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Maintaining Effective Deterrence

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray.

August 2003

69 Pages

Brief Synopsis

While deterrence is as old as human conflict itself, it became particularly important with the advent of nuclear weapons when armed conflict between the superpowers had the potential to end civilization. Today there is a sense that terrorism has rendered deterrence obsolete and forced the United States to substitute preemption for it. The author illustrates that strategic reality is not simple. Instead, the two are inextricable. He provides both a conceptual framework for understanding deterrence or, more accurately, the psychology of deterrence and policy guidance on how the United States can most effectively use it. The author concludes that an adaptable and flexible military with robust landpower is the only tool that can maintain deterrence.


Deterrence has fallen on hard times. From being the proudest achievement of the U.S. defense community in the Cold War, both intellectually and as policy, strategy, and doctrine, deterrence today looks very much like yesterday’s solution to yesterday’s dominant problem. Times have changed, and each strategic context promotes the popularity of ideas that seem best suited to help cope with the challenges of the period. This monograph begins by recognizing that, although the Bush administration did not formally retire deterrence as concept or policy, it left observers in no doubt that in the global war it declared against terrorism, deterrence generally would be left on the bench. Whereas deterrence appeared to be resoundingly successful through 40-plus years of Cold War, its utility in the very different conditions of the 21st century is highly problematic at best.

The purpose of this monograph is to explore the state of deterrence now, and to see what can and should be saved from the wreckage of what once was the keystone in the arch of American strategic thought, policy, and strategy. To do this, the text begins by explaining how and why deterrence has fallen out of fashion. Next, it proceeds to detail the main elements in what fairly can be termed the current crisis of deterrence. Finally, the monograph outlines some practical measures, both quite general as well as specific to U.S. landpower, which should maximize the prospects for deterrence being all that it can be, admittedly in some truly demanding circumstances.

It is important to recognize that the monograph is informed by two strong beliefs which probably warrant labelling as assumptions. First, it rests on the conviction that deterrence, though diminished in significance, remains absolutely essential as an element in U.S. grand strategy. Second, the monograph reflects the belief that landpower must make a vital contribution to such success for deterrence as may be achievable.

By way of terse explanation: some of the criticisms of deterrence, including those that are valid and indeed are replayed in this monograph, are apt to be silent on the problems with deterrence’s policy and strategy rivals. It is true that deterrence is inherently unreliable. Unfortunately, as Clausewitz reminds us, “war is the realm of chance.” One reason why deterrence has to be rescued from its current condition of semiretirement, is not so much because it offers great prospects of success, but rather because the leading alternatives suffer from severe limitations of their own. Military prevention/preemption is a necessary option as an occasional stratagem. However, it cannot possibly serve generally as the strategy of choice. In addition to military uncertainties, the domestic and international political demands on a preemptive strategy are much too onerous. If preemption can be only a minor, if still vital, player, the principal alternative would be a strategy of accommodation or appeasement. Positive inducements have their place in grand strategy, but there is nothing especially magical about their historical record of success (as our recent experience with North Korea illustrates all too clearly). Preemption and accommodation have roles to play, but if the burdens placed upon them are to be kept within sensible bounds, deterrence needs to handle much of the traffic.

Deterrence in Crisis.

The monograph provides a detailed review of the current crisis of deterrence. Key concepts are defined and explained. Those concepts are deterrence itself, compellence, dissuasion, inducement, preemption and prevention. Familiarity can breed contempt for the precise meaning of words. A surprisingly large number of people do not have a robust grip either upon how deterrence works (i.e., through a leadership deciding that it is deterred), or upon the distinction between preventive and preemptive action.

The monograph presents five broad points which capture much of the basis for the contemporary inclination to marginalize deterrence. First, many people have come to understand that deterrence is inherently unreliable. Those who demand certainty tend to be uneasy with a strategy that leaves a crucial power of decision with the adversary. Second, in retrospect the American theory of (nuclear) deterrence which underpinned, and sometimes guided, our strategic behavior in the Cold War, looks to have been nowhere near as magisterial as was believed at the time. Our theory, and attempted practice, of deterrence, assumed an effectively culture-free rationality. The American theory of deterrence was, and remains, exactly that, American. This fact can promote miscalculation on our part, given that American efforts to deter can succeed only if non-Americans choose to cooperate.

Third, the American theory and attempted practice of deterrence is prone to commit the cardinal error of confusing rationality with reasonableness. A recurring theme in U.S. public discourse is that of the rationality or irrationality of a particular foreign leadership. While genuinely irrational leaders do exist from time to time, meaning people who cannot connect means purposefully with ends, their occurrence is so rare and their longevity in power is so brief, that they can be ignored. The problem is not the irrational adversary, instead it is the perfectly rational foe who seeks purposefully, and rationally, to achieve goals that appear wholly unreasonable to us. American strategic thinkers have long favored the fallacy that Rational Strategic Persons must think alike. More specifically, rational enemies are deterrable enemies. Fourth, deterrence has been marginalized because some of the more implacable of our contemporary adversaries appear to be undeterrable. Not only are their motivations apparently unreachable by the standard kind of menaces, but they lack fixed physical assets for us to threaten.

Fifth, the modern theory of deterrence was devised by people who were not, by and large, historians or close students of Clausewitz. The attempted practice of deterrence is subject to harassment, or worse, affected by events and influences that are best captured by Clausewitz’s compound concept of “friction.” Whether or not the American approach to deterrence is well-conceived, a great deal can go wrong on both sides of the relationship. Friction can occur at every level of conflict―policy, strategy, operations, tactics. Theoretical texts, as well as official statements of intent, on deterrence, understandably are all but silent on the subject of friction. This concept is notoriously difficult, if not actually impossible to operationalize. Even its author conceded that friction is a “force that theory can never quite define.” In the real world of deterrence as policy and strategy, many things can, and frequently do, go wrong. One might conclude that military prevention or, if we are desperate, preemption, is the prudent path to take, since so much may hinder the prospects for success with deterrence.

