An Outmoded Deterrence Strategy


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Former Marine Corps General James Mattis is one of the best secretaries of defense the country has ever had. But even he might not have a firm enough grasp on the current threat environment that the United States faces.

During a White House press conference on Wednesday, a reporter asked Mattis about his intention to expand America’s arsenal of tactical nuclear warheads to help counter the strategic advantage that Russia currently enjoys in that area.

Mattis’s concept for this request was simple: since Russia believes that tactical nuclear weapons can be used as giant artillery pieces to soften up NATO lines in the event of a war, Mattis wants to ensure that the United States can retaliate in-kind. The secretary believes this will deter Russia from using such terrible weapons.

As Mattis (channeling Henry Kissinger) explained, “deterrence is dynamic” and is constantly changing. By making the investment into the development of our own tactical nuclear weapons—and expressing a willingness to deploy them in NATO states, to counter Russia’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad—Mattis believes that nuclear conflict can be avoided.

The Russians have spent years building up their tactical nuclear weapons while the United States has largely ignored its own arsenal. Russia believes they now have decisive advantages in this area. Mattis’ request to beef up America’s tactical nuclear arsenal is an understandable attempt to plug strategic holes in our defense apparatus. By removing this perceived disadvantage, Mattis and many other policymakers assume that it will force the Russians to shy away from their reliance on tactical nuclear weapons as a viable tool in effecting geopolitical change in their favor.

But, what if Russia isn’t really opposed to using these weapons—especially if they know that the United States is increasing its own arsenal? The national security establishment in Washington generally believes that by developing our own tactical nuclear arsenal, the United States could help mitigate the need for a larger nuclear confrontation with Russia. The argument goes that by building up our own tactical nuclear arsenal for deployment to Europe, we would be telling the Russians that trying anything with their own arsenal would most assuredly result in the United States responding in-kind (negating whatever gains they think they could make by using such weapons).

Unfortunately, I worry that the Pentagon’s description of deterrence is no longer as dynamic as many believe. What if the Russians, having little left to lose geopolitically (after suffering years of isolation, humiliation, and accusations from the West), don’t care about the “implied threat” of America rehabilitating its own ailing tactical nuclear arsenal?

Fact is, the Russians have never viewed nuclear weapons in the same apocalyptic fashion that the United States has (ironic, considering that the United States remains the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons in war). This is doubly true, considering how Russian strategists since 1962 have believed that a nuclear war against the West would be winnable, so long as the Russians struck first. Today, Vladimir Putin, a man who fancies himself as the new tsar of Russia, is not afraid of nuclear warfare—if he believes that all other options have been exhausted.

Deterrence rests on the credibility of the threat of force (if you threaten us with nuclear attack, we will threaten you with a similar attack). The implied retaliatory threat raises the costs of an attack on an attacker, and reduces the willingness of either side to attack. While America should modernize and expand its ancient tactical nuclear weapons arsenal irrespective of an external threat, there is no guarantee that this move would send a clear signal to Russia, and disincentivize Putin from making more land grabs in Europe.

Rather than being cowed by America’s new investment in tactical nuclear weapons, the Kremlin would likely be compelled to build off its own considerable arsenal (or worse, the Russians might take a “use-it-or-lose-it” approach to its tactical nuclear weapons arsenal). Russia might strike first with tactical nukes to prevent the United States from gaining parity with Russia in that area. This is especially true today, when severe asymmetries of power exist between the United States and its rivals, such as Russia. The Kremlin understands that the United States is the most powerful military in the world. But in specific areas, such as tactical nuclear weapons, Russia has serious advantages over the United States. The Russians would probably strive to maintain that lead at all costs.

There are only a few things that might deter Russia today. The United States should not waste its time (and money) struggling to keep parity with Russia. Rather, for conflict mitigation between the United States (and its European partners) and Russia to have a chance at success in this age of asymmetrical warfare, the United States must demonstrate its superiority over Russia (all the while extending our hand through diplomacy and trade).

Instead of taking the use of larger nuclear weapons off the table, then, Secretary Mattis should have clearly stated that, if Russia dares to launch a tactical nuclear weapons strike at any part of Europe, the United States would retaliate with its arsenal of larger, strategic nuclear weapons. While Putin might not fear American tactical nukes, he is unlikely to believe that engaging in a full-on nuclear exchange with the United States over Latvia or Estonia would be worth it.

The Pentagon must understand that deterrence in the 21st century is not about mutually assured destruction. It is about nonreciprocal annihilation. The threats we face today are asymmetrical; the way America handles these challenges will necessarily be asymmetrical if they are to have a chance at success.

Rather than parity, the Pentagon must seek superiority.

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