444. Non-Kinetic Threats and the Threshold Spectrum of Strategic Endgame Warnings

[Editor’s Note:  Army Mad Scientist welcomes returning guest blogger Robert McCreight with today’s chilling post addressing the disruptive effects of Non-Kinetic Threats (NKT).  Overmatch in the Land, Air, Sea, Space, and Cyber Domains is irrelevant if our adversaries can harness and unleash the cognitively debilitating effects of neurowarfare capabilities.  In describing three scenarios where adversarial use of NKT can wreak strategic effects, Mr. McCreight’s submission is a clarion call to the U.S. defense establishment to recognize that NKT (and especially Neurostrike weapons) exist, incorporate this game-changing reality into our Joint doctrine, and devise deterrents and countermeasures to counter the threat of their use.  Read on!]

As one ponders the strategic impact of Non-Kinetic Threat (NKT) technologies when placed alongside robust cutting edge hypersonics, quantum, and AI-enabled systems, drone-based swarms, sophisticated missile and artillery systems, and advanced weapons platforms where the entire array of air, space, land, and sea kinetic technologies convey combined breathtaking power in conflict scenarios, military and civilian leaders are tempted to say—so what?  Most often NKT technologies employed in a hostile exchange of armaments between rival nations are frequently viewed as non-lethal, limited effects weapons which fall short of truly strategic value and impact. In the hybrid war, gray zone, JADC2 warfare environment, clandestine non-kinetic weapons are often ignored. The challenge is whether a determined and patient covert enemy can inflict strategic damage non-kinetically before we can recognize the attack, resist it, or recover from it.  In effect, do we really know our weaknesses and security gaps?

Most non-kinetic threat — or the NKT spectrum — consist of silent, largely undetectable technologies capable of inflicting damaging, debilitating, and degrading physical and neural effects on its unwitting targets.  This covert threat is best understood as something to be invoked via rapid surprise attack or as a stealthy forerunner to a massive kinetic follow-on attack. As such, it can gradually weaken, or soften up, targeted leaders of defensive systems and key infrastructure.  Worse, it can be individualized or magnified to adversely impact multiple persons or groups. More specifically, there is a distinct spectrum of NKT threats rooted in a variety of benign non-lethal technologies which deserve consideration for the potentially strategic effects they can engender.

How Should we View Non-Kinetic Threats?

If we accept that NKT systems pose potential strategic threats, why are they so often dismissed?  Maybe when various NKT threat technologies are compared with kinetic systems, it is fairly obvious — kinetic systems kill, destroy, maim, and obliterate.  Whereas non-kinetic platforms prevail best in areas of presumptively sub-strategic value like lasers, cyber, directed energy, and related technologies.

We know certain non-kinetic systems can have unintended kinetic effects, such as overpowered lasers or misused electronic warfare systems.  However, the non-kinetic risk facing modern militaries is whether NKT enables at least three kinds of strategic effects. These three are:  1) a lightning decapitation strike; 2) a covert undetected surprise attack disabling leadership; and 3) insidious covert ongoing attacks which degrade leadership analysis, defensive systems’ operational integrity, and strategic warning.  These reflect the infamous Sun Tzu quote “the acme of skill is to win a war without firing a shot.” Evidence enough that NKT is a neglected domain when Pentagon strategists only concentrate on the Air, Land, Sea, Space, and Cyber domains.  The sixth domain — more specifically the targeting of human neurobiological and biophysical vulnerability — contains strategic scenarios as formidable alternatives to avenues to ‘right of bang’ defeat.

NKT:  A Defining Challenge

Strategic shock and surprise is poison to defense planners.  Pearl Harbor, the 1959 Sputnik launch, and the 9-11 attacks illustrate that our blind spots, arrogance, and hubris are grist for the enemy to exploit.  Here strategic warning took a vacation, and we witnessed the carnage and loss of  geopolitical prestige as we slept or dreamed. Enemies with a keen knowledge of our weaknesses and flawed smugness or misplaced confidence can out-maneuver our defense lapses. Being vigilant against emerging threats is the watchword.  But does that afford protection enough against full spectrum non-kinetic threats?  Are NKT issues of a comprehensive and diverse nature built into our future threat radar?

