Lengthening the bridge: the role of current weapons and emerging technologies in expanding the pre-nuclear phase of conflict
Russian Studies Series 4/21
by Dara Massicot*
Lengthening the bridge: the role of current weapons and emerging technologies in expanding the pre-nuclear phase of conflict
debate in recent issues of the journal Voennaya Mysl’ (Military Thought)
Maj. General A. Sterlin, Colonel (res.) A. Protasov, and Colonel (res.) S. Kreidin, “ Current transformations in the concepts and power instruments of strategic deterrence”, Military Thought, No.3, 2019, pp.40-51.
Colonel A. V. Evsiukov, Colonel (ret.) A. L. Khriapin, “ The role of new strategic weapons systems in assuring strategic deterrence”, Military Thought, No.12, 2020, pp.26-30.
Gen. O.L. Salyukov, Colonel A.V. Shigin, “ The place and role of the ground forces in strategic deterrence”,Military Thought, No.4, April 2021, pp.20-28.
Colonels (ret.) G. G. Vokin, M. I. Makarov, “ Conceptual foundations for creating a new class of weapons - Distance cybernetic weapons”, Military Thought, No.8, August 2020, pp.117-125.
In Russian military theory, strategic deterrence is composed of strategic nuclear deterrence and strategic non-nuclear deterrence. Within the realm of the latter, several new military systems make up Russia’s growing intermediate and long-range conventional precision strike portfolio. These include the Iskandr short-range ballistic and cruise missile complex, the Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile, and the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile, and emerging capabilities like the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile. They have now been operationally tested and are being delivered to the armed forces in larger quantities.
Consequently, debate is emerging regarding specific tasks for these weapons in the pre-nuclear phase of conflict. Several authors and senior military leaders are evaluating methods to generate additional combat solutions for the Kremlin, and to provide flexible and scalable options for managing escalation at multiple conflict phases and conflict types. Russian strategists are trying to find efficiencies, using current and projected technologies, that will lengthen the bridge between the pre-nuclear phase of conflict and nuclear-first use. Questions being discussed include:
- What role will Russia’s newest weapons play in the pre-nuclear phase of conflict?
- What critical tasks or missions are given to strategic non-nuclear forces as Russia’s precision strike capabilities evolve and improve?
- What future technologies will contribute to strategic non-nuclear deterrence in the future?
This review will highlight this discussion as it has emerged in the leading Russian defence journal, Voennaya Mysl’ (Military Thought) over the last two years. Four recent articles illuminate the discussion of operational tasks in the pre-nuclear phase of high intensity conflict with a peer competitor. First, in an article led by Major General A. Sterlin, head of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate, the authors discuss the evolving conceptual role of non-nuclear deterrence forces in how Russia plans to fight a major war in the future. Next, (retired) Colonels A. Evsiukov and A. Khriapin of the Center for Military Strategic Studies of the Military Academy of the General Staff, discuss specific tasks during the pre-nuclear phase of conflict for strategic non-nuclear deterrence forces. Following that is an article from the Chief of the Russian Ground Forces, General O. Salyukov, and Colonel A.V. Shigin, sharing their perspectives on the Ground Forces’ emerging service-specific roles in strategic non-nuclear deterrence. Finally, an article by (retired) Colonels G. Vokin and M. Makarov discusses the role of artificial intelligence and “distance cybernetic weapons” (also translated as remote cyber weapons) in contributing to strategic nuclear and strategic non-nuclear deterrence.
