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Natalia Romashkina

Ph.D. in Political Science, Head of the Informational Security Problems Department of the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor, Corresponding Member of the Academy of Military Science of the Russian Federation

Strategic stability is once again becoming a primary concern in international relations. The topic has received a great deal of attention of late, mainly because of the steady erosion of the reduction and limitation regime: the United States has now withdrawn from both the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), the New START treaty is set to expire soon, and no further talks on reduction and limitation of nuclear arms are being held. Another reason is the rapid development of information and communication technologies (ICTs), which are playing a growing role in the global military and political arena in the 21st century. With a new technological revolution under way, can we ensure a level of strategic security that is both necessary and sufficient? Or will instability become a new trend in global strategic security as well? It would be hard to argue that this is not a crisis.

First, all the parties involved (Russia, the United States and China) will have to find common ground in terms of what in their opinion constitutes strategic stability; develop and formalize a common understanding of the danger of ICT threats; and, of course, develop common approaches to assessing the probability of intentional and unintentional ICT attacks. Moreover, they will need to have a clear agreement on the probable response in the event that an ICT attack on strategic nuclear forces is detected. These steps may provide building blocks for an ICT deterrence policy, similar to what was done with regard to nuclear weapons in the bipolar era.

At the same time, it would be reasonable to start work on an ICT arms control regime (statements, commitments, agreements and treaties) that could include: a ban on ICT attacks against certain targets, primarily military facilities; the limitation and/or renouncement of offensive ICT capabilities; the introduction of ICT arms control measures; the establishment of international norms regulating the ways and means of preventing and stopping cyber conflicts; and the development of a convention on the prohibition of the harmful use of ICTs in the nuclear weapons sphere.

Strategic stability is once again becoming a primary concern in international relations. The topic has received a great deal of attention of late, mainly because of the steady erosion of the reduction and limitation regime: the United States has now withdrawn from both the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), the New START treaty is set to expire soon, and no further talks on reduction and limitation of nuclear arms are being held. Another reason is the rapid development of information and communication technologies (ICTs), which are playing a growing role in the global military and political arena in the 21st century. With a new technological revolution under way, can we ensure a level of strategic security that is both necessary and sufficient? Or will instability become a new trend in global strategic security as well? It would be hard to argue that this is not a crisis.

Today there are two approaches — or rather a rift between the old understanding of “strategic stability,” which took shape during the bipolar era (when the term itself was coined), and a radically new understanding of the ways of ensuring strategic stability in the modern world and the challenges that this presents.

As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. It would be a mistake to discard the experience of maintaining strategic stability that was accumulated throughout the Cold War period and which helped prevent a deep-seated confrontation from boiling over into a large-scale war — even though the political and technological changes that have taken place since then cannot be ignored.

As an example, during the bipolar era, “strategic stability” was defined as a state of relations that would remove incentives for a nuclear first strike.

Since nuclear arms still exist and their destructive capabilities are constantly improving, this understanding of strategic stability is as relevant today as it was during the Cold War, when it was only taking shape. But the situation has grown considerably more complicated over the last three decades, and the methods and mechanisms of preventing nuclear war that were envisaged during the bipolar era are no longer in line with the current geopolitical reality and the level of technological development. With these massive changes in international military and political relations, we need to consider other parameters in addition to the nuclear component, while at the same time preserving the essence of the idea. Furthermore, the bipolar era, when the world was split between two global opposing powers, has given way to a situation where strategic stability is determined by a greater number of players. This is why we need to assess the characteristics and capabilities of the military and political system as a whole.

Strategic stability of the military and political system is a state of the world (the lack of a large-scale war) within which the framework of this system is maintained even under continuous disturbance (destabilizing factors) for a certain (defined) period of time.

Therefore, on a professional level, not only should we be talking about “maintaining” and “strengthening” strategic stability, but we should also acknowledge the need to ensure strategic stability and devise new approaches to assessing its level based on our experience — which means we must develop common qualitative and especially quantitative assessments of this level. For that to be possible, we need to agree on common assessment criteria.

