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Deterrence—Now More Than Ever

By Captain William F. Hoeft Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)

How can there be such a dramatic gulf between the relevant points of view—one imagining a world free of nuclear weapons in our lifetimes and another that foresees our great-grandchildren living with nuclear weapons? What causes the divergence between “Global Zero thinking” and what we might call “nuclear realism,” and, most important for us from a practical standpoint, how can we be sure that our investment in a future SSBN is, in fact, necessary?

The divergence in conclusions can be traced in large part to a different treatment of three major points that can be addressed one by one. In each case, we will see that Global Zero thinking is associated with a fundamental misunderstanding.

Nuclear deterrence is about the “non-use” of nuclear weapons. What is “deterrence?” For our purposes it is influencing the decision-making of others so they choose not to do something that we do not want them to do. In our case, we are talking about deterring the use of nuclear weapons or deterring coercion by threatening to use nuclear weapons. Consistent with the past, President Barack Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review reaffirmed that our “nuclear forces will continue to play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring allies and partners around the world.” 2

Liberal commentator Rachel Maddow’s 2011 book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power dedicates a 26-page chapter to U.S. nuclear weapons and uses the word “deterrence” (in any form) only twice. 3 Her discussion of the concept takes five lines and addresses only the Cold War. In contrast, she uses the terms “hair-trigger alert,” “apocalypse,” “destroy the world thousands of times over,” “Armageddon,” “push the button,” and “annihilate” a total of 12 times and the word “explosion” 15 times. Her conception of nuclear capability seems only to consider deterrence failure, as if it is a certain thing, while the historical reality is the opposite.

In stark opposition to Maddow’s war-centric take on nuclear weapons, the 72-page unclassified version of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review used “deterrence” in all of its forms well over 100 times. How many times did it use any of the other terms that Maddow preferred? A grand total of zero .

The kind of thinking that focuses on nuclear warfighting completely misunderstands the role of our nuclear forces. These forces do not exist to “push the button”—they exist to prevent the button from being pushed . The purpose of our nuclear arsenal is deterrence. As fomer Defense Secretary James Schlesinger likes to say, “Nuclear weapons are used every day.” 4

Nuclear deterrence is hard to measure, so it requires wide margins. In these days of “metrics, metrics, metrics,” it is easy to think that if we can’t measure it, it isn’t important. But deterrence is impossible to measure with precision. We can tell, for the most part, what makes deterrence stronger or weaker, but we can’t put a number on it. Deterrence is a matter of perceptions. It takes place in the head of an adversary who lives in another country, has different values, is under different pressures, and has different goals.

This means that if we want effective deterrence, we had better include in our analysis generous safety margins to account for the degree of uncertainty that is inherently present in every aspect of deterrence strategy.

Because deterrence is subjective, it must be communicated clearly. If we want effective deterrence we must deal with bold colors, a large font, and single-syllable words. Subtle and nuanced deterrence messages have a long history of being misunderstood.

Also, deterrence takes place in the context of past behavior. Each event is not an isolated occurrence. Situations are understood in light of what has gone before. “Red lines” have to mean something. Promising action and then not delivering undermines credibility and may lead to misunderstood communications in later cases. Over the last few months, we have seen these challenges manifest themselves in our dealings with North Korea.

In today’s fiscal climate, the push in defense planning is to cut all “waste,” and for many that means shaving our nuclear deterrent to no more than exactly what is necessary. Treating deterrence matters with false precision is dangerous, because it gives us unwarranted confidence that we can shave margins right to the limit. In addition, this kind of thinking places far too little emphasis on the other players, which is where deterrence really takes place.

Nuclear deterrence happens in the minds of those on the “other side.” Remember, deterrence is about impacting the adversary’s decision-making, not ours. This sounds simple, yet it is easy to forget in practice. To take a Global Zero example: Just because we in the United States may be able to imagine flourishing as a nation in a world without nuclear weapons does not mean that all other nations can imagine this same thing. They occupy different places in the international community than we do, and there are good reasons to think that some of them believe they could not even survive let alone flourish if they did not have nuclear weapons. 5

Deterrence is a multi-player game in which a successful approach depends on what the other players do. Thomas Schelling, one of the foundational thinkers in the development of deterrence theory, used to emphasize that there are three kinds of games—games of chance, games of skill, and games of strategy. The discriminating characteristic of a game of strategy is that each player’s best approach is a function of what the other players do. 6 We can’t devise our strategy in isolation. Imagine playing chess by choosing all of our moves in advance: It would not work.

As we think about what investments are necessary for our own strategic future, we must be mindful that there are other players in the world and we must adapt our approach to their existence and behavior—both our friends and our potential adversaries.

With this background in mind, we must ask one key question: “Will we still need a nuclear deterrent late in this century?”

