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Research Question

  1. What are the implications of eight specific emerging technologies for both the effectiveness of U.S. deterrent policies and the stability of deterrence relationships?

The authors examined potential effects that emerging technologies could have on U.S. national security policy and identified long-term effects that these technologies might have on effectiveness and stability — two major aspects of deterrent relationships. They did this by pursuing several phases of analysis. First, the researchers selected a specific set of eight technology areas from the numerous technologies that could play a role in shaping the practice of deterrence. They then took several complementary steps to assess the problem of deterrence, competitors' views of it, and possible criteria for evaluating the effects of technologies. In parallel with these research efforts, they conducted in-depth assessments of each of the eight technology areas. Finally, they employed four discrete lines of analysis — four "lenses" — to generate possible causal relationships between the eight technology areas and deterrence outcomes.

This report highlights two overarching findings of this analysis. First, collections of emerging technologies — especially in the realms of information aggression and manipulation, automation (including automated decision support systems), hypersonic systems, and unmanned systems—hold dramatic implications for both the effectiveness and stability of deterrence. Second, an emerging transition to new ways of warfare, empowered by these same emerging technologies, poses more general risks to U.S. deterrent policies than does any single technology or set of technologies. This research was completed in September 2020, before the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has not been subsequently revised.

Key Findings

Collections of emerging technologies hold significant implications for both the effectiveness and stability of deterrence

  • Individual technologies are typically enablers, not prime causes, of deterrence failure.
  • The risks of deterrence failure are greatest in scenarios where multiple technologies work together to exacerbate classic sources of deterrence failure.
  • Technology combinations complicate deterrence by offering the potential to hit multiple targets across many attack surfaces simultaneously.
  • Technologies have the greatest potential to degrade the effectiveness of deterrence in scenarios involving China.
  • Multiple, interacting forms of automation carry very significant risks, especially for the stability of deterrent relationships.

An emerging transition to new ways of warfare, empowered by these same emerging technologies, poses more general risks to U.S. deterrent policies than does any single technology

  • There is a growing potential for information-manipulation technologies, including deepfakes, to contribute to the failure of deterrence.
  • On the opportunity side of the ledger, the United States could employ emerging technologies to enhance the effectiveness and stability of deterrence in multiple ways.

Recommendations

  • To remain attuned to deterrence risks, focus first on understanding the perceptions of rivals and second on the technology.
  • The U.S. Air Force should place special emphasis on awareness of the technology packages in which near-peer adversaries are investing and on how they seek to combine those technologies.
  • Securing against information network or Chinese "system destruction" attacks is a precondition for effective deterrence and stability.
  • The unmanned aircraft system (UAS) and counter-UAS competition is likely to become a major focus of U.S. defense investments and affect the stability of deterrent relationships in key theaters.
  • Norms, rules, and limits governing technologies could benefit the United States.
  • Building relationships with rival air force leaders can provide important benefits.
  • Technology integration in support of concepts of warfare will be increasingly crucial.
  • The United States will gain significant competitive advantage if it can expand multilateral development of priority systems — including sensing, UAS, and precision weapons — for partner or ally self-defense.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration Office (AF/A10) and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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