Military forces are supposed to fight and win wars, but an equally important function is to prevent wars. Increasingly, it has been realized that these functions are not separate and distinguishable. The demonstrable ability to defeat opponents early, to convince them that they have no chance to attain their goals through aggressive use of military forces, is the primary mode of deterrence.
The Navy’s new long-range plan, 2020 Vision, recognizes the inseparable linkage between deterring and fighting and the will to fight: “A force that cannot fight and win a war, cannot deter one. ... Yet, prevention hinges on more than being able to win. Adversaries and friends must believe that the U.S. will fight.”1 This linkage is intuitively obvious, but largely because of the considerations of atomic weapons and the need to deter a nuclear holocaust, deterrence theory has become distorted. It is necessary to reexamine deterrence in the light of the new world security environment.
After World War II, deterrence was considered largely in terms of the threat of nuclear-weapon countervalue strikes and major conventional wars in a bipolar world of superpowers and allies.2 Now the world is multipolar, with multitudes of regional instabilities. Countries once restrained from regional aggression by the fear that conflict could spiral into superpower confrontation are more prone to accept risk in the pursuit of national goals. Is it possible to deter regional conflict using conventional weapons alone? One would think so, but our ideas on deterrence are only beginning to expand beyond their nuclear antecedents.
The Department of Defense defines deterrence as “the prevention from action by fear of the consequences. Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a creditable threat of unacceptable counteraction.”3 This definition was applicable to the deterrence of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction, but it did little to prevent regional conflicts, as the Korean War and myriad smaller conflicts in the 1950s attest.
The “threat of unacceptable counteraction” primarily was the ability to hold economic or population assets at risk by nuclear weapons—a sort of “Asset Hostage” strategy. Today, there is again a focus on this strategy in the potential capability of conventional precision-guided weapons to deter acts of aggression. Precision-guided weapons could destroy or damage critical infrastructure such as transportation systems, power grids, and factories, creating “fear of the consequences” by holding the economy, military, and leadership of a nation at risk. Target lists supposedly could be tailored to match that which we wish to deter, from state-sponsored terrorism to major regional conflict. Such a strategy is popular with advocates of heavy bombers.
Accepting that, the concept of deterrence should translate easily from the nuclear to the conventional arena. There are, however, uncertainties regarding this approach. A conventional Asset Hostage strategy did not deter North Vietnamese attacks into South Vietnam, nor did it have the desired impact on Saddam Hussein. There appear to be fundamental differences between deterrence by conventional means and deterrence by nuclear weapons. One commentator expressed his skepticism as follows:
This is the real “Vietnam Syndrome,” the belief of civilians that they can cleverly administer violence and other coercion in precise and manipulative doses . . . dispensed in carefully calibrated increments to “signal” this or that and to modify enemy behavior by rewarding and punishing the enemy’s actions.4
Of course, there have been cases where the threat of unacceptable countermeasures seemingly has modified behavior. It probably is no coincidence, for example, that Muammar Gadhafi’s regime has been quiescent since Operation El Dorado Canyon demonstrated Libyan vulnerability and U.S. capability and resolve. What is needed is a fresh look at the fundamentals of deterrence.
In the DoD definition, two characteristics stand out. The first is that “deterrence is a state of mind." The objective is to influence decision makers against taking an action. This implies the need for:
- Accurate identification of the decision maker. In some cases, this more complex than it may appear. For example, release authority for nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union was held by the General Staff, not the political leaders of the Politburo.5 And, in many Third World nations, the titular head of state may not be the source of power or the decision maker in cases of potential war.
- Accurate identification of the influences on the decision maker. Democracies, dictatorships, religious oligarchies, and other forms of government vary in what influences decision makers and how that influence is brought to bear.
- A comprehensive understanding of the criteria used by the decision maker. What might be important to one could be trivial to another; what once was vital can fade to insignificance.
The second characteristic is a “creditable threat of unacceptable counteraction.” This is the motivation that results in deterrence. It assumes that a decision maker analyzes the situation, calculates potential losses, and applies some criteria to determine whether the losses are tolerable. It assumes a balance-sheet mentality, a comfortable model to those trained in a Western capitalist World view.
