hunting sometime. For now, let me just add that there’s a technical dimension: how reliably can they be killed? And there is a perceptual dimension: what reliability would a president require to make a first strike seem appealing?

A president might feel that “pretty good” is good enough after an adversary has crossed the nuclear threshold.
— Daryl Press

Daryl Press: Keir Lieber and I just completed a manuscript that lists the various changes that are enhancing counterforce capabilities and reducing strategic stability. The list is long: missiles and bombs are getting more accurate; sensors are becoming more effective; target sets are now much smaller; low-casualty disarming strikes are now possible (using either conventional, or low-yield nuclear, or even nonkinetic weapons); and missile defenses are becoming more effective. Add to this the fact that U.S. adversaries, including Russia and North Korea, now rely on coercive nuclear escalatory strategies, which require using weapons in a somewhat piecemeal fashion. (This addresses the issue James raised: a president might feel that “pretty good” is good enough after an adversary has crossed the nuclear threshold.)

This is the first part of a 2-part discussion, which has been edited for clarity and length. Read The Fog of (Cyber) War—Part 2.