International Security // Analysis

03 september 2013

Information Deterrence: Transformation of the Strategic Stability Paradigm

Pavel Sharikov PhD in Political Science, Director of the Applied Research Center, RAS Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies
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The emerging polycentric model of international relations originates from a variety of factors. Given advancing globalization, rapid developments in science and technology and their penetration into all spheres of life, the changing paradigm of strategic stability, which underpins international security architecture, requires particular attention. The traditional paradigm of strategic stability has been consigned to the past by the new realities in world affairs, and new nascent aspects of military and political power.

The modern-day concept of strategic stability was conceived during the Cold War and was first used in the joint Soviet-U.S. statement, which defined it as the correlation of strategic forces that discourages a first strike [1]. In practice, strategic stability in the Cold War was restricted to a particular model of U.S.-Soviet relations called “mutually assured destruction.”

This model was typical of the bipolar system of international relations that evolved around the confrontation between two poles – the U.S. and the USSR. The strategy, i.e. achieving the ultimate goal in war, for each of the two was to destroy the other one. Since both possessed the ultimate destructive force – nuclear arms – they could achieve this goal almost immediately.

With today’s science and technologies, strategic goals in war can be achieved by means other than nuclear arms. Many Russian and US international security experts agree that modern technologies are capable of unsettling the strategic balance.


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Mutual assured destruction (MAD) doctrine

As both countries possessed the capability to inflict unacceptable damage in a nuclear war, this mutual Soviet-American nuclear deterrence became the basis for strategic stability throughout this bi-polar world.

Strategic Stability in a Polycentric World

Today, the Cold War definition of strategic stability is inevitably, no longer relevant – for two main reasons.

First, from the point of view of international relations, the world is becoming increasingly polycentric. U.S.-Russian relations are no longer the only axis of global events. The system of international relations today shows the emergence and growing influence of several centres of power, and the state is no longer the only category of actor.

Secondly, with today’s science and technologies, strategic goals in war can be achieved by means other than nuclear arms. Many Russian and US international security experts agree that modern technologies are capable of unsettling the strategic balance. “In the early 21st century, the military strategic balance is not limited to strategic nuclear forces alone – it now has some new components. Today, you do not have nuclear weapons to destroy a wide range of military or economic targets or disrupt the political and military command. There are now non-nuclear strategic means that pack a disruptive force ever closer to that of nuclear weapons.” [2]

The expert community lists the following new factors:

  • tactical nuclear weapons;
  • high-precision long-range weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs);
  • missile defense;
  • space-based weapons systems;
  • cyber-weapons.


Compared to other technologies already listed, cyber-weapons need a tangibly smaller sum from defense budgets to develop and use when compared with nuclear weapons, any means of delivery or other sophisticated war technologies.

Cyber-Weapons as a New Factor of Strategic Stability

Of all the factors listed above, cyber-weapons deserve special mention. Compared to other technologies already listed, cyber-weapons need a tangibly smaller sum from defense budgets to develop and use when compared with nuclear weapons, any means of delivery or other sophisticated war technologies. A specilized degree at a civilian university is all you need to acquire the basic skills in developing cyber-weapons.

Cyber-weapons are based on open and accessible technologies, and popular telecoms based on common standards have created an information space in which modern infrastructures are highly vulnerable to information attack.

Consequently, cyber-weapons technologies, are theoretically readily accessible by any actor in today’s system of international relations, be it a mighty military power or a non-state actor.

The proliferation of cyber-weapons technologies is virtually impossible to control. Most modern cyber-weapons are just program code disseminated across the information space and national borders.

Some experts [3] argue that information weapons can disrupt targets critical to national security. There is now the capability to destroy a range of strategic targets with non-nuclear arms.





Although cyber-weapons cannot be considered strategic arms within the traditional paradigm of strategic stability.

The US defense and political leadership does not call cyber-threats strategic, but acknowledges that the trend is causing “strategic concern.” [4] According to the traditional paradigm of strategic stability, a “strategic threat” is one that is capable of inflicting unacceptable damage. During the Cold War, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara proposed a pragmatic definition of “unacceptable damage.” Growing nuclear arsenals over the then-existing ceiling was not worth all that money. Strategic weapons then included inter-continental delivery vehicles for nuclear arms (with a range of under 5,500 km).

Although cyber-weapons cannot be considered strategic arms within the traditional paradigm of strategic stability, based on numerous instances of information technologies being used to attack civilian infrastructure targets, and in view of statements made by politicians and experts, it is possible to conclude that cyber-weapons are capable of inflicting serious damage by disrupting strategically important targets, including military targets.

