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What is deterrence?

Later this month, the US Strategic Command, in charge of America’s nuclear deterrent, will hold an annual conference on deterrence. A wide range of people, including many leftist pacifists who don’t believe in deterrence or “peace through strength” at all, will be invited. But I won’t be.

But nonetheless, this writer will offer an explanation to the lay reader to help the general public – and all interested – understand what is deterrence and what is required to maintain it.

Deterrence is a state of affairs whereby a country wishing to prevent war while remaining secure does so by deterring, i.e. dissuading, potential aggressors. That is, potential aggressors do not attack that country because they’re afraid that by doing so, they’d bring about disastrous consequences for themselves, and such consequences would outweigh any benefits they might accrue from a successful attack on the potential victim.

In other words, potential aggressors are deterred if, and only if, the consequences they and their countries and militaries would have to bear (in case of a failed aggression) would outweigh any benefits of initiating war, and if they realize that their chances of successfully attacking the victim are low, if not completely nonexistent.

This works with criminals as well: they’re deterred from attacking potential victims if, and only if, their victims (or their defenders present at the scene) are sufficiently armed and authorized by the law to defend themselves (e.g. the Castle Doctrine).

So what is required for deterrence?

As I just explained, to be deterred, potential aggressors must be convinced that their offensive plans would be foiled and that the consequences of attacking us would be disastrous for them and would outweigh any benefits an attack on us might accrue.

How do we convince potential aggressors of that (assuming they’re rational and thus make calculations before acting)?

To provide credible deterrence, we need three components (all three of them; remove any one of them and you no longer deter anyone):

1)      ADEQUATE MILITARY STRENGTH, including adequately-sized, modern, widely dispersed, and adequately manned arsenals of weapons. In other words, a military second to none.

2)      KNOWLEDGE OF WHAT KIND OF RETALIATION WOULD HURT THE ENEMY THE MOST, AND AN OPEN PROMISE OF STRIKING HIM RIGHT THERE. We must know what the enemy cherishes most and openly promise to wipe that out if the enemy perpetrates aggression against us or any of our allies. Specifically, WRT the West’s enemies (China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, et al.), threatening to wipe their civilian populations out is useless (as well as immoral), because their leaders don’t value their civilian subjects’ lives at all; what their dictators value instead are their militaries, military-related industries and assets,  and their economies.

3)      WILLINGNESS TO USE MILITARY STRENGTH FORCEFULLY AND CARRY OUT OUR PROMISES. Quite simply, being militarily strong and promising to strike the enemy where it hurts him most is not enough to deter him – one must also be willing to do so and be seen by potential aggressors as such. On a few occassions in history some aggressors challenged stronger adversary states whose leaders they perceived to be too timid and unwilling to use force. An example of this is Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982, due partly do Britain’s pre-1982 defense cuts and partly due to Argentine President Galtieri’s perception of Margaret Thatcher as unwilling to use force to retake the islands. Of course he was wrong, and Britain achieved a spectacular victory while President Galtieri’s military junta collapsed a year later – but not before 255 brave British troops died. For that reason, it is necessary for a nation’s leaders to be perceived as strong, decisive, and perfectly willing to use overwhelming force if their nations, or allied nations, are attacked.

These truths are applicable to all military matters, as well as to other dimensions of life, e.g. fighting criminals. Specifically, in nuclear deterrence, this (especially Fact #2), means that the US needs – and will, for the foreseeable future, need – a large nuclear deterrent, not just “some” nuclear weapons. “Minimum deterrence” – i.e. a small nuclear arsenal of a few hundred or 1000 nuclear warheads – would be woefully inadequate, for the following reasons.

Firstly, as stated above, to be able to deter, one must be able and promise to strike, in case of aggression what the enemy cherishes the most. America’s and the West’s potential enemies – Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and others – do not value their civilians’ lives at all, only their military, economic, and other strategic assets (including, first and foremost, their standing militaries). Therefore, the US should target that, and not innocent civilian populations. But such “counterforce” targeting policy will require well over a thousand deployed strategic nuclear warheads – no fewer than the 1,550 ones allowed by New START, and possibly more.

A small US nuclear arsenal would not be a credible deterrent and would thus not deter anyone. Thus, “minimum deterrence” is no deterrence at all.

Secondly, a small nuclear arsenal, due to its small size, would be pathetically easy to destroy in a first strike by anyone, especially Russia and China. Russia has 2,800 strategic and up to 4,000 tactical nuclear warheads and the means to deliver all of them (though not all of them to the US). China has at least 1,800, and potentially up to 3,000, nuclear warheads.

But the above principles of deterrence apply to all military (as well as many nonmilitary) matters. To be able to keep the peace and enjoy security and prosperity, the US needs, and will always need, a large, modern, well-trained, ready, dispersed, and quickly deployable (in one word, “strong”) military, as well as leaders willing and pledging to strike any enemy where it would hurt him the most in case of aggression. Nothing short of that will suffice.

As Ronald Reagan said over 30 years ago, in his SDI speech, “We maintain the peace through our strength; weakness only invites aggression.”

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  1. Jan Brown says:

    Great information & reminder to us all. As I recall, Japan stopped at Hawaii (because) they believed that every American on the mainland was armed in addition to having military throughout. It’ wiser,cheaper & more effective & with less casualities to maintain strength. So, isn’t part of that NOT to ‘give away’ weapons, even planes to other countries. Keep giving your clothes away & you’ll soon walk naked.