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Introduction: On Deterrence 

Carl von Clausewitz writes that the nature of war has enduring continuities, but its characteristics change with different circumstances.[i] Similarly, the fundamental nature of deterrence has endured for millennia: a threatened response to an adversary’s prospective provocation causes that adversary to decide against the provocation i.e., the adversary is deterred from attack because it decides that the prospective costs would outweigh the gains.  Effective deterrence shapes the calculations and thus the decision making of an adversary in a more benign direction than otherwise would have been the case. 

While this threat-based nature of deterrence endures, its character must adapt to different circumstances.  Numerous factors can necessitate adapting a deterrence strategy for greatest effect, including the character, attention, and health of the adversary, the deterrence goal, the historical and cultural contexts, and the available channels of communication, inter alia

For example, in one case, the most effective deterrent may be based on a threat to punish the adversary in a manner that aligns with the adversary’s fears.  Depending on the opponent and context, this threatened punishment could be communicated via a variety of possible channels and be based on a range of possible threat instruments, including military and financial sanctions.  In another case, the necessary deterrent threat may be to deny the adversary its specific political or military objectives. [ii] In yet another case, a combination of unique punishment and denial threats may be necessary to deter. And, in all of these cases, effective deterrence may require adjusting the means of communicating the needed threats and the level of logical credibility that is attached to the threat. 

Understanding the basic threat-based nature of deterrence is not an intellectual challenge.  That simplicity is deceptive, however, because understanding how to adjust the character of deterrence strategies in practice across different adversaries and contexts is a significant challenge. Doing so is complicated by adversaries’ divergent worldviews, values, goals, priorities, risk tolerances, motivations, levels of pragmatism and determination, channels of communication, and perceptions of U.S. credibility.[iii]  The significance of meeting that challenge is of unparalleled value when the deterrence goal is the prevention of nuclear attack. 

The introduction of nuclear weapons in 1945 and their extreme lethality against most societal targets dramatically expanded both potential security threats and the corresponding means of deterrence, as was recognized almost immediately by some at the time.  As Bernard Brodie famously observed in a 1946 publication, “If [a nation that considers launching an attack] must fear retaliation, the fact that it destroys its opponent's cities some hours or even days before its own are destroyed may avail it little.  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.”[iv]  The advent of nuclear weapons did not alter the nature of deterrence, but it did alter its character. 

The contemporary emergence of new types of threats, and new domains of conflict, such as modern biological weapons, and cyber and space respectively, has again affected the character of deterrence. But its nature endures.  The fundamental questions about deterrence remain as elaborated by Raymond Aron and Herman Kahn during the Cold War: who deters whom, from what action, by threatening what response, in what circumstances, in the face of what counterthreats?[v] 

Despite the continuity in the basic nature of deterrence, significant geopolitical, doctrinal and technological developments now demand that we again adapt our deterrence goals, means and applications to fit a new strategic landscape. During the Cold War, U.S. nuclear deterrence strategies had to adapt to the relatively slow changes and enduring continuities of the U.S.-Soviet bipolar strategic environment, and thereafter to the dramatic systemic transformation brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. A basic task now is to understand how a third and dramatically different new strategic threat environment demands that we, again adjust the character of deterrence.  

Flexibility, Deterrence Tailoring, and Hedging 

By definition, effective deterrence requires that U.S. deterrence strategies be sufficiently credible and intolerable to different adversaries to shape their decision making decisively.  This deterrence requirement for U.S. threats that are both intolerable and credible follows as day follows night from the threat-based nature of deterrence.  The great potential variation in adversaries noted above demands that we adjust the character of our deterrence strategies, i.e., we “tailor” them, as necessary to the unique characteristics of diverse adversaries and circumstances.

The failure to understand the unique characteristics of diverse adversaries has, on numerous past occasions, led the United States to be shocked by unexpected foreign actions.  For example, in 1941, Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson reassured President Roosevelt that, “no rational Japanese could believe an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country.”[vi]  Despite Acheson’s confident prediction, four months later Japan struck Pearl Harbor—apparently in the belief that Japan was “doomed” if it did not act.[vii]      

The need to tailor deterrence to the unique character of adversaries and context is likely to apply to the form and substance of our deterrence threats, the source of their delivery, their timing, content, format, and the channels of their communication.  As a relatively early discussion of the need to adjust deterrence strategies to the differing possible opponents and contexts concludes, “If one does not threaten the right target for the right reasons, it may not matter how well one does it.”[viii]  

It should be noted that the need to tailor deterrence strategies is not a new idea.  For many decades scholars of deterrence pointed in their own words to the need to do so.[ix]  The 1983 bipartisan Report of the President’s Commission on Strategic Forces (“Scowcroft Commission”) essentially presented the need to tailor deterrence to the specific “set of beliefs in the minds of the Soviet leaders, given their own values and attitudes.”[x]  The catch-word “tailoring” itself came into play more recently.[xi] The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) culminates a decades-long road to the elevation of tailoring deterrence to a fundamental principle of U.S. policy.[xii] 

The breadth of the spectrum of adversaries with highly-lethal capabilities will affect the degree to which the United States must have sufficient flexibility of deterrence threats and planning to tailor its deterrence strategies.  In this regard, the new strategic environment is very different from the Cold War and the immediate post-Cold War period. 

