war on the rocks

When Is More Actually Less? Situational Awareness and Nuclear Risks

On June 19, Iran shot down an American surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz, reportedly leading President Donald Trump to authorize — and later call off — strikes against targets inside Iran. In all likelihood, this would have ignited a broader military conflict, but while the situation was bad, it could have been worse. The mission that led to the Global Hawk shootdown featured familiar surveillance technologies, discernable risks (the platform’s capabilities and detectability are generally known, and the U.S. Navy has operated in and around the Strait for decades), and considerable but bounded consequences for the United States: It would have likely won any ensuing conflict with Iran, and the conflict would have remained non-nuclear. However, as increasingly capable and provocative situational awareness tools come into play, these factors are not a given, and the very act of improving situational awareness may intensify escalation cycles in unanticipated ways, particularly among nuclear-armed states.

For most of the nuclear age, enhanced strategic situational awareness — the ability to characterize the operating environment, detect nuclear and conventional strategic attacks, and discern real attacks from false alarms — has been viewed as beneficial to crisis stability. By improving the accuracy and timeliness of warning, increasing visibility and clarity regarding adversary actions, and extending decision time in crisis, enhanced situational awareness reduces the risk of miscalculation at the nuclear level and alleviates use-or-lose pressures that could incentivize a nuclear first strike. Moreover, the systems that traditionally provided this strategic warning operated at long range, from outside of adversary territories, and generally in ways that were not particularly concerning to an adversary. Today, existing and emerging technology offers the prospect of insight into adversary actions and activities with unprecedented speed and precision. The combination of new sensor technologies, platforms for their deployment, high-bandwidth networks, and artificial intelligence (AI) tools is transforming the potential field of view at the conventional and strategic levels of conflict.

But can there be too much of a good thing? As the strategic situational awareness ecosystem evolves, it is becoming increasingly possible that actions taken to improve strategic situational awareness may increase the risk of escalation and upset crisis stability through three main pathways: provocation, entanglement, and information complexity. On the other hand, concerns about escalation may cause reluctance among decision-makers to use capabilities that could better illuminate a crisis and reduce the risk of war — a conclusion supported by recent exercises run as part of a CSIS study on the topic. Moreover, in today’s security environment, rising regional tensions and growing nuclear capabilities of previously second- or third-tier nuclear-armed states add risk and complexity to escalatory dynamics. The lack of clear thresholds and triggers for possible conflict and the desire to press for asymmetric advantage may play out in new and unexpected ways, including through the capabilities and concepts that undergird future strategic situational awareness.



Collectively, this suggests a relook is necessary to consider not only the risks these emerging capabilities may introduce, but perhaps more importantly the challenges they may pose for policy professionals, especially when employed in a crisis or conflict between nuclear-armed states. Finding that balance between risk and benefit in such a complex security environment while maximizing the value of information to terminate a crisis or conflict on favorable terms won’t just happen. To effectively manage crisis escalation, decision-makers must understand the dynamic relationship between improved strategic situational awareness and crisis stability and then plan, train, and exercise accordingly.

The Traditional Strategic Situational Awareness Environment (1950 to 1990)

The traditional strategic situational awareness environment emerged during the Cold War and focused on understanding a near-peer adversary’s nuclear forces. It consisted primarily of passive systems (e.g., radars, satellites, and hydrophones) that were viewed as stabilizing because they were designed to detect attacks, not to predict them. Furthermore, these technologies were focused almost exclusively on collecting information on nuclear systems. The bright line between systems used for nuclear and conventional situational awareness reduced the possibility of inadvertent escalation through entanglement, a phenomenon identified and expounded upon by James Acton. It also meant that strategic situational awareness assets were secure and compartmentalized and difficult to target kinetically.

As a result, the traditional situational awareness environment generally yielded high confidence in the information these systems provided, limited their vulnerability to adversary attack or manipulation, and reduced the chances of miscalculation. These systems were viewed as contributing positively to strategic stability by ensuring confidence in the durability of the overall nuclear deterrent and reducing risks of premature or miscalculated nuclear use.

The Transitional Strategic Situational Awareness Environment (1990 to 2020)

In the past two decades, the security and strategic situational awareness environments have been altered by three key trends: the rapid pace of technological innovation, the increasing likelihood of conflict between nuclear-armed states (both between dyads with roughly symmetric nuclear arsenals and those with wildly asymmetric arsenals), and the increasingly dual-use nature of military and surveillance technology. Critically, the traditional strategic situational awareness environment contained systems that were either focused on nuclear warning or on providing intelligence to commanders about the conventional battlefield. By contrast, in the transitional strategic situational awareness environment, dual-use strategic situational awareness capabilities may be tasked to conduct both missions. In this new environment, past assumptions about the compartmentalization of nuclear and conventional situational awareness systems and the stabilizing nature of transparency at the nuclear level may no longer apply.

