Deterrence through Strategic Latency

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Strategic latency refers to the potential for science and technology to shift the economic and/or military balance of power through innovations that could threaten national security, as well as the impetus to harness and leverage emergent, untapped technologies that could give the United States an economic as well as military advantage.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is perhaps best known for its work in maintaining the country’s nuclear deterrent. Emerging technologies have always been central to the deterrence mission. Today, deterrence is more complex than ever, and emerging technologies continue to play a critical role in the Laboratory’s support of national security. Beyond keeping the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons safe, secure, and reliable, emerging technologies in the realms of space, cyber, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing are defining the full range of complex, multidomain and integrated deterrence options. Anticipating how emerging technologies will be applied to military requirements is the goal of the Strategic Latency Program at the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR).

The Laboratory’s CGSR was established in 1996 to serve as a bridge between the science, technology, and national-security policy communities, and focuses on emerging challenges in the areas of deterrence, assurance, and strategic stability.

One of CGSR’s thrust areas is understanding the future of long-term competition, where the analytical lens of strategic latency offers insights about the threats and opportunities associated with novel technologies. The program draws on the full portfolio of Livermore’s expertise, from threat analysis to fundamental and applied sciences, to assess how nascent technologies shape national and international security. Zachary S. Davis, senior fellow and South Asia specialist who leads CGSR’s Strategic Latency Program, explains, “Technology is transforming the face of warfare and will directly impact warfighters across the spectrum of conflict from strategic deterrence to special operations forces and the gray zone. CGSR’s exploration of strategic latency in all its facets speaks to the need to relentlessly anticipate future technological applications.”

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Strategic Latency: Red, White, and Blue: Managing the National and International Security Consequences of Disruptive Technologies, which was published in 2018 and edited by Zachary S. Davis, senior fellow at the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR), and Michael Nacht, Schneider Chair Emeritus and professor of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, examines how seemingly harmless or beneficial technological innovations can precipitate political, military, or economic disaster.

CGSR has made substantial contributions to creating and growing the field of strategic latency through the development of intellectual analyses that address complex questions about the impact of scientific advancements on security and society at large. The analytical frameworks examine strategic latency through the perspective of (1) threat analysis of how different countries apply science and technology to military purposes; (2) the origin and trajectories of individual technologies; and (3) how the United States government develops and acquires the technology it needs. Brad Roberts, CGSR director and deterrence expert, asserts that strategic latency is “a hedge against a future deterrence shortcoming. With a solid scientific grasp of emerging technologies, states can develop bleeding-edge military applications and innovate strategic advantages in response to a compromised security environment.”

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The 2019 CGSR occasional paper, Artificial Intelligence on the Battlefield, An Initial Survey of Potential Implications for Deterrence, Stability, and Strategic Surprise, poses questions and provides first-order arguments developed by Davis for a CGSR workshop on the emerging roles and consequences of artificial intelligence.

Measuring a country’s latency toward possessing nuclear capabilities—how close it is to developing nuclear weapons—is the key to measuring proliferation risk. Emerging technologies, such as additive manufacturing, might shorten the timeline. As a strategy, latency can be looked at from two sides—either by potential proliferators who assemble the necessary elements needed to acquire nuclear weapons, but without “crossing the line,” or from a nonproliferation perspective, which seeks to extend the time it takes before a nation-state has the technological means and resources to successfully develop weapons of mass destruction. “Strategic latency—as an analytical lens—can also be an applied strategy that deploys export controls, safeguards, and treaties to incentivize countries to maintain their latent state,” says Ronald Lehman, CGSR fellow and counselor to Laboratory Director Kimberly Budil. For example, the Atoms for Peace Program in the 1950s sought to provide the benefits of nuclear technology without spreading the means to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. Another example is Iran, which pushes the limits of nuclear latency, while the Joint Comprehensive Program represents multilateral efforts to keep Iran from turning its latent capabilities into weapons.

“The globalization and democratization of technology is a double-edged sword,” says Davis. “Superpowers can’t control access to technology like they used to. Our challenge is to understand the technology, predict its unforeseen applications, and then figure out how to control it—if that’s even possible. National and international controls on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons depend on verification and enforcement mechanisms that don’t yet exist for cyber, space, or other emerging technologies.”

