Deterrence Stability Is a Hoax. The Delicate Balance of Terror Is, Too.

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Quote of the week:
“It has in fact become abundantly clear… since the dawn of the nuclear age, that the balance of terror is decidedly not delicate.”
—Bernard Brodie, War & Politics

Can we hold two contrary notions in our heads at the same time? Can we acknowledge that the delicate balance of terror and deterrence stability are both hoaxes? Sure, deterrence stability works for mid-sized nuclear-armed states like Great Britain and France, which have no beef with each other and have limited financial means. They have counterforce capabilities but they aren’t pursuing damage limitation strategies toward Moscow and Beijing. Instead, they have opted for survivability and assured destruction. British and French strategic analysts don’t jump through hoops at the latest Russian or Chinese (or North Korean) missile flight-test.

The same cannot be said for nuclear-armed states that seek advantage in the event deterrence fails or even to escape deterrence altogether by means of counterforce capabilities. Under these circumstances, counterforce capabilities are destabilizing; they raise anxieties, rather than diminishing them. Washington and Moscow drank this Kool-Aid in the 1970s and have been addicted ever since. Strategic arms reduction treaties have reduced force levels, but counterforce targeting remains king. No matter how much these capabilities are refined, there’s nothing delicate about crossing the nuclear threshold, regardless of yield and weapon effects. Escalation control will remain a cosmic roll of the dice. Nonetheless, true believers in the political and military utility of nuclear weapons remain hooked. They seek one-upsmanship, or at least to offset troubling moves.

There was a blessed lull in this competition at the end of the Cold War, which lasted until the Russian Federation revived from losing its empire and recovered from a great depression. Now Moscow and Washington are back to business as usual. As long as operational warheads with counterforce capabilities can cover targets, neither competitor feels comfortable—even in the absence of national missile defenses. The founding fathers of arms control—a high-powered group of defense intellectuals immersed in cost-effectiveness equations, IR theorists, scientists conflicted by their association with the Manhattan Project, and the Kennedy Administration’s brain trust—conceptualized a state of deterrence stability ensured by vulnerability. Deterrence stability would help define and sustain a mid-point alternative between disarmament and arms racing. They didn’t reckon adequately with the counterforce compulsion and damage limitation targeting strategies which negated the concept of deterrence stability, even in the absence of national missile defenses. For true believers in counterforce capabilities, deterrence works best when you have some sort of advantage. Advantages come in handy if deterrence fails.

Arms controllers reached the apogee of their influence in the Pentagon during Robert McNamara’s tenure as Secretary of Defense who, along with his “whiz kids,” forced the Air Force to pare back absurd plans for building intercontinental ballistic missiles. McNamara also took issue with national ballistic missile defenses, but this was an alien concept to the Kremlin. President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were no fans of strict BMD limits either, but they bowed to the realities of domestic politics, high costs, and technological constraints. When the construct of deterrence stability was then imperfectly put into practice in the first Strategic Arms Limitation accords, it satisfied no one. Hawks chafed at the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and Doves railed against an Interim Agreement that let MIRVs run free.

The ABM Treaty was the most remarkable achievement of the conceptualizers of arms control, but it didn’t prevent an intensified nuclear competition, nor assure deterrence stability. The revolution of counterforce capabilities proceeded apace, with no regard whatsoever for the ABM Treaty. After McNamara’s departure, men like Melvin Laird and James Schlesinger took the reins. Those who championed deterrence stability did not make decisions on new weapon systems, counterforce requirements, and targeting plans. Arms controllers didn’t fare much better in the Pentagon during Democratic administrations. Rising counterforce capabilities made a hash of deterrence stability even though their practical effect was to clarify that there was nothing delicate about the balance of terror.

The best that could be said about the ABM Treaty in the first quarter-century of its existence was that the offensive competition would have been even worse in its absence. The ABM Treaty finally served its intended purpose of enabling and backstopping deep cuts when two disbelievers in nuclear orthodoxy, Gorbachev and Reagan, decided to pursue them. When President George W. Bush decided to cast the Treaty aside as an impediment to the sole superpower’s freedom of action, he also made deep cuts in force structure unlikely.

Deterrence stability is a sensible and wise concept. It is achievable when decision makers in competing states are not in thrall to nuclear weapons. But it is a hollow incantation for competitors wedded to counterforce targeting to limit damage in the event of a nuclear war. Deterrence stability is anathema to those who seek advantage or, better yet, to escape from deterrence. Deterrence stability is also of no use to those who exploit instability for the prospect of gain or self-defense in a deep crisis.

Arms controllers deserve credit for the conception of deterrence stability, but not blame for its failure. The IR theorists, academics, and strategists who conceived of deterrence stability—and the companion constructs of strategic stability, arms race stability, and crisis stability—had only fleeting, or at best, peripheral influence on U.S. choices relating to offensive nuclear capabilities. In Washington and Moscow, these choices remain controlled by true believers in the political and military utility of nuclear weapons. If Beijing and New Delhi, which are now on the cusp of the counterforce compulsion, follow down this beaten path, they will have learned nothing from Washington and Moscow.

The aspirational constructs of deterrence stability, strategic stability, arms-race stability, and crisis stability remain in our lexicon because they continue to make sense in the abstract, and because arms controllers rightly remain wedded to them. They offer far preferable alternatives to the twin assumptions of escalation dominance and escalation control that are embedded in the embrace of counterforce capabilities and damage limitation targeting strategies. True believers in nuclear orthodoxy dare not lend clarity to their preferred abstractions; to do so would prompt revulsion by those on whose behalf a nuclear war would be fought. Instead, every modernization program and every refinement in offensive nuclear capabilities is defended generically in terms of deterrence, which sounds reasonable enough.

As nuclear dangers and dangerous military practices grow in several regions at once, the concepts of deterrence stability, strategic stability, arms race stability, and crisis stability remain extremely relevant. But these abstractions are not organizing principles. This terminology, conceived by eggheads—God bless them—does not connect with the general public. Nor do these constructs inform the procurement decisions of those who remain in thrall to the Bomb’s powers.

Arms control has been a process whose achievements have been widely taken for granted. Diplomacy accomplished what deterrence alone could not – to keep the Cold War from becoming hot while capping and then reducing strategic forces. Those who denigrate diplomacy have systematically set out to demolish the accomplishments of arms control, and they aren’t done yet. Their proposed remedies to reduce nuclear dangers consist of strategic modernization programs, which cost a great deal, and U.S. freedom of action to deal with proliferators, including the prosecution of wars of choice, which cost even more.

Nuclear dangers are now outpacing the ranks of those committed to their reduction. We owe much to those who laid the foundation for the practice of arms control at the outset of the Kennedy administration, but we can longer rely on their intellectual capital. One of the many challenges facing arms controllers—aside from figuring out what we now call ourselves—is to craft new terms of debate and new imagery to build popular support for our work. I’m not convinced that nuclear abolition is a banner that will take us very far and very fast. A process of nuclear arms reductions can, but it is stymied by Republican opposition and by poor relations between nuclear-armed states. Besides, this scope is too narrow, leaving many kinds of nuclear dangers unaddressed. What I do know is that progress in reducing nuclear dangers will require demystifying the counterforce compulsion and clarifying its hidden assumptions.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on July 19, 2017.

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