Deterrence Resurrected: Revisiting Some Fundamentals

By Gray, Colin S. | Parameters, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Deterrence Resurrected: Revisiting Some Fundamentals


Gray, Colin S., Parameters


Of recent years several cottage industries of deterrence studies have resumed active life following a hiatus of several decades. Specifically, academics have endeavored to reduce deterrence to a sub-specialty within political science; defense analysts have been seeking quasi-scientific truth about "stable deterrence;" strategic and moral philosophers have been going "back to basics;" and the defense community writ large has been wondering whether its longstanding deterrence creed was not really overly Soviet-looking in orientation and evidential base, and certainly unduly nuclear in inspiration, application, and assumed context.

The Cold War may be over, but the United States still has a strategic relationship with a very heavily nuclear-armed Soviet superpower. The political future of the USSR is unknown, indeed is unknowable, but the historical and cultural material from which that future will be fashioned does not provide much fuel for optimistic speculation. All things are possible, but the apparent reversion of recent months to authoritarian rule and the collapse of anything seriously resembling perestroika probably should not be read as only a temporary setback. The Soviet Union currently coercing the Baltic republics, evading some of the key terms and purposes of the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) treaty, and modernizing its strategic nuclear forces comprehensively is indeed the real Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev, on the evidence to date, is not committed to the political, economic, and social reform of the USSR as an end in and of itself. Instead, he is committed first to the preservation of his personal power, and second to the protection of the core values of the Soviet patrimony which he inherited. Whatever Gorbachev released, or has appeared to release, occurred as a result of the miscalculation that the devolution of power would be slow and only partial (in east-central Europe and the peripheral republics at home). The Soviet Union, either with Gorbachev as the reforming-then-repressive czar or with Gorbachev's replacement, assuredly will continue to pose a superpower level of strategic competition for the United States. Soviet American relations in the future may be less antagonistic than was the case for many of the years from 1946 until Gorbachev's accession to power in 1986; nonetheless, the United States has a prospectively permanent need of policy, strategy, and military posture to help manage the security relationship with a Soviet/Great Russian superstate.

What follows is a series of propositions on deterrence, along with critical commentaries. Their purposes are to help people to think appropriately about deterrence and to distinguish strong from weak arguments.

Propositions on Deterrence

The requirements of deterrence are indeterminate or, at best, very uncertain.

Judgment is possible and necessary, but not quantified judgment. Not only is it difficult if not impossible to calculate in a quantified way what will or should deter, but even the intended deterrees will not know how much of a politically and technically credible threat it would take to deter them. Deterrence, or perhaps deterrent effectiveness, is not a quality that can be purchased discretely and reliably by incremental amounts. This reality tends to be obscured by the fallacy of making reference to the deterrent, as if a force posture itself deters. The US strategic nuclear triad is the agent of a deterrence policy, but candidate deterrees have to choose to be deterred. In a deterrence relationship, intended deterrees can always decide that they are not deterred, a situation which contrasts sharply with a relationship of physical coercion wherein the enemy's behavior is controlled directly by our forces.

An intended deterrent may not deter if the intended deterree believes we will not fight, or will not fight very hard (regardless of the size of our forces); if he is confident (however foolish such a belief) of securing military victory; if he believes (incorrectly) that war is absolutely inevitable anyway; or if he is totally or substantially indifferent either to threats in general or to the particular threats he receives from us. …

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