As recent developments suggest, strategic stability may be disrupted if the United States loses less than one third of its population and half its economic infrastructure. A successful attack on the information infrastructure could cause serious damage to both military and civilian systems, and in the event of an armed confrontation, the key issue is to destroy command, control, and communications.

After a successful cyber-attack, the armed forces will effectively become blind. The damage to civilian infrastructure could be catastrophic. Infrastructure critical to national security such as transport, banks and financial institutions, power stations, etc. all depend on a stable information infrastructure. As various incidents suggests, all these targets can be disrupted by cyber-attacks, and the threat is global because its victims will not be limited to the United States.

Containing Cyber-Threats

Admiral James Stavridis:
The New Triad

Crucially, cyber-weaponry has been an area that is growing dynamically, with the United States leading the rest of the world, in both technology and logistics. The United States’ military information capabilities fall within the remit of Cyber Command, part of the U.S. Strategic Command since 2009. Historically, STRATCOM has been responsible for nuclear deterrence, and the fact that its terms of reference now cover information threats seems to testify to the strategic significance of cyber-space for U.S. national security.

U.S. defense information policy obviously provides for the development of defensive and offensive technologies. General Keith B. Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency, in an interviews prior to being appointed Commander of U.S. Cyber Command, conceded that he could not rule out a possibility that the United States’ armed offensive capabilities could be used against enemy targets such as power stations, banks and other financial infrastructure institutions, transport, information and national telecommunications networks [5]. Under the new paradigm of strategic stability, offensive information tools may well play the decisive role.

There is an ongoing discussion in the United States, and also in Russia, China and many other countries, about the need for a special service of the armed forces in this area. In this regard, ideas advanced by Admiral Stavridis may be of particular interest. He says: “This "New Triad" consists of special operations forces, unmanned vehicles, and cybercapabilities.” [6] Admiral Stavridis contrasts the modern process of developing cyber-space with the approach that was developed in the middle of the last century, when the skies were a new domain and the U.S. Air Force was created. Effectively, Admiral Stavridis talks about the need to create a U.S. Cyber Force.

Cyber-weapons are capable of inflicting serious damage by disrupting strategically important targets, including military targets.

Russian, Chinese and other world leaders seem to think along similar lines. This suggests that cyber-space will soon become a new focus of the arms race. Under the traditional paradigm of strategic stability, the Soviet and American leaderships tried to sway the balance of power in their favor by developing offensive and defensive weapons, and this came to be known as the Cold War arms race. Each country’s goal in this arms race was to raise the quantity and quality of their respective nuclear capabilities.

The Soviet Union and the United States agreed to codify key armaments, as was recorded in their various agreements. Then they could start to limit and then reduce nuclear forces, which helped freeze but not ultimately to stop the arms race.



Nuclear Weapons and Strategic Stability.
Search for Russian-American Consensus in
the 21st century. James Cartwright, S.M. Rogov et
al. Ed. I.S. Ivanov (In Russian)

The cyber-force arms race does not involve this hunger for bigger numbers or qualitative enhancements. It proceeds from the fact that each side in the dynamically evolving global information space pursues the relentless development and implementation of new technologies, requiring continuous innovation in order to sustain a strategic edge. Developing IT weapons only delivers a temporary advantage until the enemy identifies the vulnerabilities in its own information systems that those weapons were intended to exploir, or creates even more sophisticated offensive technologies. One such offensive cyber-weapon may be the PRISM system [7] information about which was leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Such systems are designed to collect all sorts of intelligence. In addition, cyber-weapons include malware and technologies that can disrupt a wide variety of components in the information infrastructure.

During the Cold War, an important deterrence of a global nuclear conflict, which lay at the foundations of strategic stability, was threat credibility – assured through reciprocal verifications, publication of test results and the involvement of the intelligence services. The clandestine development and use of military technologies that delivered superiority over the enemy could have had a destabilizing effect on strategic stability.

The official demonstration of a cyber-weapon would be tantamount to losing the advantage because the enemy would immediately embark on developing counter-means. One cannot fully rule out that the stuxnet virus attack against Iranian nuclear facilities was not an attempt by the U.S. to demonstrate, indirectly, the capabilities of their offensive information systems.

The development of offensive cyber-weapons by several countries today causes serious concern to Russian diplomats. Russia has repeatedly advanced initiatives arguing for the need to have an international legal instrument in place to regulate the militarization of the cyber-space [8]. But at the same time, Russian defense commanders talk from time to time about plans to set up a Cyber Command in Russia [9].

Cyber-weaponry has been an area that is growing dynamically, with the United States leading the rest of the world, in both technology and logistics.

One of Russia’s foreign policy priorities is confidence-building internationally, and in particular with the United States. Confidence is needed to reinforce the credibility of a cyber-threat. Only with threat credibility in place would it be possible to negotiate the regulation of cyber-space militarization.

