It is way past time to reexamine our strategic thinking about deterrence. General Vessey's belief in "cleaning clocks," characteristically blunt though it was, summed up nicely the urgency and the intent of our Cold War mentality. Unfortunately, that is just about where we left it--back in the Cold War, strewn among the rubble of the Berlin Wall.
Deterrence today is tougher and more complex; more than one nation can now reach out and touch us with nuclear missiles. Americans are potential targets of terrorism wherever they travel, and regional instability in several places around the globe could easily erupt into large-scale conflict. Even before Russia's move against Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August, U.S. allies were revisiting longstanding assumptions about America's protective security umbrella.
The United States may not face a nation-state enemy right now, but as many writers in this issue of Joint Force Quarterly point out, the threats we do face are just as treacherous, just as deadly, and even more difficult to discern.
Yet we have done precious little spadework to advance the theory of deterrence. Many, if not most, of the individuals who worked deterrence in the 1970s and 1980s--the real experts at this discipline--are not doing it anymore. And we have not even tried to find their replacements. It is as if we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Soviet Union collapsed and said to ourselves, "Well, I guess we don't need to worry about that anymore."
But worry we must. And act quickly we should. Terrorists are trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Some states, against international pressure, are trying to build and/or improve their own nuclear weapons. The specter of state-on-state conflict, though diminished, has not disappeared.
We need a new model for deterrence theory, and we need it now. Time is not on our side.
This model must possess at least three particular attributes.
First, it should espouse the highest standards of nuclear preparedness. The bulk of our strategic deterrence still relies upon the effectiveness of our nuclear arsenal. U.S. nuclear forces contribute uniquely and fundamentally to deterrence through their ability to impose costs and deny benefits to an adversary in an exceedingly rapid and devastating manner. They cast a lengthy shadow.
Regrettably, a lengthy shadow has also been cast over our own competence in handling this arsenal. We must turn this around.
We must revitalize our nuclear support infrastructure. We must hold ourselves accountable to unimpeachably high standards of training, leadership, and management. And we must recruit and then retain the scientific expertise to preserve and extend our technological edge in nuclear weaponry. Barring these improvements, a legacy force structure supported by a neglected infrastructure only invites adversary misbehavior and miscalculation. Deterrence then becomes anything but.
Secondly, the model must be credible. The enemy, or potential enemy, must be convinced that taking a specific action will bring them more harm than benefit. General Vessey would certainly agree with that, would he not? But credibility today requires flexibility.
Flexibility in our deterrence construct hedges against the possibility that adversaries might incorrectly perceive their actions as "below the threshold" of U.S. resolve and response. We must manage that threshold by looking at ways to limit the pain an adversary can cause through advanced defensive measures. Adversaries must know that they have a limited ability to hurt us.
We must also be able to act proportionally and across the whole of government, escalating and deescalating tension, predicting as best we can when a deterrence strategy is about to fail and shifting as required. …