A decapitation scenario involving non-kinetics is not hard to imagine, especially if one considers our national reliance on crucial energy systems, satellites, IT communications, and other networked security systems. Claiming with misplaced confidence that every conceivable  attack scenario against national security infrastructure is hardened  seems compelling.  But a well-orchestrated NKT lightning decapitation scenario against leadership and infrastructure is the essence of Sun Tzu’s winning without firing a shot.

Secondarily, a covert undetected surprise attack disabling leadership scenario includes a neurological attack targeting leadership. It undermines strategic warning, situational awareness, analysis of options, evaluation of defensive alternatives, development of courses of action, and strategic response. Silent focused attacks targeting leader neurological vulnerability devastate OODA loop thought and related cognitive functions, disconnecting command from its daily management of defense systems and silently nullifying  all electronic, IT, communication, satellite, cyber and interlinked systems.  Scenario #2 entails the phased erosion of key infrastructures, including civilian sources of information, information credibility, data reliability and access nullifying social media platforms and civilian communication networks. Absent strategic warning, NKT is the death blow.

Finally, the third scenario is more gradual, subtle, and insidious in its long-term effects which target key elements of the population—including its civilian and military leaders. Scenario #3 takes full advantage of leaders’ inability to identify they have been attacked or compromised.

Scenario #3 features an unfolding series of attacks that is so subtle and gradual that its victims have trouble reporting that they are targets of an attack at all.  Further, the nebulous neurological symptoms they complain about cannot be uniformly evaluated by experienced neuroscientists because this set of symptoms has never been seen before.  This is distinguishable from scenario #2 in operational terms because it is an explicit prelude to a massed kinetic attack wave staged gradually in deliberate phases, thereby allowing it to be overlooked in strategic significance.

This is not science fiction, nor should NKT be relegated to some amorphous future technology threat decades away in purely speculative terms.   NKT are an unrecognized and unvalidated core of tomorrow’s strategic calculus.  Enemies with NKT systems can target our neurobiological and physiological vulnerability and their principal bullseye is our civilian and military leadership. This tactic enables the waging of an invisible war on the ground, disabling and degrading key infrastructure and military and societal leadership for net strategic effect  The three basic scenarios feature the same dynamic threat variables listed here:   [1] we need NKT early warning capabilities; [2] we need reliable NKT threat defense and alert sensor detection systems; [3] we need robust deterrent technology against all possible NKT threats; [4] we need a NKT technical verification and attribution capability; and [5] we need significant R&D development/deployment of proven NKT counter-measures. Co-mingled as NKT often is within other convergent AI, quantum, nanotech, robotics, genomics, and autonomous systems and technologies, it is a deadly and vague distraction from imagining how targeted neurobiological attacks can happen at all.

Upgraded future soldiers reliant on exoskeletons, modified diet, cyborg add-ons, special biophysical interventions, AI augmentation, and other technologies depict a robust confident force.  However, a determined and skillful enemy can unleash an entire spectrum of technologies designed expressly to penetrate, weaken, offset, or overcome those enhancements. NKT technologies can nullify many of those presumptive upgrades in warfighter protection and agility or covertly dilute warfighter resilience reducing  those extra enhancements and rendering our troops defenseless. What does warfighter resilience mean then? The key challenge of acquiring genuine resilience and force protection is to offset unexpected, unknown, or unimaginable vulnerabilities rooted in NKT.  These are absent from warfighter planning…

This is sheer Sixth Dimension Warfare existing well apart from the Land, Sea, Air, Cyber, and Space Domains — the human mind and body lack an operator’s manual and strategic doctrine.  Full spectrum NKT technologies exploiting cyberspace, nanospace, genomic space, outer space, and neurospace will require tested technology, unique capabilities, and validated operational systems.  Do we grasp that sixth domain warfare is fully understood in parallel alongside classical kinetic combat?  Do we have NKT embedded in our defense?

