We need a frank discussion on what deterrence is and how it is operationalized in contemporary conflicts, because right now, there is a disconnect between theory and practice. Just as some will quote Clausewitz out of context as a way to buttress a bad thesis, we now see people quoting Schelling and Kahn to support poorly developed deterrence concepts to counter the use of emerging technologies. Many analysts believe that new technologies or platforms should drive changes in deterrence theory, as if it should change with every new evolution in the character of warfare. Certainly deterrence theory has changed since its development during the Cold War. But we need to go deeper to justify whether deterrence theory truly needs to be changed solely due to the emergence of new technologies.
The Department of Defense defines deterrence as “the prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” This is a far too flowery definition for what Dr. Strangelove called “the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack.” The key to correctly defining deterrence is to recall that it is the threat of force—not the actual use of force—to retain the status quo, successfully communicated to an adversary. Often people will confuse compellence, the actual use of force to cause an adversary to change a behavior they are already doing, with deterrence. Deterrence and compellence are targeted at political leaders, and military forces provide the means by which those objectives are met. As a result, the two concepts are easily confused when practiced by governments. Dissuasion is convincing an adversary to stop a course of action without the use of force. These definitions are important if one intends to develop operational capabilities that maintain a state of deterrence.
There is no shortage of academic literature on deterrence theory—Lawrence Freedman, Therese Depelch, and Brad Roberts all have written readily accessible books on the topic. There are many books and journal articles written every year, speculating as to how deterrence theory holds up today during contemporary crises. Multiple conferences every year offer the opportunity to exchange ideas and debate about deterrence theory. What some call “classic deterrence” often refers to rational-actor theory addressing a strategic nuclear exchange between the two superpowers during the Cold War—what Thomas Schelling and Herman Kahn discussed in the 1960s. The maturation of space-borne capabilities, cyber threats, and hypersonic weapons constitute new strategic threats to the United States, and as a result, the defense community has struggled to define new theories of deterrence distinct from nuclear deterrence.
There is a strong argument in favor of retaining a focused, single theory of strategic deterrence that is agnostic to the type of technology. Gen. John Hyten, the former commander of US Strategic Command, has stated that the command’s primary mission is to provide a strategic deterrent, and given that his command “has all the global nuclear capabilities of our nation,” he explained, “that better be priority number one.” But he also made clear that the nuclear arsenal “is not the only thing that provides our strategic deterrent.” By that, he means that a twenty-first-century strategic deterrent also requires the integration of conventional global strike, space control, control of the electromagnetic spectrum, and missile defense. This idea of integrating nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities to provide a strategic deterrent dates back to the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. That said, nuclear deterrence is certainly the most important aspect of strategic deterrence.
There will always be debates as to whether nuclear deterrence works, and to extend the argument, whether US national security strategy today relies too heavily on a Cold War deterrence model. These debates miss a critical point. The major superpowers with nuclear weapon systems are the same today as they were during the Cold War, and political motivations have not differed remarkably. Political leaders have changed, there are new nuclear weapons, and there are new global entanglements, but the deterrence theory developed during the Cold War and improved upon after the Cold War ended still works. We can debate the value of deterrence by punishment versus that of deterrence by denial, but both have complementary roles in designing operational capabilities that address US political objectives.
Conventional deterrence operates the same way as nuclear deterrence in terms of demonstrating both capability and credibility of action, as well as communicating these to an adversary. The main difference is that when there is a failure in conventional deterrence, the result is not as extreme as a failure in nuclear deterrence. We have US forces in Korea and Japan, throughout the Middle East, and in Europe as conventional deterrents against open conflict. However, an adversary may still undertake a conventional attack against US interests and accept the risk of US retaliation. A nuclear-armed adversary may be even more emboldened to take conventional actions despite US attempts to deter such aggression. So we see China building bases in the South China Sea, Russia openly supporting insurgents in Ukraine, Iran seizing oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and North Korea firing ballistic missiles around Japan despite deterrent efforts by the United States. These same adversaries would not risk attacking the United States with hundreds of hypersonic vehicles or cruise missiles, perhaps because the United States identified a large-scale conventional attack as a red-line in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report.
