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.