That such senior figures as Salyukov and Sterlin are involved highlight both the significance of the debate, and its importance for understanding the future directions of Russian operational development. Indeed, the discussion goes right to the summit not only of the military but the state as a whole, with several Russian leaders announcing that the role of strategic non-nuclear deterrence is growing, and the nuclear threshold is likely to shift along with it, possibly to result in a raised nuclear threshold. Moscow hopes that Russia will be the leader in hypersonic technology and artificial intelligence (AI) – indeed, President Vladimir Putin has said that the nation that harnesses AI first will rule the world.1 Putin has also repeatedly emphasized Russia’s new weapons systems, most notably in his address to the Federal Assembly in 2018. In February this year, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu stated that hypersonic weapons will be the backbone of Russia’s non-nuclear deterrence forces.2 Others, including Chief of General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov, have noted that the main features of future wars will involve the widespread use of “high-precision and other types of new weapons, including robotic ones”, and that AI will increase the efficiency of reconnaissance strike and targeting by 2.5 factors and double the accuracy of Russian military strikes.3 These leaders imply that long-range high precision conventional weapons and weapons based on new physical principles will have increased range, lethality, and precision. These weapons may be able to assume many of the wartime functions previously only able to be fulfilled by strategic nuclear weapons.4
In their article, “ Current Transformations in the Concepts and Power Instruments Of Strategic Deterrence”, Sterlin and his co-authors, Colonels Protasov and Kreidin, discuss the contributions of Russia’s intermediate and long-range strike portfolio to strategic non-nuclear deterrence and future strategic operations.5 They argue that Russia faces serious emerging non-nuclear threats, before referring to what has become standard fare in Russian strategy: the US “global missile defense system”, long-range conventional precision strike, and new intermediate-range precision strike capabilities being fielded near Russia over the coming decade. They argue that these threats will be best neutralized with other non-nuclear capabilities, particularly those at intermediate and long ranges, as extended distances will allow Russia to launch strikes without risking the loss of the launch platform to enemy fires. The benefits include “minimal losses to personnel, arms, and equipment”, allowing Russia more time and space to neutralize threats while attempting to manage escalation in the pre-nuclear phase.
Non-nuclear deterrence tasks at the regional level should be focused on de-escalation: halting military actions of the enemy and targeting the most “serious” non-nuclear threats before the conflict crosses the nuclear threshold at the ‘armed conflict’ and ‘local war’ levels. Global strategic non-nuclear deterrence tasks include attacks on the US “global missile defense system”, particularly the sea-borne ballistic missile defence (BMD) assets. The goal of these attacks would be to destroy or degrade enough enemy BMD assets to ensure a viable and sufficient retaliatory strategic nuclear response, if needed. The authors note that some additional global targets would be certain classes of stationary critical infrastructure targets like fuel or energy complexes.
The authors acknowledge that strategic nuclear weapons are still the most “cost effective” when compared to non-nuclear strategic weapons, in that their damage is widespread and permanent. Therefore, in their view, Russia’s security will always have a strategic nuclear deterrent at its foundations. They claim that “strategic nonnuclear weapons are not a rational military-economic alternative to nuclear weapons in solving the tasks of global and regional strategic deterrence”. Rather, strategic non-nuclear weapons “complement the nuclear deterrence mechanism, help achieve the objective of strategic blocking of local non-nuclear threats to military security, and ensure the impossibility of the nuclear threshold sliding into the area of local wars and armed conflicts”.
As technology advances, and current and emerging technologies are able to assume tasks and roles that were once only options for nuclear forces, changes in Russian military strategy and planning are needed, according to the authors. They argue that in the future, there should not be distinct zones or modes of employment for strategic nuclear weapons, non-strategic nuclear weapons, strategic non-nuclear forces, and general purpose forces. In the future, it may instead be best to consider all these tools as a “centrally managed” pool of resources for solving global, regional, and “local strategic” deterrence tasks. As capabilities of non-nuclear forces increase in range and lethality, the blurred lines between previously nuclear-only tasks and conventional tasks may blur and Russian military strategy, specifically its strategic operations, may likewise consolidate into a “unified strategic operation.”
