Deterrence through Entanglement

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Stewart, Brian
Borowitz, Mariel
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Many components of the Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) architecture of the United States are vulnerable space systems. These space systems are considered entangled, which means they support both strategic (nuclear) functions as well as tactical (conventional) missions. Space security experts believe these entangled NC3 systems could be attractive targets for adversaries, even in low-level or conventional conflicts, due to the U.S. military’s heavy reliance on these capabilities to project power and observe adversary activity. Some scholars claim that the entangled nature of these systems combined with the apparent willingness of adversaries to attack these systems crates a significant risk of inadvertent escalation. In their view, a state could be forced to escalate a conflict beyond what either party intended due to the strategic-level impacts that could occur as a result of attacks against NC3 systems. In order to mitigate these risks, the U.S. government has adopted a strategy of disentanglement and millions of dollars have been spent to begin the process of disentangling systems. Unfortunately, the Department of Defense (DoD) has not studied the potential effects of disentanglement on stability, security, and deterrence. I challenge the logic of disentanglement and offer a theory of deterrence through entanglement. I argue that potential adversaries understand that attacks against entangled NC3 systems affect both nuclear and conventional missions and as such, expect that attacks against these vital national assets could be met with the harshest possible response, up to and including nuclear retaliation. With entangled space systems, a potential adversary must be willing to accept strategic consequences even if they only seek tactical objectives, so the cost-benefit calculus for decision makers should ultimately favor deterrence. Continuing this logic, I argue that disentangling NC3 systems could make conventional versions of the systems less dangerous targets and therefore more susceptible to attack. By lowering the expected costs and expected severity of retaliation for attacks, an adversary could be more willing to target disentangled NC3 space systems. I test my theory with novel experimental wargaming scenarios and an elite sample survey that feature entanglement as the independent variable (IV) and operationalize deterrence as a dependent variable (DV), as measured through attacks against space systems. I also conducted a public opinion survey to gauge perceptions about space system attacks again using entanglement as the IV. The wargames provide strong support to the theory of deterrence through entanglement. These sessions demonstrated that entanglement deterred attacks against space systems better than disentanglement, with entangled systems a third as likely to be attacked as disentangled systems. Not only were entangled systems less likely to be attacked, when they were attacked, attacks were less severe than with disentangled systems. Based on both quantitative and qualitative data, entangled systems often carried too high a risk of escalation to justify attacks whereas disentangled systems were viewed as safer options and were attacked more frequently and with more severe methods. Entanglement also appeared to deter attacks in general; out of 20 teams that did not conduct any attacks during the wargaming sessions, 18 were from the entangled treatment. The elite surveys sampled military members in the space community and while these surveys did not demonstrate that entanglement affected the decision to attack NC3 space systems as a whole, entanglement did appear to deter attacks against missile warning systems, and respondents in the entangled treatment were three times more likely to cite fear of escalation as the primary factor for not attacking space systems. The elite surveys also showed interesting differences in perceptions of severity based on whether a respondent was the attacker or victim. On a 1 through 9 scale of response severity, scores were a full point higher on average if the respondent was the victim compared to the attacker, for the same type of attack. Finally, the public surveys did not show significant differences between entanglement treatments and recommended response, though there were significant differences in perceptions of kinetic vs. non-kinetic attacks. Respondents in the entangled treatment did support more severe responses, on average, and were less likely to support soft power measures, however the biggest factor affecting response decisions was proportionality. Some other interesting findings emerged from the research, including an aversion to kinetic weapons and acceptance of cyber weapons. Cyber weapons were generally regarded as safe and effective options for attacks by participants across all treatments. If the data are any indication of future events, cyber weapons will likely play a significant role in conflict moving forward. Additionally, my research revealed interesting findings with respect to human psychology. The disparity in perceptions of severity for respondents based on whether they were the victim or attacker finds support in behavioral economics and could be a source of misperception for leaders assessing likely responses to their actions. The effects of human psychology were also on display in a wargaming session conducted on the heels of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Participants in this session accounted for just 14% of total participants but conducted over 50% of all non-space related military attacks. Additionally, 6 of the 12 teams involved conducted conventional ground assaults, compared to just 1 of the other 72 teams from other sessions. This supports the notion that external factors can bias experimental My research contributes to space security and entanglement scholarship in a number of ways. Most importantly, this is the first-ever empirical analysis of space system entanglement. While scholars have conducted space security wargames, elite and public surveys, and other types of space security analyses in the past, none have used entanglement as a variable. More broadly, my research further demonstrates the possibility and utility in experimental approaches to space security studies. Importantly, through my research I have challenged widely held beliefs that disentanglement contributes to deterrence and demonstrated that not only are disentangled systems more likely to be attacked in future conflicts, but they will also likely face more severe attacks than entangled systems due to the perceived lower risk of escalation. This finding alone should give pause to leaders advocating for increased disentanglement in the U.S.’ NC3 architecture. I also challenge the notion that disentangled nuclear systems will be viewed as “clearly off limits,” as these systems were attacked in both the wargames and elite surveys. If this assumption is being used to inform policies and strategies within the U.S. government, my research shows that this could be a dangerous misperception. Overall, my research provides new data with which to assess entanglement and perceptions about space conflict, both from elite populations and the public. These data can be used to inform better policies and strategies for space moving forward.
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