Jeffrey LewisNew Triad 1: Tailored Deterrence

I’ve been hearing rumblings about this concept called “Tailored Deterrence” (One also sees the cumbersome phrase Tailorable Deterrence).

The concept got a relatively thorough explanation in this morning’s keynote at the IPFA-Flecter Conference by Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Policy) Ryan Henry. (Henry was followed by DASD for Forces Policy Brian Green, who went over the same ground with a little less panache.)

Henry placed “Tailored Deterrence” at the center of the Strategic Capabilities Assessment, the follow-on to the Nuclear Posture Review that is incorporated into the QDR.

The idea, simply enough, is to provide a finer set of options in targeting the senior leadership, military commanders, “trigger pullers” and general population within peer (or near peer) competitors, “rogue states” and terrorist networks. The intellectual origins of the concept can be found in Keith Payne and Colin Gray’s nuclear warfighting manifesto, “Victory is Possible,” which envisioned a US nuclear strategy against the Soviet Union that:

… should be able to destroy key leadership cadres. their means of communications, and some of the means of the instruments of domestic control.

One sees this idea periodically in US nuclear strategy—the idea that foreign adversaries are difficult to deter because (unlike us) they care little about the damage we would inflict on their country. I saw a bit of this reasoning in the run-up to Iraq.


This argument recognizes that we have a problem deterring certain kinds of threats—but it begs the question, by presuming the problem is that deterrence is too clumsy.

That might be the case, but I want to return to an argument I made the other day in relation to the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator:

I worry about a different problem in US nuclear doctrine—an expansive, ambiguous role for nuclear weapons will undermine deterrence. Tom Schelling, writing forty years ago in The Strategy of Conflict, reminds us: “We have learned the threat of massive destruction deters only if there is a corresponding implicit promise of nondestruction in the event he complies …”

Perhaps the problem isn’t that we need new, better weapons (RNEP, conventionally-armed ICBMs, mini-nukes, take your pick) but more restraint to give deterrence credibility, restraint to credibly communicate the implicit promise of nondestruction in the event an adversary complies with our demands.

My colleague Todd Sechser has a fascinating data set. As the difference in power between two states increases, a weak state is less likely to comply with demands by a strong state. His hypothesis is that the differences in power make it impossible for strong states to credibly offer Schelling’s implicit promise of nondestruction should the weak state comply.

Whatever you might say about Saddam Hussein, for example, he had plausible reasons to doubt that compliance with weapons inspectors would have forestalled a war. Asked “how come [Saddam] didn’t make a more convincing case that in fact he didn’t have those [weapons of mass destruction]?” Charlie Duelfer told the Council on Foreign Relations one motive was a desire to deter by creating “intentionally a certain ambiguity about what his capabilities were.”

I think this is a profound myopia in US nuclear strategy—we may simply have too much power to deter. (Or put another way, our problems with deterrence are political, not technical.) Henry did little to reassure me on this point, putting up a slide where he lists the conditions of deterrence:

  • Ability to identify and understand the “value chain” of the adversary (those things he holds dear),
  • Perceived capabilities and credibility to threaten those assets, and
  • The ability to communicate effectively.

Noticeably absent was Schelling’s implicit promise.

Update: Stephen Young at UCS informs me that Keith Payne’s talk (which I missed blogging this) had a very similar chart, with mission areas (assure, dissuade, deter and defeat) and actors (allies, peer, rogue and violent extremists).

The “assure” boxes for peer competitors, rogue states and violent extremists were blocked out. Apparently, there is no need to assure potential adversaries in this Defense Department. Can someone buy these guys a copy of Strategy of Conflict ?

Update 2: Sgt. Sarah Wood of the American Forces Press Service has a different take on Henry’s remarks. He’s dreamy.


  1. W. F. Zimmerman (History)

    Did Sgt. Wood tell you he’s dreamy, or is this just a sexist crack?

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    C. None of the above.

  3. Canary

    If the first half of the sentence is that “The US may have too much power to deter,” the second half – and subsequent area of study – should be along the lines of ”…which may explain why certain states, where the military power gulf is the widest, engage in high-level weapons research (e.g. nuclear weapons). The quickest way to shrink this gulf to almost nil may be through the successful pursuit of WMD, and more specifically, nuclear weapons.

  4. W. F. Zimmerman (History)

    I don’t see anything in the text of Sgt. Wood’s article to support the word “dreamy.” Her article sticks pretty closely to what he said. What do you expect someone at the American Forces Press Services to do? Seems like you’re giving her a cheap shot.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    You have a point. I am not sure, in retrospect, what struck me as so odd about the AFPS piece.

    She does, in fact, stick pretty close to his talk.

  6. mark gubrud (History)

    UNSC 1441 stopped little short of the occupation of Iraq by inspectors. Nevertheless, Iraq was essentially in full compliance when Bush decided it was time to stop pretending he gave a damn about international law or arms control.

    Saddam’s alleged “intentional ambiguity” is just standard American “common sense” bullshit. Iraq always denied it retained prohibited WMD and strenuously sought to persuade the world it was telling the truth.

    At first, during the 1990s, Iraq tried to hide its former BW program and some aspects of its CW and nuclear programs. But by March 2003 it had all come out. In the mid-1990s, Iraq continued resisting aggressive inspections, trying to gain bargaining leverage, hoping to break the sanctions stalemate and attempting to maintain some level of military secrecy.

    But with US troops massing to attack, Iraq agreed to the terms of 1441 and opened every door they were asked to open, even agreeing to destroy their newest missiles because they arguably, marginally, exceeded the 150 km range limit.

    You write that Saddam “had plausible reasons to doubt that compliance with weapons inspectors would have forestalled a war.” There is no “would have” here. Iraq complied with Bush’s Security Council-endorsed demands, and was still invaded. The precedent this set is devastating to prospects of obtaining compliance with any future coercive arms control regime.

    It’s true that Blix reported Iraq was not quite in full compliance. Blix knew his only chance of preventing the invasion lay in playing “tough cop”. It didn’t work. In hindsight, the role Blix played was that of a stooge, embodying the irrelevance of technical and legal specialists in a world of lawless power.