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Since the Cold War ended a quarter century ago, we haven’t learned to love the Bomb, but we have stopped worrying about it. As the Obama administration insists on driving the entire Middle East toward nuclear weapons, we had better start worrying about it again. A good place to start may be to dust off the concept of deterrence and re-familiarize ourselves with it.
What is deterrence?
Deterrence is a strategy of using the threat of military punishment to dissuade an aggressor from attempting to achieve his objectives. A defender deters his opponent by convincing him that any expected gains from his aggression will be outweighed by the punishment he will suffer. A threshold assumption underlying the logic of deterrence is that the aggressor is “rational,” in the sense that his military means are reasonably related to his political goals and he acts based on a comparison of expected gains to potential costs.
If deterrence were easy, there would be no war, since no state would start a war with the certain knowledge that victory is impossible and the costs unbearably high. Unfortunately, the history of war is the history of deterrence failures. Often, one side simply does not have the military means to deter a determined aggressor, as Belgium was unable to deter the German invasions of 1914 and 1940. Such cases are numerous but boring, since the militarily strong will always dominate the manifestly weak if they so choose.
The interesting cases have to do with human failures: miscalculation, misperception, and miscommunication. Sometimes decision makers do not judge a particular deterrent to be credible, for example, if the defender does not demonstrate a clear commitment to defend its interests. As an example, in the early 1980s the UK did not maintain a highly visible military presence in the Falkland Islands. As a result, Argentina’s generals came to doubt Britain’s determination to defend the Falklands from attack.
If a defender’s retaliatory threat is directed at the wrong targets, the aggressor may be less sensitive than anticipated to the costs of aggression, and deterrence may fail. During the Cold War some American strategists worried that the Soviet Union would not be deterred by nuclear weapons targeting its population, and argued that the Soviet leadership should be explicitly targeted instead.
In other cases, deterrence fails because the defender misjudges his adversary’s alternatives and underestimates his need to change the status quo. This is what happened in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt attempted to dislodge Israel from the Sinai. In that case, Israeli intelligence failed to appreciate that Egypt’s leadership was willing to strike a blow against a politically unacceptable status quo, even at the cost of suffering defeat on the battlefield. As a result, Egypt’s attack was able to achieve total strategic surprise.
Finally, an attacker may underestimate the cost of punishment or the probability that it will be carried out, based either on poor intelligence or an unclear communication of the threat. Similarly, deterrence may fail if the attacker sees an opportunity for a quick and painless victory, perhaps made possible by a combination of technological and military innovations. In 1940 France had more tanks, planes and men under arms than Germany. But unlike their French counterparts, the German general staff had assimilated the lessons of the military-technical revolution of the 1920s and 30s, understood that the radio, the tank and the airplane had fundamentally changed the nature of military operations, and learned how to combine these technologies with devastating efficiency. Consequently, deterrence failed and France was defeated in less than a month.
What’s so great about nuclear deterrence?
In contrast to conventional forces, nuclear weapons — delivered by modern aircraft or missiles — are excellent deterrents because they make strategic calculations starkly simple. Because of their unambiguous destructive power, nuclear weapons greatly reduce the chances of misperception and miscalculation. An aggressor may believe that the chances that nuclear weapons will be used against him are low; but if he is rational, even this low probability is enough to deter him, given the certain magnitude of the consequences. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert McNamara judged the probability of a ballistic missile launch from Cuba to be one in fifty. Yet he says, “I wasn’t willing to accept that risk. And I know the President wasn’t willing to accept it. And I’m talking about one nuclear bomb on one American city. That’s all.”
Not only are nukes effective at deterring aggression, but their marginal cost is considerably lower than that of conventional defense. Moreover, it is cheaper and technologically simpler to protect nuclear weapons and their delivery systems than it is to develop forces to reliably neutralize them. This fact makes it relatively simple to render a nuclear arsenal virtually invulnerable to attack, thereby attaining a reliable retaliatory capability. Modest protective measures can virtually guarantee that any attempt at preemption would still leave enough weapons intact to threaten the enemy’s cities and population. For any state forced to invest heavily in national defense, these factors make nuclear weapons highly attractive.
The most desirable nuclear relationship, from the standpoint of deterrence, is one where the opposing arsenals are invulnerable to a preemptive first strike and both sides therefore possess a reliable retaliatory capability. If your opponent is firmly convinced that your arsenal is invulnerable, and that no matter what steps he takes, you will always have the reliable means to retaliate, his incentive to initiate a nuclear war diminishes to zero. Mobile land-based missiles mounted on trucks or railroad cars provide the most secure and stable deterrent, because such platforms are extremely difficult to detect and destroy reliably. Submarine-based nuclear missiles are nearly as good, although subs can be hunted down and destroyed if they are not extremely quiet and stealthy. If, however, either side senses that its adversary’s nuclear arsenal is vulnerable to a preemptive strike, then military logic argues strongly in favor of a preemptive first strike.
How has it worked in practice?
In theory, the awesome power of nuclear weapons removes any ambiguity in the minds of policymakers and military strategists. The reality is more nuanced. The 40-year-long standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union left plenty of room for miscalculation, misperception and error. The long shadow of nuclear war encouraged two distinct sets of behavior. On the one hand, nuclear weapons strongly encouraged caution and inhibited adventurism. Once a certain threshold was crossed, however, the nature of nuclear technology and military logic strongly drove both superpowers toward a kind of “guns of August syndrome.” In an acute crisis, with powerful time pressures acting on decision makers, it is possible that military preparations relying on pre-packaged nuclear plans, could have driven political decisions, as on the eve of World War I. Therefore, while the existence of nuclear weapons encouraged general stability in the superpower relationship, it probably contributed to instability in a crisis. We are fortunate to have (mostly) avoided testing the limits of this instability.
It is also useful to keep in mind that, while nuclear weapons are very useful for deterring aggression, they are practically useless for perpetrating it. The Soviet General Staff did put some creative thought into finding ways of using the threat of nuclear war to facilitate the conventional conquest in Europe in the late-1970s and early 80s, but these efforts were highly theoretical and inconclusive. The only successful instance of “nuclear blackmail” occurred, ironically, during 1946 Iran Crisis, when Harry Truman strongly hinted that the U.S. might be willing to use the A-bomb if Soviets did not uphold their promise to withdraw from northern Iran, which they had occupied during World War II. Stalin complied.
But the Iran Crisis was a unique situation. It happened less than a year after Nagasaki — when the U.S. had a nuclear monopoly — and the world was still very uncertain about the meaning of the atomic age. There is no guarantee that nuclear blackmail won’t be attempted in the future, but there is just not much evidence that nukes are good for anything other than deterrence against existential threats.
So what about the Middle East?
How all of this Strangelovean logic applies to the Middle East is an interesting question. Shakespeare tells us that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. To this Chekhov adds that a gun introduced in the first act must go off in the second or third. Put these two dramatic principles together and consider that, despite Israel’s long-standing pledge “not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East,” these weapons have in fact been a factor in that region’s conflicts since the mid-1960s.
Where that particular stage is concerned, we are well into the third act.
Image Credits: 1. “Dr. Strangelove” by Directed by Stanley Kubrick, distributed by Columbia Pictures – Dr. Strangelove trailer from 40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD, 2004. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. 2. “Crossroads baker explosion” by U.S. Army Photographic Signal Corps – http://www.dtra.mil/press_resources/photo_library/CS/CS-1.cfm. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.