In their article “The Role of New Strategic Weapons Systems in Assuring Strategic Deterrence”, Colonels Evsiukov and Khriapin (both of the Center for Military- Strategic Studies of the Military Academy of the General Staff), argue that strategic non-nuclear weapons will have several emerging tasks within the larger system of strategic deterrence.6 They also consider how new technologies like hypersonic weapons and directed energy weapons or lasers can contribute to strategic deterrence. These weapons can, if targeted against enemy satellites or missile defenses, reduce the effectiveness of enemy missile defenses, and ensure that Russia’s strategic nuclear forces will be able to inflict unacceptable damage during a retaliatory strike. Therefore, these new non-nuclear technologies enhance Russia’s nuclear potential and survivability. They give great attention to the Peresvet laser system and other strategic directed energy weapons that will have the following contributions to strategic non-nuclear deterrence:
- Reducing stability and efficiency of enemy information, reconnaissance and command and control;
- High precision targeting to destroy or suppress targets, while minimizing unintended collateral damage to civilian or other items not targeted;
- When used in conjunction with traditional weapons, these technologies are force multipliers and increase effectiveness;
- The weapons are scalable and can be used in multiple types of conflict from local to strategic;
- The weapons can accurately and promptly target aerospace attack weapons of the enemy;
- The weapons can hit targets at multiple distances, from local to global.
The authors note that the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile will play a valuable role which includes precision targeting of enemy critical infrastructure like state or military C2 military-economic potential and combat potential targets, and infrastructure targets. The damage inflicted to these types of targets, at hypersonic speeds which improves lethality, can then “decisively change the source of a military conflict and ensure a significant increase in the effectiveness of the use of nuclear forces”.
Specific Kinzhal air launched ballistic missile missions in a system of strategic deterrence could include selective destruction of critically important enemy targets, to include air and missile defenses, due to the Kinzhal’s “significantly lower vulnerability when overcoming air defense and missile defense systems due to its high speeds and flight altitudes”. The authors assess that the Kinzhal therefore gives Russian leadership options to take forceful actions to halt the enemy’s operations during a pre-nuclear phase of conflict, where other types of weapons like nuclear weapons might be “unacceptable for political, ethical, or other reasons.” In conclusion, the authors believe that Peresvet, Kinzhal, the future Burevestnik complex, and unmanned underwater vehicle Poseidon, will expand possibilities for the Kremlin. These weapons will allow for Russian leaders to “implement strategic deterrence measures based on strategic non-nuclear weapons, through their flexible and multivariate use in the pre-nuclear phase of a military conflict without transitioning to the use of nuclear weapons”.
In a 2021 article The Place and Role of the Ground Forces in Strategic Deterrence, the commander of the Russian Ground Forces, General Salyukov and Colonel Shigin, argue instead that the Russian Ground Forces have a growing role to play in the system of non-nuclear deterrence and the pre-nuclear phase of conflict.7 The authors note that the Ground Forces will contribute to strategic non-nuclear deterrence in two ways: they will modernize their equipment to achieve parity with a potential adversary, and they will develop new long-range fires, “the selective use of which is comparable in efficiency with ultra-low and even low-power nuclear weapons”.
The authors state that the Ground Forces’ efforts are not focused on growing their overall force size (indeed this would be difficult for Russia based on its demographics), but rather on achieving a qualitative superiority over the enemy. If qualitative advancements and new weapons can be fielded, according to the authors, then it will be possible to “restore the disturbed balance of general-purpose forces […] to compensate for the superiority of a potential adversary in certain areas, without crossing the threshold for the use of strategic nuclear forces”.
Salyukov and Shigin discuss the positive aspects for their service following the collapse of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Russia is now free to continue its development and fielding of ground-based intermediate range weapons. The authors note that their service should concentrate on the following lines of effort:
- developing missiles with high precision that can target enemy critical targets while minimizing civilian casualties;
- lowering the cost of the missile relative to the cost of the target; increasing weapon survivability;
- and building weapons that can destroy enemy “prompt global strike” capabilities in the opening phases of conflict.
