Selective Disclosure: How to Inject Strategy into U.S. Capability Development

January 27, 2021

During the late Cold War, U.S. leadership chose to reveal the existence of two highly classified, cutting-edge stealth aircraft: the F-117 attack aircraft and B-2 bomber. Stealth posed a technological challenge for which the Soviets had no easy answer, and these two revelations were part of a decades-long effort to impose financial, technological, time, and opportunity costs on the Soviet Union. How can the United States get the greatest return on its investment in classified capabilities today? Given America’s diminishing margin of superiority over competitors such as China and Russia, it has become all the more important for the Defense Department to inject strategy into capability development. Although the Defense Department has rhetorically embraced the term “great-power competition,” it has in many ways yet to adapt its thinking and its processes, let alone its budgeting and procurement priorities, to reflect the needs of long-term competition. Being a smart competitor requires that the U.S. military not only maximize the lethality of its forces in war, but also their impact in peacetime, selectively revealing or concealing capabilities. Doing so can force adversaries to call into question the effectiveness of their capabilities and concepts and convince them to waste resources on weapons or campaigns that don’t benefit them in the long term. By the end of the Cold War, the United States was able to use such an approach successfully against the Soviet Union in a number of cases, including the reveal of the B-2 and F-117. Defense leaders need to think about the circumstances under which it makes sense to do so again today.



Decisions about what capabilities to reveal to achieve an intended strategic effect, how to reveal them, and when, as well as decisions regarding what to conceal and for how long, play an important role in great-power competition. China and Russia have already selectively disclosed information about advanced weapon systems to strategic effect against the United States and its allies. The People’s Liberation Army long concealed its development of new arms as part of a strategy of “hide and bide” in order to forestall a concerted response. More recently, the Chinese government has shifted to a strategy based upon displaying new capabilities, as it did in 2015 when it paraded the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and DF-26 “Guam killer” intermediate-range ballistic missile in public for the first time. It did so again on Oct. 1, 2019, when it unveiled a host of new weapon systems in the parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, including the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, the DF-17 missile equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle, and previously undisclosed unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles.

The Russian government has similarly selectively disclosed the existence of new weapons for political effect, such as when Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled a panoply of new nuclear delivery vehicles, complete with digital animation, in his March 1, 2018, address to the Federal Assembly. Adversary investments in ballistic missiles have long forced the United States and its allies to invest considerable resources in ballistic missile defense. The threat of hypersonic strike has led the Defense Department to investigate a new, and potentially expensive, round of investment in defensive measures.

The question of how the United States can gain the deterrent benefits of classified capabilities without suffering an unacceptable loss of operational effectiveness is a crucial one. Similarly, it is worth thinking about the circumstances under which the U.S. government should selectively reveal classified capabilities — to include new technology, weapons, sensors, communication capabilities, as well as novel operational concepts to employ them — to induce favorable responses, such as the expenditure of resources on defensive efforts or countermeasures. How can we balance the value gained from revealing capabilities against the costs of doing so? This is particularly challenging given that the risks and costs of disclosure are likely to weigh more heavily in the balance than the hypothetical benefits of doing so.

U.S. political and military leaders face the decision as to whether to reveal new ways of war in order to deter or influence a competitor, or to conceal them. Sometimes these decisions are made explicitly — at other times they are made implicitly as the result of bureaucratic behavior and default preferences such as acquisition processes, security classification guidelines, or other standard operating procedures. Efforts to conceal capabilities seek to delay interaction with competitors, whereas efforts to reveal them may seek to provoke interaction. In particular, one may want to do this in order to take advantage of an adversary’s proclivities or tendencies, much as the U.S. investment in its strategic bomber force during the Cold War exploited the Soviet military’s emphasis on strategic air defense.

Developing military capabilities in secret has long been a part of war and statecraft. States intentionally conceal new, “perishable” technology and techniques in order to preserve their wartime operational effectiveness and to inflict surprise on the battlefield. However, concealing capabilities often incurs financial and operational costs. By contrast, states may intentionally reveal new arms in order to deter or provoke a response. Ways to do so include public speeches, parades, flyovers, news stories, intentional displays to commercial or military satellites, displays at arms shows, and “leaked” press stories. However, bureaucratic politics and organizational culture can complicate efforts to conceal or reveal capabilities purposefully. Weapons programs involve various communities with divergent interests that can breed tension and frustration and render unified action difficult. It is only at the highest levels of leadership — for example, at the level of the secretary of defense or of the service secretaries — that these divergent considerations can be thoughtfully weighed.

A Framework for Selective Disclosure

Militaries can develop new systems in one of three ways. Standard programs are initiated in public and are unveiled when they are initiated. Seen from the perspective of an adversary, a standard program offers a target that is visible from the beginning and gradually comes into sharper focus as it proceeds through development into acquisition and then deployment. Absent successful espionage, adversaries are able to react decisively after deployment, and most likely after employment or compromise.

A classified program seeks to conceal the development of a system or key features of it in order to preserve a future operational advantage, delay an adversary response, and temporarily suspend interaction. Most classified programs are initiated in secret and only unveiled later — in some cases, a program may be launched openly and subsequently classified, as was the case with U.S. research on stealth. In either case, a classified program involves both an initial decision to conceal a capability (rather than treating it like a regular program) and a subsequent decision to reveal it. The net effect of security measures is to deny an adversary actionable information and thus delay its ability to develop effective countermeasures.

