“So we see how, from the very outset, the absolute, the ‘mathematical’ as it is called, no longer has any firm place in military calculations; from the outset there is an interplay of possibilities, probabilities, good and bad luck, which…makes War of all branches of human activity the most like a gambling game.”

Roger Parkinson, Clausewitz: A Biography (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), 312-313.

USAF General Kevin Chilton and Greg Weaver have an article in Strategic Studies Quarterly titled Waging Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century (PDF). They take on the questions from national security policy scholars and practitioners who are asking whether deterrence remains a relevant, reliable and realistic national security concept in the twenty-first century. The answer given by the authors is, as one might expect, yes! This article discusses deterrence along a broad range of topics, a good primer if you will.

There is an emerging challenge in the 21st century to our deterrence theories that goes missing in articles like this, and that is how the United States leverages deterrence theory in our emerging role as crisis managers during escalation of conflicts between other state or non-state entities. There are several examples so far in the 21st century including the Lebanon – Israel campaign of 2006 triggered by the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers from Hezbollah, the sectarian violence that emerged in Iraq triggered by the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, and even the recent attack in Mumbai by terrorist forces that has significantly increased tension between Pakistan and India. In all three cases a 3rd party, non-state actor conducts an operation that creates confliction between two opposing forces, either two states or in the case of Iraq – two ethnic groups, and as these events were unfolding there was an absence of deterrence capability to be applied by the United States to prevent escalation, and act in the role of a peacemaker.

This deterrence capability including the necessary associated strategic communications strategy that both State and the DoD can leverage for these situations still, even after 21st century examples cited above (and there are more, Russia/Georgia?), still goes missing from our 21st century deterrence theory discussions. While part of the larger deterrence theory, the capability I’m observing absent is called Escalation Control.

Escalation Control will require our deterrence strategies to be applicable to rising tensions not directly related to us, but have significant strategic and cost implications indirectly to our nation. Effective Escalation Control strategies will require our nation to possess the cultural, political, and strategic awareness of all parties involved in identifying how actions taken on one side will influence the actions of the other in escalating and deescalating conflicts. Our deterrence strategies must also be adaptable of rapidly adjusting to conditions as the battlefield environment changes.

For example, scholars who study recent skirmishes between Pakistan and India are split regarding which country restrained from escalating that conflict. India had the edge in military capabilities, but during the Kargil conflict Pakistan pulled several major conventional forces, including their air force, from the front lines in an effort to manage escalation. Both countries faced severe consequences in a war between the two countries, and while the details are unclear regarding all of the political and strategic influences that prevented war, what is clear is that in the future as India expands their conventional capabilities, the political and strategic calculus in Pakistan adjusts. Said another way; in the future India will be able to create conditions towards “escalation dominance,” which means Pakistan may be more likely to rely on nuclear weapons to achieve “escalation matching.”

The Kargil conflict is an important study in Escalation Control, because media, or what I am calling strategic communications had significant influence over the perception of the populations in that war.

These policies of Escalation Control are most often applied to preventing escalation of conflict towards a level of nuclear war, but in the 21st century the necessity to apply an indirect deterrence theory of Escalation Control to both conventional war and irregular war is emerging as a requirement.

During the cold war, escalation control consisted primarily of two policies. The first is to have “escalation matching” capabilities: forces that can fight a war at whatever levels the enemy chooses to fight. The other policy is “escalation dominance” that refers to having superiority at every possible level of combat. These two policies were exercised at both the conventional and strategic nuclear level in controlling escalation towards a potential war with the Soviet Union, and both were important concepts. Escalation matching capabilities were often utilized to frame strategic communications in a way that suggested a strategic balance was being developed for activities. In a modern context, this might include matching a US naval force at sea to shadow a rival naval force at sea, for example. Escalation dominance signals a strategic communication in an attempt to keep wars limited due to overmatch in capability if they were to occur, with the strategic intent to minimize the likelihood of war breaking out in the first place.

Neither escalation control policy applied in the cold war is sufficient for applying deterrence to the emerging challenges that put the United States, as the world’s only superpower, as the strategic peacemaking diplomat of escalating conflicts between other parties. Furthermore, neither theory has any significant influence on the role of a non-state party to incite the confliction in cases cited above.

This emerging challenge absent from our deterrence theories requires more attention from our thought leadership. The necessity to optimize coordination between State and the DoD, and develop a strategic capability to be rapidly deployed with an associated strategic communications strategy that when applied works to deconflict tensions emerging in crisis. If the United States is to play the role of a strategic crisis manager for the 21st century, our thought leaders need to be resourced to develop a broad strategic theory for deterrence at the point where phase 0 of conflicts is shifting to phase 1 between two states, including and in particular when non-state actors are the source for creating the conflict between those states.

I believe General Kevin Chilton and Greg Weaver have added an important contribution to the discussion of deterrence to direct threats to the United States in the 21st century. It is my hope the conversation doesn’t fade with a single article, the authors raise important points regarding the necessity for our country to reshape our nations posture for deterrence towards addressing 21st century challenges.

I believe it is also important our government invests significant study and collaboration with thought leaders towards developing deterrence capabilities for indirect threats as well, because as the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Iraq shows, our inability to control escalating tensions between other parties can have significant strategic consequences to the United States.

Crossposted at Information Dissemination




Posted by galrahn in Uncategorized


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