The Delicate Balance of Survivability: New Insights from Game Theory on How Missile Defense and Counterforce Impact Strategic Stability and Deterrence

August 2021 No Comments

Speaker(s): Bahney, B. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory); Soper, B. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Date: 2 September 2021

Speaker Session Summary

SMA hosted a speaker session with Mr. Benjamin W. Bahney (Senior Fellow, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) and Dr. Braden C. Soper (Data Scientist, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) as part of its SMA STRATCOM Speaker Series. 

By maintaining strong damage limitation capabilities—missile defense and counterforce capabilities—a state can more confidentially take part in brinksmanship, which is the willingness to risk nuclear escalation to achieve a state’s objectives. Mr. Bahney said that while their current research focused on the likelihood of escalation to nuclear conflict, damage limitation capabilities can relate to any form of conflict. Some arguments against the DoD focusing on damage limitation capabilities were: a) for a crisis to be avoided, the counterforce capabilities of one or more player must be 100% effective; b) bolstering of damage limitation capabilities is likely to end in an arms race; and c) a zero-sum competition increases the chance of mutual destruction. However, when a state takes part in brinksmanship, it is likely that the weaker state will ultimately avoid open conflict.

If two actors participate in brinksmanship, the state that has the lowest level of risk acceptance will set the bar and most likely lose. However, if both actors believe their damage limitation capabilities are stronger than their opponent’s, then conflict escalation and mutual destruction is more likely. Moving on to the dyadic relationships between the US and its largest geopolitical opponents, Russia and China, Dr. Soper made a few key points. The US still has a comparative military advantage over China, which it could leverage. However, there is too much unknown information about Russian capabilities to accurately predict who would win in a Russia-US posturing or military competition. Ultimately, the current discrepancy between the US and its adversaries in damage limitation capabilities explains some of China’s and Russia’s investment into their military capabilities. 

Speaker Session Recording

This recording will be posted over the weekend (by 12 September 2021).

Briefing Materials


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