The bilateral discussion of such criteria between the United States and Russia came to a halt in the 1990s, as the U.S. no longer considered it necessary. This has given rise to a global problem, because the reduction of strategic stability to a level that is below what is needed and what is sufficient is dangerous for all states without exception. It is thus in the best interests of all countries to ensure this level, but the extent of their responsibility varies. The nuclear powers are still the most responsible.

What new features of this system, in which ensuring a necessary and sufficient level of stability is so crucial, have emerged over the past few decades?

  1. An increase in the number of local wars and armed conflicts which break out and progress increasingly under the influence of ICTs.
  2. The restructuring of international relations after a period of bipolarity followed by multipolarity dominated by the United States. This new transformation is, first of all, caused by changes in military and strategic relations between Russia and the United States, as well as by the appearance of a new global centre of power, namely China, which is not involved in the nuclear disarmament process.
  3. The gradual erosion of the strategic arms limitation and reduction regime: the United States has now withdrawn both from the ABM Treaty and the INF Treaty, the New START treaty is set to expire soon, and no further talks on reduction and limitation of nuclear arms are being held.
  4. Nuclear missile multipolarity, which consists in a growing number of states possessing nuclear weapons and the increasing probability of their proliferation.
  5. The trend towards doctrinal changes among nuclear powers that are formally aimed at strengthening the deterrence regime but in fact lead to a reduction of the threshold for the use of nuclear arms; in particular, there is a growing possibility of a limited nuclear war.
  6. Creation of a large-scale U.S. missile defence system, which brings about serious changes in the strategic balance of power and increased uncertainty in strategic planning.
  7. The growing role and power of non-nuclear (highly precise and highly intelligent) weapons in strategic planning. These new armaments create the hypothetical threat of a disarming strike against strategic nuclear forces. Developing these kinds of weapons complicates the global strategic landscape and makes crisis decision-making all the more difficult.
  8. Deployment of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons on the same platforms, which may lead to the launch of ballistic or cruise missiles with conventional warheads being perceived as nuclear weapons use.
  9. The appearance of low-yield nuclear weapons, which lowers the threshold for nuclear weapons use and, as a result, increases the probability of an armed conflict escalating to a nuclear war.
  10. Development of ICT-based state-of-the-art anti-satellite weapons that allow countries to interfere with enemy satellites, including parts of the ballistic missile early warning system, and destroy them using ground-based anti-satellite systems. Such weapons can also disrupt the operation of satellites used for network-centric warfare, which is an approach being actively developed by militarily developed states. This is one of the most serious threats to strategic stability at this stage.
  11. The militarization of space. In February 2019, President of the United States Donald Trump signed a Memorandum on the Establishment of the United States Space Force, which lists such purposes as protecting U.S. interests in space, “deterring aggression and defending the Nation,” as well as “projecting military power in, from and to space.”

In addition to technological developments, experts from various countries increasingly point to the role that psychology plays in influencing strategic stability in the modern world. Western society and its political elites no longer fear nuclear war, which may lead to a considerable reduction of the threshold for weapons use, including with regard to nuclear arms. And most alarming of all is not this confidence in the impossibility of nuclear war, but rather the belief that a “small,” local nuclear war can be fought and won. Such views have started to grow and spread partly due to progress in ICTs, which makes it possible to project informational and psychological influence on a huge audience in a relatively short amount of time and at minimal cost.

We can thus distinguish several key factors of the global influence of ICTs on strategic stability. First, ICTs can be used for destructive military and political purposes. Second, the exponential growth of technologies that force countries to acquire strategic advantages can make it tempting to try and win a large-scale war. Third, the boundaries between peace and war, defence and offence in military planning (including in the nuclear sphere) tend to become blurred. Furthermore, the logic of global confrontation is changing: the combined use of non-military tactics and harmful ICTs enables countries to achieve their war goals even without armed conflict. And one last notable factor of influence is the reduced path to the escalation of conflict, caused by the probability of ICT attacks on nuclear missile infrastructure.