During the Cold War, the number of deterrence variables was limited because the U.S. focus was largely on a single threatening superpower.  Now, in an era of Great Power confrontation and uncertainty, the spectrum of potential adversaries with highly-lethal capabilities has grown and there is considerable variation in their character; conflict scenarios range from the relatively familiar to the largely unfamiliar; and the stakes at risk differ widely and can shift unpredictably.

In addition, the number and character of great powers, rogue states and terrorist organizations that may join the array of contemporary adversaries is uncertain, as is the nature of the future threats they may pose.   Deterring contemporary adversaries is a challenge; deterring future adversaries yet to emerge is, by definition, a challenge of unknown dimensions.  This reality is why the U.S. flexibility to tailor deterrence and to “hedge” against uncertainty and risk is so critical for U.S. and allied security, as is emphasized in the 2018 NPR.[xiii]

From a “New World Order” to a New Era of Confrontation and Uncertainty 

Each Nuclear Posture Review, including the 2018 NPR, has emphasized that U.S. nuclear policy and deterrence strategy must be responsive to the evolving character of the threat environment in which U.S. nuclear policy and deterrence must operate.[xiv]  This is a significant point of consensus because the dramatic developments in the international threat environment over the past decade have included such profound changes that U.S. nuclear policy and considerations of deterrence must adjust to be responsive.  As the former Commander of U.S. European Command, Gen. Philip Breedlove rightly said in 2017, “The United States and its security partners have impressive military forces that should be capable of bolstering deterrence against these new challenges. But achieving this favorable outcome will require policymakers to implement critical reforms in order to prepare their forces for a more diverse and challenging future.”[xv] What are the new challenges that carry such significant implications? 

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a striking reduction in the generally perceived level of nuclear threat from Russia and China, and a corresponding reduction in the generally perceived value of U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence.  During the immediate post-Cold War era, the general belief was that the prospect for interstate nuclear crises and the need for nuclear deterrence was dwindling.  The hope and even common expectation—shared by many senior officials and frequent commentators alike—was that nuclear threats and the potential for nuclear employment belonged to the past, never to return.[xvi]  Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States moved further away from interest in nuclear weapons and focused heavily on defeating terrorism. 

Washington paid limited attention to nuclear deterrence or modernizing U.S. weapons; the emphasis instead was on how to reduce nuclear force numbers and their salience. The Obama administration in particular highlighted nonproliferation and the elimination of nuclear weapons rather than deterrence as the priority goals of U.S. nuclear policy.  The Obama Administration’s 2010 NPR explicitly elevated nonproliferation “for the first time” to the highest priority of U.S. nuclear policy. 

This prioritization was significant because the Administration considered the continuing reduction in the role and number of nuclear weapons as a means to promote the priority nonproliferation goal.[xvii]  President Obama himself emphasized this linkage, saying that continued nuclear force reductions, “will then give us greater moral authority to say to Iran, don’t develop a nuclear weapon; to say to North Korea, don’t proliferate nuclear weapons.” [xviii] Correspondingly, senior Department of Defense (DoD) officials listed “preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism,” and “reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy” as the top U.S. objectives, and stated explicitly that the DoD assessed U.S. deterrence requirements against these priority metrics.[xix]  The Administration continued to affirm deterrence, but subordinated it to the priority goal of nonproliferation, which in turn was believed to demand the continued reduction of the U.S. instruments of nuclear deterrence.  This was indeed unprecedented, as rightly noted in the 2010 NPR.

During this period, the United States self-consciously sought to take the lead in moving away from nuclear weapons and toward “nuclear zero.” [xx] Doing so was expected to advance nonproliferation and serve the desired broader long-term goal of establishing cooperative international norms and institutions, and transitioning away from the “harsh world of security competition and war.”[xxi] 

This idealistic theme pervaded numerous official statements about nuclear policy and the goal of “nuclear zero,” which dominated public discussion.  And, even while potential adversaries were establishing or enlarging their nuclear and missile capabilities, commentators such as Joseph Cirincione claimed that with the ending of the Cold War, “…the ballistic missile threat is generally in decline around the world and particularly in regards to our nation,” and that, “We could quickly reduce our existing nuclear arsenal from the 10,000 hydrogen bombs we now have down to the low hundreds, without any threat to our own national security.”[xxii] 

The assessment that, 1) with the passing of the Cold War, interstate nuclear threats are largely a thing of the past and U.S. nuclear deterrence requirements greatly eased, and, 2) continuing U.S. nuclear reductions are a key to nuclear non-proliferation, has been at the heart of virtually every argument against U.S. efforts to modernize the residual “legacy” U.S. nuclear force posture inherited from the Cold War. 

For scholars from the realist school, this assessment and associated policy recommendation were obviously imprudent because, despite the end of the Cold War, military threats and the potential for Great Power confrontation, including nuclear crises and conflict, had hardly been purged from the international system.  As Colin Gray observed in 2005, “If ‘the war that will end war’, in the words crafted by H.G. Wells on 14 August 1914, its even greater successor twenty years later, and then the atomic discovery, did not suffice to oblige humankind to change its political habits, it is difficult to see what could do so in the future.”[xxiii]  An Air Force General Officer’s quip portrayed the realist skepticism regarding the continued U.S. push for nuclear zero, “I hope that day comes soon.  And when it does, I want to invite you all over to my house for a party.  I’d just ask that you don’t feed any of the hors d’oeuvres to my unicorn.”[xxiv]

But the West generally welcomed the sanguine expectations and claims that because the Cold War had ended, interstate nuclear threats and the need for nuclear deterrence was largely a thing of the past.  As then-Commander of European Command, General Philip Breedlove remarked in 2016, “We embarked on a policy of ‘hugging the bear’ with what we perceived was a former adversary turned strategic partner.”[xxv]  This optimistic narrative fit well with the enduring idealist strain in American foreign policy.  It also was promoted by a professional anti-nuclear lobby and embraced by those captured by the hubris and feel-good emotion of it all. 