Towards this end, the Ground Forces are pursuing several projects like expanding the capabilities of current systems (like the Iskandr-M SRBM by extending its range) and adapting proven missile systems for the land domain. For example, Salyukov and Shigin discussed a ground based Kalibr missile (currently a sea launched cruise missile) and a new hypersonic ground-launched cruise missile (ground launched cruise missile – possibly a ground-launched version of the hypersonic Tsirkon anti-ship cruise missile) that can operate at intermediate ranges.
As they see it, the ground forces have the following strategic deterrence missions in the pre-nuclear phase of conflict:
- Maintain a high degree of readiness for use in large-echelon warfare and other armed conflicts;
- Maintain peacekeeping capabilities if called upon by the UN and CSTO; (a rather curious mention)
- Building up groups of forces in strategic directions where adversaries are increasing their own forces (presumably this is a reference to Russian force build up in the Western and Southern Military Districts).
- Contribute to missions that were formerly main tasks of the strategic nuclear forces like: provide collective defense assurances to allies under attack and who request Russian assistance, and prevent third parties (likely a NATO reference) from providing their territories and resources to support an aggressors forces’ in attacking Russia; inflicting retaliatory strikes on enemy critical infrastructure targets; and hinder or prevent the deployment of enemy forces in areas of strategic importance to Russia.
- Sparing elements of the strategic nuclear triad – specifically in the Russian Navy and Aerospace Forces that have dual-use launch responsibilities. If certain platforms are lost during the pre-nuclear phase (for example, heavy bombers that launch Kh-101 ALCMs and nuclear ALCMs), these losses will lower Russia’s overall nuclear potential.
Colonels G. Vokin and M. Makarov look to the future directions of Russian military technology to discuss how artificial intelligence and “distance cybernetic weapons” contribute to strategic non-nuclear deterrence in their 2021 article “Conceptual Foundations for Creating a New Class Of Weapons – Distance Cybernetic Weapons” in Military Thought.8 Specifically, they note that distance cybernetic weapons, “due to their high hitting accuracy, versatility and adaptive behavior […] can potentially provide such a high combat effectiveness that it will not be necessary to use nuclear weapons.” In the article, the authors provide a definition of these distance cybernetic weapons as “a symbiosis of […] missile technology, aviation, robotics, and electronics”. They then consider potential applications of “distance cybernetic weapons” enabled by artificial intelligence that can enhance the capabilities of existing weapons and increase their overall lethality, survivability, and precision.
They also discuss how artificial intelligence might be used to improve targeting through better target recognition, target clarification, dynamic retargeting, and other forms of search and decision-making to ensure the weapon reaches the best target available, given its parameters or mission. The authors show how distance cybernetic weapons can travel over long (potentially global) distances not to deliver a missile or bomb as payload, but rather as specialized combat robots. A payload of combat robots or other AI-enabled weaponry could accomplish advanced missions at long ranges such as additional reconnaissance or recognition, possibly assisted with neurocomputers capable of searching for more optimal targeting solutions.
In their view, AI can also enhance the efficiency of existing technology, for example, ballistic missiles and other aviation technology. AI capabilities could be added to rocket and missile design to improve survivability against ballistic missile defenses. The authors argue that currently, the best way to hit targets at global ranges is through ballistic missiles. Based on limitations of navigation and targeting, current ballistic missiles are best suited for stationary objects with known coordinates (such as cities, military bases, power stations etc.), and since their trajectories can be calculated, they can be targeted at various stages of flight with missile defenses. Vokin and Makarov note that mobile or fleeting targets at long ranges will be very difficult to target, and so an additional option is needed: if an AI-assisted winged warhead delivery vehicle was possible, the missile would gain both in survivability and targeting precision based on adaptive behavior.
