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 SA-enhancing capabilities. Although multiple pathways may be activated during an actual crisis, either simultaneously or sequentially, examining each of these escalatory pathways individually provides insight into the interplay of strategic SA technologies and stability risks.


The active nature of the emerging strategic SA ecosystem means that states have the capability to penetrate adversary territory (via land, sea, and air) and networks to gain increasingly precise and potentially actionable information. However, the use of these capabilities risks discovery and response by the state under surveillance. Likewise, these capabilities may generate information that suggests the opening of an offensive window of opportunity, greatly increasing incentives to move first. Escalation through provocation occurs when parties to a crisis lack an ability to determine the offensive or defensive intentions behind a proposed action or information collection effort, greatly intensifying escalatory pressures. It may occur because:

▪ information collection efforts begin to influence rather than observe the course of a conflict or crisis (whether intentional or not) through intrusive or disruptive activity; or

▪ the rapid, precise, and persistent nature of SA capabilities creates opportunities or incentives to take action on a preemptive or preventive basis.

In other words, a provocation-based escalation cycle occurs when the use of these technologies is perceived in offensive terms by the country being observed (e.g., by illegal territorial intrusion) or the strategic SA capabilities afford a significant offensive or first-mover advantage to the observing state.

These provocation dynamics could play out through several different scenarios:

  1. The use of intrusive technologies challenges legal and political concepts of sovereignty and is perceived as offensively intended (a territorial incursion can be perceived as an act of war regardless of its defensive intent);
  2. The intended mission of these capabilities (general surveillance versus counterforce support or surveillance versus strike) is not readily identifiable and is misperceived;
  3. Surveillance capabilities intentionally or unintentionally approach vital strategic assets as they conduct surveillance and therefore provoke a response;
  4. Clandestine capabilities, such as active cyber surveillance, are discovered, prompting surprise and uncertainty as to risks and damage; and
  5. Surveillance capabilities initiated for defensive purposes identify preemptive or action-enabling options, prompting a willingness to take an escalatory offensive action in hopes of terminating the crisis on favorable terms. Or, if the surveillance is detected or revealed, the country under surveillance may assume such intentions and undertake an escalatory step of its own.
Download full Pathways to Escalation_4