In a departure from this general narrative that culminated in the 2010 NPR, the 2018 NPR emphasizes that while countering proliferation and terrorism remain key U.S. goals, effective nuclear deterrence again is the priority of U.S. nuclear policy.  Correspondingly, Secretary of Defense Mattis recently identified the modernization of U.S. nuclear deterrence capabilities as the highest priority of the DoD FY 2019 budget request.[xxvi]

The reason for this renewed U.S. focus on deterrence, including nuclear deterrence, is clear: as if to confirm realists’ skepticism, key potential adversaries viewed the idealistic U.S. nuclear disarmament agenda as a subterfuge,[xxvii] and refused to follow the U.S. lead.  Instead, they continued to emphasize the roles of nuclear weapons and to modernize and/or expand their arsenals. Rather than a more benign “new world order,” the strategic environment is now characterized by the intensification of great power competition, coercive nuclear threats, and the increasing integration of nuclear weapons into adversary declaratory policy and war planning.[xxviii] 

Secretary of Defense Mattis stated in April 2018 testimony before Congress that, “Long-term strategic competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”[xxix] Why?  Because “Nations as different as China and Russia have chosen to be strategic competitors as they seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models and pursue veto power over other nation’s economic, diplomatic, and security decision.”[xxx] 

Russia 

Moscow clearly feels that it must correct an unacceptable loss of position supposedly imposed on it by the West following the collapse of the Soviet Union.[xxxi]  Unsurprisingly, Moscow is pursuing Great Power competition aggressively, with a revanchist agenda backed by coercive nuclear threats—its nuclear threats to Western countries surpass even those of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 

For example, in March 2015, the Russian Ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin said, “If Denmark joins the American-led missile defense shield…then Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles.”[xxxii]  Russia also made coercive nuclear threats to Sweden, apparently to pressure it away from interest in joining NATO.[xxxiii]  And, Russian President Putin stated explicitly that Russia was prepared to put its nuclear weapons on alert as part of its operations against Crimea in 2014, and reportedly did so during its military operations against Georgia in 2008.[xxxiv]  NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote in 2015: 

Russia has conducted at least 18 large-scale snap exercise, some of which have involved more 100,000 troops.  These exercises include simulated nuclear attacks on NATO allies (eg. ZAPAD) and on partners (eg. March 2013 simulated attacks on Sweden), and have been used to mask massive movements of military forces (February 2014 prior to the illegal annexation of Crimea) and to menace Russia’s neighbors.[xxxv] 

Perhaps the most visible of these Russian nuclear threats was offered by President Putin on March 1, 2018, when his “State of the Union” speech was accompanied by an animated video depicting a Russian multi-warhead nuclear missile strike on what appears to be Florida.[xxxvi]  Russia’s nuclear posturing in this regard is not limited to such an extreme declaratory policy: various nuclear force programs, according to Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, already have resulted in the modernization of three-fourths of Russia’s “ground, air and sea strategic nuclear forces.”[xxxvii] 

In addition, during the Cold War and the decades immediately thereafter, the United States devoted immense efforts to the negotiation of nuclear arms control treaties and agreements with first the Soviet Union and later Russia.  Yet, Russia now engages in continuing, willful noncompliance with many, perhaps most of its arms control commitments, most notably the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).[xxxviii]

China 

China continues to avoid transparency and arms control in favor of strategic opacity, and is provoking U.S. allies severely as Beijing seeks to overturn the existing order in Asia.  As the Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America states: 

China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage. As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future. The most far-reaching objective of this defense strategy is to set the military relationship between our two countries on a path of transparency and non-aggression. [xxxix]

China’s illegal expansionism and rapidly growing military capabilities, nuclear and non-nuclear, pose a direct threat to U.S. allies and interests.  U.S. allies, particularly Japan are highly concerned about China’s military rise, and the threatening position it has taken in Asia.[xl]  Japanese Prime Minister Abe has likened China’s military rise and the current situation in Asia to the ominous developments in Europe prior to World War I.[xli] 

These respective Russian and Chinese goals and worldviews are important to U.S. considerations of deterrence because cognitive studies that were not available in the 1960s or 1970s indicate that decision makers typically are willing to accept greater risks to recover that which they perceive to be rightfully theirs, but have lost.[xlii]  The Western goal of preserving the international order which these Great Powers now seek to overturn will be particularly challenging as they seek to recover what they believe to be rightfully theirs, but are now denied by Western opposition.  Russia’s illegitimate occupation of Crimea and China’s expansion into the East and South China Seas certainly appear to reflect this dynamic.  

