On The Lack Of Analytical Utility Of The Concept Of Deterrence

With the US withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, we will be hearing more about deterrence. That word is used far too broadly, muddying discussions of military strategy and focusing discussions of war and peace too narrowly.

As the Cold War progressed from open competition for bigger bombs in the 1950s, through the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the realization that Ronald Reagan expressed so nicely, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” slowly formed, although seldom expressed openly by the governments of the United States or the Soviet Union. Nuclear war became more unthinkable, and communication and arms control measures were instituted to make it less likely.

That uneasy standoff continued through the fall of the Soviet Union. It is often attributed solely to both countries’ possession of enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other, that rough equality called deterrence. But there are many other reasons to avoid nuclear war, like developing a country’s economy and attending to other areas of instability. When those reasons are left out, discussions of strategy are distorted.

Deterrence is the ability to warn off another party from doing something bad to you. “If you do something bad to us, we will do worse to you.” The emphasis on mutual nuclear destruction pulled the term toward nuclear use, but it is more general. Deterrence theory is now largely about nuclear weapons and often descends into unrealistic game theorizing. Nuclear arsenals are often referred to as “deterrents,” a concretization and  further distortion. Deterrence is a relationship, not a thing in itself.

Deterrence can lead to an arms race as one party seeks to overcome the other’s power to deter.  That was why arms control treaties were a stabilizing factor in the later Cold War.

There are some current analyses that use the word “deterrence” but are talking about something else. Deterrence is treated as a concrete thing that exists on its own, when it is a descriptor of a particular relationship. If deterrence is a thing that can be imposed on a situation, or a characteristic of particular weapons, then much becomes possible.


Escalate to De-Escalate

Russia is believed by some to have a military doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate.” Russia would use a small nuclear weapon early in a conflict to indicate its willingness to go nuclear and thus scare off an opponent and end the war at a time favorable to Russia. There is a question as to whether this is in fact Russian doctrine. If deterrence depends on knowing what the other party is thinking, then it’s important to know whether this is Russian doctrine.

In response to such a move, more than one action is possible. The United States might indeed calculate that withdrawal and negotiations toward peace are best. But the decision equally could be to retaliate in kind: Russia nukes Tallinn, and the United States nukes Rostov. And then what? Or the response might be a different sort of attack. The decision depends on a calculation of costs and benefits. Use of a nuclear weapon has been felt to change the course of war fundamentally. Does that assumption fail to hold for a small and early nuclear attack?

Within the United States, those who assume escalate to de-escalate is Russian doctrine argue that low-yield nuclear weapons are necessary to deter that strategy or to meet it if its use is not deterred. The threat of meeting it, of course, is part of deterrence. It could also be argued that having only high-yield weapons (which is not the case) deters an escalate to de-escalate strategy because of the potential escalation to the use of those weapons. Instead, the argument is that the United States would hold back from using those weapons.

Those arguing that low-yield weapons are necessary to deter an escalate to de-escalate strategy are choosing one set of actions and responses, one set of motivations, out of that group. I do not see that clarity.


 “We Must Match Their Weapons”

Vladimir Putin claims that Russia is working on exotic new weapons – a stealth underwater drone to deliver a radioactive tidal wave, a nuclear-powered nuclear cruise missile, a hypersonic delivery vehicle. All seem to be impractical or not a material change in the balance.

I am highly doubtful that the first two will ever exist, and the third is a very expensive way to evade missile defenses that can be overcome with the numbers of nuclear weapons Russia possesses. Nonetheless, some people’s definition of prudence demands that we match those weapons. A pointless expenditure of billions of dollars may be what Putin is baiting us into whether or not those weapons are real.

The point of deterrence is to avoid war and to avoid the use of nuclear weapons. Decisions for war or use of nuclear weapons are much broader than matching weapon for weapon. There is an argument that deterrence requires that each new development be met with a new development on our side. This opens the way for all those imaginary weapons every boy ever wanted. And it’s not how deterrence works.