One of the most important issues in deterrence practice is deciding on what behavior US policymakers are trying to deter, and how we can judge the effectiveness of a deterrent posture. One can find relevant academic discussions on space deterrence and cyber deterrence, but it is not clear how the US military would use cyber or space forces to deter nuclear-weapon states from actions during non-nuclear confrontations. There has been some research on “cross-domain deterrence” but how best to incorporate that theory into US strategy and policy remains far from certain. The 2016 National Security Space Strategy outlines a general “deterrence by denial” approach by improving satellite protection and adding resiliency. The 2018 National Cyber Strategy hints at more of a “deterrence by punishment” approach by imposing consequences to deter bad behavior. So these deterrence terms are familiar, which means it is more of an exercise of determining if there is credible willpower and capable tools to enforce these strategies.
It is not clear as to whether the US national missile-defense system is a deterrent (by denial) or just an aspect of homeland defense. The Missile Defense Agency states that its mission is to defend the United States, and its current strategic plan says that “when deterrence fails, the Nation will need active defenses.” At the same time, its vision is to (eventually) “give the Joint Force an overwhelming deterrence and warfighting advantage.” So which is it, a deterrent or a defense? In theory, one might believe that an adversary can be deterred from launching ballistic missiles against the United States if a national missile defense system was in fact in place, was robust, and was highly effective. Lacking evidence of a capable (fully functional) defense system, it would not be a very effective deterrent against another superpower. One might hope that a limited missile-defense program would deter North Korea from launching ballistic missiles against the United States, but then again Kim Jong-un might try to saturate US missile defenses in an effort to overcome this defense. Because the nature of the mission—whether deterrence or defense—is unclear, it becomes hard to identify what objectives national missile defense is supposed to meet and to what degree it is effective. Having a robust missile-defense program does not change how the United States seeks to deter other nuclear-weapon states from attacking the homeland.
To continue this line of thought, ML Cavanaugh wrote in a recent MWI article that “we deter in order to defend, [so] when deterrence changes, so must defense.” In my view, I see military analysts viewing deterrence as a means to delay the adversary while the US military prepares to attack. That’s not the intent of deterrent actions, to provide US forces some time to organize prior to attacking the adversary. It’s a political form of communication, and as such, deterrence hasn’t significantly changed. Defense and deterrence may work in tandem but they are two distinct operations. Cavanaugh believes that a “defense in depth” for the homeland will result in a denial of benefits to an adversary, through integrating major US industries into defense plans and partnering with Mexico on security issues. While we might hope that a homeland defense in depth would discourage general attacks against the United States, it is unclear that, eighteen years after 9/11, this form of deterrence is working. Russian bombers still approach US borders. Chinese, Iranian, and North Korean cyber attacks haven’t diminished. Strategic nuclear arsenals in China and North Korea continue to grow to offset a US global hegemony.
We should not view “deterrence by denial” as merely a defensive block against one avenue of attack. Deterrence by denial only works if the adversary views it as an obstacle. If the adversary views our defensive efforts as weak, has resources to use multiple attacks against limited resources, can achieve political objectives regardless of an effective defense, or wins in public opinion even in losing on the battlefield, then developing defenses as a “deterrence by denial” will not work. We maintain national defenses because we are unsure that general deterrence will work. It may be that adversarial nation-states have other reasons not to attack the US homeland, and nonstate actors capable of such attacks may have been destroyed or diminished by active US military actions. This reduces the need for deterrence efforts. Sometimes a defense is just a defense.
At a recent conference, a field-grade military officer was doing his best to convince his audience that US plans to counter weapons of mass destruction could be rolled up under deterrence policy. He rationalized this by pointing to DoD’s joint definition of countering WMD: “efforts against actors of concern to curtail the conceptualization, development, possession, proliferation, use, and effects of weapons of mass destruction.” US policy is to deter nations from developing and using nuclear weapons, and this counter-WMD definition addresses efforts to curtail development and use of WMD. Ergo, countering WMD is a subcomponent of deterrence. This simplistic explanation ignores nearly three decades of developing counterproliferation/counter-WMD strategy and the careful segregation of nuclear deterrence and counter-WMD policy within DoD.