Despite significant disagreements, important progress has been achieved in the bilateral relations between Russia and the United States to strengthen confidence in the information space through the adoption of the joint bilateral statement on a new field of cooperation in confidence building [10] signed on the sidelines of the G-8 Summit in Ireland in June 2013. One of the provisions is to use the hot line between the Kremlin and White House that was originally established for Nikita Khrushchev and Jack Kennedy following the Cuba Missile Crisis to share information about cyber-threats. This step underscores the strategic value of cyber-security in the context of national and international security.

The continuing model of mutually assured destruction (perhaps appropriately – MAD) in Russian-US relations does not exclude a strategic threat from offensive cyber capabilities. However, the emergence of new centres of power in international relations, and the proliferation of the most advanced technologies capable of destroying a broad range of defense and civilian targets make it necessary to revise national security priorities in order to respond to new challenges and threats to strategic stability.

1. Soviet-United States Joint Statement on the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Arms
Washington, June 1, 1990.

2. Nuclear Weapons and Strategic Stability. Search for Russian-American Consensus in the 21st century. James Cartwright, S.M. Rogov et al. Ed. I.S. Ivanov. Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

Moscow, Spetskniga, 2012 - P. 38 (in Russian)

3. CYBER WARFARE: A “NUCLEAR OPTION”? BY ANDREW KREPINEVICH Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2012 p. 2

4. Evolving strategic concern. Unclassified Statement for the Record on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. January 31, 2012 // http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/120131/clapper.pdf

5. Advance Questions for Lieutenant General Keith Alexander, USA. Nominee for Commander, United States Cyber Command

6. James Stavridis. The New Triad. It's time to found a U.S. Cyber Force. Foreign Policy, June 20, 2013 // http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/06/20/the_new_triad

7. Caitlin Dewey. PRISM data collection draws attention to consumer data tracking. Washington Post, June 13, 2013

8. CONVENTION on ensuring international information security (a concept) http://www.mid.ru/bdomp/ns-osndoc.nsf/e2f289bea62097f9c325787a0034c255/542df9e13d28e06ec3257925003542c4!OpenDocument

9. Alexei Mikhailov, Dmitry Balburov. Shoigu Backs Rogozin’s Idea about Cyber Command. Izvestia, February 12, 2013. http://izvestia.ru/news/544703 (in Russian)

10. Joint Statement by the Presidents of the United States of America and the Russian Federation on a New Field of Cooperation in Confidence Building, June 17, 2013 // http://news.kremlin.ru/ref_notes/1479

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Pavel Sharikov, “Information Deterrence: Transformation of the Strategic Stability Paradigm,” Russian International Affairs Council, 03 September 2013, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=2278

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Date: 07 september 2013

Author: Eric Ehrmann

In an emerging multipolar world featuring unstable economic and political institutions cyberwar complicates and disrupts the superstructure of "mutually assured destruction" and makes MAD less of a reliable option. The big problem as this option winds down is tracking what might get loose, just like what has happened with the "nerve gas" it appears to have been provided to poorly trained extremist recruits in Syria. There is also the issue among the Superpowers (Syria is a reminder that they still exist) of manninging the social and political fallout that results in loss of job creation in the mutually assured destruction industry that is part of the broader defense establishments of major nations.

Now, that job creation is shifting to the cybewar and cyber security businesses that are part of the defense establishments of major powers and some other G20 nations. But because consultants and private business are incontrovertibly involved-- just as they were in the Mercantilistic days with The East India Company- the command and control structure of the operations takes on a different nature. This is an issue that presents particular challenges.

Look what happened with the Jannisaries in Turkey. The Wehrmacht hated the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe in Germany because they were more modern, less aristocratic, had broader education and fresher tactical approaches. The inter-service rivalries in the U.S. found the Army opposing the tank, then the airplane and finally the Pentagon developed an independent Air Force. But inter-service rivalry retarded the development of medium and long range ballistic missiles.

Modern lifestyle issues complicate the strategic stability paradigm. Hackers are needed. It is part of the job creation setup. The risks are known. There are a lot of places traditional warfare can put "boots on the ground" to clean up problems, like the Congo, Nigeria. elsewhere. Always related to extractive industries. But they too will gradually be replaced by "cyberboots," more electronic battlefields and of course, nanotechnology, magnetic field activities and drones.

And remember, Robert McNamara proposed "unacceptable damage" at the Pentagon after he created "unacceptable damage" at of Ford Motor Company as a vice president, producing the famous "Edsel" automobile. He served as president of Ford for just two months before he was named Secretay of Defense by the Kennedy administration. He knew how create jobs. Who will be the Robert McNamara of the strategic stability paradigm? In Russia, in the United States. Does he have a Facebook page yet?


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