“This Weapon Is For Deterrence Only”

That claim is nonsense.

The weapons laboratories have long justified their work by saying that they design and build nuclear weapons so that they will never be used. That justification is attributed to Norris Bradbury, the second director of Los Alamos.

Deterrence depends on a believable threat to use force. The effectiveness of nuclear weapons in deterrence depends on the possibility that they will be used. But if deterrence works, they won’t be used. That’s the basis of the Bradbury justification. It’s a paradox.

To develop a new weapon and assure the public that it’s for deterrence only, not use, undercuts the believable threat to use it. If this is the justification, developing it is pointless because it makes no difference to the balance of power.


These three scenarios do not illustrate deterrence, but rather tactics that can lead to escalation. Deterrence means that war or nuclear use will be avoided. The decision is whether war or nuclear use will be disastrous for the whoever takes the step. That is a big, overall decision. The details worked out in these three examples would be a small input.

Although nuclear weapons were not used during the Cold War, it’s unlikely that nuclear deterrence was the only reason. Trade relations, treaties and other agreements,and  internal divisions within a country all influence decisions on peace and war. Diplomacy played a role. And the bottom line is that a nuclear war is in no country’s interest.


Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.

49 replies
  1. 1
    Anonymous At Work says:

    Putin’s “strategy” (I sometimes view him as simply trying to stay on top/alive amid the corruptocracy he’s created) is that he learned the real lessons from Afghanistan and from Reagan’s Star Wars project: actually using one’s military is financially and morally draining, and that trying to R&D to counter perceived threats is significantly more financially draining than pursuing independent military R&D projects.
    The fact that someone in the foreign policy/intelligence arena both learned and learned the right lessons has confounded many, especially neoconservatives. It is part of the US’s inability to respond well.

  2. 2
  3. 3
    West of the Rockies says:

    Radioactive tidal wave?

    What kind of evil people think-tank this shit? I hope Putin dies badly and soon.

  4. 4

    @West of the Rockies: That is what Putin claims. It’s unlikely that he can make it happen.

  5. 5
    Mike E says:

    🎶We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…🎶

  6. 6
    tobie says:

    Thanks, Cheryl, for this post. With this comment, you capture my fear about Trump’s destruction of traditional alliances: “Trade relations, treaties and other agreements,and internal divisions within a country all influence decisions on peace and war.” I also wanted to ask you if recent statements by Belarus’ President that Belarus would be happy to join Russia yet again should disturb us. I assume this means the President is a Russian stooge but I don’t know enough about the region.

  7. 7
    Kraux Pas says:

    @West of the Rockies:

    Radioactive tidal wave?

    Could a nuclear weapon even produce enough force for this? They’re powerful, yes, but not tectonic-level.

  8. 8
    Immanentize says:

    Forget Russia. There is a new report that Kushner and Co. were/are pushing loosely regulated nuclear power projects to Saudi Arabia bypassing national security experts and controls. For bomb making? Also, will the new President of Brazil, Bolsanaro, re-spark that country’s nuke weapons drive? Things are unhappy in the proliferation magic eight ball.

  9. 9
    Mike in NC says:

    Putin’s claims of exotic super-weapons are pure bullshit designed for domestic consumption. At the same time, we have an idiot man-child in the White House who loves to break treaties because he’s the fake master negotiator. He really has no concept of how treaties work and wanted to build hundreds of new nukes because he’s a simpleton.

  10. 10
    Sam says:

    I think escalate to de escalate is a manifestation of perfect deterrence. The Russians understand that we have the capability to retaliate in time, but they do not see that as credible. That is, they don’t think we’d match or escalate in response, they think we will sue for peace.

    In a nutshell, our counter threat isn’t credible.