There are problems with this model. Take for example, the response of a Kuwaiti military official when asked what the Kuwaitis would have done if the international coalition had not emerged to liberate his country. The official noted that the Kuwaitis would have accepted the occupation and bided their time while gathering strength. It might have taken years or generations, but when the prospect of success emerged, they would strike and destroy the invaders. It might cost all of them their lives, but the invader eventually would be destroyed.6
The “threat of unacceptable counteraction” was not part of the decision process of this Kuwaiti official. The invader was to be destroyed, regardless of the consequences. An Iraqi Asset Hostage strategy ultimately would not have deterred a counterrevolution.
A more subtle point of the story is that deterrence would have occurred: a Kuwaiti counterrevolution would take place or not because of its perceived prospects for success. Deterrence can be effected if the decision maker concludes that an action will not be successful. This other motivation of deterrence, not specified in the DoD definition, might be called capability denial.
Based on a historical survey of deterrence situations, the Applied Physics Laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University outlined the decision process leading to an aggressive act or an expansion of hostilities. Generally speaking, there were four questions asked by the decision maker:
- Will the action be successful? A negative answer to this first and primary question was a show-stopper and in a preponderance of cases resulted in deterrence.
If this question was hurdled, the three other possible questions might or might not be addressed:
- Will it cost too much? Does the cost of success (in terms of the value system of the decision maker) exceed the value of the goal?
- Can the gains be retained? Short-term success is achievable, but counteraction would negate all gains.
- What else is at risk? The value of other assets open to risk of capture or destruction might exceed the value of the goal.
The following concept of deterrence emerged from the study:
Deterrence can be accomplished by convincing decision makers that aggressive actions will not succeed. Failing that, it might be possible to deter aggression by convincing decision makers that the aggression would be too costly or that they would not be allowed to retain the fruits of the act. The four deterrence strategies emerging from this model can be termed:
- Capability Denial (Will it succeed?)
- Acquisition Cost (Will it cost too much?)
- Takeback (Can the gains be retained?)
- Asset Hostage (What else is at risk?)
In consideration of this new theory of deterrence, the following might be a better definition:
Deterrence is causing an adversary or potential adversary to decide against taking a specific action or actions. It is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction, the perception that the cost of the aggression will exceed any possible gain, and/or the perception that the action(s) would not be successful.
The point is not to craft a definition that will support one type of force over another. It would be better to place deterrence strategy on a firm, impartial theoretical foundation and then craft the logical result. Theory defines strategies; strategies define missions and requirements. The discussion then can be centered on achieving the best balance of forces to meet the requirements.
There is evidence that Capability Denial using forward- deployed conventional naval forces is an effective strategy. Two case studies support this:
In 1983, there was a great deal of evidence to suggest that Nicaragua was preparing to invade El Salvador, using Honduras as a gateway. Precursors to the invasion were in place:
- Cubans and East Europeans were building an air base suitable for jet bombers. This air base included military revetments.
- 122-mm artillery and rockets were bombarding Honduras.
- Nicaragua was massing tanks and armored personnel carriers along the Pan-American highway.
The United States pursued what was in effect a Capability Denial strategy to deter the invasion. U.S. A-10 aircraft were deployed to Honduras, Special Forces were inserted to train Honduran forces and to erect antitank defenses, and a carrier battle group was located off the Pacific coast. Diplomatic warnings were delivered to Nicaragua. Efforts were made to convince Nicaragua’s decision makers that resistance to their planned aggression would be many times greater than they originally calculated.
The Nicaraguan army dispersed.
Operation Earnest Will
In 1987, during the Persian Gulf “Tanker War,” Iran was attempting to interdict crude oil carriers by mines and missile attacks. Under Operation Earnest Will, tankers were reflagged and escorted by U.S. naval forces. This strategy was placed in jeopardy when the tanker Bridgeton struck a mine.
