The 1899 Hague Peace Conference was the first international gathering of major powers to discuss arms control. It was also notable for bringing together two of the era’s greatest naval thinkers, both serving on the delegations of their respective countries: Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan for the United States and Admiral Sir John Fisher for Great Britain. Each took a dim view of the conference, believing that deterrence based on strength was a better guarantee of peace than disarmament. Admiral Fisher made this explicit in the assembly’s most dramatic presentation:
The supremacy of the British Navy is the best security for peace in the world. . . . If you rub it in, both at home and abroad, that you are ready for instant war, with every unit of your strength in the first line and waiting to be first in, and hit your enemy in the belly and kick him when he is down, and boil your prisoners in oil (if you take any), and torture his women and children, then people will keep clear of you.
No American officer would feel confident about their future career if they made such a colorful statement today. But such a frank utterance did not slow down Fisher. He was named commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet and later promoted to First Sea Lord in 1904, where he spent the subsequent six years dragging the Royal Navy “kicking and screaming” into the 20th Century. The head of the U.S. delegation at The Hague conference, Andrew Dickson White (both ambassador to Germany and president of Cornell University), found Fisher “very intelligent” and, like Mahan, a breath of fresh air and realism.
Secretary of State John Hay’s instructions to the U.S. delegation stressed deterrence rather than disarmament, stating “It is doubtful wars are to be diminished by rendering them less destructive, for it is the plain lesson of history that the periods of peace have been longer protracted as the cost and destructiveness of war have increased.” And on the general topic of arms control, Hay doubted “the expediency of restraining the inventive genius of our people in the direction of devising means of defense.” On the eve of the second Hague Conference in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt warned, “We must always remember that it would be a fatal thing for the great free people to reduce themselves to impotence and leave the despotisms and barbarians armed.”
Today, the principle of deterrence is reasserting itself as an alternative to the long and seemingly inconclusive small wars the United States and its allies have been waging in the Middle East since the 9/11 attacks. It is alleged the public has grown “war weary” and Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump were both elected on the promise of ending these conflicts. The problem has been how to do so without creating power vacuums that enemies will fill, with dire consequences for U.S. interests. In the recent Iran crisis, President Trump sought to preempt an increase in Tehran-backed militia group violence in Iraq by executing a lethal strike against the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani. Then he sought to deter a wider war by asserting escalation dominance. In language reminiscent of Admiral Fisher, President Trump tweeted, “Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”
The aim of these remarks was not to foment war but to deter it—to ensure peace by threatening unacceptable costs on those who would break the peace. Deterrence became a household word during the Cold War in regard to nuclear weapons. While many had trouble accepting the idea of “mutual” in the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction,” the aim was to keep the level of violence in check so there would be no escalation to World War III. But, as the opening example demonstrates, the concept predates the nuclear age and was once applied to conventional warfare. It can still apply today in an era of smaller wars.
The term “massive retaliation” may still have value, but its close association with nuclear deterrence confuses the issue when discussing conventional warfare. A better term is “punitive expedition” because it conveys what the United States did during an earlier period of history—inflict significant damage on transgressors. The term “expeditionary” is most often used today to mean any foreign deployment of forces, including prolonged involvement in reconstruction and “transition” efforts associated with nation building. However, in the context of conventional deterrence, it should be understood as a foreign military operation with a narrowly defined objective. Colonel C. E. Caldwell, in his classic 1896 work Small Wars, divided such conflicts into three classes: “campaigns of conquest or annexation, campaigns for the suppression of insurrections and lawlessness or the settlement of conquered and annexed territories, and campaigns to wipe out an insult, to avenge a wrong, or to overthrow a dangerous enemy.” Because the United States is not interested in establishing the kind of formal empire common in Caldwell’s day, or even prolonged occupation of overseas lands, only the third class of small wars provides a model to establish conventional deterrence while avoiding getting bogged down in the costly entanglements associated with the first two classes.
The naval service will likely be most often tasked for the missions required by this new strategy. During the April 2018 U.S. attack on Syrian chemical weapons facilities, the bulk of the missiles fired (66 Tomahawk land-attack missiles) were from Navy ships and submarines. Six were fired by the submarine USS John Warner (SSN-785) and seven from the destroyer USS Laboon (DDG-58) in the Mediterranean, 30 from the cruiser USS Monterey (CG-61) in the Red Sea, and 23 from the destroyer USS Higgins (DDG-76) in the Persian Gulf. Two Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers operating from Qatar added 19 missiles to the effort, along with eight from British RAF Tornado GR4 fighters flying from Cyprus and 12 from French Rafale B fighters flying from France. In the earlier April 2017 attack on Syria’s Shayrat airbase, two Navy destroyers—the USS Ross (DDG-71) and USS Porter (DDG-78) conducted the entire strike with 59 Tomahawks launched from the Mediterranean. The mobility of naval forces and the range of their weapons provide an array of options to U.S. leaders while presenting enemies with very few.
However, the scale of operations may not always be at the low end of the spectrum. Carrier strike groups with their heavier offensive weapon loads and fleet defensive capabilities will also be needed. And there will be a role for the Marine Corps as well. To be truly effective in showing U.S. resolve and dishing out punishment on a scale that will deter future attacks, U.S. forces may have to go in on the ground, as Israel has had to do in its struggles with Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. The adversary’s infrastructure must be destroyed; hidden arsenals located; and leaders tracked down in a more thorough and comprehensive manner than can be accomplished from the air. But the objective is not occupation, and certainly not nation-building. The purpose is just the opposite—punishment for bad behavior on a deterrence-level scale. The Marine Corps would return to their earlier role as raiders rather than infantry.
After the Suleimani strike and limited Iranian ballistic missile response against a U.S. base in Iraq, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.” But Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are considered moderates. Iran is ultimately ruled by theocrats, so rationality will not always prevail. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said the missile attacks were not enough. Iran may shift to its proxy forces to carry out future attacks. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on 12 January, “I believe it is time for the axis of resistance to start working.” The axis is composed of all the militia groups Iran has created across the region.
The United States needs to remain ready to deter further Iranian aggression. That includes maintaining a naval force in the region ready to impose harsh expeditionary measures should Suleimani’s replacement order further attacks against U.S. personnel or interests. Deterrence depends on the credibility of U.S. declarations to do so. It may take additional punitive lessons to prove the point. But these lessons will make others take note and do the math. Deterrence is the return of the doctrine of “peace through strength.”