  11. 11

    @tobie: That statement was something of a surprise. Recently, Belarus has been backing away from Russia – refused to allow a Russian air base in the country, for example. I haven’t followed that one up, and right now I am working on another post about today’s news about Mike Flynn’s hawking nuclear reactors to the Saudis.

  12. 12
    Sam says:

    Retaliate in turn, sorry autocorrect

  13. 13
    PJ says:

    @Anonymous At Work: The biggest thing that Putin learned, certainly from his days as a KGB officer, is that social engineering is a low cost and incredibly powerful way to cause weakness in enemies. Just get them to voluntarily paralyze themselves politically, and you have largely neutralized them. The other thing the Russians do very well is planting seeds for long term payoff (i.e., Trump). Since the end of the Cold War, the US rarely seems to look past the next few years in terms of foreign policy planning (largely due to Republican intransigence re using government to improve the US).

  14. 14
    Doug! says:

    “a stealth underwater drone to deliver a radioactive tidal wave, a nuclear-powered nuclear cruise missile, a hypersonic delivery vehicle. ”

    Sounds like they’ve captured Elon Musk.

  15. 15
    tobie says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Thanks. And I’m glad you’ll post about the sale of nuclear material to Saudia Arabia. As@Immanentize: notes, that’s a shocker.

  16. 16
    ruemara says:

    You’re the resident expert, Cheryl. What do you think about the story of Kushner et al trying to transfer nuclear secrets to Saudi Arabia? Is there really any way to stop them?

  17. 17
    The Midnight Lurker says:

    Bert the Turtle says; “When you see the flash…”

    “DUCK and COVER!”

    It’s easier for em’ to get to your wallet when they come to identify you.

  18. 18
  19. 19
    rumpole says:

    Wrong week to stop sniffing glue.
    A question for Cheryl.
    After reading this post, a couple things occurred to me. The first is that Putin wants to see the West destroyed, in particular the US. On the other, you have Russia telling him that NK doesn’t have ICBMs that can reach the US — and the idiot believing them instead of his own intelligence agencies. US gets sucked into Korean conflict, and there’s no way they have the attention or the prestige for europe.

    What are the chances of a miscalculation here? [clicks order button for xanax].

  20. 20
    The Midnight Lurker says:

    And seriously… who doesn’t think that Kushner is giving it up to BFF MBS? We already know Jared was reading the PDBs using a phantom security clearance nobody remembers how he got. He flew over to SA (at least twice, right?), and was on the phone with MBS A LOT just before and just after the Khashoggi hit!

    Trump touched the ‘orb’, but his son-in-law got down on his knees and licked it.

  21. 21
    ruemara says:

    @The Midnight Lurker: That’s not what he’s licking.

  22. 22
    Cermet says:

    Russia is a military pygmy standing upon a nuclear arsenal that is very expensive to upkeep. Their blue navy is turning to rust as many an abandon sub sits and decays. putin the blood thirsty ex-KGB pygmy is trying to, as one noted, just attempting to keep himself looking strong with utterly phony military ideas that, to really stupid people, sound useful and impressive. Unfortunately, that describes both the orange fart cloud and most all his voters and many neo-cons.

  23. 23
    Immanentize says:

    I know this is OT, but I am very happy to report that Roger Stone has to go to a show cause hearing Thursday regarding his instagram comments about the judge and the case.

  24. 24
    Brachiator says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    That uneasy standoff continued through the fall of the Soviet Union. It is often attributed solely to both countries’ possession of enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other, that rough equality called deterrence. But there are many other reasons to avoid nuclear war, like developing a country’s economy and attending to other areas of instability. When those reasons are left out, discussions of strategy are distorted.

    Did you mean “many other reasons to reduce the development of nuclear weapons” or something similar, because I would think that an actual nuclear war would make many questions about a nation’s economy moot.

  25. 25
    The Midnight Lurker says:

    @Immanentize: Oh, no! If they take poor Roger off Instagram, how will I know when Hillary gets arrested?!

