Levels of Deterrence

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) mentions some variant of “deter” 279 times. Deterrence is supposedly what today’s nuclear arsenals are about. The idea is that we have enough nuclear weapons so that if an enemy attacked us, we could still destroy them. That standoff, established after the nearly world-ending Cuban Missile Crisis, seems to have worked. Or it’s possible that the reason for no nuclear war in the past 56 years is that nations recognize that destroying the world is in nobody’s interests.

The NPR argues that deterrence requires several new nuclear weapons. What can be confusing about discussions of deterrence is that they take place on several levels. The broadest is that the point of deterrence is to avoid a nuclear war. With a little more detail, we can talk about conventional weapons and nuclear weapons, and the generalities of what it takes to extend American nuclear deterrence to our allies. The deterrence theorists get far down in the weeds of pitting one particular weapon against another. For a reality check, those levels need to be cross-correlated.

If we don’t want a nuclear war, there are a number of things we can do. Eliminating nuclear weapons is one. That would require setting up a strategy to get there and a complicated series of negotiations. I think it could be done, but the Trump administration wouldn’t be able to do it.

Another way to defend against nuclear war would be to convene negotiations to agree on conventions for when the use of nuclear weapons might be appropriate. Limiting or banning various types of delivery vehicles might also be a subject of talks. Making more information available about plans for their use would also be helpful. Information is a key to stabilizing the world against nuclear weapons.

Much of the discussion in the NPR and in discussions I’m seeing on Twitter is at the most detailed level. Here’s one example, from page 7 of the NPR.

While nuclear weapons play a deterrent role in both Russian and Chinese strategy, Russia may also rely on threats of limited nuclear first use, or actual first use, to coerce us, our allies, and partners into terminating a conflict on terms favorable to Russia. Moscow apparently believes that the United States is unwilling to respond to Russian employment of tactical nuclear weapons with strategic nuclear weapons.

This has been called the escalate-to-deescalate strategy. The idea is that Russia would use a small nuclear weapon on an aircraft carrier group or a city like Warsaw or Tallinn. That would prove that they are serious about using nuclear weapons, the United States would shy away from a nuclear response, and Russia would gain an advantage.

The situation that this applies to is where war is in progress between the United States and Russia, and Russia fears losing. So it is some distance down the escalation trail. There are other assumptions that I’ll skip over to focus on why some analysts believe that this is what Russia would do.

Strategists on both sides infer doctrines and intentions from the other’s words and actions. Although some strategies are explicit, others are not. Deterrence is bolstered by clear statements of the retaliation certain actions will bring, but keeping the other side guessing has its own benefits.

Olga Oliker and Andrey Baklitskiy explain how some US analysts have inferred the escalate-to-deescalate strategy. A combination of a paper in a 1999 Russian military journal, particular interpretations of military exercises, Russia’s larger number of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, and Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric lead those analysts to conclude that Russia would use such a strategy. However, the official doctrine does not mention such a strategy, and the other evidence can be interpreted against its existence.

Bruno Tertrais also examines the evidence and comes up with the same conclusion: That the escalate-to-deescalate strategy is not part of Russia’s nuclear doctrine.

But the authors of the NPR believe that it is and that they know the way to counter it. From page 31,

To correct any Russian misperceptions of advantage and credibly deter Russian nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attacks—which could now include attacks against U.S. NC3 [Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications]—the President must have a range of limited and graduated options, including a variety of delivery systems and explosive yields.

And thus (page 55)

DoD and NNSA will develop for deployment a low-yield SLBM warhead to ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses.

This option presents a number of problems of its own. For example, once a nuclear exchange starts, it is not clear whether the two sides will distinguish between strikes with lower or higher yields. But those problems are not considered in the NPR.

Let’s move the focus out. We already have flexibility in the yields of existing nuclear weapons. Overall conventional and nuclear deterrence is strong. A new capability is likely to provoke Russia and possibly China to develop new weapons of their own.

Deterrence cannot be numerically measured. Russia has more nonstrategic nuclear weapons, but we have more weapons in storage. The differences come about because of differences in our situations and the history of developing the nuclear arsenals. Russia feels it needs those weapons to defend near its long continental borders; we have weaknesses in our production complex.

There are other similar issues in the NPR. The calculus of deterrence is subjective and can be bent to justify new weapons. Little is said in the document about the arms control agreements that limit the numbers and types of weapons. The likely Russian violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty is met with a proposal for an equally violating American weapon to be developed.

The comparisons are not only of one weapon to another. Nor should all the arguments be of adding or subtracting particular weapons; a broader perspective is needed.  That is simply a response to the other side and lacks leadership, either for stronger deterrence or moving away from nuclear weapons. It is a recipe for an arms race and escalation to full nuclear war if armed conflict occurs.


Graphic source. The cartoon is in homage to an earlier one of John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev.


Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.

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