US counterproliferation policy was always aimed at operationally protecting US forces from unconventional weapons effects and not intended as a strategic deterrent. We needed counterproliferation in 2003 because we were not sure as to whether Saddam Hussein might use chemical and biological weapons in an act of regime survival, despite US statements of massive retaliation. We need counterproliferation today because we are not sure as to whether Kim Jong-un might use chemical or biological weapons, despite demonstrations of US military power and clear statements warning him against such action. Countering WMD is the defensive plan we go to when tailored deterrence (against a specific adversary) fails.
During the Cold War, it was clear what strategic deterrence meant and that the United States needed capable military systems to convince the Soviet Union that a strategic nuclear exchange would be a mistake. Nearly thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, we have a new generation of military and civilian analysts who have not considered modern deterrence concepts. Just as Clausewitz’s broader views on the nature of war remain viable today, so does the general relevance of deterrence theory and its observations on how political adversaries can be coerced through threats of force. The basic principles apply to both nuclear and non-nuclear scenarios. We should guard against reinventing deterrence theory merely because there are new technologies that did not exist thirty years ago.
Al Mauroni is the director of the US Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies and author of the book Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the U.S. Government’s Policy. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Air University, US Air Force, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Missile Defense Agency
Defensive weapons are a challenge.
Offensive strategic Thermonuclear weapons are a deterrent.
Theories based on strong framework should always stand the test of time. In this connection, it will be relevant to give an example of the perpetuity of ‘principles of war’. The value and relevance of ‘principles of war’ always remain intact even though every era has its own kind of war and its own peculiar preconditions. In the same way, deterrence, being such a core human issue cannot suddenly become irrelevant because of the changes along several dimensions of the international system in 21st century. In fact, change in international system is a normal and common phenomenon. It is not that only 21st century is experiencing a change in international system. Rather, all previous eras or centuries had their own type of international systems, which were different from each other. Therefore, the theoretical framework of deterrence should be so solid that its relevancy and reliability are not challenged by the usual change of the international system. Then why are people saying that the elegancy of deterrence is diminishing?
With the end of the cold war, the scholars, policymakers and strategists – who used to be so confident about the reliability and viability of deterrence as a critical component of security and peace for the international system, got the first shock. The second shock came with the beginning of 21st century. September's terror attacks on the heart of the USA and subsequent widespread introduction of ‘war on terror’ made scholars further confused and somewhat skeptical about the conventional theoretical framework of deterrence. Then on, perpetuity and viability of conventional theory of deterrence have been facing challenges and uncertainty. Because, confusions arose over few core premises: (1) whether in the absence of superpowers rivalry and nuclear war, conventional theory of deterrence is still valid or not, (2) whether in a reverse order, weak powers/rogue states/non-state actors are becoming more capable of deterring the stronger powers or not and (3) whether rogue non-state actors are really deterrable or not. It seems that the elegance of deterrence is losing its value. Is it because of its weak theoretical foundation, which seems inadequate in 21st century? Or is it because of the wrong application of deterrence as a strategy? Or is it that it was not correctly operationalized in contemporary conflicts?
Few opine that deterrence only works when the actors are rational. Then they go on telling that since rogue/non-state actors are not rational so they are undeterrable. Actually, this issue demands experimentation because rationality or irrationality of any actor depends on how one perceives it. Not finding a correct strategy to deter the rogue/non-state actors, the US and other western powers tend to believe that non-state actors are undeterrable and existing theory of deterrence are inadequate to deal with non-state actors. To the western powers, these actors are irrational and because of that, deterrence does not work against them. Western powers are probably seeing the issue through their own lens and from their individual perspective. According to them, deterrence is diplomatic parlance for a brutally simple idea: that an attack on the United States or one of its close allies will lead to a devastating military retaliation against the country responsible (The New York Times article, ‘In Defense of Deterrence’ September 10, 2002). This idea is doubtful because of the fact that ‘the devastating military retaliation’ might not always yield the expected outcome. Thus, the threat of using wrong weapons against right opponent might not result in anticipated deterrence. It seems that the problem actually lies with the target-weapon mismatch, neither with deterrence (as a theory) nor with the rationality of opponents. Use of a metaphor might explain the argument better. Using an automatic rifle to kill mosquitoes in the garden does not make sense. The huge strength of the firepower of an automatic rifle, in this case, is irrelevant because the bullet of a rifle is incapable of killing a mosquito. Thus, an automatic rifle, despite its killing power is incapable of deterring a mosquito (let us consider for the sake of this discussion that mosquito has enough mental faculty to understand the issue). Similarly, devastating military power (such as bombing the cities and strongholds of ISIS or air strikes on Tora Bora mountains) might not deter the terrorist’s outfits because that firepower is not the correct weapon against them. So, whose problem is this? Does the problem lie with the irrationality of non-state actors/terrorist’s outfits? Or, is it the outcome of incorrect assumption and flawed strategy of western superpowers?