A Spectacularly Daunting List of Conditions

First, let’s consider Global Zero. What are the chances that we will get rid of nuclear weapons by late in this century?

President Obama has taken a position consistent with many prior administrations: As long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary and guarantee that defense to our allies. 7 In order for America to abandon its nuclear weapons, others would have to abandon nuclear weapons, too, and adopt a robust inspection and verification regime. Let’s take a quick international tour and, as we go, ask ourselves the likelihood of achieving each given condition in 20 years, 50 years, or 100 years. Remember that for Global Zero, we have to reach and sustain all of these simultaneously:

• France and the United Kingdom would have to resort to defense dependent on conventional deterrence, the failure of which has caused them grievous harm in the last century. 8

• Israel would have to be secure enough to give up nuclear weapons. Perhaps the first step would be if Israel were surrounded by nations that all agreed it had a right to exist.

• Iran would either not get the bomb or would get it and then give it up. Any proliferators based on Iran would have to also give up nuclear weapons.

• India and Pakistan would have to bury the hatchet and not have other reasons for keeping nuclear weapons (such as Iran or China having nuclear weapons).

• Russia would have to be willing to give up the primary thing that makes it a global superpower.

• The Chinese would have to agree to multilateral reductions and a transparent inspection model they have already said would be “impossible” with their culture. 9

• North Korea would have to give up the nuclear weapons it uses for international extortion to collect foreign aid.

Now, realistically, what are the chances that all of these conditions will be achieved and stable by the end of the century? We could almost just as well ask what the chances are that any of these might occur, much less all of them. Each of these problem areas already has a long history measured in decades or centuries. We would probably have to suspend everything we know about power politics, national security, religious animosity, and history to entertain the hope that nuclear weapons would disappear by 2070.

So most of us will conclude with confidence that Global Zero will not happen this century. For those few who wish to cling to the small sliver of hope that all of these unlikely events will occur before the century is out, one more question is relevant. Should we as a nation bet everything on the hope that this unlikely event will occur, or should we remain prudently sober and make the necessary investments in a stable future deterrent?

We can help answer this question if we look at the international “trend arrows” on nuclear matters to see which way they are leaning. If not Zero, can we at least hope for improvement?

Trends ‘Almost All in the Wrong Direction’

Go back to the mid-1990s. The Cold War had just ended, the Internet economy was beginning to boom, the federal budget was balanced, and the big idea was that liberal democracy, capitalism, and peace were irreversibly going to spread around the world. A global moratorium on nuclear testing was emerging. Russia was being liberalized by President Boris Yeltsin. The North Koreans and the Pakistanis did not have the bomb. India had only done one test in 1974. 9/11 had not yet taken place. The Chinese economy was about number eight in the world, behind Italy.

In the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, what did we do? With this benign setup, we formally adopted a “lead but hedge” strategy. We would take the initiative in nuclear cuts in the hope that others would be inspired to follow. We already had unilaterally shut down our weapon-production facilities, removed nukes from surface ships, ground forces, and aircraft-carrier aviation. We stopped enhancing our nuclear-weapon capabilities. We shrank our SSBN force from 18 down to 14 Ohio -class submarines. Even in those heady optimistic days, however, we verified the need to retain the three legs of our “Nuclear Triad” composed of bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and SSBNs based in both oceans.

Unfortunately, the world has not followed the benign path we hoped for back in 1994. Russia has gone from Yeltsin to Putin to Medvedev and back to Putin. Freedom House judges that the former Soviet Union under Putin “now rivals the Middle East as one of the most repressive areas on the globe.” Around the world, freedom has been retreating for seven years in a row. 10 9/11 has occurred, and radical Islam is moving from being a “non-state actor” into the “nation-state” category. India and Pakistan have had several crises and “exchanged” nuclear tests in 1998. The Chinese economy has gone from number eight to second place in the world, and China is growing its nuclear arsenal, unrestricted by any treaty and without the slightest transparency. North Korea has withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has tested three nuclear devices, and has declared its intent to expand its nuclear arsenal. And of course there is Iran.

There is no denying that in virtually every major category, the world’s nuclear trajectory is much less benign than it was only 20 years ago. With the important exceptions of a series of nuclear-force reduction treaties between the United States and Russia and the increased security of former Soviet nuclear forces as a result of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat-Reduction Program, the changes have almost all been in the wrong direction.

The conclusion is inescapable. Virtually every long-term trend suggests that the future international nuclear environment will be more stressing than it is today, not less.