North Korea 

North Korea’s extreme nuclear threats and long-range means of delivery now pose a clear and present danger to the United States and allies. At this point, North Korea may be merely months away from the capability to launch nuclear armed missiles at U.S. cities.[xliii]  The potential is clear for North Korea to threaten the use of such capabilities against the United States and allies for coercive purposes.  As then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in January 2018: 

And so we do believe that Kim Jong-un, given these tools sets, would use them for things besides simply regime protection.  Now, that is to put pressure on what is his ultimate goal, which is reunification of the peninsula under his authority.  And so we don't think it's the case that he's simply going to use this tool set for self-preservation.  We think he'll use it in a way that is either -- call it what you will, call it -- coercive is perhaps the best way to think about how Kim Jong-un is prepared to potentially use these weapons..[xliv] 

In addition, with the ultimate goal of unifying the Korean Peninsula under its rule, North Korea is expanding its nuclear capabilities. From the 1990s to the mid-2000s, North Korea used its nuclear program to extort diplomatic concessions, economic assistance, and food aid from us and our allies.  Secretary of Defense Mattis has stated that North Korea now has the capability to strike, “everywhere in the world, basically.”[xlv]  If North Korea realizes the capability to threaten the United States with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the prospect is for even greater demands and coercive nuclear threats by the “shakedown state.”[xlvi]  Whatever may come of forthcoming diplomatic efforts, absent virtually a complete and enduring reversal of North Korean behavior, it is imperative for U.S. and allied security, and for the assurance of U.S. allies, that the United States be capable of deterring and defending against this eccentric rogue power.

Iran 

Iran seeks hegemony in the Middle East and threatens U.S. allies and friends in the process.  Iranian leaders correspondingly express extreme hostility toward us and our allies—most recently labeling the United States Iran’s “number one” enemy.[xlvii]  Despite the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran has continued to pursue robust missile programs, including the development of long-range missiles.  Iran’s Simorgh space launch vehicle (SLV) provides technical advances that could shorten Iran’s pathway to acquiring an ICBM capability.  As a 2017 National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) report states:  “Tehran’s desire to have a strategic counter to the United States could drive it to field an ICBM.  Progress in Iran’s space program could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles (SLV) use inherently similar technologies.”[xlviii]  If so, protecting and assuring U.S. allies and partners in the region may become increasingly challenging given the potential for coercive Iranian missile threats.  

While terrorist organizations continue to threaten us and our allies, we must now recognize the reality of both Great Power and rogue state revisionist international goals, nuclear threats and their potential for nuclear employment. 

Clinging to Demonstrably False Expectations   

Despite the now-manifest realities of a dynamic threat environment in which significant interstate nuclear threats are a prominent feature, the claim continues to be repeated that because the Cold War is over, U.S. deterrence requirements have eased and the United States can further eliminate its nuclear capabilities, including at least one leg of the nuclear triad.  For example:

Thankfully those [Cold War] days are over.  The Soviet Union disappeared 25 years ago.  Current Russian belligerence, although worrisome, does not constitute a renewed Cold War…Our submarines alone give us an assured deterrence…The United States does not need to arm its bombers with a new generation of nuclear-armed cruise missiles…Similarly, the United States should cancel plans to replace its ground-launched ICBMs….[xlix] 

It is obvious that the 20th Century Cold War is over.  But that fact certainly does not justify the linked claims that contemporary U.S. nuclear requirements thus are minimal, and that, “our submarines alone give us an assured deterrence.”   This oft-repeated argument is a non sequitur presented as if a known, self-evident fact.  It is, instead highly-speculative and imprudent in a subject area that demands the greatest prudence.  Why?  Because it posits: 1) a continuing and relatively benign nuclear threat environment that, unfortunately, does not exist; and 2) the undoubtedly mistaken claim that a specific, relatively static force structure can be known to provide “assured deterrence” in a dynamic threat environment

Confident claims of what assuredly will deter simply ignore the inherent uncertainties regarding the functioning of deterrence, and the reality that deterrence strategies must adapt to fit shifting adversaries and contexts. No one, regardless of their position or experience, can claim with any credibility to know in advance that a relatively modest and static set of U.S. nuclear capabilities will provide “assured deterrence” across a broad spectrum of known and now-unknown opponents and contingencies, particularly for the many future decades in which U.S. nuclear deterrence capabilities are expected to function.  Static deterrence postures do not long survive dynamic threat environments. 

Indeed, the nuclear threat environment in this era of confrontation and uncertainty poses more diverse and severe challenges to U.S. deterrence strategy than were operative during much of the Cold War, with greater uncertainties about the future.  In 2016, then-DNI Clapper observed in his opening statement to Congress on the Worldwide Threat Assessment, “Unpredictable instability has become the ‘new normal,’ and this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.”[l]  In this new era, the range of possibilities and uncertainties has expanded regarding plausible answers to the enduring deterrence questions posed by Aron and Kahn: whom must we deter, from what action, by threatening what response, in what circumstances, in the face of what counterthreats?

Implications for U.S. Deterrence Strategies and Capabilities

The basic nature of deterrence endures.  U.S. security does not require new theories of deterrence; it does demand broader familiarity with what already is known about deterrence and greater facility with its implementation in a dynamic threat environment.  This includes attention to the requirements posed by diverse adversaries and contexts, and to the U.S. flexibility needed to tailor deterrence strategies and capabilities accordingly.  We must pursue the hard work of understanding how to deter a more diverse set of adversaries and potential adversaries,[li] from a wider array of specific actions, in a similarly wider array of plausible circumstances, while also hedging against the unknown and unexpected.

