The United States needs a replacement concept for deterrence, the theory that was a child of the Cold War. It no longer is fit for purpose. Why?
For those who believe the Clausewitzian view that the nature of war, not the character, was immutable, the two nuclear bombs destroyed that premise along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A principal reason why deterrence is obsolete today was, as the presidents of America, China and Russia agreed, nuclear war must never be fought and can never be won. And thermonuclear weapons that are 1,000 times more powerful make that even clearer.
A war in which there were only losers and no winners produced deterrence. Deterrence rested on maintaining a survivable capability to retaliate and destroy the other after absorbing a first strike. And both sides knew that.
During the Cold War, “MAD,” the ironic acronym for mutually assured destruction, became the shorthand basis for deterrence. At that time, nuclear deterrence was achieved by the threat of mutually assured destruction and retaliation. Deterrence was sufficiently broad that some thought it could be “extended” to non-nuclear war under the mutually assured destruction umbrella. The Cold War ended without a shot or nuclear weapon being fired in anger by the U.S. or USSR
So, did deterrence work or not?
Deterrence was a bipolar condition that applied to the U.S. and USSR. How does deterrence now deal with the soon-to-be three nuclear superpowers? Deterrence assumed retaliation. But what happens if the deterrent notion of retaliation can actually lead to winning by losing?
As North Korea intends to build an intercontinental missile capable of reaching the U.S., this adds another strategic dimension. Whether Iran ultimately develops nuclear weapons or not will also affect this calculus.
The Strategic Posture Review released in October addresses these issues. Its recommendations called for major increases in both U.S. nuclear and strategic forces. But it did not suggest the size or composition of these forces or, most importantly, the costs because of the sticker shock that would create.
Deterrence is also obsolete at the non-nuclear level because of a further tectonic change in the nature of war: winning by losing or by not losing a long-sustained conflict. Vietnam, the October War of 1973 and the war in Gaza are notable examples.
Despite the nuclear imbalance, North Vietnam drove the U.S. out of Vietnam although it lost virtually every battle it fought.
Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat knew that his army could only surprise and not defeat Israel when he started the October 1973 War. He planned on Israel retaliating. But he won back the Sinai peninsula that Israel had captured in June 1967 and still secured a peace treaty. Yet he lost the ground war.
Hamas is following a similar strategy of “winning” by losing, forcing Israeli retaliation even though the costs threaten its temporary eradication along with tens of thousands of Palestinians and the wholesale destruction of Gaza. Protests and unruly demonstrations have been ubiquitous. And surprisingly and tragically, antisemitism has been on the rise in America.
What needs to be done? First, regarding the nuclear aspect of deterrence, a new concept of tri-deterrence must be developed to deal with this superpower triangle. As opposed to mutually assured destruction, a new foundation is needed and it should be based on preventing war and a new “MAP” for mutually assured prevention.
Prevention, not deterrence or retaliation, now matters. Prevention applies tested means to this end. A series of “hot lines” and military-to-military talks, including the stationing of observers at each military headquarters in the three countries must be established. These are additional confidence-building measures to ensure wars by accident do not occur. The U.S. and USSR did this.
Second, arms control discussions must address the prevention of any form of nuclear war and the restoration of three-way trust and confidence. These discussions must include not only arms limitations but also acceptable agreements to balance offensive and defensive weapons and the impact of highly accurate non-nuclear weapons that can have a strategic impact if targeted against nuclear forces.
Third, prevention also applies to traditional forms of war when winning can be accomplished by losing and provoking retaliation, as in Gaza, which may ensure Israel’s geostrategic defeat. This means greater reliance on diplomacy to reduce the grounds for conflict. And the consequences of artificial intelligence that some believe pose a possible existential threat to humanity must be addressed.
How or if the U.S., China and Russia can begin discussions is crucial. Whether a new 21st century 1914 is looming or not, mutually assured prevention can ensure another never reoccurs.
Harlan Ullman Ph.D. is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of the “shock and awe” military doctrine. His 12th book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large,” is available on Amazon. He can be reached on Twitter @harlankullman.
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Author: Harlan Ullman, opinion contributor