Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Deterrence by Detection

Author’s Note: This piece has sparked a debate, which is exactly the intent of the Bad Ideas series. One point to highlight up front: there is no prospect of deterrence without detection. Detection is the foundation for any deterrence strategy, including deterrence by punishment and denial. But that is the starting point. Detection must be augmented by strong analytic work by the intelligence community, credible responses by the Department of Defense, and political will by officials from the executive and legislative branches to act on these findings. Deterrence is a multi-dimensional process, but the foundation must be effective and efficient surveillance. This essay should be read with that perspective in mind.

National security professionals are seeking new concepts of deterrence to confront measures short of war, or gray zone tactics. In the recent past, overwhelming military advantage served as an effective deterrent, or mutually assured destruction kept a balance. Each approach provided a playbook for the United States to defend its interests. However, our adversaries have read that book, along with our national security laws that govern the use of force, and they have learned well the benefits of confusion. They have decisively shifted to operate in the gray zone, employing active measures, disinformation, cyber-attacks, and little green men to create irrevocable facts on the ground before we can respond. This strategy works because law-abiding nations, mostly in the West, are reluctant to attribute behavior to a country—even a rival—without some form of proof; and those rivals have created just enough of a fog of uncertainty to delay the pointed finger.

To roll back these gray zone tactics, some are postulating a new “D” to update Deterrence by Denial and Deterrence by Punishment: Deterrence by Detection. In the existing canon of deterrence, “Denial” postulates a muscular military force to prevent the adversary from succeeding in an attempt to roll tanks into eastern Europe, for example. Those tanks would be stopped by forces in Germany. “Punishment” comes when denial has failed—the adversary would likely succeed militarily in taking, say, Crimea; but the adversary knows that the following international condemnation would be swift and painful, ranging from crushing economic sanctions to all-out-war. The cost-benefit analysis points clearly to “don’t bother.” Both methods of deterrence assume the aggressor is clearly identifiable or at least identifiable enough to quickly deploy a riposte.

Our adversaries seek to deny us that clarity with gray zone tactics and muddled attribution. They hope they can shift the facts on the ground to their advantage in the time it takes us to determine whether the green men are really red, whether the cyber-attack is criminal or pre-conflict preparation of the environment, or whether a fishing boat is just a fishing boat.

Enter “Deterrence by Detection.” The theory goes that we can deploy a blanket of sensors around the world, guaranteeing that we will detect our adversaries’ gray zone activities and eliminate the fog of uncertainty that prevents a sound and timely response. While one version of Deterrence by Detection relies heavily on large quantities of unmanned aerial systems providing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), a wide net of sensors could be multi-domain and persistent to create unprecedented coverage and high fidelity information, allowing clear attribution and early warning. Our adversaries know they will be caught by this sensor net and are subsequently deterred.

This theory has two critical flaws: a lack of technical capability and lack of credible will to respond. For Deterrence by Detection to work, the United States would first need a vast stable of platforms with evolved technical capabilities: sensors that have persistent overwatch of a huge range of territory, such as the eastern Pacific, and have both wide-aperture and close-up examination capability; artificial intelligence or AI-enabled processing of a giant intake of data; assets flexible enough to be redirected in real time to collect more detailed information as a result of that AI-enabled tipping and cueing; and sensors and tradecraft that can, in essence, help humans see through denial and deception efforts by adversaries. In the conflict phase, we would also need battle networks for command and control that can support real-time mission planning and redirection of resources. These capabilities are merely hypothesized today. (For more on the battle networks of the future, see the Battle Networks and the Future Force series.) 

The quantity of vehicles needed to carry these sensors is also mind-boggling. CBSA estimated in 2020 that the US would need 46 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to cover parts of the western Pacific, and that capability would still provide only “periodic” revisits of the South China Sea and Chinese coastal areas. A further 46 UAVs would cover parts of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, for a total of 92 aircraft, at an operating cost of $1.4 billion per year. Critically, this estimate does not include initial procurement—just operations and maintenance—and assumes heavy participation by allies and partners.

Realistically, no intelligence apparatus is ever 100 percent effective. By definition, gray zone activity is designed to evade discovery, and near-peer adversaries are unfortunately astute at finding the holes in surveillance capabilities. Even if the actor is unfortunate enough to be caught on camera, a vast intelligence apparatus has to find, process, analyze, and recognize the significance of the signs. Today’s intelligence community is quite capable and full of talented, committed, highly-trained officers, so the chances all those “ifs” will line up are reasonably high. However, it is not guaranteed. If the surveillance does not catch the activity, the message received by the adversary will be that they can indeed continue to operate in the gray zone undetected and undeterred.

Further, Deterrence by Detection assumes we will publicly call out the adversary for their activity.  Exquisite classified collection is fragile, and unveiling the capability may only result in denials by the adversary in question and a subsequent loss of collection.  Conversely, if commercial collection is available and usable, adversaries tend to shrug off the evidence as manipulated or fake.  Allies who are inclined to believe US allegations will continue to believe them; whereas adversaries will continue to deflect, deny, and make counter-accusations, no matter how strong the opposing evidence is.

Deploying this blanket of sensors would also likely be provocative. In showing our adversaries that we are aggressively collecting data on them, we would be flying assets close to, if not up against, national borders. Undersea capabilities would need to penetrate exclusion zones. Cyber tools would show up on internal networks, perhaps interpreted as surveillance mechanisms, or perhaps interpreted as preparation for an attack.  Deterrence by Detection acknowledges that deploying massive sensing capabilities on top of an adversary could lead to that adversary shooting them down, but it fails to recognize the likelihood that the surveilling state would likely be labeled the aggressor in such a scenario.

Perhaps technical challenges can be overcome, with STEM skill and determination, and the cost of nearly 100 UAVs still pales in comparison to other platforms. Even so, the second challenge is still the biggest: demonstrating a credible will to respond. It matters not if we detect our adversary building islands in the South China Sea, using active measures to influence elections or creating a de facto new border in eastern Ukraine, if we have not yet demonstrated that such activity crosses a line and will receive a robust response.

Deterrence by detection assumes that detection is enough. It rests on the concept that the resultant naming and shaming by the international community will cow our adversaries into docility. It will not. Russia, in a time of “nothing is true and anything is possible,” has repeatedly denied it is responsible for a host of sins—from taking Crimea and eastern Ukraine to meddling in elections around the globe. In turn, it has suffered limited consequences. China, with its Belt and Road Initiative, has cloaked its expansionist goals in a veil of economic prosperity for all. The international community for years has lined up to sign the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing contracts. There has been plenty of evidence presented publicly on Moscow’s and Beijing’s bad behavior, but both governments have been able to deny, deflect, and make counter accusations while the West engages in a strong finger wag.

Early detection of aggressive activity is not only a good goal—it’s a necessity. Having a robust stable of ISR assets—from UAVs with a multitude of sensors, to persistent satellite coverage, to AI-enabled open source intelligence (OSINT)—will be critical to identifying adversary activity and responding in a timely fashion. But we cannot assume detection is enough to create deterrence. While we are building next generation sensors and training AI to “see” and “read” the take, we must also train our own minds to make critical decisions in times of uncertainty. Policymakers always want more information and clarity on adversary intentions that would make hard decisions easier, but that kind of certainty is rare. All the detection capability in the world will only get us pretty pictures of the bully next door, especially if we have not demonstrated that we can and will respond.

(Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nichelle Anderson)

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