Deterring Limited First-Use Threats 

In particular, we must understand how to deter Great Powers and nuclear-armed rogue states from exploiting limited nuclear threats or use for coercive purposes in support of their respective goals to change established orders and borders in Europe, Asia, and prospectively the Middle East.  

As noted above, for over a decade Russia has engaged in coercive nuclear first-use threats and emphasized the value of limited nuclear first-use as a tool of statecraft in support of its revisionist agenda.  Its apparent notion of “escalate-to-deescalate” essentially envisions nuclear weapons as coercive means to defeat the West’s will and capability to respond in strength to Russia.[lii] Moscow appears to expect that its nuclear threats, or limited, low-yield first-use if necessary, will compel Western capitulation in crises or conflict.[liii]

As the National Intelligence Council states in its 2017 Global Trends report: “Russian military doctrine purportedly includes the limited use of nuclear weapons in a situation where Russia’s vital interests are at stake to ‘deescalate’ a conflict by demonstrating that continued conventional conflict risks escalating the crisis to a large-scale nuclear exchange.”[liv]  Evelyn Farkas, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, described this element of Russian military doctrine concisely in Congressional testimony regarding Russian military doctrine:  “The Russian armed forces developed a further means to attempt to deter the West using nuclear or asymmetric weapons—the concept of ‘escalating to de-escalate.’  The rationale is that by raising the price to the adversary—through a cyberattack or limited use of a nuclear weapons—Russia could force the enemy to capitulate.”[lv]  

This Russian concept of using limited nuclear first-use threats to compel capitulation appears not to be restricted to the defense of agreed Russian borders, but also to support the expansion of Russia’s area of dominance by deterring or countering any robust NATO response.[lvi]  As Jacek Duralec, a scholar with a Polish government-sponsored think tank, concludes: “The expanded function of Russia’s nuclear arsenal…is not just for traditional deterrence, which is aimed at preserving the status quo; it is also to be used as a tool of intimidation and coercion, supporting territorial change.”[lvii]  Indeed, senior DoD officials of the Obama Administration described this “escalation to deescalate” facet of Russian doctrine as a “reckless gamble for which the odds are incalculable and the outcome could prove catastrophic.[lviii] 

Some commentators, however, now claim that “escalate-to-de-escalate” is not a facet of Russian military doctrine—because, they say, there are few if any corresponding statements by Russian officials.[lix]  This claim ignores or dismisses key countervailing facts.

First, numerous U.S. officials with full access to pertinent information about Russian military doctrine confirm Russia’s “escalate-to-deescalate” concept.  For example, in 2016 then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated, “It’s a sobering fact that the most likely use of nuclear weapons is not the massive nuclear exchange of the classic Cold War-type, but rather the unwise resort to smaller but still unprecedentedly terrible attacks, for example, by Russia or North Korea to try to coerce a conventionally superior opponent to back off or abandon an ally during a crisis.”[lx]  In 2017, DIA Director, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart said Russia has built nuclear de-escalation “into their operational concept, we’ve seen them exercise that idea,”[lxi]  and the former Commander of U.S. European Command, Gen. Philip Breedlove, said, “Russia (and even North Korea) view nuclear weapons not merely as a strategic deterrent, but as practical weapons for employment to control escalation to Russia’s advantage and to quickly terminate conflicts on Russian terms.”[lxii]  In 2015, Lt. Gen. David Hogg, then-U.S. Military Representative to the NATO Military Committee, said that, “There is a Russian document [that] states that they will escalate to de-escalate and will be the first to issue a nuclear strike.”[lxiii]

Second, senior Russian military officials have stated explicitly that such details of Russian doctrine are now in classified Russian documents,[lxiv] which may explain why some skeptical academic commentators find open references to “escalate to de-escalate” too difficult to locate. Third, there are, nevertheless, multiple instances of Russian leaders openly discussing this facet of Russian doctrine, including recently. 

For example, in 2008, Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov, then-Commander of the Strategic Rocket Force, stated that “special actions” could, “prevent the escalation of a high-intensity non-nuclear military conflict against the Russian Federation and its allies” by demonstrating “the high combat potential of Russia’s nuclear missile arms and the determination of Russia’s military-political leadership as regards their use, so as to compel the aggressor to cease military operations;”[lxv] and, “the striking power of the Strategic Missile Forces is most efficient and convincing in the de-escalation actions.”[lxvi]  In 2017, President Putin expressed the following in an open decree: “During the escalation of military conflict, demonstration of readiness and determination to employ non-strategic nuclear weapons capabilities is an effective deterrent.”[lxvii]

“Escalate-to-de-escalate” appears to be quite real, and effective U.S. deterrence now requires that the United States work to deny Moscow its apparent confidence that it can defeat U.S. and NATO deterrence strategy via limited nuclear first-use escalation threats or employment in crisis or conflict. To do so, however, presumes an understanding of the basis on which Moscow now perceives a gap in the U.S./NATO deterrence strategy that facilitates Moscow’s belief in the possible success of limited nuclear first use threats or actual limited first use.

Fundamental deterrence questions are, what “gaps” does Moscow perceive in Western deterrence strategies, and how can those perceptions be corrected?  Answering these questions and closing whatever gaps inspire such Russian confidence is an example of what it means to tailor deterrence to meet the requirements of the times.  

