Conventional Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age

By Gerson, Michael S. | Parameters, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Conventional Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age

Gerson, Michael S., Parameters

Deterrence is once again a topic of discussion and debate among US defense and policy communities. Although the concept has received comparatively little attention since the end of the Cold War, it seems poised to take center stage in America's national security policy during the coming decades. Adversary-specific deterrence strategies will likely become prominent in national and international security decisions for an increasingly multipolar world, with two wars already straining the military, concerns about a recalcitrant and militarized Russia, Iran's continued uranium enrichment activities, North Korea's nascent nuclear arsenal, and top-to-bottom military modernization in China.

As part of this renewed interest in deterrence, conventional weapons are playing an important role. The "New Triad," consisting of both nuclear and advanced conventional weapons; proposals for conventionally armed intercontinental ballistic missiles; and, more generally, the concept of Prompt Global Strike all represent a growing belief that advanced conventional capabilities can substitute for some missions previously relegated solely to nuclear weapons. Although there has been considerable debate over these specific initiatives--for example, the effect that putting conventional warheads on ballistic missiles would have on strategic stability-most specialists agree that conventional forces can help reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US security strategy. In fact, in recent years the US military has expanded the concept of "strategic deterrence," a term that once encompassed only intercontinental nuclear weapons, to incorporate both nuclear and conventional forces, as well as diplomatic, economic, and informational tools. (1)

The recent emphasis on substituting conventional for nuclear weapons in selected missions is an important step in developing a credible and robust twenty-first century deterrent, but it does not fully consider the unique logic and strategy of conventional deterrence. The current debate focuses primarily on the use of conventional weapons for "deterrence by punishment," the threat to impose unacceptable costs, such as the destruction of an adversary's strategic and high-value targets, in response to unwanted actions. Yet, one of the most important contributions of conventional forces is "deterrence by denial," the threat to deny an adversary the ability to achieve its military and political objectives through aggression. (2) If early strategists were accused of "conventionalization" by treating nuclear weapons merely as more powerful and effective tools of war, the current debate regarding conventional contributions to deterrence may be accused of "nuclearization," in that it treats conventional capabilities merely as a substitute for nuclear weapons.

The following assessment has the purpose of expanding the discussion related to the role and utility of conventional forces in US strategies by reexamining the traditional logic of conventional deterrence. That logic focuses primarily on deterrence by denial, in the context of the modern international security environment. It is primarily concerned with the role of US conventional forces in extended deterrence, defined as the threat of force to protect allies and friends, rather than "central" or "homeland" deterrence. (3) This focus on extended deterrence, and especially on the role of deterrence by denial, highlights the importance of protecting territory from attack and invasion. Historically, the desire for control over specific territory has been a frequent motivator of interstate crises and conflict. (4) While interstate conventional wars have significantly declined since the end of the Second World War, the potential for conflict over Taiwan or on the Korean Peninsula, the prospect of future clashes over control of scarce natural resources, and the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia attest to the continued possibility of conflict over specific territory that has important strategic, economic, political, religious, historical, or socio-cultural significance. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Conventional Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.