NKT after 2022—Definitional Boundaries and Deterrence Endgame

By accounting for the sixth dimension—the human one—we understand that JADC2, OODA loop thinking, and situational awareness are in jeopardy along with the imperative to derive a common operational picture.  Inside JADC2, where the aim is visualization of complex data, easier communication, control, and coordination, along with full spectrum data sharing across a wide range of well know but incompatible systems, the latent and covert NKT challenge is insidious.  JADC2 still requires humans in the decision and analysis network to make operational judgements useful to battle commanders.  However, they are largely defenseless against many forms of NKT which impressively elude available deterrent and defensive systems not calibrated to account for NKT technologies.  Perhaps it reflects a strategic shortfall of major significance?  NKT technologies are not well understood or defined, which complicates the issue. The USAF describes the non-kinetic environment as: “…non-kinetic actions have a physical component, the effects they impose are mainly indirect — functional, systemic, psychological, or behavioral”. (AFDD 2, 2017)1

Does that cover this issue adequately?

Further complicating the issue of broad NKT as described here is the lack of a uniform or widely accepted definition.  It can be defined broadly as “use of informational, psychological, diplomatic, economic, social, and technological tools of statecraft to achieve national interests and objectives by either acquiescing or impairing the national will of the adversary.” Non-kinetic engagements can create unique uncertainties prior to and/or outside of traditional warfare, precisely because they have qualitatively and quantitatively “fuzzy boundaries” as blatant acts of war.  Non-kinetic engagements often utilize non-military means to expand the effect-space beyond the conventional battlefield.2

Consider for a moment some disruptive and strategic effects of NKT in the future battlefield.  Just visualize the loss of situational awareness, OODA loop analysis, blurring of the commander’s estimate of the battlefront, foggy interpretation of theater intelligence, and other sacred pillars on which conventional military decision-making rests.  NeuroStrike jeopardizes them all. Worse, it is fair to ask whether aspects of JADC2 is likewise in trouble for the same reasons. NKT create a silent covert ambiguous threat dwelling ‘left of bang’ which nonetheless produce sub-strategic effects.

This brings into focus the set of technological challenges in deterring NKT technologies after 2023 which are, and will continue to be, used against U.S. and allied military leadership with impunity unless stopped.  NKT should be viewed seriously as having a primary focus on degrading the operational performance and decision-making of civilian leaders in key national security, homeland security, and infrastructural management positions.  Deterrence against full spectrum NKT has now become the paramount strategic objective after 2022.  But what are its fundamental requirements, characteristics, and deployable capabilities?  These questions largely still remain unanswered.

What about the vaunted Multi Domain Task Force (MDTF), designed to employ an array of long-range precision effects against enemy anti-access/area denial networks and employ its own non-kinetic capabilities — such as cyber, electronic warfare, intelligence, and long-range fires — to augment the Joint Force’s existing lethal capabilities?  The MDTF claims it can use non-kinetic effects to “electromagnetically isolate” those threats, giving Joint Force commanders the option to wage a kinetic attack against the vulnerable threat.3

The central dilemma here is whether the MDTF is enough by itself to nullify full spectrum NKT or only those threats known to U.S. forces?

Nominal Neuroweapons and NKT Technologies

Awareness of insidious and nascent NKT must go back at least a decade. If we accept the fact that NeuroStrike capabilities target the vulnerabilities of our Central Nervous System (CNS), our neuromechanics, and vestibular systems, the threat is seen more clearly. This covert, silent, and undetected invasive degradation of cognitive functions, perception, brain functions, reasoning, judgement, and decision-making is essentially what I have termed NeuroStrike — it is effective and debilitating, leaving its victims unable to perform normal brain functions for many years.4

The mere existence of engineered neuroweapons deserves special mention as part of the overall NKT spectrum.  An influential and well researched book on the subject by Krishnan carefully describes the arena of neurowarfare as including “systematic efforts by international actors to utilize neuro S&T for the purpose of gaining military or political advantage in a conflict by influencing enemy minds.”5

He cites my research into the issue where I observe that neuroweapons defy easily agreed upon definition, yet clearly they symbolize a serious future threat.6

My emphasis on neuroweapons and the essential engineered threats of persistent NeuroStrike attacks were meant to sound an alarm years ago. NeuroStrike will exert profound implications on wargames, planning conflicts, maneuver operations, and assessing enemy military capabilities.  U.S. senior leader training should focus on NKT issues and ensure that NATO is similarly attuned to these threats.  If future NeuroStrike technology expansion in scope and effect exceeds individual attacks to impair dozens or hundreds of victims neurologically, the enemy has a concrete strategic edge.  A robust confirmatory analysis of this technology to devise deterrents and countermeasures must be underway to offset the threat of their continued covert use and attacks.  Finding a deterrent and countermeasure solution is a prime security goal.