Rather than simply denying the reality of the “escalate-to-de-escalate” facet of Russia’s military doctrine, some commentators assert that “there is no deterrence gap” because Russia should not doubt existing U.S. deterrence capabilities. [lxviii]  Therefore, so goes this argument, the United States need do nothing with regard to its nuclear force posture to close a non-existent gap.  In particular, the rebuilding of the U.S. nuclear posture initiated by the Obama Administration and continued by the Trump Administration “should be scaled back.”[lxix] 

The existence of such a gap or gaps per Russian perceptions, however, is undeniable.[lxx]  Moscow now manifestly considers itself to have the freedom to engage in coercive nuclear first-use threats against the United States and allies, and to exercise its forces accordingly.  Understanding the basis for that perceived freedom is to identify the West’s deterrence gap(s) that the United States must close in order to preserve effective deterrence. 

Identifying the reasons why Moscow believes it has the freedom to make coercive nuclear first-use threats is a challenge because it requires “getting inside” the thinking of senior Russian civilian and military leaders.  Nevertheless, on the basis of open Russian writings, it is reasonable to suggest that one underlying reason for Russia’s feeling of nuclear license is Moscow’s perception of an advantage in will and cohesion.[lxxi]   

If so, NATO must work to bring to end such disdain for NATO’s will and cohesion.  Efforts to do so may be seen in the recent public statements by NATO General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, including: “We are sending a very clear message:  NATO is here, NATO is strong and NATO is united.”[lxxii]  NATO activities that reinforce that message by demonstrating alliance cohesion and determination to prevent Russian expansionism are likely to be critical.   

In addition, DoD has concluded that “Russia’s belief that limited nuclear first use, potentially including low-yield weapons, can provide such an advantage is based, in part, on Moscow’s perception that its greater number and variety of non-strategic nuclear systems provide a coercive advantage in crisis and at lower levels of conflict.”[lxxiii]  Adversaries will seek out and exploit weaknesses, and Moscow appears to see NATO’s relatively much smaller and narrow non-strategic nuclear potential as an exploitable weakness.  

This is an important point because an oft-repeated critique of the 2018 NPR is that it is internally contradictory in this regard: to wit, the NPR asserts that Moscow’s perceptions of advantage over the West are “mistaken,” but then proceeds to recommend “supplements” to the existing U.S. nuclear force posture to correct those perceptions of advantage.  But, if the Russian perceptions are in fact mistaken, according to this critique, then the recommended “supplements” advanced in the 2018 NPR are wholly unnecessary.  Thus the 2018 NPR supposedly is internally contradictory.[lxxiv] 

This critique reflects little understanding of deterrence and war causation in general.  The 2018 NPR rightly emphasizes that Russia’s “mistaken” perceptions must be corrected for U.S. deterrence purposes.  Why?  Because deterrence is a matter of perceptions shaping decision making.  Whether or not Russian perceptions of advantage are valid or vapid does not determine their deterrence significance.  If Moscow perceives exploitable advantages, and acts on those perceptions—valid or otherwise—deterrence can fail.  Indeed, mistaken perceptions have long been known to be a basis for high-risk ventures and war—it matters only if such perceptions are believed by the adversary, not if those perceptions are accurate or mistaken.[lxxv]   

If Moscow perceives an exploitable advantage stemming from its much greater theater nuclear capabilities and options, then the United States must determine the most efficient way to close that perceived “gap.”  The easiest and most convenient response to a Russian perception of advantage is simply to assert that Moscow surely cannot doubt an enduring claim of the Western deterrence theory canon, i.e., that greater nuclear force numbers provide no deterrence advantage,[lxxvi] and lecture Moscow on the error of its apparent belief that its significantly greater theater nuclear force numbers and options bestow an exploitable advantage.  Such a scolding and self-serving U.S. response may well be easy and convenient, but not convince Moscow leaders that their entrenched thinking is in error and restore deterrence. 

If not, a key U.S. and NATO deterrence goal must be to take further steps needed specifically to counter Moscow’s confidence in its possession of exploitable nuclear advantages that allow it to so threaten the West.  Doing so at this point is an excellent example of what it means to “tailor” deterrence. 

Closing a non-strategic nuclear capability gap almost certainly will not necessitate mimicking the extraordinary Russian theater nuclear arsenal, but it will likely demand an expansion of Western nuclear options with a focus on their credibility in Russian perception.  Getting this right will be one of the most important deterrence challenges of the coming decade for the United States and NATO.  Parallel efforts in Asia in support of Asian allies also will likely be critical. 

DoD has decided to “supplement” the existing U.S. nuclear force posture with two added low-yield nuclear capabilities to help ensure the deterrence of adversaries’ limited nuclear-escalation threats.  These supplements are a near-term, low-yield ballistic missile warhead and a later sea-based cruise missile.[lxxvii]  The most common criticism of this move, in addition to the demonstrably-fallacious claim that there “is no deterrence gap” to close, is that the pursuit of such low-yield options presumes the unwarranted assumption that nuclear war can be controlled:  “Perhaps the biggest fallacy in the whole argument [for added supplements] is the mistaken and dangerous belief that a ‘small’ nuclear war would somehow stay small.  That if Russia used a ‘low-yield’ weapon, the U.S. would respond in kind, and that things could stay at that level.  There is, of course, no experience to support this dubious theory.”[lxxviii]

This charge—that the U.S. initiative for two low-yield options is based on a U.S. presumption that nuclear war can be controlled—is wholly in error.  There is no underlying U.S. assumption that a limited nuclear conflict would reliably stay limited.  Indeed, no one knows if nuclear escalation can be controlled; the deterrence value of these low-yield supplements is to help in a credible way to ensure that revisionist powers understand that they must stand back from limited nuclear escalation threats or attacks because they can have no confidence that they can control escalation to their advantage.  It is to help ensure that such adversaries understand that the United States has credible response options to their limited nuclear threats or strikes—and therefore can deter such actions, rather than capitulate to them.[lxxix] 

This discussion of deterrence in a new threat environment suggests six broad deterrence “lessons” for the future.