In summary, the monograph points out the inherent unreliability of deterrence, the fragility of the theory with which we waged the Cold War, the continuing confusion of rationality with reasonableness, the likelihood that many of our new enemies will not be deterrable, and the working of friction to frustrate our best intentions.

Practical Measures.

So much for the bad news. The concluding section of the monograph advances the much better news that all is not lost on the deterrence front. Divided into “general measures” and “military measures,” the study identifies and discusses “practical measures” whose adoption should help rescue deterrence from the discard file, or even from marginalization. As a general measure, the monograph advises that we should not “talk down deterrence.” This recent official phenomenon has at least two unfortunate consequences: it provides fuel for those critics who wish to portray America as triggerhappy, and it overpersuades its exponents. Next, the monograph recommends that America look diligently for deterrable elements among, or vitally supportive of, our foes. I am not greatly impressed by the claim that our new enemies are undeterrable. Al Qaeda has many would-be martyrs in its ranks, but the organization is most careful of the lives of its key officers, and it functions strategically. It can be deterred by the fact and expectation of strategic failure.

The monograph advises respect for the working of general deterrence, or dissuasion, as contrasted with immediate (crisis-time) deterrence. Much of our success with deterrence leaves no footprints in the sand. America’s military and economic reach and its reputation for firm behavior shape the international security environment. Putative foes are deterred without necessarily even being aware of the fact. They take account of America’s guardianship behavior and restrict their ambitions accordingly. The study proceeds to advocate strongly the development of a more empirical theory of deterrence. America’s theory of deterrence for the conduct of the Cold War was largely deductive in character and rested upon the convenient assumption that “one size of theory fits all.” This was not true for the Soviet Union, and most assuredly it is not the case for the new adversaries of today and tomorrow. There is no adequate substitute for understanding the minds and the values they seek to maximize, that are targets for influence.

Much as war cannot be waged intelligently except in the light of the peace that it is supposed to herald, so deterrence cannot be attempted save in the context of a broad strategy of influence. War is not an end in itself, and neither is deterrence. The purpose of deterrence is to influence the decisions of others. Military threats comprise only one element in a strategy of influence. Deterrence should be most successful when it is supported by the adversary’s knowledge, on the one hand that the United States is willing and able to take preemptive/preventive action, and on the other that promises of rewards for cooperative behavior are to be trusted. The monograph recommends that, contrary to much past American malpractice, the ideas of foreign adversaries should be taken seriously. After all, deterrence is all about influencing foreign minds. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of understanding the beliefs that dominate those minds, and which both shape the way the world is viewed, and serve as spurs to behavior.

It is necessary to demonstrate that terrorism fails. Brave people will sacrifice their live for a cause, but what if nothing seems to change in the world? Al Qaeda has some distinctly terrestrial goals, and those can be denied by competent policies and strategies. Many of its officers and recruits should be discouraged by a growing realization that the Jihad they are waging is an exercise in futility. Finally, the monograph reminds its readers of the unfortunate fact that, by its high-profile opposition to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the United States may be encouraging the perception that it can be deterred fairly easily. The law of unintended consequences has a way of ambushing what otherwise is sound policy. The more vehement the American opposition to proliferation, the greater the political and strategic value of such proliferation in the calculations of adversaries desperate for some way to secure asymmetric advantage. In its sensible quest to slow the pace of proliferation, America needs to be careful lest inadvertently it sends the message that even the most modest of WMD, especially nuclear capabilities, will reap wholly disproportionate rewards.

Under “military measures” to enhance deterrence, the monograph offers, and explains, four broad principles. It claims that force posture must be flexible and adaptable; that landpower is essential; that no particular military posture is uniquely deterring; and that U.S. landpower must be capable of contributing to strategic success in different kinds of conflicts. The monograph concludes by itemizing the desirable or essential characteristics of U.S. landpower for it to perform satisfactorily in a deterrent role. If there is a guiding principle for this concluding section of the report, it is this judgment of Rear Admiral J. C. Wylie, USN: “The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with a gun. The man is the final power in war. He is control. He determines who wins.” Wylie’s perceptive judgment speaks volumes to the matter of what enhances deterrence. His principle was never more in need of emphasis than it is today. Mission accomplishment can be threatened by risk-averse behavior for fear of casualties. Transformation, in practice, is more about exploiting technology than approaching war “in the round,” let alone waging war with a view to winning the subsequent peace.

The following are the practical measures recommended in the report, both general and military.

Practical Measures for the Maintenance of Effective Deterrence.

General Measures.

Don’t talk down deterrence,
Look for deterrable foes,
Don’t discount general deterrence, or dissuasion,
Develop a more empirical theory of deterrence,
Deterrence should be employed as part of a broad strategy of influence,
Take the ideas of others seriously,
Show that terrorism fails, Don’t encourage the perception that the United States would be easily deterred by WMD.

Military Measures.

Force posture must be flexible and adaptable,
Landpower is essential,
No particular military posture is uniquely deterring,
U.S. landpower must be capable of contributing to strategic success in different kinds of conflicts:

• Raids and brief interventions,
• Taking down rogue states,
• Holding off/defeating major regional powers,
• Irregular warfare,
• Peacekeeping/peacemaking,
• General dissuasion;

And U.S. landpower needs to be:

• Demassified,
• More Joint,
• More network-centric,
• Capable of heavy ground combat,
• Better able to use Special Forces,
• More focused on mission accomplishment than force protection,
• More skilled at civilian interface,
• More patient,
• More able to work with allies.

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