When elaborating criteria for assessing the level of strategic stability and developing plans to ensure it, it is wise both to consider those factors that can be found in any historical period and those specific to the current age. The accelerated progress of ICTs falls into the latter category. Analysis shows that all the destabilizing factors in the modern strategic stability system are due to the development of ICTs. According to expert estimates, over 30 states possess so-called offensive cyber weapons; this is why this threat should really be singled out as a destabilizing factor of its own. Moreover, each of the other factors is enhanced by the destructive use of ICTs, the militarization of peaceful information technologies, and the ease of use, unexpectedness and speed of both IT and psychological weapons.

Additional risks are posed by so-called cyber electromagnetic activities, which are being actively developed by the United States. These include cyber operations, electronic warfare, electronic peacetime attacks, electromagnetic spectrum management operations, the suppression of targets by active and passive interference, as well as electromagnetic disinformation.

The potential use of ICTs to undermine the security of military facilities as part of a nation’s critical infrastructure is clearly a global threat. At the same time, estimating the possible damage from such threats and developing countermeasures is significantly complicated by the intangible nature of ICTs, as well as by the wide range of sources of possible malicious technologies: state and non-state actors, and even single hackers. All of this increases the level of uncertainty and instability. ICT threats may be attributed to various elements of military organization and infrastructure. But in the context of strategic stability, special attention should be paid to the security of nuclear missile weapons. All nuclear powers are modernizing their nuclear systems to keep up with the progress in computer technologies. The integration of network operations in military planning programmes began more than 30 years ago, and today we can already speak of an ICT revolution in military affairs. More and more components of the military nuclear infrastructure — from warheads and their delivery vehicles to control and guidance systems and command and control systems of strategic nuclear forces — depend on sophisticated software, which makes them potential targets for ICT attacks.

Special attention needs to be paid to the protection of strategic weapons, the early warning system, air and missile defence systems, and the command and control system for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, in addition to, or instead of, the principle of deterrence by inevitable retaliation, there is now growing interest in deterrence by blocking the use of offensive means (a “left of launch” strategy) through the use of ICTs.

Decreased strategic stability is due to the fact that the development of malicious ICTs increases the probability of a number of adverse events, such as the erroneous authorized launch of ballistic missiles; the decision to use nuclear weapons; the receipt of a false alarm from the early warning system about the launch of ballistic missiles, which is possible on account of the growing sophistication of ICT attacks or the damage or destruction of communication channels; interference in the control system of the armed forces (including nuclear forces); and the decreased confidence of military decisionmakers in the performance of control and command systems. In addition, a critical issue is the impact that the increased probability of nuclear weapons being disabled or destroyed by means of ICTs will have on future nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation processes.

The possibility that decisions about the use of nuclear weapons will be influenced by information and communication technologies is therefore the most serious threat that exists today — not in theory but in fact. There is now a greater probability of an erroneous authorized launch of a ballistic missile as a result of false information or due to a lack of confidence in the proper operation of military systems and some actions being perceived as the first step to mutually assured destruction. This leads to a considerable reduction in strategic stability.

All of the above threats are further exacerbated by the growing use of remote-controlled robotic strike weapons, the development of artificial intelligence technologies for military purposes, machine learning, the autonomous operation capabilities of various systems and subsystems, automated decision-making systems and other elements that may be subject to ICT attacks.

What global steps can be taken today in response to these global threats to strategic stability, based on the experience gained in the bipolar era? First, all the parties involved (Russia, the United States and China) will have to find common ground in terms of what in their opinion constitutes strategic stability; develop and formalize a common understanding of the danger of ICT threats; and, of course, develop common approaches to assessing the probability of intentional and unintentional ICT attacks. Moreover, they will need to have a clear agreement on the probable response in the event that an ICT attack on strategic nuclear forces is detected. These steps may provide building blocks for an ICT deterrence policy, similar to what was done with regard to nuclear weapons in the bipolar era.

At the same time, it would be reasonable to start work on an ICT arms control regime (statements, commitments, agreements and treaties) that could include: a ban on ICT attacks against certain targets, primarily military facilities; the limitation and/or renouncement of offensive ICT capabilities; the introduction of ICT arms control measures; the establishment of international norms regulating the ways and means of preventing and stopping cyber conflicts; and the development of a convention on the prohibition of the harmful use of ICTs in the nuclear weapons sphere.


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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
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