To deter Iran from attempting to lay additional mines, the United States employed an interlocking protective system: 22 naval combatants and surface ships, 4 AW ACS aircraft, 2 mobile sea bases, and air assets kept tight surveillance over the entire area. Surface combatants shadowed underway elements of the Iranian Navy, and night-vision devices kept suspicious vessels under watch at night. When the Iranian cargo vessel Iran Air was caught, at night, attempting to lay mines, it demonstrated that mining no longer would be successful. Iran ceased further attempts, and the crisis deescalated rapidly.
In this case, the demonstrated capability to deny the enemy the ability to execute its strategy deterred additional attempts. Had Iranian officials believed they could not execute their strategy from the outset, the entire incident might have been avoided or redirected to diplomatic channels.
Fundamental to the concept of conventional deterrence is the precept that it will not always succeed. Unlike nuclear warfare—which promised absolute destruction and was seen with universal abhorrence— conventional-arms conflict is seen as a lesser risk, and world leaders may be more willing to test the verdict of combat.
Deterrence failures fall in the following groupings:
- Undeterrable conflicts: those conflicts where deterrence cannot succeed, usually because of a perceived threat to survival or fundamental values.
- Miscalculations: selecting a deterrence strategy that is inappropriate to the target decision maker; misjudging the force or threat needed to deter; or failing to communicate—for example, an aircraft carrier off a coastline is of no deterrence value unless the targeted decision maker knows it is there and what it can do.
- Perceptions of will: threats are not effective if it is perceived that there is no will to execute them.
Nations always must consider the possibility that deterrence will fail and field suitable forces to defeat and punish aggression. It is axiomatic that the will of a nation to execute deterrence strategies occasionally must be demonstrated. Aggressors often test the limits of tolerable behavior to see if established boundaries can be pushed back. A failure to act because of a lack of will is the most pernicious, because it undermines future efforts, whereas action taken after a “deterrence failure” may strengthen future deterrence efforts.
Navy and Marine Corps Forces
Navy and Marine Corps contributions to deterrence could be accomplished by a general or an immediate capability. General deterrence capability would be that caused simply by the existence of forces and capability; immediate capability would be caused by the deployment of forces and would be specific in terms of time, place, issue, and opponent.7
Asset Hostage strategies rely on general deterrence. The capability of the medium-range or strategic bomber to strike an array of Asset Hostage targets globally contributes to general deterrence. Naval forces or Marine landing forces in the crisis theater would contribute to immediate deterrence.
The Capability Denial, Acquisition Cost, and Takeback strategies depend more on immediate deterrence. Forward- deployed forces have a powerful psychological impact; their presence, movement, training, and exercises serve both as a constant reminder of capability to defeat the aggression and as a visible expression of will. General deterrence may fade from mind and become less credible.
General deterrence also can suffer from the fait accompli syndrome, where an aggressor executes the act so rapidly that general deterrence forces cannot have an impact on the event. An after-the-fact response can entail a huge, expensive effort. For example, Great Britain relied on general deterrence to prevent Argentina from pressing its claim to the Falkland Islands and neglected the need for immediate deterrence.8
Forward-deployed naval forces would have a greater Psychological effect on the decision process of the aggressors than units located at a distance. A 14-hour response time and long turnaround times would not handicap long-range bombers flying from U.S. bases to the Middle East to execute an Asset Hostage strategy, but the delay would reduce significantly their impact on a land invasion or sea battle, where the tactical situation changes by the minute. Forces present—with an intimate knowledge of the theater, shorter intelligence cycle, and faster response time—would have a greater chance of defeating aggressive acts, a point well recognized by most leaders and certainly factored into their decision process.
The arsenal ship concept fits right in as a deterrence platform. With 512 or more missiles available, this represents a significant killing power confronting any regional aggressors. Some "back of the envelope" calculations can be made based on assumptions from the RAND Corporation's The New Cakulus.9 If an attack on Saudi Arabia consisted of 30 heavy brigades fielding approximately 8,000 armored vehicles, RAND estimated that killing between 30% to 60% of them would halt the attack. If the arsenal ship is equipped with the proposed TSTAR (carrying 12-20 BAT brilliant antiarmor munitions) or a version of ATACMS (5-15 BAT), and if each missile averaged three kills, then the ship is carrying approximately 1,500 armored vehicle kills in its magazines. Using the 30% criteria, the arsenal ship alone would have the killing power to halt approximately 19 of the 30 attacking heavy brigades.