What I believe is that all actors (state/not state/so called rogue or terrorist or whatever) are rational from their own point of view. Then I believe that all actors (being not irrational) have their own critical weakness and critical vulnerability. Correct identification of their critical weakness and critical vulnerability is very important. Because, attacking those would actually instil fear into their mind and thus would deter them. Today’s western powers are neither being able to correctly identify the critical weakness and critical vulnerability of the non-state actors nor being able to attack those. This is in fact a weakness of western powers, which they want to cover-up by saying that non-state actors are not deterrable (Former US Secretary of State Kissinger puts it this way: “The classical notion of deterrence was that there were some consequences before which aggressors and evildoers would recoil. In a world of suicide bombers, that calculation doesn't operate in any comparable way). Use of international banking/finance system, use of Internet as a platform to propagate their idea (e.g. Amaq News Agency) etc are the critical vulnerabilities of the non-state actors, attacking of which would probably deter them.
However, to my humble opinion, it will not be also prudent to consider that present deterrence theories are so perpetual that no change is required. If needed, the scholars should at first try to recast the deterrence framework and then the recast theory should be examined to see if those work or not in the face of changed international environment. If needed there should be a rebirth of deterrence theory so that policymakers and strategists do not (perforce) lose all hope in deterrence and by abandoning it they do not choose other options (such as compellence, active use of military force, aggression etc.). To give peace a chance, scholars and strategists of 21st century should not let deterrence to lose its value.
Deterrence…one problem the West has with deterrence is that the GWOT has exposed practically all weapons and military personnel to the world. The USA has no real weapons, outside of nuclear weapons, naval gunfire, and Black Ops, that hasn't been fully tried and fired in the GWOT. And we used these weapons on insurgents and a Second to Third Rate army with mixed results? We used everything from sophisticated B-2 bombers to special forces to expensive Tomahawk and smart missiles to even tanks and armor.
On the other hand, threatening peer nations have NOT used their weapons in combat, including their massive TBMs and Mobile Erector Launchers, and all the new copycat systems from aircraft carriers, new tanks, new stealth planes, cyber, SAMs, drones, etc. in combat. That is deterrence. Some were used in Syria, but the capabilities and performance of the rest remain unseen and unknown.
Syria has revealed some flaws with Russian weapon systems, flaws that may be ironed out.
The F-35 is considered a deterrent although the Israeli Air Force used it to great effect in the Middle East. Javelin in Ukraine and deployments of rotating US Army units to Eastern Europe act as a deterrent against Russia. Deployment of bombers to Asia act as a deterrent to China. Taiwan's up-arming acts as a deterrent to China. But eventually these weapons will grow old and wear away unless new and more capable weapons systems are made and deployed. Up-arming, upgrades, and Distributed Lethality and Distributed Operations are very good examples of broadening deterrence. Hypersonics and larger missiles will be a key factor in future deterrence, as is the construction of new bases and the spreading of foreign influence. Sanctions and freezing of assets usually act as the First Resort deterrence. Even the US Coast Guard needs to bolster and up-arm to deter against peer nation coast guards with new ships that carry heavier firepower.
In this game of "deterrence chess," it costs time, money, and effort. It's not a new Cold War because unlike staring down each other from opposite sides, with deterrence, both sides don't exactly know what the other side has and will do. "They will find a workaround" the deterrence and they usually do so the art of deterring shouldn't cost extraordinary sums of money or else one gets the Maginot Line.
If the USA exposed all its Ace cards in the GWOT, and other peer nations noticed and copied, then the USA has indeed eroded its Deterrence Factor. The USA can maintain its edge by Black Ops, special forces, Ultra-Secret programs, space, cyber, espionage, info tech, business, and engineering, education, medicine, science, and accomplishments beyond the defense realm to deter foreign adversaries. Most of all, the USA should keep deterrence programs away from the public media and knowledge, just like the F-117A Stealth.