Cover: A New Approach to Conventional Arms Control in Europe

A New Approach to Conventional Arms Control in Europe

Addressing the Security Challenges of the 21st Century

Published Apr 27, 2020

by Samuel Charap, Alice Lynch, John J. Drennan, Dara Massicot, Giacomo Persi Paoli


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Research Questions

  1. What are the primary conventional military drivers of instability, potential conflict, and escalation between Russia and NATO in the period up to 2025?
  2. What CAC measures might address those drivers to reduce the possibility of unintended conflict through misunderstanding or miscalculation?

Over 30 years after the end of the Cold War, military tensions have returned to Europe. Both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russia are boosting their deployments in close proximity to one another and in multiple domains. At the same time, a host of new or dramatically improved conventional capabilities have been fielded, introducing a significant level of uncertainty into the security environment. Meanwhile, political and military-to-military relations are at a post–Cold War low, with communication as the exception, not the norm, and the structure of interaction created by arms control and confidence and security-building measures almost entirely collapsed.

Through a combination of interviews, workshops, and structured analysis on the causes of potential conflict, the authors of this report outline new conventional arms control (CAC) measures to lower the risk of conflict in Europe. Although it once served as a cornerstone of European security, the current regional CAC regime is outdated and largely irrelevant to today's challenges. Rather than starting with the existing agreements, the authors begin with an investigation of the catalysts of possible conflict and build arms control policy options on that basis. How might specific changes in behavior, posture, presence, technology, or capabilities — and varying perceptions thereof — drive conflict? What capabilities or combination of capabilities are destabilizing, and why? And what CAC measures could be used to address these risks? The authors use the answers to these questions to suggest a menu of options for a new CAC regime that could address the regional security challenges of the 21st century.

Key Findings

Pathways to armed conflict in Europe are different and more diverse than they were when the current CAC regime was designed

  • CAC measures grounded in an analysis of pathways to armed conflict can be identified; those measures, if implemented, could have a significant positive impact on European security.
  • Military drivers of potential Russia-NATO conflict include military activities or exercises in strategically sensitive locations; enhanced readiness; massing of forces; violations (or perceived violations) of airspace or maritime borders; proximity of forces or capabilities; long-range strike deployments; and threats to vulnerable lines of communication.
  • Innovative CAC measures could address these drivers, thus increasing warning and decisionmaking time, complicating surprise attacks, and lowering overall tensions.
  • A CAC agreement that incorporates such measures would reduce the risk of conflict through misunderstanding and miscalculation.
  • Any future CAC negotiation would invoke several policy considerations, including the relationship of a potential new agreement to the existing regime.

This project was conducted by the International Security and Defense Policy Center (ISDP) within the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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