  26. 26
    West of the Rockies says:


    He claims he is surviving on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because of his legal costs. Who believes that shit?

    Can he please die of full-system diarrhea?

  27. 27

    @Brachiator: Avoiding nuclear war because there are better things to do with a country’s resources.

  28. 28
    Kraux Pas says:

    @West of the Rockies:

    Can he please die of full-system diarrhea?

    What? And let him off easy?

  29. 29
    Kay says:


    I loved it too :)

    SHOW CAUSE, asshole. It’s an absolute delight when they’re (very) occasionally held accountable.

    How fucking OLD is Stone? He’s still playing stupid games on the internet, searching for photos of his enemies? It’s like supervising 7th graders.

  30. 30
    Another Scott says:

    @Kraux Pas: Baker test at Bikini Atoll in 1946 (3:54). 21 kTon. The ships were (overwhelmingly) still standing.

    I agree with your suspicion that it would take a huge explosion to cause something like a tsunami.

    (Just a guess, though.)


  31. 31
    trollhattan says:

    @West of the Rockies:
    Do I get a vote? Mine is rabies, acquired from a skunk. Which Roger will relate to.

  32. 32
    Kay says:


    Part of the pleasure will be watching these vain gasbags lose access to all the beauty aids that keep them looking less like gargoyles. Manafort lost his golden glow almost immediately. They require a lot of assistance. In orange jumpsuits they’ll just look like ancient old men among all the (mostly) young criminals. The ones where you’re like “jesus, are you STILL getting arrested, grandpa?”

  33. 33

    @Another Scott: As far as I can see, the only way to cause a tsunami would be to find a weak spot in the continental shelf where a nuclear blast could cause a much larger landslide.

  34. 34
    Ruckus says:

    The short-sightedness is because every 4 to 8 yrs we change the direction of our government. And a significant amount of citizens want that massive reversal to be in the direction of bullying the rest of the world.

  35. 35
    Repatriated says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: And either way, it’s not like anyone’s going to buy the “we didn’t literally drop a nuke on you so you don’t:get a free shot back at us” argument.

    At best, it bypasses anti-missile defenses which can’t be effective enough anyhow.

  36. 36
    patrick II says:

    @West of the Rockies:

    Radioactive tidal wave?

    The physics of it seems unlikely. A tidal wave is caused by an earthquake which generates orders of magnitude more energy than a nuclear bomb. If you had a bomb that big, just blow it up over the target. A large nuclear bomb at the right distance off shore would produce a large wave, but not a tidal wave.
    I think the nuclear tidal wave for Putin is like the wall for Trump, imagery to impress the gullible.

  37. 37
    Another Scott says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: There are cracks in the coastal shelf off Virginia that could give rise to tsunamis, but getting down to them with a nuclear weapon would be a problem…

    In 2000, a scientific study of cracks at the edge of the coastal shelf suggested how a damaging tsunami could be generated near the Virginia coast, despite the small number of earthquakes in the region. Landslides occur along the continental slope, initiated by earthquakes and “mass wasting” of excessive accumulation of sediments on the continental slope.

    The Cape Fear Slide, on the Outer Continental Shelf off the North Carolina coast, is one of the largest underwater landslides documented on the eastern edge of North America. It was triggered when a layer of salt rose up under pressure from overlying sediments, forming a dome with steeper and steeper slopes until the sediments broke free. A comparable slide today could generate a wave over 6 feet high on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.10


    Sonar has documented numerous underwater landslides off the East Coast, along the edge of ravines that rivers carved into the shelf when water levels were lower. Massive slides include the Albemarle-Currituck Slide, Cape Lookout Slide and Cape Fear slide.


