Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

Increasing Uncertainty: The Dangers of Relying on Conventional Forces for Nuclear Deterrence

Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

Increasing Uncertainty: The Dangers of Relying on Conventional Forces for Nuclear Deterrence

Article excerpt

To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.

- President Barack Obama

In his now-famous Prague speech in 2009 shortly after taking office, President Obama laid out his vision for a world without nuclear weapons.1 Although he had no timeline for reaching this goal, noting that it might not even occur in his lifetime, part of the pathway to that objective involved reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy. The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released one year later, further defined and codified his vision for the security of the United States and its allies.2 Five years later, some of the implications of how this decision affects the US deterrent relationship with both Russia and China are becoming apparent.

Arguably, these two are the United States' most important relationships and should serve as the cornerstone of US nuclear deterrence policy. Although Russia and China are not identified as adversaries of the United States, neither are they considered allies. Potential always exists for the relationship to sour, and in the case of Russia, that is exactly what has happened over the past year. The US decision to meet the needs of deterrence by relying less on nuclear weapons and instead developing conventional weapons that can have strategic effects may not have had the intended deterrent effect on Russia and China. Far from encouraging them to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in their national security strategy, it may have inspired them to rely more on nuclear weapons to meet their security needs. Doing so could create dangerous instability in deterrence relationships.

The Simplicity of Deterrence Theory

Deterrence theory is beautiful in its simplicity. At its essence, the theory is a military strategy in which one power uses the threat of assured retaliation to convince an enemy not to attack. Some people have the misconception that deterrence did not come into existence until after the invention of nuclear weapons, but it has been used as a tool of statecraft, with varying degrees of success and failure, since ancient times.3

The destructive power of nuclear weapons brought deterrence theory to the forefront of US national security strategy. In 1946 Bernard Brodie commented on this phenomenon: "Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose."4 The dawn of the nuclear age spurred a tremendous amount of intellectual study and debate on deterrence as well as the ingredients necessarçr to achieve it. Deterrence became the cornerstone of US security strategy during the latter half of the twentieth century. However, debate on its relevance to twenty-first-century threats continues today.

Precarious Challenge of Deterrence in Practice

As simple as deterrence is to define, its actual practice is far more complicated, having many potential pitfalls for failure, essentially because it is a psychological function in the mind of the adversary. Consequently, success is difficult to predict or prove, and deficiencies may become apparent only when deterrence fails. Further, the definition of deterrence theory is evolving to meet the challenges of the current security environment. Scholars recognized that the Cold War deterrence framework focused solely on deterring the Soviet Union and was inadequate to address the national security issues of the twenty-first century. Today, because the United States faces deterrence problems from multiple actors, our strateg}^ needs to be "tailored to the perceptions, values, and interests of specific adversaries."5

An acknowledgment also exists that a cost-imposition deterrence strategy may prove inadequate to decisively influence a foe's decision making. The adversary considers more factors than simply the costs associated with a contemplated action. …

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