Whereas a classified program seeks to conceal a capability to delay response, selective disclosure seeks to use the disclosure of a new capability to induce an adversary reaction or provoke a response. Selective disclosure can involve a single, discrete capability, or it can be cumulative, designed to provoke confusion, impose costs, and trigger disassociated adversary responses. It can also involve the overt demonstration of new capabilities. A demonstration may allow a state to gain some of the benefits of new technologies before a deployable capability is available. In other cases, a state may exploit technologies that will never be deployed, but may provoke a desired response or investment from an adversary. Seen from an adversary’s perspective, a demonstration can resemble the unveiling of a classified program or the emergence of a new standard program.

One can think of several families of demonstrations. These include demonstrations that are geared to signaling the advent of new capabilities as well as the intent to use them; “dead ends,” which seek to induce an adversary to go down a technologically or operationally unproductive path; and “divestitures,” which seek to gain the maximum deterrent value from a system of waning utility.

From Concept to Strategy

What programs are best suited to selective disclosure? What programs and concepts are ripe for selective disclosure? Which approaches hold the greatest opportunity to balk competitors’ plans and force them into self-defeating behavior?

Several criteria suggest themselves. One is the importance the competitor attributes to the capability. The U.S. military’s focus should be on approaches that, from the competitor’s perspective, are likely to alter the military balance in an unfavorable way.

A second has to do with the competitor’s bureaucratic response to the newly revealed capability. A competitor’s response will be shaped by an internal debate over the meaning, significance, and motivation of a revelation, by technical and time constraints, by the availability of resources and response options, among other considerations. Here the focus should be on approaches that are confusing and problematic to competitors, with responses that are technically difficult and bureaucratically challenging.

A third is the speed with which a competitor can counter the capability. Those capabilities that can quickly be countered — such as electronic warfare and code-breaking techniques — have historically been among the most heavily protected secrets. Conversely, those capabilities that would take a long time for an adversary to counter, if at all, can confidently be disclosed.

A fourth, related, consideration is the amount of effort a competitor would have to expend to counter the capability. Those capabilities that are relatively easy and cheap to counter should be protected, whereas those that require great effort to counter offer lucrative opportunities for imposing costs.

A final consideration has to do with how quickly and easily the state developing the capability can take the next step in the competition. A state that is agile and has a portfolio of options to field follow-on capabilities may want to disclose its activities, whereas one that faces barriers to subsequent action and few options may want to husband its options.

These criteria suggest several potentially fruitful opportunities for the United States to reveal or demonstrate new capabilities. One option would be to reveal the existence of a capability that has already been developed and deployed. The primary benefit here would be to force competitors to re-assess the military balance and also create uncertainty as to what other deployed capabilities the United States possesses that have yet to be revealed. For example, it might make sense to reveal the ability to connect platforms, weapons, and sensors in novel and unexpected ways that create uncertainty and complicate an adversary’s planning.

Another option would be to reveal the existence of a novel concept of operations for employing existing capabilities. As above, the primary benefit of this approach would be to force competitors to boost their assessment of U.S. military effectiveness and enhance deterrence. It might make sense, for example, to employ multiple Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles from a B-2 bomber to demonstrate the ability to rapidly strike naval targets in contested areas such as the Taiwan Strait. Similarly, it might make sense for bombers or unmanned aerial systems to demonstrate the ability to defend themselves against air-to-air threats.

Yet another approach would be to suggest the development of a capability that doesn’t yet exist (or may not exist at all) to complicate enemy planning, undermine their confidence, and bolster deterrence. For example, it might make sense to suggest a breakthrough that would affect a key military balance, such as the relationship between offense and defense or hiding and finding. It might also make sense to suggest developments in areas of science and technology that are poorly understood to create uncertainty and impose costs.

Still another approach would be to reveal the existence of a capability that is further in its development than previously imagined. The primary benefit of this approach would be to compress the time dimension of competition and provoke a competitor response in order to impose costs. For example, disclosing advances in autonomy, hypersonics, or directed energy might have such an impact.

One could also reveal the existence of a capability that was developed, but is obsolete or a technological dead end. The primary benefit of this approach would be to use previously sunk costs with little further utility to provoke a competitor’s response. It seems likely that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the service laboratories have a stockpile of terminated projects that could be drawn upon for these purposes.

A final approach would be to conceal capabilities that are either more or less promising than previously imagined. The primary benefit of this approach would be to introduce uncertainty to a competitor about prioritizing responses, or add uncertainty about potential operational concepts that could be imagined, but may not be feasible for a long time.


In the coming years, it will become increasingly important for the United States to gain the maximum benefit from its defense investments, in war and in peace. The U.S. military will need capabilities that not only offer effectiveness on the future battlefield, but also that prove problematic to competitors in peacetime. Although the United States became proficient at selective disclosure over the course of the Cold War, there are organizational, bureaucratic, and cultural barriers to implementing such a strategy today. In practice, a program to conceal or reveal information for strategic effect would, for example, benefit from a deep understanding of a competitor’s bureaucracy that is targeting the United States, as well as their state of knowledge of U.S. programs, something that would likely require a dedicated intelligence and analysis effort. It would also require a framework for assessing the risks and costs of revealing new capabilities, including a competitor’s possible responses to the revelation. The effort would also require considerable coordination among a diverse set of bureaucratic actors. All are possible but will require effort to achieve, and in no way is success guaranteed.



Thomas G. Mahnken President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) and a Senior Research Professor at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). This article is drawn from Thomas G. Mahnken, Selective Disclosure: A Strategic Approach to Long-Term Competition (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2020).

Image: Lockheed Martin

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