Cover: Operational Unpredictability and Deterrence

Operational Unpredictability and Deterrence

Evaluating Options for Complicating Adversary Decisionmaking

Published Aug 11, 2021

by Miranda Priebe, Angela O'Mahony, Bryan Frederick, Alyssa Demus, Bonny Lin, Michelle Grisé, Derek Eaton, Abby Doll

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Research Questions

  1. What is operational unpredictability?
  2. How can the United States increase operational unpredictability?
  3. How might greater U.S. operational unpredictability affect extended deterrence?

The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy instructed the U.S. military to become more operationally unpredictable and suggested that doing so would help the United States deter attacks on U.S. partners. The authors of this report propose a definition of U.S. operational unpredictability—adversary uncertainty about how the United States would fight; develop four potential approaches for increasing U.S. operational unpredictability and deterring attacks on U.S. allies and partners; and assess how the four approaches could affect U.S. relations with Russia and China. They also examine two Cold War–era cases in which the United States sought to be more operationally unpredictable.

The authors find that increasing adversaries' perceptions of U.S. operational unpredictability may be possible if the United States has detailed information about their operational analysis and decisionmaking processes. The most promising way to increase U.S. operational unpredictability is to publicize new U.S. capabilities and demonstrate that they give the United States multiple options for achieving its key objectives. However, increasing U.S. operational unpredictability may be costly and, in some cases, involve negative side effects (e.g., reducing U.S. military effectiveness and increasing China's and Russia's threat perceptions). The authors recommend weighing the potential costs and effectiveness of these approaches against more traditional approaches to deterring U.S. adversaries.

Key Findings

Increasing operational unpredictability is possible but likely costly, and may have negative side effects

  • Increasing U.S. operational unpredictability is only one of many approaches to enhancing extended deterrence.
  • Limited information on Russian and Chinese intelligence, military planning, and decisionmaking processes makes it difficult to assess the potential effects of U.S. attempts to be operationally unpredictable.
  • The available information suggests that increasing Russian and Chinese perceptions of U.S. operational unpredictability may be possible, but also costly.
  • The most promising way to increase U.S. operational unpredictability is to publicize new U.S. capabilities and demonstrate that they give the United States multiple options for achieving its key objectives.
  • This approach may enhance extended deterrence if each U.S. way of fighting requires different and costly adversary counters.
  • This approach may have negative side effects, such as reducing U.S. readiness and increasing China's and Russia's threat perceptions.

Recommendations

  • Compare the use of operational unpredictability with alternative approaches to deterring U.S. adversaries.
  • Develop a clear logic linking activities intended to enhance U.S. operational unpredictability to desired outcomes, and consider potential trade-offs.
  • Review existing intelligence and consider increased collection on Russia's and China's intelligence, military planning, and decisionmaking processes.
  • Continue initiatives on Army and U.S. Department of Defense flexibility and agility, which may also increase U.S. operational unpredictability.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Army and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

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