In addition, naval surface fire support is in the initial phase of a renaissance. Operational requirements have been issued for the extended-range guided munition, which would be lethal against softer targets such as trucks, towed artillery, command and logistics points, and missile emplacements.
In concert with Air Force participation and the combat power of three U.S. Army brigades on the ground in the theater, it would be difficult to see how an aggressor could conclude that he had a chance of success in any invasion. Without a prospect of success, he could not attack— and deterrence is achieved.
The Capability Denial strategy, because it is based on the question that nearly always determines a potential aggressor’s actions, should be the first deterrence strategy considered. And the mission requirements of this strategy point to forward-deployed Navy and Marine Corps forces as primary contributors. Forces designed for Capability Denial also can execute the other strategies, and if deterrence fails, they can transition seamlessly into the combat mission.
Mobile forces located remotely and moved into the theater at the first sign of crisis also are useful. In some circumstances, the movement of these forces would have a greater short-term psychological impact on decision makers contemplating aggression than forces that have been on-scene for a long period and have become part of the landscape. Airmobile Army units and rapidly deployable tactical fighter squadrons, air tankers, and strategic bombers thus have considerable utility when there are host bases ready to receive them.
When bases are not immediately available, the importance of naval air and Marine Corps forces is underscored. They may be the only tactical forces able to respond immediately to the crisis and may be the only way to seize or protect bases to allow the insertion of Army and Air Force units.
There is a place for Asset Hostage strategies in given situations for which a Capability Denial strategy is inappropriate. For example, an Asset Hostage strategy might be the only viable approach to deterring the use of weapons of mass destruction. Other aggressive acts lower on the scale of aggression, such as terrorism, attempted assassinations, hijackings, and the like, can only be dealt with effectively with an Asset Hostage strategy. There also are aggressive acts that are too large for sufficient U.S. forces to be deployed in theater to deny the aggressor the prospect of success—we cannot deploy forces overseas to throw back every possible attack. In those cases, Asset Hostage, Acquisition Cost, and Takeback strategies are viable alternatives.
A mix of forces designed for Asset Hostage and Capability Denial strategies can be complementary. For example, it would be too costly to station aircraft carriers and tactical fighter squadrons in all the theaters in sufficient strength to defeat all possible major invasions. U.S.-based strategic bombers, designed primarily for the Asset Hostage strategy, could attack and slow an invasion force, allowing the carriers and tactical fighter squadrons time to deploy. An integrated approach will give the United States the best chance for success in this important mission area.
1. Adm. J. M. Boorda. USN, 2020 Vision, Washington: Department of the Navy, Introduction.
2. Countervalue generally is understood to be the destruction of nonmilitary targets such as economic infrastructure or the population at large.
3. Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 1 December 1989, page 113.
4. George F. Will, Conservative Chronicle, 26 May 1993.
5. Seminar with Colonel Vladimir Dworkin, Russian Strategic Rocket Corps, head of the Main Institute of the Armed Forces, and Dr. Alexai Arbatov, head of the Center for Geopolitical and Military Forecasting, 11 June 1993, Center for Naval Analyses. Western analysts long had assumed that the Politburo had release authority and control over nuclear weapons, in a mirror image of our own practices.
6. Presentation by RAdm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, U.S. Navy, at the Naval Postgraduate School, March 1992.
7. Roger Barnett, “Deterrence Theory for the Coming Decade” (National Institute for Public Policy, 30 June 1993) page 4.
8. Barnett, "Deterrence Theory for the Coming Decade," p. 4
9. Bowie, Frostec, Lewis, Lund, Ochmanek, Propper. The New Calculus: Analyzing Airpower's Changing Role in Joint Theater Campaigns. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1993.