It’s time to debate the relevance of deterrence

It is time to debate the relevance of the concept of deterrence in the 21st century, when non-military threats such as climate change, pandemics, cyber, terror and “active measures” may prove more formidable dangers than opposing armies, navies and air forces. Deterrence emerged as a central and simple concept in the Cold War and the nuclear age.

The argument was that if the two superpowers maintained enough nuclear capability to destroy the other after being attacked first, war would be suicidal and hence deterred. MAD, for Mutual Assured Destruction, became the operational acronym. Indeed, mutual nuclear annihilation does seem very mad. Two scorpions in a bottle, stinging each other to death, was the image of the MAD age. But suppose one were male; the other female. That possibility was ignored.

Over time, deterrence was conceptually (and unsuccessfully) expanded to conventional and unconventional warfare. More recently, deterrence was stretched to the breaking point in attempts to affect behavior across a range of largely non-military security issues, including currency and trade manipulation; repression against minorities; terrorism and other malign activities. 

While the likelihood of nuclear conflict between the United States and China or Russia is virtually zero (although North Korea is problematic), a current flurry of articles and a few books hypothesize that military conflict, even with nuclear weapons, may be inevitable.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy directed the Pentagon “to contain, deter and if war comes defeat” a list of adversaries headed by China and Russia. None of these terms has been fully defined or put into specific policy and operational terms. This is especially relevant “to defeat” and a theory of victory that remains diaphanous at best and, in reality, probably unachievable in a nuclear age. 

Put another way, can Russia or China be deterred from expanding influence; interfering in the internal affairs of other states; stealing intellectual property; competing economically and ideologically; modernizing their militaries; and accepting Western values based on human rights and freedoms? The answers are no.

Regarding the amount of military power required for deterrence, current U.S. strategy and force structure are not sustainable without substantial annual real growth in the defense budget. Given that the national debt is approaching $30 trillion and that more deficit spending for COVID-19 relief and infrastructure is coming, defense will be fortunate to maintain current levels. Cuts are quite likely.

Many Americans genuinely believe that substantial amounts of the $740 billion defense budget should be re-directed and spent on ending the pandemic, modernizing infrastructure and building back the economy. Nearly 500,000 Americans have died from COVID, more than in two world wars, September 11 and Pearl Harbor. Why then not move $50 billion to $100 billion or more to these essential life-and-death issues?

Merely exorcising the term “deterrence” from the national security dialogue requires postulating an alternative. Some now argue that deterrence by denial is the new benchmark. But the issue relates back to what “denial” means and how to achieve it. 

Consider a different basis for a new national security strategy: to “contain, prevent, defend and engage” actual and potential adversaries. Containing, preventing and defending constitute a hierarchy of actions. To contain is to limit spread. To prevent is to ensure that the objectionable action is not taken. And to defend means the use of force should military conflict arise. To engage is to negotiate where we can and to maintain an open dialogue specifically to prevent disagreements or clashes of interests from escalating to conflict or war.

The defense component of this new national strategy to contain, prevent, defend and engage would rest on “shock and awe” and the intent of affecting, influencing and controlling will and perception. This leads to a “Porcupine Defense” in Europe that would impose such unacceptable damage on an initial military attack to make it too costly and thus prevented. Discussed elsewhere, a Porcupine Defense would employ thousands of drones; disruptive cyber and electronic systems to sow confusion and chaos; and other capabilities that in total can be put in place less expensively than higher cost weapons such as modern aircraft and helicopters; tanks and artillery. 

In the Pacific, a Mobile Maritime Line of Defense would contain China’s military to the first island chain using a similar combination of unmanned sea, air, land, space and cyber systems forward deployed as in Porcupine, supported by air and surface units operating outside the range of China’s DF-21 missiles at about 1,500 miles.  

The starting point is a serious evaluation of deterrence in the 21st century. But is anyone listening?

Harlan Ullman, PhD. is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting a 51% Nation,” is due out this year.

Tags China Cold War coronavirus Cyberattack Defense Department Deterrence theory International security Minimal deterrence Mutual assured destruction Nuclear strategy Nuclear warfare Russia

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