Failure to heed Cold War lessons could drive arms proliferation
STRATEGIC deterrence was a military concept which, 35 years ago, was commonly understood as a means to prevent nuclear conflict between the Soviet Bloc and the United States and its allies.
During the Cold War (1945–1991) the strategy was that even an inferior nuclear force - with its extreme destructive power - could, in theory, deter a more powerful adversary. And a status quo was achieved.
However, that is not the thinking today.
Not only is there a lack of global agreement on the role and dynamics of strategic deterrence, much of the Cold War experience seems largely forgotten, ignored or viewed as irrelevant.
As a result, nuclear-armed nations are developing anew policies and strategies they think best for managing their arsenals in the modern world.
Unlike the stand-off which emerged during the Cold War, contemporary powers seem to be playing by different rules. And a gap in strategic thinking could lead to new confrontations and crisis and, very likely, to a new round of modernisation and missile defence proliferation.
Strategic deterrence did not emerge at the outbreak of the Cold War as a complete concept. Rather, the US-Soviet framework evolved over time.
Within the US, the debate between the two prominent schools of strategic deterrence was led by Herman Kahn and Thomas Schelling, both military strategists and systems theorists.
Mr Kahn believed that nuclear war could only be prevented by both having the capacity to win a nuclear exchange and by demonstrating the willingness to push the button.
In contrast, Dr Schelling held that nuclear war would only be forestalled when both sides believed it was unwinnable. Dr Schelling proposed the threats involved might become so huge as to be unmanageable at which point both sides were likely to back down. This strategy is known as ‘mutually assured destruction’ or MAD.
When the Cold War ended, the US discovered that ‘classic’ strategic deterrence had, in fact, been less stable than was commonly assumed. For example, a nuclear-exchange might have occurred during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis if the US had bombed Soviet bases in the country. The US did not know that short-range nuclear weapons had already been deployed to Cuba.
Likewise, a 1983 NATO-exercise, Operation Able Archer, inadvertently raised concerns on both sides that a conflict was imminent.
Additionally, the US also learned that the Soviet threshold for employing tactical nuclear weapons in Europe during a conventional ground war was far lower than the allies assumed.
Finally, it was only after the Cold War that the US learned that the Soviets had fielded a doomsday arsenal of chemical and biological weapons to be used as a final retaliatory capability.
The fragility of strategic deterrence during the Cold War and the questionable orthodoxy of the ‘rules’ for managing nuclear arsenals is largely absent from contemporary thinking.
Nevertheless, in 1997 an assessment for the US Naval Studies Board concluded that the principles of post-Cold War deterrence should be the same as those that guided strategy before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
(1) ‘We must define national interests so as to know whom we wish to deter from doing what to whom’
(2) ‘Deterrence can succeed only if the combination of threat and incentives is credible’
(3) ‘The actions desired from the objectives of deterrence - the deterree -and consequences of the failure deterrence must be communicated clearly’.
However, the diversity of actors today possessing and seeking nuclear weapons makes the application of the principles of strategic deterrence potentially far more complex than when nuclear competition was managed on a bi-polar basis.
As a result, and not unexpectedly, nations are pursuing different courses.
The current US administration holds that the best course for preventing nuclear war is to eliminate nuclear weapons through a combination of cooperative non-proliferation and voluntary reductions.
Some argue the US strategy is destabilising because by self-weakening its strategic assets it increases the value of the other nation’s nuclear capabilities making confrontation more, not less, likely.
Russia, in contrast to the United States, has announced plans to modernise its nuclear arsenal.
While publically China states it is pursuing a course of minimalist nuclear deterrence there is conflicting intelligence arguing that Beijing is masking a more ambitious nuclear programme.
Too little is known of the strategic thinking of countries like North Korea and Iran. Likewise, potential nuclear powers in the Middle East with breakout capability - the capacity to quickly build and test - such as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have said virtually nothing on the subject.
Independent nuclear powers such as France, Britain, Israel, India, and Pakistan each have their own policies on the role of deterrence.
Finally, there is the often-stated concern that non-state actors may potentially obtain nuclear weapons.
Without a common consensus on the role of strategic deterrence, it is questionable whether deterrence alone can serve as a dependable stable pillar for avoiding either conventional or nuclear conflict.
As the instability of the current global framework becomes even more apparent, nations may look to modernise and expand missile defences as a hedge against uncertainty.