With the inauguration of Barack Obama as President, the debate over nuclear deterrence and disarmament has sprung back to the forefront of international debate. The end of the Cold War brought about an initial euphoria that the threat of nuclear annihilation had dissipated and dramatic changes in the deterrence postures of the major powers could be enacted. Time, though, has shown that prevailing doctrines of nuclear deterrence are essentially unchanged between the major powers. The change that has created a need for further development of nuclear deterrence doctrine in the last twenty years, however, is the appearance of nations with small nuclear forces (SNF) and non-state actors pursuing nuclear capability.

From the start of the 20th Century to the beginning of WWII, deterrence relied upon conventional arms races and preventive war. The German pre-WWI posture serves as an excellent example. The Germans relied on starting a preventive war against Russia and France to prevent being attacked itself. The Germans could see they were gradually being eclipsed by French and Russian military power and believed war was inevitable, so Germany chose to fight while they were still relatively strong. Similar thinking is documented in Germany and Japan at the start of the Second World War, and one can argue that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was itself a preventive war.

Later, following the advent of atomic weapons, theories of nuclear deterrence arose. Of these theories, there were two major schools of thought: 1) deterrence by punishment–retaliation against population centers in the event of an attack—and 2) deterrence by denial–a successful first strike against an opponent’s arsenal. The U.S. and Russia pursued both strategies at one time and another.

A third theory, existential deterrence, emerged following the Cuban missile crisis and argued it was the fear of nuclear war that made deterrence work and resulted in a “tradition of non-use.” These theories worked well to prevent nuclear conflict and direct confrontation between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., but as McGeorge Bundy pointed out in “The Unimpressive Record of Atomic Diplomacy”, this nuclear stalemate did little to prevent any of the large number of proxy wars between the two superpowers.

As stated before, it seems little has changed in the postures of the major nuclear powers, despite the end of the Cold War and emerging American nuclear primacy. Surely, the U.S. and Russia have dramatically cut their stockpiles since the end of the Cold War and removed tactical nuclear weapons from forward bases and deployed ships and submarines, but both nations maintained strategic missile submarines (as do the Chinese, French and British), the U.S. and Russia still maintain large stockpiles, and strategic forces remain on high alert.

In recent years, however, a number of developments have challenged the hopes of those pursuing complete disarmament. American success in developing ballistic missile defense systems has Russia seeking to block full deployment of the system, and Russia and China both developing means to counter an American shield should it be deployed. In addition, ongoing unilateral and bi-lateral disarmament efforts by the U.S. and Russia have not deterred nations like India, Pakistan, N. Korea and Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, and China from expanding its strategic forces. And most recently, a deputy chief of staff for the Russian Navy told state-run media that Moscow was reconsidering its decision to not deploy tactical weapons aboard ships.

Going forward into the 21st Century, a number of changes in the balance of nuclear power have resulted in doubts about the utility of current doctrines of nuclear deterrence. Today there are three major challenges to future nuclear deterrence: 1) the small nuclear forces of new atomic states, 2) anti-state or non-state actors, and 3) the return of preventive war as an acceptable deterrence doctrine.

In the case of nations possessing SNF, like Pakistan and India, the applicability of traditional theories of deterrence are shaky at best. Deterrence by denial by a SNF is useless against opponents with large nuclear forces (LNF), and against other SNF powers the applicability depends upon many other factors, like intelligence, delivery and early warning systems. Deterrence by punishment, again, may be effective against other SNF states, but against LNF states it has minimal value. And existential deterrence’s effectiveness depends heavily on the cultural and religious values of the SNF state and might be impossible to quantify.

The dangers posed by anti-state actors in the nuclear balance of power are even more troubling. Deterrence is based on reason, and while states are generally “rational actors”, terrorist organizations (essentially “anti-state” actors) are often “irrational actors.” States have stable political and military systems and organizations, with checks and balances, populations, territory and resources to protect, and have a vested interest in being rational and predictable. Anti-state actors, however, have none of these elements, usually possess radical political or religious ideologies, and often take pride in their unpredictability and willingness to escalate conflicts.

Complicating this is the fact that anti-state actors also work to destabilize the very systems and organizations that make state actors rational. In The Stability of Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia: The Clash Between State and Antistate Actors, Mohan Malik concludes that South Asia is particularly vulnerable to the influence of anti-state actors, as the nations in the region have yet to fully develop the checks and balances in their political systems and mature, redundant controls over their arsenals.

There appears to be some progress with respect to the SNF problems. India has made gains in stabilizing and securing their arsenal to address the dangers of SNF and anti-state actors as an example to other new nuclear powers. First, India has adopted a strict policy of no first use. Second, India asserts that it will not resort to nukes against non-nuclear and non-aligned states. India’s current doctrine is focused on denial by punishment, and they are pursuing a triad of air, land and sea based systems to ensure second strike capability. Third, India has enforced strict civilian control by democratically elected leaders through a survivable command and control system, and their arsenal is protected by adequate security and safety systems to prevent unauthorized use. And fourth, though India will not accept limitations on its maintenance, testing and research and development, its stated goal is to continue to emphasize and pursue global nuclear disarmament.

Where no progress has been made is with regard to the irrational state and anti-state actors. The Bush Administration’s doctrine of preemptive war was intended as a step towards addressing the new security threats, but there are many dangers inherent in this approach. With the invasion of Iraq the Global War on Terror became as much a war of counterproliferation as a war on terrorism.

