Can the U.S. Military Strengthen Deterrence by Becoming More Operationally Unpredictable?
Aug 11, 2021
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 assess whether and how the U.S. military might utilize unpredictability in force employment, posture, and operations to deter adversaries and identify the possible risks of such approaches.
Evaluating Options for Complicating Adversary Decisionmaking
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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 Concepts and Methodology for Generating Options for Enhancing U.S. Operational Unpredictability
Approach 1: Create Irregular Deployment Patterns
Approach 2: Reveal or Demonstrate New Capabilities
Approach 3: Bluff About U.S. Ability to Conduct Multiple COAs
Approach 4: Repeatedly Reveal Covert Capabilities
Findings and Recommendations
Test of Approach 2: Autumn Forge 1975
Test of Approach 2: Ocean Venture 81
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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