Situational Awareness

Enhanced and timely knowledge about one’s adversary tends to contribute to crisis stability, writes Dr Salma Shaheen

Situational Awareness
States, either developed or developing, nuclear-armed or non-nuclear-armed, are increasingly investing in modernizing their militaries to respond effectively to a rapidly changing, highly uncertain and excessively fluid threat environment. Situational Awareness (SA) is one such domain of military modernization that is undergoing rapid transformation to enable states to timey perceive and anticipate crises clearly and completely to prepare appropriate responses. However, the more states tend to increase and enhance their SA capabilities that could contribute to crisis stability, the higher the risks of escalation.

Situational awareness at strategic level enables possessor states to gain knowledge about characteristics of the operating environment and battlefield, to detect and track nuclear and conventional attacks, and to distinguish between real and false alarms. Strategic SA (SSA) capabilities include space-, land-, air-, and sea-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems such as early warning aircrafts, unmanned systems (like UAVs), airborne early warning and control system (AWACs), advanced remote sensing capabilities, etc. Different advanced radars such as large phased array radars, p-band radars, VHF active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, over-the-horizon radars, anti-stealth radars, quantum radar and terahertz radar, artificial intelligence (AI) techniques and high-bandwidth networks among others offer a range of services from providing long-range surveillance, defence suppression, precision guidance, tracking of stealth fighters and bombers, electronic intelligence, monitoring of incoming ballistic missiles, tracking satellites, and detecting indicators of a surprise attack as well as a general potential nuclear attack. Overall, these capabilities present an enhanced timely view of existing and/or developing battlefield at nuclear and conventional level. Some platforms offer integrated reconnaissance and precision strike. These systems seem to undoubtedly contribute to crisis stability yet inherently these SSA capabilities cannot ensure against escalation risks. Advancements in SSA offer conventional capabilities readily useful to track nuclear threat/attack or target missions as well as increase the counter-force value of modern SSA systems.
States deliberately practice strategic ambiguity to enhance the effectiveness of their deterrent posture but it affects the adversary’s decision-making

The modern/enhanced strategic SA capabilities offer advantages with shortcomings. For instance, the new capabilities offer rapid information about an adversary’s actions or maneuvers that undoubtedly facilitate decision-making by providing decision-makers enough time to prepare their response. These platforms could stabilise crisis situations among adversaries as strategic early warning platforms could provide time for decision-making to reduce the risks of inadvertent escalation and false negatives induced escalation. However, at the same time this speed could kill this advantage, especially when autonomous ISR or ISR with AI tools are deployed, by reducing time for diplomacy to work. Thus, putting excessive pressure on diplomats to race for time with AI-driven and autonomous ISR systems. Moreover, AI-based SA capabilities tend to improve state’s war-fighting capabilities but at the same time could provide states with confidence to transform their force posture to rapid response that could be destabilising. This presents states with a strategic trade-off. States can choose not to use or deploy modern SSA capabilities to reduce escalation risks but at the same time accept a forego capability that can illuminate battlefield/crisis out of fog of war to reduce the risk of war.

Another advantage modernized SSA provides is the information with precision but this information and data should not undermine the significance of a state’s experiences with its adversary or threat environment to guide its decision-making. This corroborates what Paolo Gaudiano, professor at New York University and Chief Scientist of Aleria, argued that for effective decision-making it’s not either data or experience rather its integration of both. One cannot ignore the importance of experience along with a system of reasoning that humans developed over ages based on rules-of-thumb, intuition/instincts, heuristics while working with AI-driven SSA systems. Modern SSA systems distinguish between information/data from surrounding noise however states’ experiences such as Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 underscore the significance of human reasoning and diplomacy.

The troubled feature of the new nuclear age – that is, entanglement characterise modernized and enhanced SA capabilities. Entanglement refers to intertwined nuclear and conventional (non-nuclear) military assets that could, as John Steinbruner (an American political scientist) highlights back in 2000, escalate conflict. Entanglement in SSA systems could be advantageous as such systems are capable of providing ISR about both nuclear and conventional assets and maneuvers. Thus, making enhanced SSA intensely intrusive yet conventionally targeted could escalate the crisis to strategic level. This differentiates modern SSA from SA capabilities deployed during the Cold War that were compartmentalised – different systems for nuclear and conventional SA, which made them less vulnerable to enemy’s attack. Moreover, Cold War SA systems operated passively from outside the adversary’s territory and were difficult to target through kinetic means, hence, provided increased confidence about reduced chances of miscalculation. Those systems were able to detect whereas modern systems such as advanced remote sensing capabilities and UAVs that have increased the visibility of adversary’s actions could predict an attack and anticipate crisis build-up. Comparatively, the advantages of speed, intense intrusion, precision and enhanced timely view of battlefield that modern SSA offer could incentivise possessor state to dominate field SA by attacking adversary’s capabilities either pre-emptively or as crisis erupts.

Furthermore, states deliberately practice strategic ambiguity to enhance the effectiveness of their deterrent posture but it affects adversary’s decision-making. For instance, states, like humans, tolerance of an adversary’s ambiguity about thresholds is likely to impact its decision-making; the less a state is tolerant of its adversary’s ambiguity, the less accurate is its decision-making. This logic is based on Budner’s, an American scholar, argument that less tolerant individuals perceive ambiguous situations threatening and this in turn affects their decision-making. SSA could help states to adjust their tolerance level towards ambiguity about thresholds and conflict triggers; however it is yet to see how enhanced SSA capabilities will work under such scenarios. These capabilities being highly intrusive, precise and capable of providing and processing information swiftly could address states’ anxieties about their adversary’s ambiguous thresholds. But at the same time could provide enough confidence to escalate the crisis by striking first and gaining dominance at a certain level based on such quality information.

Undoubtedly, modern and enhanced SSA capabilities could enhance states’ ability to detect, track and predict battlefield situations and crises thus enhancing the possessor state’s deterrent. Enhanced and timely knowledge about one’s adversary tends to contribute to crisis stability by enabling states with relevant information/data and time to decide about and prepare their response to existing and/or emerging crises. States cannot forego technological advancements characterising SSA because new and emerging weapons technology such as hypersonic systems, long-range cruise missiles, dual-use weapon systems, AI-driven systems, hybrid platforms etc tend to elude traditional and passive approaches towards situational awareness.  However, the new SSA capabilities are not insulated from escalation risks. This necessitates states to address the trade-off of modern SSA capabilities to enhance escalation management and maintain crisis stability. Hence, it is important for states together at international level to agree on a way of living by striking a right balance between benefits offered by modern SSA offer including speed, accuracy/precision, intrusion and entanglement, and diplomacy, experiences, partial compartmentalisation and reducing the vulnerability of SSA systems.

The writer is a London-based academic.
She Tweets @SalmaShaheen07

Dr. Salma Shaheen teaches at the Defence Studies department at King's College London. She can be reached at