Six Lessons for the Future 

First, Clausewitz’ emphasis on the extreme value of “prudence” in defensive war applies equally to deterrence.[lxxx]  In a dynamic strategic threat environment of confrontation and uncertainty, the range of U.S. deterrence goals and the nuclear requirements needed to support them can never be considered fixed. They will shift over time.  It simply is prudent to pursue the flexible and resilient U.S. deterrence capabilities needed to tailor U.S. deterrence strategies as necessary to diverse and shifting adversaries, threats, and contexts.

To be sure, since the early years of the Cold War, successive U.S. presidents have demanded more flexible deterrence strategies and nuclear forces. The sense behind that demand is ever more apparent with the need to tailor deterrence strategies to an expanding number of potential adversaries and highly-lethal threat scenarios—and prospectively to threats now unknown.

Consequently, while the previous U.S. declaratory policy of “no new” nuclear capabilities might have been compatible with an era in which nuclear threats and U.S. deterrence requirements were expected to continually fade,[lxxxi] such a policy is ill-suited to contemporary realities.  Because the United States must be able to adapt its nuclear deterrence strategies and related capabilities to evolving and shifting threats, and hedge against future risks, “new” types of U.S. nuclear capability may be needed periodically, and sustaining the scientific and industrial infrastructure needed to produce those capabilities is essential.  To adopt an a priori policy of “no new” capabilities is to presume that deterrence requirements are static, which they are not.     

Second, the great deterrence value of the U.S. nuclear triad is the resilience and flexibility inherent in the diversity of the triad’s platforms and weapons. That value is not fading, as was claimed often during the immediate post-Cold War years.  It is increasing, as has the urgency of advancing the fledgling programs underway to replace all three legs of the U.S. triad that are reaching the ends of their already-extended service lives.[lxxxii]  The nuclear infrastructure enabling U.S. nuclear capabilities has suffered decades of very limited investment, and its recapitalization now demands comparable urgency.[lxxxiii]

Third, a frequent critique of past and present U.S. nuclear policy initiatives that emphasize the need for nuclear force posture “flexibility” is that this direction is for nuclear “warfighting” and contrary to the goal of deterrence.  For example:

Nuclear weapons are not and must not become ‘flexible options’ for use in nuclear warfighting…Building a new nuclear weapon that provides such flexibility risks undermining deterrence by introducing uncertainty into an adversary’s decision-making.[lxxxiv]   

This familiar argument misses the most fundamental point about deterrence:  for U.S. nuclear deterrence strategies to provide the desired deterrent effect, the adversary must believe, at some level, that its provocation will elicit a U.S. nuclear response.  The 2018 NPR specifies that only the most extreme provocation would do so.[lxxxv] But if the adversary doubts that a U.S. nuclear response would follow an extreme provocation, it will, by definition, doubt the credibility of the U.S. deterrence strategy.  The notion that deterrence is undermined by U.S. nuclear weapons that facilitate an adversary’s perception that they could, in fact, be “used” under extreme circumstances reflects an elementary misunderstanding of the fundamental requirements for credible deterrence.  Indeed, flexibility that facilitates an adversary’s perception of a credible response to an extreme provocation is likely to be essential for deterrence in at least some plausible cases.  This reality is at the heart of the 2018 NPR’s recommendation of “supplements” to the U.S. nuclear force posture.  This is about strengthening deterrence, not “nuclear warfighting.”

Fourth, “Strategic stability” is a venerable concept from the pioneering work of deterrence theorists in the 1960s.  As popularized, it came to mean a condition in which both sides in a bilateral relationship possess survivable nuclear retaliatory capabilities, and thus neither side is expected to have a driving incentive to employ nuclear weapons first given the prospective costs of conflict.  An enduring condition of mutual vulnerability to retaliatory strikes is considered the basis for a “stable” mutual deterrence relationship.  As the late Thomas Schelling described this relationship, “Human and economic resources were hostages to be left unprotected.”[lxxxvi]

Schelling’s conceptual work was particularly significant in emphasizing that few developments other than the “reciprocal fear of a surprise attack” could “destabilize” an otherwise “stable” condition of mutual deterrence.[lxxxvii]  Such fears in Moscow, Schelling contended, could be triggered by the U.S. deployment of strategic forces that could potentially degrade the retaliatory potential of Soviet strategic offensive forces—thus causing Moscow to question the credibility of its nuclear deterrent and consider striking first itself in a crisis.[lxxxviii] 

This conceptual construct became a guiding principle for U.S. deterrence policy.[lxxxix]  Numerous official U.S. statements deemed the survivability and effectiveness of Soviet retaliatory strategic capabilities to be critical for “strategic stability.”[xc]  Those U.S. strategic forces that might threaten to degrade the effectiveness of the Soviet Union’s strategic offensive forces, such as U.S. strategic ballistic missile defense (BMD) and countersilo-capable offensive systems, typically were considered inherently “destablilizing.” 