In the past nonproliferation and counterproliferation entailed diplomacy, sanctions, deterrence, defenses and the capacity to strike at another nation’s nuclear arsenal, command and control and delivery systems. This shift is a tacit acknowledgement that the Non-Proliferation Treaty does not guarantee a nation will not develop or acquire nuclear arms. Deterrence now, at least for the time being, has broadened to include not just deterring a nuclear state from using their weapons, but also includes preventing non-nuclear states and non-state actors from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the case of North Korea, the traditional approach failed miserably and with respect to Iran, this approach appears destined to fail. Indeed, the Bush Doctrine and preoccupation of America’s conventional military on conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan may have actually had the opposite effect and accelerated development efforts by states that were already pursuing nuclear weapons.

All of which raises an obvious question: where do the nuclear powers and deterrence go from here? The current global security situation has been and will continue to be a challenge to large and small powers alike. Major powers are confronted with threats that their vast arsenals appear useless to deter, and have reverted to risky, offensive doctrines of the past. In response, small powers and anti-state actors are deciding to pursue nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in attempts to deter powers they believe are irrational, uncontrollable threats.

So, with the vexing problem of irrational states and anti-state actors rendering deterrence by denial and existential deterrence too difficult to rehabilitate, deterrence by punishment seems to be the only remaining option. And, given the inherent differences between irrational states and anti-state actors, a rehabilitation of deterrence by punishment requires two distinct doctrines.

With respect to the threat from current and aspirant SNF nations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently made a comment about extending the U.S. defense “umbrella” to unnamed nations in response to Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. Though forced to backtrack quickly when her statement was interpreted as an acceptance of Iran becoming a nuclear power, her idea was close to the mark. It only missed by making the defended class too narrow. The U.S. and its nuclear allies in NATO could easily revive the doctrine of deterrence by punishment by declaring they would individually or jointly execute nuclear reprisals against any nation that initiates a first strike without an unambiguous and immediate threat to the attacking state’s national survival. Such a policy would even bring Iran under the defense umbrella of NATO’s nuclear powers should they be the victim of an uninvited first strike.

Finally, with respect to the problem of anti-state actors, the nuclear powers of NATO could warn all nations that, should an unexplained nuclear detonation take place in the world, any nation found to have willfully provided nuclear materials or technology to the perpetrators would be subject to the severest of sanctions, including suspension or expulsion from international organizations and programs, complete economic isolation, a freezing of all the state’s assets, being disconnected from international communications networks, and even nuclear reprisal.

Posted by Chris van Avery in Foreign Policy

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Armitage

    Just a quibble–Bundy’s piece is a chapter in a larger edited collection by Robert Art, not a book in its own right (as the italics suggest). Bundy’s key book on nuclear weapons and diplomacy is, of course, Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the First Fifty Years.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Very well-stated. IMHO you are addressing the pre-eminent foreign policy NSS/NMS question of our age. We are, or will soon be, face to face with the devil(s) we don’t know. To non-state actors (or anti-state), even the threat of reprisal doesn’t carry the weight of such a course against even the most rogue of nations. And, not coincidentally, the Navy and its mobile BMD capability looms very large because of this. At last count, 84 BMD platforms are planned, and my guess is that number will increase if the threat permeates further.

    There is some good news, though. The Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” (suspect as that may be as an indicator) no longer is necessarily measuring the time to world conflagration. The group has stated that it now represents the time before use of a nuclear device against a people or nation. The use of such a nuclear device, however devastating to the nation and the populace where it is used, is NOT the same as a full exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States circa 1965 or 1975 or even 1985.

    In the words of the greatest philosopher of our time; “So we got that going for us, which is nice…”

  • UltimaRatioReg

    *Burma Shave*

    Seems to be some text missing. In the first paragraph, after “most rogue of nations”, there should be a sentence that reads; “But the ability of even SNF nations to acquire longer-range and sufficiently accurate missile platforms is worrisome.”

    I have rogue fingers, apparently.

  • YS:

    Good thought provoking article — some additional items you might want to consider:
    1) Revitalization of escalation dominance in planning and ability to execute, especially in an emerging multi-polar world (discussions here and here). Particularly germane in context of Maritime Strategy’s assertion that prevention of war is as important as winning war.
    2) Minimal Deterrence theory (cf. Dr. Jeffrey Lewis’s work – especially recommend “The Minimum Means of Reprisal” to further illustrate.
    3) What role should the US and Russia, if any, play in a regional nuclear confrontation – say India and Pakistan? If US BMD assets are in the region, do we intercede in the event of a nuclear launch? What about India and China? Iran and Israel? What are the regret factors if we *don’t* intercede?
    4) Breakout. Was the gist of a lot of backroom theorizing in the 80’s re. China, but pretty much discounted. Now, as US and Russian force levels continue to drop, is there a window where China’s forces can surge in numbers to meet the same levels as those of a reduced US and Russian posture? Why would they do that if minimal deterrence has allegedly served their political aims thus far — or was that just window dressing to account for real and perceived shortcomings in their nuclear forces? Would a third major nuclear power promote international stability? Or, if one striaght-lines present trends, would a future scenario see an equivalence between China and the US with Russia at a lower tier (greater than France/UK, less than China, US)? How would that scenario play out?

    Since 1992, the study of deterrence theory and all that goes with it has substantially trailed off in this country – regrettably so. The escalation dominance question, in fact, came from a discussion with the then N3/5 @ OPNAV, not long after the MS came out. Old solutions won’t necessarily apply in the post-Cold War environment, yet the tendancy will be to “mail this one in” because the intellectual rigor and exploration required is hard – very hard.
    But it must be done.
    w/r, SJS

  • Wow, precisely what I’m in search of! I’m continually scouring Yahoo looking to find items and I’ve been seeking over an hour and I finally determined what I had been trying to find! Your weblog has surely made me genuinely pleased. So We’ve bookmarked your page and I am going to certainly return later on.