November 1, 2010  

Not in Kansas anymore

Strategic deterrence is different in the 21st century

Strategic deterrence has traditionally been associated with a nation’s fear of retribution for its errant acts, (especially those involving nuclear weapons) and is seen by many as an artifact of the Cold War.

However, ensuring there is substantial cost for those who act contrary to U.S. national interests remains an important component of national deterrence strategy, regardless of who the adversary is. The concept survives in its most strident form in U.S. nuclear weapons policy as the ultimate threat to those who possess or covet a nuclear arsenal. To all others, however, recently modified U.S. policy now says that nuclear weapons will not be used regardless of provocation. This year’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) contains some ambiguous and unconvincing loose strategic ends when it comes to deterrence. It states that the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack, but would instead deal the attacker a “devastating conventional military response.” Yet it also reserves the right to change that assurance since biotechnology is evolving so rapidly.

This ambiguous adjustment to national defense policy is a symptom of an undeniable truth: The world has changed and despite a desire to stick with what is familiar and seemed to work in the past, we just aren’t in Kansas anymore.


We can no longer sit back behind thousands of nuclear warheads, fold our collective arms and dare somebody to do something really stupid. Recent history has proved that traditional nuclear and non-nuclear retaliation-based deterrence, seen as at least somewhat effective against nation-state leaders, has limited utility against nonstate, ideology-driven irregular foes. These new-age stateless adversaries are almost impossible to target because their small operational cells are typically distributed among civilian populations, and are equally difficult to deter since their fanatical members welcome death as a price of advancing their cause.

In fact, as stated in U.S. joint military doctrine, “some groups have attained a considerable degree of financial independence and have essentially ‘declared war’ on the United States with little regard as to how we will respond.” It probably isn’t far off the mark to suggest that at least some of these miscreants would even invite the U.S. to back up its retaliatory threats with a massive land force action on foreign soil — all the easier to inflict casualties and reinforce their own perverse brand of deterrence (sounds familiar doesn’t it?) They therefore have advantages that degrade our ability to make them see the folly in annoying the U.S. They are committed for the long term; we tend not to be. They don’t fear casualties; we do.

Despite this, and regardless of its methods, deterrence at home should begin overseas. As an understated rule of thumb, conflicts involving the U.S. start somewhere else. Depending on one’s perspective, it can be argued that even Sept. 11 was a “volley” in the long running Mideast troubles. But the point is that vulnerable overseas key interests can present a mighty temptation to adversaries, especially those with the means to seriously interfere with U.S. access to a region or worse, have a nuclear force structure sufficient to give pause to our attempts to regain control. This, combined with the increasing ability of our adversaries to degrade our cyber and space capabilities and capture the media in the ever-present “hearts and minds” contest, demands that the U.S. and its allies devise means of deterrence that will operate across many motives, cultures and domains.

The U.S. military’s Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) states that deterrence, in all its nuclear, non-nuclear, state and nonstate permutations “… requires convincing adversaries that a contemplated action will not achieve the desired result, that the cost of the action will be too great, or that an acceptable situation can be achieved without it — or some combination of the three.”

In the case of nonstate actors, I would emphasize the first approach: Threaten mission success, i.e., the inability to achieve desired results. In addition to actions and capabilities that would convince adversary leaders that the costs of their actions outweigh the potential benefits, this approach would suggest that in some cases mission failure and loss of high- value capabilities and personnel would, in their calculus, offer an unacceptable cost. For example, if a terrorist group managed to gain access to a mass destruction capability, their weapon stocks would in all likelihood not be large (maybe just one deliverable weapon), and getting that weapon to its target would require individual skill and training not typical of the average vest-wearing fanatic.

This leads to the conclusion that the asset and personnel involved should be protected until the right moment. Even a perceived serious threat of loss could be sufficient to prevent an attempted use. From the U.S. perspective, not doing all we can to foster such perceptions leaves our leaders with the Hobson’s choice of obliterating huge swaths of territory with a barrage of high-yield Cold War-vintage nuclear weapons or committing to a conventional land army invasion of some terrorist-harboring nation (like the multiyear Afghanistan operation) in response to a deadly, but possibly very limited, attack. This does not bolster either our credibility or deterrence of our enemies.

Doing this will require that U.S. joint forces and our national and international partners exhibit a highly visible ability to detect these threats, defend against them and, when appropriate, strike our enemies. This is where old-style bludgeon deterrence plays a part in threatening our shadowy adversaries and those state leaders who support them. Without at least some assurance that somebody will pay a steep price for any attack, or perhaps even a serious attempt, they may keep trying, exercising their notorious patience in probing our defenses.


A “one size fits all” approach will not work either. Each opponent is motivated by different factors and dissuaded from action by different threats. Rattling nuclear sabers would be totally incredible in Iraq or Afghanistan, just as tanks are pointless in stopping illegal immigration on the Mexican border. These are obvious examples, but the larger point is that motivations and fears can be subtle, necessitating a carefully tailored approach.

The Defense Department is far from the sole U.S. national actor in this enterprise. The Homeland Security Department, Justice, State and others have vital roles in deterring, preventing and responding to attacks on U.S. citizens and property at home and abroad. A unified law enforcement, defense, financial and diplomatic front can contribute much to enemy perceptions of an updated deterrence posture centered on the perceived futility of attempting an attack.

In the final analysis, deterrence deals in the realm of perception, in calculations of relative capabilities, in strengths and weaknesses and in convincing the adversary they are endangered — even if they may not be. In this world of nuance, a well-played bluff may be as good as four aces; think of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s and its effect on Soviet leaders. These perceptions can be advanced or hindered by demonstrations and pronouncements of capability and intent.

Deterrence can never be perfect or, in retrospect, even demonstrated beyond doubt to have been truly effective, but the measure of risk upon which deterrence depends rests on the perceived vulnerability of what each adversary values most and the uncertainty our capabilities engender in the minds of our enemies. In the case of a terrorist mass destruction attack, the blocked punch, such as the threat to cut off physical and financial support, matters as much as the counterpunch. The 9/11 Commission Report said it well in presenting a far more subtle theory of deterrence, one more appropriate to the incongruous, unfamiliar Land of Oz in which we now find ourselves.

“Defenses cannot achieve perfect safety. … Just increasing the attackers’ odds of failure may make the difference between a plan attempted, or a plan discarded. The enemy also may have to develop a more elaborate plan, thereby increasing the danger of exposure or defeat.” AFJ

GROVER E. “GENE” MYERS is a retired Air Force officer with extensive experience in nuclear policy and aerospace, and joint doctrine concept development.