Minimum Deterrence: Examining the Examination

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The mid-August publication of the National Institute for Public Policy’s Minimum Deterrence: Examining the Evidence has re-invigorated the debate on America’s nuclear policy and on the concept of nuclear deterrence in general: Does it make sense in the 21st century? Can a ‘Deterrence Lite’ policy, hereafter called ‘Minimum Deterrence’ (MD), really work?

The NIPP has assembled a heavyweight panel of contributors for its study, including senior representatives of the U.S. policy, intelligence, diplomacy and military communities – everyone from senior arms control negotiators to heads of Strategic Command and Global Strike Command, including a former Secretary of Defence and two former Directors of Central Intelligence. Feedback from the American political right has been immediate and positive; the Heritage Foundation believes the report ‘makes a compelling case that arguments supporting the minimum deterrence posture are largely based on utopian hopes and are contrary to empirical evidence and diplomatic experience.’

An analysis of the report, however, yields a number of problems. The following excerpts reveal several issues:

  • ‘Minimum Deterrence makes promises about deterrence working at very low nuclear force levels, now and in the future. Such promises are predicated on the presumption [sic] that all rational leaders will reliably perceive their situations and make decisions as necessary for deterrence to work predictably at Minimum Deterrence force levels.’

Of course, the exact same assumption underpins nuclear deterrence theory itself. By attacking MD in this fashion, the authors undermine confidence in the very basis of their own argument: that the status quo must remain in place because nuclear deterrence works.

The authors also make a bald assertion about MD theory:

  • ‘Nuclear deterrence considerations no longer are pertinent to U.S. relations with Russia and China.’

This constitutes a classic straw-man fallacy. MD supporters do not say that Russia (and by extension, China) no longer require U.S. strategic forces to deter them from potential wrongdoing – simply that current levels of weapons are anachronistic and undesirable for several reasons. To quote the authors of a recent opinion piece in the New York Times:

‘We would lose no real strategic security by such a reduction. The New Start treaty called for cuts in the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550. But even these levels are an anachronism, left over from the cold war. The president’s proposed level of 1,000 warheads would still provide an equivalent level of mutually assured destruction even against Russia, were it still a cold war aggressor. In the current climate, when more likely possible aggressors have fewer than 10 percent of this level, 1,000 weapons is more than adequate.’

Returning to the report, it posits the scenario of the United States forever facing down the rest of the world:

  • ‘Similarly, in the post-Cold War international environment, the United States may need to deter multiple opponents simultaneously, including Russia, China, North Korea, and prospectively a nuclear-armed Iran and other state sponsors of terror. This list will evolve and possibly expand over the course of time. Again, the number and diversity of U.S. nuclear capabilities needed to hold all of their respective most highly-valued assets at risk for deterrence purposes could easily surpass the relatively small, fixed arsenals envisaged under Minimum Deterrence.’

Here the authors seem to say that the U.S. must forever retain sufficient numbers of nuclear warheads, on diverse delivery platforms, to be able to deter all potential nuclear-armed foes simultaneously.
The key to the text here is the phrase ‘all of their respective most highly-valued assets’; given such a diverse list of potential enemies, a target list could easily grow into thousands of sites (as is customary in military planning circles). The proponents of MD tend to agree that a ‘counter-value’ strategy that targets population centres and perhaps a few regime-specific strategic targets per opponent is sufficient to deter prospective nuclear opponents.

The authors, however, substitute their own definition of ‘highly-valued assets’ here:

  • ‘The assets of an opponent that need to be held at risk for deterrence may be known in advance and accessible; in other cases, it may not be possible to know far in advance the character and values of the opponent and, correspondingly, the types of assets that need to be held at risk for deterrence or the U.S. capabilities necessary to pose that threat. For deterrence to be as effective as possible in such a dynamic threat environment, U.S. deterrence capabilities optimally will be as flexible and diverse as necessary to adapt to shifting opponents, threats and circumstances.’

If one accepts that essentially open-ended lists of potential targets must all be forever ‘covered’ for nuclear annihilation, then naturally reductions much below the 1,550 warheads permitted under the New START Treaty will sound like a remarkably bad idea.

If, on the other hand, one supposes that nuclear weapons intended to deter aggression will only work if they are never used for that purpose, then counter-force planning becomes not only unnecessary, but riskily close to a nuclear war-fighting strategy.

The NIPP authors clearly believe otherwise:

  • ‘Yet, this [counter-value] approach to deterrence targeting, while compatible with the low number of weapons advocated by Minimum Deterrence, is uniquely illegal and immoral, likely not to be a credible deterrent on plausible occasions, and could easily undercut efforts to limit the destruction of civilian targets in the event deterrence fails.’

This argument regarding the legality and morality of a specific theory of use of nuclear weapons is interesting, not least because exactly one use or threatened use of nuclear weapons has not been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice (ICJ): self-defence. Knowing the indiscriminate and widespread humanitarian effects of the use of nuclear weapons, the ICJ made no distinction in its ruling between counter-force and counter-value threats (the intent to target military or civilian centres).

(Note: The NIPP authors also never quite get around to defining what they mean by MD: They cite a range of warhead numbers, from 300 to 1,100, suggested at one point by the Obama administration as goals for future reductions. But which end of this broad spectrum fits the authors’ working definition of MD, on which they base their arguments?)

On the other hand, the NIPP report does make a credible point about the future vulnerability of submarines, something that the UK has had to consider seriously when considering its minimum deterrent:

  • ‘If the U.S. deployed nuclear force consists primarily of a small number of submarines at sea, the ability to locate and track those submarines would likely become an even higher-priority goal for some future opponents. An adversary might then focus more of its resources on developing operational innovations and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities directed against U.S. SSBNs. With a Minimum Deterrence force structure based largely or solely on a small number of U.S. SSBNs, if an adversary could track, and then neutralize, the few SSBNs at sea, that adversary would have tremendous leverage over the United States.’

With the pace of technological development at an all-time high, this concern with placing most or all deterrent eggs in one basket is not unreasonable. Considering that 50 years ago, the silicon integrated circuit was all of three years old, and had few practical applications, can we honestly say that technological developments will not allow for the detection of ballistic missile submarines in the deep ocean within the next 50 years? The development of marine drones and their potential mass production is one technology that could make the seas more transparent.

Overall, then, while it contains some valid points that merit further discussion, the foundation upon which the NIPP report presents its findings is shaky, at best. Its essential premise is that any significant reduction from status quo numbers of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal would be dangerous, because nuclear deterrence, which functions adequately at current warhead levels, cannot be assumed to do so at lower numbers.

The authors’ arguments amount to an attack on the stability of nuclear deterrence as a concept, however, and if followed through to their logical conclusion, completely undermine the NIPP report’s underlying belief in nuclear deterrence at current warhead levels: ‘Since nuclear deterrence is inherently unstable, having more warheads is safer than having fewer.’

Combined with assertions of the necessity for U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs in Europe in perpetuity because ‘[e]ach ally is the judge of whether or not it is assured by U.S. commitments and capabilities’, the NIPP report ultimately lacks credibility as an intellectual exercise in exactly the same way the B61 lacks credibility as a nuclear deterrent in NATO Europe: The underlying concepts are literally unbelievable.


Image: US Pacific Command - ROK/U.S. Aircraft Conduct Extended Deterrence Mission

 

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About the author(s)...
  • Ted Seay, Senior Policy Consultant served at the US Mission to NATO as arms control advisor from 2008 to 2011.
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