In the context of U.S. defense policy, "deterrence" is typically understood to mean "nuclear." And America's nuclear triad — ground-based missiles, air-delivered bombs, and submarine-launched missiles — serves as America's biggest form of deterrence, which underwrites everything its men and women in uniform do.
But according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson, nuclear weapons are just one of multiple elements of deterrence the U.S. must consider either for itself, or for being aware that other nations might be using them. During a July 2 breakfast presentation hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Washington, Richardson laid out five such elements of deterrence already in use or that must be considered more deeply.
"It's an incredibly powerful military capability where potentially everybody gets destroyed," Richardson said. "We must maintain our ability to be competitive and relevant in this domain ... [and] strike back at anybody who can pose an existential nuclear threat to the homeland."
The triad itself includes ground-based missiles — commonly referred to as intercontinental ballistic missiles; submarine-launched ballistic missiles; and air-launched cruise missiles dropped from bomber aircraft. In all three areas the U.S. is underway with modernization efforts.
But the nuclear environment globally is changing, Richardson said.
"More nations are seeking to join the club," he said. Some of those nations can bring high-tech weapons, while some are using low-tech, including dirty bombs and systems that can be manufactured with 3-D printers. Additionally, not all nuclear weapons are "strategic" in nature. Some are smaller "tactical" weapons.
"The nuclear element of this mix remains very relevant, very active, and deserves a lot more attention in my mind," Richardson said.
Richardson said when it comes to cyber as a deterrent, the U.S. can't maintain only defensive capabilities. "We have to have an ability for offensive cyber to truly achieve a sense of deterrence there," he said.
Recent cyber provocations, he said, are "multidimensional in ways that may or may not have been expected." Included there, he said, are theft of intellectual property, invasion of privacy, invasion of identity, distortion of identity, "and most recently, perception management. This perception management idea ... might be kind of our new Sputnik moment."
"The competition is absolutely heating up in space," Richardson said. "Of these elements that are going to constitute a tailored strategic deterrent approach, space has got to be one of those."
Richard posited that in space, it might become apparent that, using directed energy weapons, it proves far easier to destroy something in space than it is to put something back up into space. "These things operate really fast ... and space goes away as an asset," he said. "You can see kind of a mutually assured destruction scenario in space pretty easily. Have we thought about that going forward?"
Increasingly, Richardson said, chemical and biological deterrence will come into the mix, especially as technologies such as CRISPR — a genome editing tool — allow for more tailored capabilities.
"One of the self-deterrent aspects of chemical/biological is that it's very hard to control. It goes viral, if you will," he said. "But with these tailoring things, you can get a lot more specific. It becomes a lot more targetable. And so, it’s something we have to mind."
U.S. deterrence advantages in conventional weapons have relied, so far, on superior targeting ability, Richardson said. But that may become less important.
"We have better sensors, better satellites, better ways to connect that data with our command and control systems, our targeting systems," he said. "We had an advantage in terms of precision."
Now, he said, such sensors are ubiquitous, and commercial and military sensors are going up into space. There are cameras everywhere.
"This idea of being able to locate things with precision is becoming more ubiquitous," he said. "It's less of an advantage. It’s really the team that can manage that information better that's going to achieve the advantage."