Is It nme to Junk Our Nukes?” teased the headline from the Paul Nitze article in the Outlook Section of the Sunday, January 16, 1994, Washington Post. “The New World Disorder Makes them Obsolete” asserted the article’s subhead.
Could someone as distinguished as Paul Nitze be arguing that the time has come for the United States to give up its nuclear weapons? Not quite, but he does argue that the time has come for us to “re–examine the role and place of strategic nuclear weapons in American security policy”. And, in general, in addition to debating the merits of nuclear weapons in our strategy, the potential for strategic deterrence of regional aggression with conventional arms is the premise of the article. Ambassador Nitze believes that the changes going on in the world and in weapons technology will eventually allow us to deter regional aggression with conventional weapons alone. But, contrary to the editor’s headline, a few paragraphs before the end of the article Mr. Nitze makes clear that we have to have nuclear weapons for the time being. But what about deterrence with conventional weapons?
Conventional strategic deterrence is an intriguing concept and one that has for more than a year occupied the thinking of those in the OPNAV staff responsible for the Strategic Deterrence Joint Mission Area. Deterrence using conventional means is possible if your weapons are good enough, if you can choose the right targets, if you have the will to make the appropriate action at the appropriate time, and if you can communicate clearly to the potential adversary, then you can deter him without resorting to the threat of nuclear weapons. Those are several big ift but the idea is reasonable; the technology is available and the potential benefits make the idea well worth the focused thinking and energy required to figure out how to make it work.
If achievable, not only would conventional deterrence make the world a safer place, it would cost an order of magnitude less than fighting a war. If there is one hard truth about the future that is not argable, it is that we cannot afford war. It cost $60B for the six months of Desert Storm and uncounted billions of dollars to repair and rebuild the damage of the war, and this doesn’t even include the billions in lost oil resources and revenue. The cost in human suffering is impossible to estimate. Thus, the attractiveness-the cost benefit, if you are an analyst-of conventional deterrence is obvious.
The trends in conventional weapons that make them attractive for use in a conventional deterrence strategy were evidenced in Desert Storm: accuracy, lethality, stand-off capability, minimum unanticipated collateral damage and low risk of U.S . casualties. Whatever the standards were prior to Desert Storm, they were certainly raised during that short war. The TV images of pinpoint accuracy and the highly touted results of the air campaign reinforced in the national psyche the concept that we can fight surgically. Regrettably, we now are the victims of our own spin doctors and have to live with the fact that Desert Storm established new warfighting norms. Undoubtedly, technology will make greater precision, range and lethality even more of a reality than it currently is.
As we are better able to deliver a weapon with precision, with minimum risk of U.S. casualties and with no unexpected collateral damage, conventional deterrence lies ever closer to the realm of the do-able.
Choosing the right target does not, in the context of conven-tional deterrence, always mean picking a target for military strike. It could mean that, but deterrence involves much more than military action. We must, as a nation, learn to use the political, economic and military tools at our disposal to deter an adversary from taking action inimical to our national interests. Too often we have failed to act in a timely manner or with aU the means available to us to prevent escalation or the tragedy of conflict. The right target means understanding the adversary’s value structure and the regime’s leadership and decision-making process so that deterrence actions can be targeted to achieve the desired outcome at the least cost. That means properly focused, early, integrated action.
If the proper target is a digital system, so be it, and we use a byte bomb to shut it down-for a few days as a demonstration of our capability, or, permanently as a message to a tyrant. Perhaps the right target is a critical component of the adversary’s military infrastructure and a precision weapon would be appropriate. In other cases, it may be more effective to hold-at-risk some non-military asset of great value to the adversary. Maybe the proper target can be attacked economically. The possibilities are endless, but knowing enough to be able to select the right target involves early and good intelligence. This is a current shortfall.
Knowing the right target and having the right weapon to attack it is credible only if there is the national will to use the tools available. National will is not a public consensus for the action. National will has to do with not overstating what we are prepared to do. National will means taking the necessary action even if a public consensus is not apparent. The national will of the United States defies predictability, and this is not a disadvantage; however, the contrast between our resolute national will prior to and during Desert Storm and the indecipherable nature of our national will toward Bosnia, Haiti and nuclear proliferation in North Korea sends a very mixed message to the world. We must carefully nurture the perception of our national will if we wish to achieve our goal of deterrence, whatever the means.
And, lastly, what about communicating clearly with the adversary? What does that mean and how do we do it? First, we must be clear about what we want to deter. Then, if an adversary is contemplating actions that are inconsistent with our deterrence objectives, we must convince him that the costs of his actions will exceed any possible gain, that such actions will not succeed, and/or that any gains be might achieve through aggressive acts will be taken back. By creating in the adversary’s mind the fear of failure, the likelihood of excessive cost, the conviction that be cannot benefit and/or the perception that the response to his action would be unacceptable, deterrence can be achieved. As was the case during the Cold War, and will continue to be true in the future, deterrence is successful only if the aggressor believes the capability to deter exists and the capability will be used. The continued applicability of this principle will be true in global nuclear deterrence or in deterrence of a regional aggressor.
What we are trying to deter can be generalized in several deterrence objectives; specifically, deterrence of the following:
- Acquisition, production or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
- Use of weapons of mass destruction
- Military aggression/hostilities
- Interference with international commerce/rights of free passage
The issue, of course, is whether conventional means alone are sufficient to achieve these deterrence objectives. The answer, for now, is probably not. And, as Ambassador Nitze says, ” .. .it would be wise to maintain a secure and widely dispersed array of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems .. ” The Strategic Deterrence Join Mission Area seminar games have a11 verified that a nuclear weapons capability is still required as a bedrock of our deterrence capability, and who knows what deterred Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction (nuclear and chemical)? Perhaps it was a clear warning that such use would irreversibly alter the nature of the conflict to his disadvantage.
Yet, the appeal of deterrence with conventional means alone is obvious, and it is an achievable dream, not an impossible one. If not now, then in the future when the range of conventional capabilities malces it possible. If this is so, then it requires our best efforts to malce it a reality.
The Navy’s interest in deterrence is not casual. Deterrence as a mission serves our nation’s and our Navy’s interests. Deterrence is arguably our most important peacetime mission, some-thing we spend 90 percent of the time doing, and naval forces are major contributors to deterrence. This in no way takes away from the war fighting requirements of our forces. In fact, it is that war fighting capability that underpins every deterrent action.
Since current world and economic trends mean that there will be fewer of our forces overall and fewer stationed overseas, there is likely to be increased dependence on the Navy and Marine Corps for regional deterrence influence. So our conclusion is that emphasis on deterrence can be increased without taking away from the fundamental nature of the Navy and the Marine Corps as fighting forces.
Increasing our capability for, and practice of, deterrence would benefit us budgetarily and in our ability to shape the world security environment. So, while it is not yet time to junk our nukes, Ambassador Nitze’s idea of deterrence with conventional means is on solid ground. In the Pentagon, the submariners of strategic nuclear deterrence fame are brealcing new ground studying and gaming how to deter more effectively.