The origin of the transitional strategic situational awareness environment can be traced back to the 1990s. Technological developments throughout the second half of the 20th century culminated in the networked battlefield of the Gulf War, in which the employment of effective communications, command, control, and intelligence (C3I) dramatically improved situational awareness by making use of strategic systems for conventional purposes, especially in terms of precision targeting.

Since that time, this dynamic has intensified. Advanced, long-range, and often dual-use missile systems have proliferated dramatically and now must figure significantly into planning and execution of conventional conflicts. This means that adversaries may have strong incentives to target nuclear warning systems early in a crisis to ensure conventional dominance. However, if both combatants were nuclear-armed, this type of action could lead  to “misinterpreted warning” — the victim’s belief that attacks against its dual-use C3I assets were actually precursors for a nuclear strike — and potentially nuclear escalation.

At the same time, as Keir Lieber and Daryl Press discuss at length, conventional capabilities are becoming more useful for nuclear tracking or targeting missions. As strategic situational awareness capabilities improve, their counterforce value will grow as well. But perhaps more problematically, the actual or perceived ability of technologically advanced countries to carry out precision strike missions against strategic nuclear assets will make any situational awareness-enhancing activities — even those purely defensive in nature — seem highly provocative or escalatory. For example, if North Korea knew or suspected that the United States had the capability to track and destroy its nuclear-capable mobile missiles, it might be compelled to assume that any U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets in its airspace were a threat to its nuclear assets regardless of their actual assigned mission.

The Emerging Strategic Situational Awareness Environment (2020 forward)

The emerging strategic situational awareness environment will be even more networked, dual-use, and codependent than the transitional one. Distinctions or firebreaks between conventional and strategic situational awareness will all but disappear, creating a highly networked, real-time, dual-use landscape that is both murkier and more complex across all levels of conflict.

In the emerging situational awareness environment, not only will conventional weapons rely on strategic situational awareness assets for targeting data, countries will also rely on conventional situational awareness systems for strategic warning. For example, hypersonic systems, boost-glide systems, long-range cruise missiles, and other capabilities are designed to elude traditional U.S. early warning systems (i.e., radars and satellites) and thus defeat U.S. missile defenses. To counter these new delivery systems, the United States may have to rely on conventional situational awareness systems, including systems that are more visible or intrusive, to complete strategic missions and supplement strategic situational awareness. If an adversary were to discover and target such systems, would such an attack be considered conventional or strategic in intent and implication? Increasingly blurred lines between nuclear and conventional command, control, and communications also contribute to this dynamic. Conventional missile warning currently relies on these dual-use surveillance capabilities, increasing the risk that they could be targeted in a conventional conflict for conventional purposes but with profound strategic implications.

In the emerging strategic situational awareness ecosystem, there will be ample potential for inadvertent escalation through miscalculation. For example, deploying unmanned underwater vehicles to monitor an adversary’s nuclear submarines might trigger adversary concerns about potential vulnerabilities to its nuclear forces, and thereby generate an escalatory response.

Technology and Escalation Risks  

The capabilities in the emerging strategic situational awareness environment have the potential to dramatically improve decision-makers’ understanding of developing conflicts and crises especially in light of rapidly evolving delivery systems that may elude traditional strategic warning and situational awareness. However, it is possible that the use of these capabilities may likewise complicate crisis management and introduce new escalatory risks. Of particular concern are three potential escalation pathways — provocation, entanglement, and information complexity — that may be triggered or exacerbated by the use of emerging strategic situational awareness-enhancing capabilities.


The active nature of the emerging strategic situational awareness ecosystem means that states have the capability to penetrate adversary territory (land, sea, and air) and networks to gain highly precise and potentially actionable information. However, these capabilities are potentially provocative — they directly challenge legal and political concepts of sovereignty, their mission (general surveillance vs. counterforce support or surveillance vs. strike) may not always be readily identifiable, and they may intentionally or unintentionally approach vital strategic assets as they conduct surveillance. Similarly, cyber surveillance of strategic situational awareness or NC3 systems may provide highly valuable insight into adversary actions and decision-making with low risks of detection. But if discovered, such intrusions could be difficult to distinguish from a destructive or offensive attack, and therefore could be highly provocative.

Policymakers may already be cognizant of this potential escalatory pathway; ironically, the greater risk may be that policymakers overcompensate and opt not to use capabilities that could produce important information because they perceive them to be too risky. In a series of table-top exercises carried out by CSIS, mid-career and senior academics and policymakers proved very hesitant to deploy capabilities that would enter adversary airspace or territorial waters. They viewed capabilities that operated outside of adversary territory as less likely to cross adversary thresholds and trigger escalation. Excessive caution may avoid unnecessary provocation but may also force decision-makers and military operators to “fly blind” in a crisis in ways that contribute to miscalculation.