A Tactical Approach

CGSR employs a multistep approach that first brings leading experts in science, technology, military, and policy together on a range of issues including missile defense, nuclear strategy, regional conflict, and peer competitors such as Russia and China to focus on a specific topic area. “The complexity of today’s problems demands an interdisciplinary approach,” says Davis. “Assembling the technical and policy expertise is essential.” Increasingly, it is equally important to include insights from the private sector as well as groups such as In-Q-Tel and the Defense Innovation Unit that were established to help the United States government acquire cutting-edge technologies from private industry.

The information gleaned from these gatherings is documented in workshop proceedings and bibliographies published on the CGSR website. The discussions and presentations often evolve into CGSR occasional papers, Livermore papers, or larger edited volumes. They can also result in journal publications by CGSR staff and fellows. The latter category is a diverse group comprised of postdoctoral researchers and short-term fellows, which include internal Laboratory scientists and specialists of all disciplines that spend several months focusing on a research question that falls within CGSR’s key thrust areas.

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CGSR’s Strategic Latency Unleashed: The Role of Technology in a Revisionist Global Order and the Implications for Special Operations Forces was edited by Davis; spans 38 chapters written by contributors from the government, military, intelligence, academic, and private sectors; and includes a chapter on forensic science coauthored by Lawrence Livermore’s Brad Hart and Brian Souza. (Cover artwork by Mark Gartland.)

Strategic Latency in Practice

A key benefit of conducting this analytical work at Lawrence Livermore is the immediate access CGSR researchers have to scientists and engineers working on cutting-edge science and technology. “You can go directly to the technology experts who share their first-hand, work-bench insights and knowledge,” says Davis.

One major example that highlights how the Laboratory is realizing strategic latency is its work in additive manufacturing—the innovative layer-by-layer technique of printing 3D objects from a digital model—and the development of new feedstocks or inks and manufacturing techniques that have produced components with unprecedented characteristics and geometries. Additive manufacturing opens a new world of design possibilities in medicine, aeronautics, energy, and many other industries. The Laboratory’s Polymer Production Enclave, a collaboration with the Kansas City National Security Campus, was established to accelerate the design, development, and production of additively manufactured parts for the Nuclear Security Enterprise and has already realized several early technological advances. (See S&TR, November/December 2021, Polymer Production Enclave Puts Additive Manufacturing on the Fast Track.) “The Laboratory’s work in additive manufacturing is already having a strategic impact. When we look at it through the lens of strategic latency, however, we’re not just evaluating it for what it does or how we’re using it, we’re also taking into consideration how it could be used,” says Davis.

Another example of the Laboratory’s pioneering work is the National Ignition Facility’s development of nuclear-fusion energy. Realizing fusion—the reaction that produces energy by joining the nuclei of two atoms—could be revolutionary. It could slow climate change, as this type of nuclear energy would not release carbon emissions or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. “Once commercialized,” Davis says, “fusion energy will have major strategic benefits for the United States and the world. The latent potential is very promising.”

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CGSR occasional paper, Getting the Multidomain Challenge Right, explores the implications of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles, and biotechnology on U.S. defense planning, as well as strategies to support strategic stability. (Cover artwork by Tom Reason.)

Cultivating the Next Generation

CGSR has cultivated widespread recognition of strategic latency. It has also expanded the field through its research associates and internship program that provides participants with opportunities for research, publication, and connections with a diverse set of technical experts. CGSR fellows were instrumental in the recent National Nuclear Security Administration’s Strategic Outlook Initiative on technology futures studies and have complemented the Laboratory’s highly respected series of edited volumes on strategic latency with publications of their own. Early career scholars at CGSR have studied the strategic potential of lasers, drones, artificial intelligence, genetics, social media, space, and other technologies, leveraging Laboratory scientists’ unique insights.

Today, the Strategic Latency Program’s network encompasses “hundreds of people with diverse expertise and seniority working across dozens of institutions.” Roberts says, “As a foremost leader in strategic latency, CGSR has attracted a new generation of scholars determined to uncover and think critically about how these emerging, disruptive technologies will affect our future security.”

—Kristine Wong

Key Words: additive manufacturing, Center for Global Security Research (CGSR), deterrence, disruptive technology, emerging technology, fusion, multidomain deterrence, National Ignition Facility, Polymer Production Enclave, strategic latency.

For further information contact Zachary S. Davis (925) 423-7502 (davis126 [at] (davis126[at]llnl[dot]gov)).