    As sediments flow down the Continental Slope, they push water forward. About 20,000 years ago, landslides flowed towards the East Coast from salt diapirs off the North Carolina coast at Cape Fear. Even if an underwater landslide flowed away from the East Coast, such an event could cause a surge on the Virginia shoreline.11


  38. 38
    J R in WV says:

    Having put a lot of thought into MAD as a method for avoiding the end of the world as we know it, the fact that we’re back in a situation where MADness may be all that saves us again is way depressing.

    I do wonder if Tsar-equivilent devices, like 3 or 4 of them, off a coastline would deliver the kind of wave action Putin is obviously wanting? That was one really big explosion. Really, really big!

    Or just one device in the Canary Islands, where IIRC a truly giant landslide awaits a trigger…

  39. 39
    Brachiator says:

    Pakistan has warned it will retaliate if India takes military action against it after a militant attack on Indian forces in Indian-administered Kashmir.

    Pakistan and India are, of course, nuclear powers. Do the principles of “deterrence” apply here?

  40. 40
    David Evans says:

    Since only Russia is either expressing the will or claiming the ability to make a tsunami weapon, should the US simply inform them that if such a weapon is used their cities will be attacked without further argument?

  41. 41

    @David Evans: I think that the tsunami weapon and the nuclear-powered cruise missile are bs, and the US should call Russia on that. I think Putin’s objective is both to scare the United States and to make us spend money on countermeasures for something that will never exist.

  42. 42
    John S Smith says:

    The original idea behind “mutually assured destruction” was premised on a roughly equal number of well-hardened launchers and submarine-launched missiles, with each missile carrying one warhead being a guarantee that an all-out nuclear attack would still leave the recipient of the first strike with enough functional missiles to destroy the attacker. Since the attacker’s missile silos and submarines would be now assumed to be empty, the point of the counterattack would be to retaliate, the targets of the counterattack would be the cities of whoever launched the first strike. However, “progress” in weapons technology brought about multiple independently guided warheads per missile, with greatly increased accuracy of these warheads. This brings about the possibility that using a portion of one’s missiles to strike the opponent’s missiles could destroy the opponent’s ability to counterattack, while still holding on to enough missilery to kill the opponent’s population centers if it launched a retaliatory counter-attack. These developments, along with developments in “Star-Wars” and other anti-missile technology, have destabilized “mutual deterrence” and given the advantage to whoever strikes first, in a situation where a nuclear war is being looked upon as a likelihood. If a nuclear weapons were to detonate on U.S. or Russian targets, there really wouldn’t be much time for the cooler heads to prevail, or for conference calls between bunkers in Washington or Moscow about calling back bombers, or threats about escalation to bring back some sanity to the proceedings. There is such a thing as “defense doctrine” and “contingency plans” and neither Russia or the U.S. have plans to spend a lot of time chewing over whether or not or how to respond once an enemy nuclear weapon has been used on their territory, so we can only hope that nothing stupid ever happens.

  43. 43
    Arclite says:

    The Russian “superweapons” are a couple of evolutionary designs (new ICBM) and several pie-in-the-sky fud. Putin is putting just enough R & D into the the fud designs (nuclear cruise missile, nuclear drone) to make us think he’s developing them so that we spend billions to counter them. It’s just another asymmetric way Russia is trying to counter the US’s economic and military superiority. The Russians over the years have announced and even deployed cutting edge weapons, only to cease production after a few examples (T-14 Armata tank, Su-57 stealth fighter), or not even get past the design phase (4 nuclear powered aircraft carriers Russia announced a decade ago).

    One area that Russians (and Chinese) are pouring money into is hypersonic weapons. These weapons offer advantages in both the nuclear and conventional realms, and also offer a true inexpensive asymmetric threat to the US’s conventional domination. They offer both range and speed advantages over current designs, and are much more difficult to counter due to their speed and stealth profiles.


  44. 44
    brantl says:

    Ronald Reagan expressed so nicely, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,”

    He didn’t express it nicely, somebody wrote it for him, before he couldn’t read anymore.