Advanced AI-enabled carriers or distance cybernetic weapons can also enhance other missions such as over-the-horizon reconnaissance, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare, suppression of enemy air defenses, or adding precision to targeting mobile enemy ground units. This kind of smart targeting and dynamic re-targeting would allow for solving “strategic and tactical tasks at great distance […] without entering into direct combat contact with the enemy”.9
According to the authors, additional benefits and applications of distance cybernetic weapons include:
- advanced reconnaissance and processing;
- increased loiter time due to efficient energy consumption; carriers could be configured with special payloads like mines, that could drop mines on specific locations or conditions and at long distances;
- and carriers could also be configured with supplies like ammunition, medicine, food, rescue or equipment for forward Russian forces.
The authors finish their assessment by observing that “there is reason to conclude that a DKO (distantsionno-kiberneticheskoe oruzhie/remote cybernetic weapon) is an effective nuclear-free means of warning, preemption, deterrence and retaliation, which our country needs at the present time and even more so in the future”.
These four articles suggest that Russia’s current strategic non-nuclear deterrence forces and future technologies will create new opportunities for Russia in the pre-nuclear phase of conflict in three areas: efficiency, survivability, and precision. These new weapons, if enabled with AI or other ‘smart’ components, can be used more efficiently against a variety of difficult targets. Some weapons, like hypersonics or perhaps AI-assisted highly maneuverable carriers, can be survivable against advanced enemy defenses: these weapons can also be used in conflict to ensure Russia’s strategic nuclear systems maintain a sufficient retaliatory strike potential. Finally, as new and emerging classes of strategic non-nuclear deterrence forces are becoming more precise over time at longer ranges, the Russian leadership will have an expanded ability to destroy or disrupt targets at longer lengths without having to select nuclear choices. All evaluated articles conclude that although strategic nuclear weapons remain the foundation of Russian strategic deterrence, strategic non-nuclear deterrence forces will better assist the Kremlin manage escalation and secure Russian interests short of the nuclear threshold.
* (back) Dara Massicot is a senior policy researcher for the RAND Corporation.
1 (back) A. Losev, “Iskusstvennyi intellekt – eto i riski, i vozmozhnosti”, Krasnaya Zvezda, No. 67, 2019, https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/53757508
2 (back) “Hypersonic weapons to comprise backbone of Russia’s conventional deterrence forces”, Tass, 9 February 2021, https://tass.com/defense/1254191
3 (back) “Genshtab: osobennost'yu konfliktov budushhego stanet primenenie robotov i kosmicheskih sredstv”, Tass, 24 March 2018, https://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/5062463
4 (back) “Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov noted, precision weapons, including advanced hypersonics, will allow for transfer of the fundamental parts of strategic deterrence to non-nuclear weapons”, Defense One, 28 March 2018, https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2018/03/russian-military-chief-lays-out-kremlins-high-tech-war-plans/147051/ ; “Genshtab: osobennost'yu konfliktov”.
5 (back) A. Ye. Sterlin, A. A. Protasov & S. V. Kreidin. “Current transformations in the concepts and power instruments of strategic deterrence”, Military Thought, No.3, Vol.28, 2019, pp. 40-51. https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/56458615
6 (back) Colonel A. V. Evsiukov and Colonel (ret.) A. L. Khriapin, “Rol' novykh sistem strategicheskih vooruzhenij v obespechenii strategicheskogo sderzhivanija”, Military Thought, No.12, 2020, pp. 26-30, https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/63205887
7 (back) O.L. Salyukov and A.V. Shigin, “Mesto i rol' sukhoputnyh vojsk v strategicheskom sderzhivanii”, Military Thought, No.4, April 2021, pp. 20-28 . https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/67068427
8 (back) G. G. Vokin & M. I. Makarov, “ Konceptual'nye osnovy sozdanija sruzhiya novogo klassa - distantsionno-kiberneticheskogo oruzhija”, Military Thought, No.8, August 2020. pp.117-125 , https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/60872047