However, the question remains as to how well American policymakers understand adversary thresholds and red lines. For example, would China consider American situational awareness capabilities operating in newly claimed and still contested Chinese territory less provocative than assets operating in Chinese territory as recognized by international law? Given the novelty of these technologies and use scenarios, it is highly probable that China — or any other U.S. adversary — probably has not thought through in detail their own red lines, further complicating the action-reaction cycle in a crisis.


The blended or dual-use nature of the emerging situational awareness ecosystem contributes to the potential for escalation through entanglement. As defined by James Acton, entanglement occurs when nuclear delivery systems, forces, and support structures are co-mingled, or when non-nuclear weapons are able to threaten nuclear weapons and their C3I. Entanglement in the strategic situational awareness space occurs when conventional situational awareness systems intentionally or unintentionally collect information on nuclear assets, or when dual-use situational awareness systems become military targets during a conventional conflict. Entanglement can lead to escalation by convincing one or more countries in a crisis that their nuclear assets are at risk.

While the escalatory risks of entanglement are somewhat clear, the solutions — especially with regard to strategic situational awareness capabilities — are far less so. A return to a more disaggregated, or stove-piped system of surveillance and warning for nuclear versus conventional purposes simply may not be realistic. More likely, these risks will need to be moderated via communications, transparency, signaling, and perhaps favoring more overt sources of collection over covert or stealthy means.

Our exercises suggest that policymakers are quite attuned to the risk of entanglement, especially where command and control is concerned. Even so, participants struggled to articulate effective ways to differentiate between intrusive cyber surveillance of nuclear and conventional command and control and tended to significantly restrict the use of cyber capabilities against adversary command and control if they did not reject it entirely. Participants were less concerned about entanglement when surveilling adversary capabilities — either nuclear or conventional — in other domains. For example, in many cases policymakers were willing to use unmanned underwater vehicles to detect adversary submarines as long as surveillance occurred outside of the adversary’s territorial waters, while recognizing that there could be a discrimination issue between the adversary’s nuclear and conventional assets, and that the adversary may not be able to discern whether the unmanned underwater vehicle was armed or unarmed.

Information Complexity

Both the quantity and quality of information generated by the emerging strategic situational awareness ecosystem have the potential to cause escalation in surprising ways. In the national security field, it is widely assumed that more and better information leads to better decision-making. However, this may not always be the case. The technologies in the emerging strategic situational awareness ecosystem have the potential to provide vast amounts of information; however, this information must be analyzed and distilled in a way that is useful. For example, while it may be possible for AI to assist human analysts with this task, the fact remains that the right questions must be asked in order to render information beneficial.

Furthermore, the ambiguous and unproven nature of some of the new streams of strategic situational awareness may lead decision-makers to discount vital information if they don’t trust the source. The hesitancy to trust new technology described in Molly Kovite’s recent article has also played out in our table-top exercises across a range of technologies including pseudo-satellites, small satellites, and next-gen stealth, as well as AI.

Policymakers also expressed reluctance to accept information generated by unfamiliar technology or assumed more risk than reward in its use. Sometimes, policymakers discounted the value or reliability of some technologies — such as stealth — altogether. On the other hand, policymakers assigned signaling value to nearly every action, including the use or deployment of surveillance assets, in ways that were often not anticipated by technology experts, who viewed most of these capabilities not as political tools but rather technical ones. This suggests that psychology is underappreciated when examining the relationship between decision-making and emerging technology, and that new technologies should be socialized with policymakers well before the onset of a crisis to improve the likelihood that policymakers will trust and use them.

The Next Crisis?

Emerging technologies that improve situational awareness can provide tremendous visibility into a future crisis or conflict but likely not without significant potential risk when employed between nuclear-armed adversaries. It is possible that policymakers will not appreciate the potential escalatory pathways described above and use strategic situational awareness-improving capabilities in ways that cause crisis instability and escalation. It is also possible that policymakers will recognize escalation risks and overcompensate, neglecting to use capabilities that could otherwise improve their ability to manage a crisis. As a good first step, appropriate socialization to new capabilities and appreciation of the trade-offs associated with their use can help policymakers maximize benefits and reduce risks. The key is ensuring that policymakers encounter these trade-offs and develop a more sophisticated understanding of these capabilities before a crisis hits — not afterwards.



Rebecca Hersman is director of the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) and senior adviser for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Ms. Hersman joined CSIS in from the Department of Defense, where she served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction from 2009-2015.

Bernadette Stadler is a program coordinator and research assistant with the PONI, where she manages On the Radar, a research project on the future of situational awareness and strategic stability.

Image: U.S. Army, adapted