  45. 45
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Arclite: The Russians already have nuclear-armed (or at least nuclear-capable) cruise missiles — the impressive Moskit anti-shipping missile (NATO name is Sunburn) can carry a tactical nuclear warhead. The INF treaty banned the construction and deployment of land-based cruise missiles with nuclear capabilities. What the Russians are doing is building a land-based launch platform that could carry Naval cruise missiles which are nuclear-capable. This skirts or outright breaks the INF depending on how you lawyer the rules; unless the missiles are actually deployed with nukes on board then they don’t count, maybe.

    Why are they doing this? Well, it’s cheap and provides a deterrent to neighbouring countries such as China and Pakistan which have their own intermediate-range nuclear missiles, either cruise-type or vertical-launch and mounted on vehicles for rapid dispersal in times of increased tension. There’s also the seeming problems with their upgrade plans for their silo-based strategic missiles and the escalating costs of such. They have a small number of heavy missiles with multiple warheads and the reliability of the older SS-18 models is suspect given budget cuts and general ageing out of the hardware — push the button and nothing happens means they’ve lost ten warheads. The US in contrast has a lot of smaller Minuteman III missiles in silos, each with a single warhead and they get test-fired regularly at Vandenberg so they present a much more robust threat to the Russians.

  46. 46
    Arclite says:

    @Robert Sneddon:

    Hey Robert. For sure. The Russians have been heavily investing in missile and rocket tech for decades now to counterbalance US conventional force domination. And they’ve got some pretty good stuff: current versions of Moskit accelerate to mach 3 on final approach leaving very little time to identify, target, and launch countermeasures. It’s actually a smart way to allocate limited funds.

    My main point was that while a lot of the announced new Russian weapons were pie-in-the-sky, hypersonics were not. And if you think a mach 3 Sunburn is hard to deal with, wait until they hit mach 7. At mach 3, you still have 60 seconds to detect and launch Evolved Seasparrow missiles (the standard anti missile point defense of US ships) before the missile hits. At mach 7, that’s down to 22 seconds or so. Better not blink.

  47. 47
    Procopius says:

    @West of the Rockies: I believe it is neoconservatives on our side who have created the story that this is what Putin is thinking. Did Putin describe such weapons in a speech? Then I suspect he’s trying to lure us into wasting additional trillions on more Star Wars fantasies.

  48. 48
    Procopius says:

    @Sam: I think Bolton thinks Russia thinks “escalate to de-escalate” would work and we would sue for peace, so he’s selling this fantasy to the delusional strategic thinking community, which has been entirely made up of civilian academics since 1950. That’s the motive behind spending ten trillion dollars developing the new small nuclear devices, because they think the can be used in the way Bolton thinks Putin thinks. It’s castles in the air, and existentially dangerous.

  49. 49
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Arclite: Mach 7 at sea level means the projectile turns to vapour due to air resistance — at Mach 3 Moskit is starting to melt as it is and only makes it to target because its sprint duration only lasts a few seconds.

    Hypersonic weapons are for high-altitude (30km plus) penetration of an modern air defence system like S-400 or Patriot before dropping down behind the frontal defences to deliver conventional weapons on softer targets. Nukes are already catered for with ballistic missiles and re-entry vehicles which hit the upper atmosphere at Mach 10 plus. Using ballistic missiles to launch conventional attacks is problematic, the strategic command structure is programmed to treat such launches as the precursor to a decapitation nuclear first-strike and is likely to respond appropriately.

    Basically any sort of wargaming of a major war involving the US and Russia where tactical nukes are used results in a full and frank silo-empyting exchange of strategic weapons within 72 hours as targetting escalates from battlefield locations to backfield supply logistics chains to traffic nexus cities like Frankfurt. The original INF weapons deployments in Europe were destabilising because of this realisation by both sides, that these in-place tactical shorter-range weapons could lead to a full-out worldwide nuclear war if they were ever used.

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