Shall We Dump Deterrence?

Jan. 1, 1992

Deterrence–the concept of deploying military force to prevent wars–is a comparatively recent innovation. Before the atomic age, nations built their armed forces for direct offensive or defensive purposes. Deterrence was a minor consideration in strategy.

For the past forty years, however, the cornerstone of US doctrine has been to maintain sufficient power, in strategic nuclear forces at least, to deny the adversary any perception that aggression might lead to victory.

This concept of deterrence extended gradually to conventional forces as well. By the 1980s, the primary US objective across the spectrum of conflict was the prevention of war rather than the successful waging of it.

The superficial aspects of deterrence are easy to understand. Those who described it as “a balance of terror” were not completely wrong, but oversimplification often led to mistakes. Even senior government officials, for example, tended to equate deterrence with the reflexive strategy known as “Mutual Assured Destruction,” or MAD.

A leading advocate of MAD was Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, who argued that we could achieve deterrence enough with nuclear weapons, targeted to destroy a fourth of the population and half of the industry in the Soviet Union.

Real military strategists reject MAD, which is deterrence of the worst sort _cheap, inflexible, and nightmarish. According to senior military leaders, it was never put into practice as the basic strategy of the United States. The rational form of deterrence is a range of options that limit, counter, and check an aggressive adversary.

On the whole, deterrence has been an effective strategy. Despite tensions that might have provoked war in earlier times, the world’s leading powers have kept peace with each other. The strategy did not always stop military adventurism by smaller nations, but it is not clear whether the failing was in the concept of deterrence or in a belief by the likes of Khomeini, Qaddafi, and Saddam Hussein that they could evade retribution.

The latest fad in the armchair strategy league is to regard deterrence as obsolescent on the grounds that (a) there are no longer any significant threats to deter, (b) the most probable adversaries–particularly in the Third World–may not be deferrable, and (c) if we do need deterrence, we don’t need that much.

In the Heritage Foundation Policy Review, Jay Kominsky declares that nuclear deterrence always was a “bizarre doctrine” that will henceforth be less central to US defense planning as concepts and technologies of strategic defense mature. In Foreign Affairs, Mr. McNamara and his colleagues say the US faces no conceivable threat against which nuclear weapons would be a credible deterrent.

The debunking of deterrence is a hot topic these days for academicians and political aides. This no doubt makes breezy and entertaining chitchat, but let us hope that the actual formulation of strategy remains in more responsible hands.

Unless the United States wants to spend the next twenty years fighting wars large and small, we had better hang onto deterrence and fund it above the shoestring level. The changes sweeping the world have made it possible to achieve deterrence across the spectrum of conflict with less military power, but that has already been factored into the new US defense strategy and a much-reduced defense budget.

Whatever happens in the Soviet Union, somebody in that vast land stands to inherit a lot of nuclear weapons, including the only mobile ICBMs operational anywhere. Over the next several years, a growing number of Third World nations will pose regional threats with weapons of mass destruction. The day is coming when smaller powers will possess intercontinental range.

We should regard improved active defenses as complementing deterrence, not competing with it. The threats can come from too many sources in too many places in ways too unpredictable to repel all of them head- on. Moreover, many of them, especially those looming in the near future, are not the kind a purely defensive strategy can thwart.

As for the “undeterrable fanatic” theory, its plausibility shrinks upon examination. Since Operation Eldorado Canyon in 1986, for example Qaddafi seems to have been constrained by some consideration other than love for his fellow man. All manner of experts assure us that Saddam Hussein could (and can) be persuaded by economic sanctions. Should we concurrently assume him too irrational to be deterred militarily? The logical explanation for his actions in August 1990 is not that he was undeterrable, but that he miscalculated.

A wise nation will look beyond the “balance of terror” sloganeering and conclude that deterrence–when it is credible–does deter and that it still makes sense to prevent wars if we can rather than fight them.