Final Observations

NKT technologies are truly game changing, instrumentally redefining our understanding of strategic leverage and dominance. The use of NKT  technologies as a covert prelude to kinetic hostilities, or as a silent companion to prolonged long-term erosion of strategic infrastructure and defense systems’ operational integrity, is both valid and disturbing. It represents a paradigm shift away from successively more complex, costly, and sophisticated kinetic systems.  If U.S. leadership ignores its strategic effect on future warfare, we find a fatal error.

We know far less than we should about NKT technologies, which enemy and hostile nations possess them, what covert engineering efforts are underway to enhance and magnify their effects, and what can be devised to nullify, offset, and deter their future use against U.S. personnel and our allies.  Continued forms and variations of neurowarfare will challenge us unless an effective showstopper is found.  New definitions of strategic endgame will emerge where the combined impact of mixed kinetic and NKT systems are employed skillfully in conflict.  Overall, we must visualize new endgame conditions which confer an NKT strategic advantage to enemies of the United States.  Joint domain doctrine which does not explicitly incorporate NKT undermines warfare readiness. The battlefield has changed and includes variables that can exert strategic effects in ways not readily seen or discerned in a ‘left of bang’ world. NKT technologies merit serious attention right now.

If you enjoyed this post, check out Robert McCreight‘s previous blog post Quantum Conundrum: Multi-domain Threats, Convergent Technology & Hybrid Strategy

… as well as the following related content:

Non-Kinetic War, by COL Stefan J. Banach (USA-Ret.)

In the Cognitive War – The Weapon is You! by Dr. Zac Rogers

Hybrid Threats and Liminal Warfare and associated podcast, with proclaimed Mad Scientist Dr. David Kilcullen

The Classified Mind – The Cyber Pearl Harbor of 2034, by proclaimed Mad Scientist Dr. Jan Kallberg

Cyborg Soldier 2050: Human/Machine Fusion and the Implications for the Future of the DOD and its associated report 

China’s Brain Trust: Will the U.S. Have the Nerve to Compete? by proclaimed Mad Scientist Dr. James Giordano, as well as his Neuroscience, Neurotechnology, and the Future of War and Neuroscience and the Weapons of War podcasts, hosted by our colleagues at the Modern Warfare Institute

Robert McCreight is a retired national security expert, former U.S. Army Special Ops officer who teaches graduate school, conducts research on future defense issues and consults periodically on foreign policy, intelligence, and global security matters. His publications on these subjects can be found in various professional journals.

Disclaimer: All views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Army Futures Command (AFC), or Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).

1 (PDF) Non-kinetic Warfare – The new game changer in the battle space 316 Non-kinetic Warfare -The new game changer in the battle space. Available from: [accessed Jan 02 2023].Non-Kinetic Warfare: Defense And Strategy In Political War, Canadian NATO Association newsletter Posted on August 9, 2017
2 Ibid, Non-Kinetic Warfare
3 MDTFAUSA NEWS: Army Harnessing Non-Kinetic Effects for Multi-Domain Ops in Indo-Pacific10/12 2022 Ara Mikaia Easly Defense Magazine
4 Neurocogntive Warfare-Inflicting Strategic Impact via Non-Kinetic threats, Small Wars Journal, R.McCreight//Sept 16, 2022. and Brain Brinksmanship Devising Neuroweapons Looking at Battlespace, Doctrine, and Strategy//in Neuroscience and National Security, CRC Press, 2014
5 Military Neuroscience and the Coming Age of Neurowarfare, Armin Krishnan, Routlege 2017
6 Ibid, McCreight

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