However, the great deterrence theorists of the 1960s developed the concept of “strategic stability” in the unique context of the U.S.-Soviet bipolar Cold War, and its applicability outside that now-non-existent context is likely limited.  The general Cold War principle that particular types of U.S. forces should be expected to inspire the “fear of a surprise attack” and drive Moscow toward a nuclear first strike against the United States might have pertained in the particular circumstances of the Cold War—although even at the time it was highly speculative.  But, in the contemporary era, the spectrum of potential adversaries will have varying and possibly eccentric views regarding their perceived incentives and disincentives to launch an attack given the diversity of worldviews, fears, motivations, capabilities, goals and risk tolerances.  The “real world” range of leadership decision making and calculations that might lead to state decisions to attack or to stand down is simply much broader and more variable than the narrowly rational decision-making model presumed in the strategic stability construct.[xci] 

In the contemporary era, there can be no generally-applicable “rule of thumb” derived from the U.S.-Soviet experience for predicting that a particular set of U.S. capabilities will be “stabilizing” or “destabilizing” across a spectrum of potential adversaries and contexts. In some cases, for example, rather than being a source of deterrence “instability” as envisaged in the Cold War construct, U.S. BMD capabilities able to defeat an adversary’s prospective missile attack may well be key to denying the political or military value that would underlie an adversary’s decision to attack, i.e., missile defense in such a case would rightly be deemed “stabilizing.” 

This is no small point given the policy significance that has been—and continues to be—attached to the concept of “strategic stability” in the United States. In the contemporary threat environment, and likely in many other possible threat environments dissimilar to the Cold War, U.S. deterrence considerations should be informed and governed by the unique deterrence requirements that pertain to different adversaries and different contexts, not by the general application of the Cold War concept of “strategic stability”—which may be as misleading as it is useful.    

Fifth, U.S. civilian and military leaders need to be active in efforts to improve the understanding of deterrence in general, and the value of and requirements for nuclear deterrence in particular.  The public debate on these issues typically is dominated by academic writers and political activists who continue to favor nuclear disarmament or “minimum deterrence.”[xcii]  This enduring condition of the public debate threatens the continuity of U.S. nuclear capabilities and also societal recognition of the value of the service provided by the uniformed and civilian men and women who work to sustain credible U.S. nuclear deterrence capabilities. 

Those governmental stakeholders with the greatest authority and professional responsibility to advocate for U.S. nuclear capabilities and the Service personnel involved must, as the 2014 Independent Review of the Department of Defense Nuclear Enterprise led by Gen. Larry Welch and Adm. John C. Harvey recommends, “own the mission,” and “Establish and support programs that maintain high awareness of verbal and written public declarations that question the need for nuclear forces and respond with equally public declarations.”[xciii]  This well-reasoned recommendation has not yet led to any apparent fruit.  Doing so now is particularly critical as the public debate regarding the initiatives of the 2018 NPR unfolds.

Sixth, for decades the U.S. has been devoted to the process of nuclear arms control.  Most discussions of deterrence and nuclear forces must pay homage to the goal of negotiated nuclear reductions lest they seem unsophisticated.  Unsurprisingly, there are calls now for further arms control efforts to solve the deterrence challenges that have been created intentionally, indeed eagerly, by foes, including the mounting North Korean nuclear threat and the great theater nuclear force asymmetry in Russia’s favor.[xciv]  

Arms control can, in principle, contribute to U.S. security by establishing restraints on forces and threatening behavior.  However, expecting arms control with potential adversaries to solve the U.S. security problems they have purposefully created is naïve in the absence of: 1) serious U.S. verification and enforcement efforts and mechanisms;[xcv] and, 2) the types of incentives that make agreements and compliance an adversary’s preferred choice, e.g. to gain relief from feared U.S. capabilities.  We learned this lesson with the 1987 INF Treaty.  As then-Secretary of State George Schultz stated:  “If the West did not deploy Pershing II and cruise missiles, there would be no incentive for the Soviets to negotiate seriously for nuclear reductions,” and, “strength was recognized as crucial to diplomacy.”[xcvi] 

For much of a decade, however, the United States appears to have expected nuclear arms control returns without the necessary investment to warrant adversary interest, i.e., a position of U.S. strength to back U.S. diplomacy.  The reality that “strength” is necessary for diplomacy was replaced by the idealistic expectation that U.S. self-restraint would be mimicked by others.  The result of this U.S. lapse into idealism is contemporary Russian disdain for U.S. arms control enthusiasm, as reflected in the statement by then-Russian Presidential Chief of Staff, Sergei Ivanov:  “When I hear our American partners say:  ‘Let’s reduce something else,’ I would like to say to them: ‘Excuse me, but what we have is relatively new.’  They [the U.S.] have not conducted any upgrades for a long time.”[xcvii]  The lessons of the past should once again inform U.S. arms control expectations and actions in this new era of intense Great Power competition—whether in prospective diplomatic engagements with Russia, North Korea or Iran. 


Dr. Keith B. Payne is a co-founder of the National Institute for Public Policy, the director of the Graduate School of Defense and Strategic Studies at Missouri State University and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

The author would like to thank Dr. Colin S. Gray, Professor Emeritus, University of Reading, UK, Dr. Mark Schneider and Mr. Matthew Costlow of National Institute for Public Policy for their helpful contributions to this article.&n

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