Cover: Can the United States Deter Threats from Uncertain Origins?

Can the United States Deter Threats from Uncertain Origins?

Examining the Cases of Havana Syndrome, SolarWinds, and the Chinese Mafia

Published May 11, 2023

by Daniel Egel, Gabrielle Tarini, Raymond Kuo, Eric Robinson, Anthony Vassalo

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Research Question

  1. How can states deter a national security threat if the aggressor successfully masks its role in perpetrating an incident and creates uncertainty about whether an incident has even occurred?

The mystery surrounding the so-called Havana Syndrome — an unexplained illness first experienced by U.S. Department of State personnel stationed in Cuba in late 2016 — illustrates the challenge of mustering a response to a national security threat when the threat, the underlying method, and the actor behind the threat are not understood with certainty. This report explores the applicability of existing concepts for deterrence and compellence using brief case studies. In addition to Havana Syndrome, the authors explore the SolarWinds cyberattack, in which hackers linked to Russian intelligence conducted a massive cyberattack against American companies and government agencies, and the Chinese Communist Party's connections to organized crime syndicates around the world.

The core finding is that few of the standard response options are effective against these types of threats. Without certainty about who is conducting the actions, strategies that rely on threats of punishment, normative taboos, or rallying of international condemnation are largely ineffective. Denial-by-defense strategies are thus likely to be the most effective but may be difficult to design effectively if the method underlying the attacks is poorly understood.

Key Findings

  • The ability of the United States to respond effectively to a threat is limited when the attribution, nature, and method of the threat are ambiguous.
  • Maintaining this level of ambiguity likely constrains the scale at which U.S. adversaries can deploy these approaches, but the costs the approaches impose can be large.
  • Despite the appeal of other deterrence or punishment strategies, denial-by-defense is likely to be the only approach capable of reducing the efficacy of these threats.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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