The Required Future Nuclear-Force Mix

To determine what we need for deterrence 50 years in the future, we can get some solid clues by looking back 50 years. By 1963, we had our Triad of bombers, SSBNs, and ICBMs. The bombers were flexible in routing and payload capability and were visible so they could be used for signaling. We have seen that signaling used recently with North Korea. The ICBMs were scattered around the country in hardened silos such that a determined large-scale attack on the continental United States would be needed if an adversary wanted to avoid a counterattack. This created a significant complicating factor in adversary planning, which acted to provide stability. Finally, the ultimate backstop and guarantor of deterrence were the SSBNs, continually at sea, undetected and survivable, providing a second-strike capability, which assured strategic stability.

This basic arrangement, 50 years later, remains intact. We know how to use it. We know what flexibility it delivers. Even though the number of nuclear weapons has been reduced by 75 percent since the Cold War, the Triad remains the basic structure shared by the United States, Russia, and China. There have been some changes, of course, and both Russia and China have added a fourth leg to their arsenal—road-mobile ICBM systems. Although the world has changed in many ways, the United States still faces large nuclear forces in multiple countries employing a wide range of delivery systems. While their current intentions may seem benign relative to the nuclear crises of the Cold War, the fact that that there are other countries that base their national security in their nuclear forces should give us pause when we contemplate further weakening of our posture.

The environment of nuclear-armed adversaries that caused us to adopt the Triad still remains, and to deal with it the Triad continues to provide us and our allies with a stable, visible, survivable, and flexible nuclear-deterrent force. We need to keep a strong Triad-based nuclear deterrent—and it must be anchored by survivable SSBNs to provide the strategic stability of an assured second-strike capability.

The Critical Role of Extended Deterrence

Finally, we need to consider “extended deterrence.” This is another name for the “nuclear umbrella” that the United States extends to some of our friends and allies, providing them the benefits of our nuclear deterrent without their having to develop their own nuclear capability. Extended deterrence plays the crucial role of reducing the incentive for proliferation among our friends.

It was noted previously how deterrence happens in the mind of the “other side.” The two actors who determine if our extended deterrent is sufficient are the adversary of concern and the ally of concern . If we want to prevent proliferation by our friends, they must have confidence in our deterrent, and that includes the nature of the force mix as well as our resolve. Many of our friends feel they need particular capabilities for effective deterrence in their regions. This is why our NATO allies have asked us to preserve our non-strategic nuclear forces in Europe. 11 It is why South Korea welcomed the overt deployment of B-2 bombers to the Korean peninsula.

In many ways we are already running out of margin on our extended deterrent. The pressure is showing up from nervous allies. As we draw down our nuclear forces and as potential adversaries grow their forces—think China, North Korea, and potentially Iran—the viability of our extended deterrent will become an increasing issue. Margins will grow thinner, increasing the risk of proliferation and, with it, insecurity. 12

We must remember that the single most important thing we can do to reduce the chance of proliferation among our friends is to keep our extended deterrent strong and flexible.

The world is moving in a nuclear direction that is more complex, less stable, and less secure. For more than 20 years, we have tried the moral high ground of “lead but hedge,” but now we must acknowledge the unfortunate fact that other nations have not followed our lead. They did not give up nuclear-weapons production facilities, they did not retire theater nuclear systems, and they did not refrain from testing and proliferation. The responsible action for the United States now is to demonstrate firmness to our adversaries and our allies by investing in the recapitalization of our strategic deterrent to ensure it remains available, survivable, and flexible for the coming century. The first element of the Triad requiring this investment is the undersea leg—our SSBN force.

This action will demonstrate resolve to friend and foe alike, reducing the chance of proliferation by our friends and miscalculation by our adversaries. It is essential that we not flinch on this critical test of our national character.

1. Global Zero Action Plan, .

2. Department of Defense, 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report , Executive Summary, .

3. Rachel Maddow, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 216–41.

4. James Schlesinger quoted in Melanie Kirkpatrick, “Why We Don’t Want a Nuclear-Free World,” The Wall Street Journal , 11 July 2009.

5. Harold Brown and John Deutch, “The Nuclear Disarmament Fantasy,” The Wall Street Journal , 19 November 2007.

6. Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 3.

7. Robert Gates, foreword to 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report .

8. Edmond Seay, “Theatre nuclear weapons and the next round of bilateral New START Treaty talks,” British American Security Information Council, Nuclear Policy Paper , no. 12, January 2013, .

9. Phillip Dorling, “China Determined to Rival U.S. Arsenal,” Sydney Morning Herald , 28 February 2011.

10. Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2013 , .

11. Seay, “Theatre nuclear weapons.” NATO website statement on importance of U.S. nuclear forces, ?.

12. Dorling, “China Determined.”

Captain Hoeft, who retired from the Navy in 2004, has a PhD in international relations and is an undersea-warfare and deterrence analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis in Alexandria, Virginia. While on active duty he served in four attack submarines, including command of the USS Salt Lake City (SSN-716).


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