CNO: Gray Zone Ambiguity Challenges Strategic Deterrence
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
ARLINGTON, Va. — The clarity of strategic deterrence during the Cold War is giving way to an ambiguity that is providing a set of challenges to U.S. military forces, creating uncertainty in the ways to respond to threats, especially in terms of gray zone behaviors, the Navy’s top officer said.
“In the last 25 years, things have changed,” Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations (CNO), told an audience May 25 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, noting that the strategic climate has evolved from one of nuclear and conventional deterrence to now also include the dimensions of chemical and biological warfare and conflict in space and cyberspace. “We’re just starting to re-kindle our thinking.”
“The essence of deterrence remains the same, a credible ability to inflict an unacceptable cost on another party,” Richardson. “You’ve got to have the power to do that, you’ve got to have the will to use it, and, if you’re going to have deterrent effect, and your adversary has to have a clear understanding of that, that it has that deterrent effect.”
“Nuclear deterrence is “still an absolutely critical part of the deterrence equation,” he said, noting that the U.S. strategic deterrence triad of bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles remains essential to maintain that deterrence. However, the fact of other nations seeking to gain nuclear weapons, including “dirty” bombs and small-scale bombs “may be blurring the line between nuclear and conventional warfare … and be seen as acceptable by some. How does our deterrence calculation address that?”
“Deterrence and asymmetry are not very good bedfellows,” he said.
Advances in bio-tech make biological threats more potent and more likely, Richardson said, particularly from states with fewer resources.
Richardson called the cyber threat “the other viral,” noting a report from the Defense Science Board that “the offensive nature of cyber will outstrip the defensive ability of cyber for the next 5 to 10 years, … an interesting window that demands our attention.”
The CNO said that defense against cyber attacks and intrusions — including the theft of intellectual property and political manipulation — is difficult because of the low barrier of entry for adversaries.
“Cyber, in particular, might be one area in where we want to have a coherent, multidimensional approach to deterrence, so that we’re not doing force-on-force,” he said. “There’s maybe a kind of mutually assured destruction dimension to cyber.”
Space also poses a challenge of ambiguity, such as avoiding collateral damage, or determining what constitutes an attack, he said.
Conventional deterrence is still critical, and may be evolving from an era of competition for precision, such as in weaponry, to an era of competition in decision superiority, particularly in the speed of decision making, he said.
The quickest to figure out what matters and to make a decision, is going to be the winner,” Richardson said.
Technologies like autonomy and artificial intelligence are going to challenge us not just our laws and policies, but, significantly, our culture,” he said. “We have to move this conversation forward as quickly as we can.”