Jeffrey LewisMinimum Deterrence

Greetings from Aspen Institute’s Wye River Conference Center on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. James Acton and I are on a panel together, talking about nuclear weapons and nonproliferation.

I was, a few months ago, at a conference where a grand old man quipped that arms control advocates have been engaged in the same stale debate for sixty years.

I reminded him that it actually takes two parties to engage in a stale debate. The audience laughed. He didn’t.

But the debate over US nuclear strategy is a little stale, largely because the first generation of nuclear strategists identified the right questions relatively early on.

I have labored mightily, in the forthcoming issue of Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, to revisit the idea of “Minimum Deterrence” in a review essay with the appropriate mix of history, commentary and humor.

The essay is not online yet, but I have a print copy so it can’t be far off. Here is a preview:

One view, I would say the dominant view in U.S. defense planning, is that deterrence can be achieved only through difficult choices, sustained with intelligent effort, and will depend very much on the technical details. This is the view expressed in Albert Wohlstetter’s 1958 Rand monograph, The Delicate Balance of Terror, which helped shape the dominant Cold War attitudes about deterrence.

A different view is that, beyond a certain point, all of this is crazy talk, and the technical details don’t matter very much at all. The balance of terror is anything but delicate. An enemy who can be deterred, will be deterred by the prospect of a counterattack, even it it consists of only a few nuclear weapons. Beyond that minimum threshold, nuclear weapons provide little additional deterrent benefit.

Once it is out, I’d love to know what you all think.


  1. Page van der Linden (History)

    Thanks for the heads-up about your article. Looking forward to it, and the amazing wonky fun within.

  2. Ramananda Sengupta (History)

    Greetings from Chennai, India. I am a regular visitor to armscontrolwonk for quite a while now..(I also subscribe to the rss feed) grin
    Was wondering: Could we run items from here, with due credit, on, a major Indian internet news portal, please?
    Ramananda Sengupta

    Chief Editor

    Sify Interactive Services

    Chennai, India

  3. Princeton Scotch (History)

    Great Article. I am surprised that in todays geopolitical climate, non-nuclear deterrence isn’t a new focus. Its hard to be MAD when the new adversaries are mad.

  4. Lee (History)

    Is this to say that the Chinese, with their policy of Credible Minimum Deterrence (which you have outlined very well in this blog and your other academic work), a “pioneer” in nuclear strategy? I must insert that this is not out of their altruism or hope for disarmament but a strategy born of necessity. This is a thought that has popped up from time to time when I read your work on China’s strategy. Are they right in believing that a minimum threshold is enough for a world power? And so far in this sample of the article, you seem to say yes. Interesting.

  5. Francis (History)

    You might find T. L. Saaty’s book on Mathematical models of arms control and disarmament of use (ISBN 978-0471748106). Pages 22-25, for example, relate directly to minimum deterrence, although it’s a stability point and region, not a threshold. E. A. Bender also has an adapted description on pp. 46-48 and is much cheaper (ISBN 0-486-41180-X).

  6. Christhian

    Someday… when I retire I will try to read all the bibliography contained in “The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy”. I am looking forward to reading your article… after X pages on nuclear strategy it is challenging to write something new.

  7. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    “Are they right in believing that a minimum threshold is enough for a world power?”

    China was, and still is (for now) right that a minimum threshold is sufficient given the limited ambitions and interests of China circa 1960 to 2000?

    The problem is, the global environment is changing rapidly, and it is no longer possible for China to prosper without substantial engagement with the world outside of China.

    While many of the imports and exports are by necessity of export processing activities, where raw materials and goods are brought into China only to be turned around and re-exported, China’s domestic consumption of resources from abroad are growing fast. Slowing the growth of, let alone curbing trade, will come with a steep price for Chinese aspirations.

    This makes for a China with growing interests abroad, and at present, with little ability to project military power to defend these interests beyond a few hundred kilometers from their borders.

    In this context, a minimal deterrent, or a minimal means of retaliation, makes sense providing the deterrent is relatively invulnerable and credible.

    On both issues, China’s nuclear deterrent is rapidly losing ground IF the goal is to deter the US. On the other hand, if the goal is to deter Russia, Japan, India, Chinese Taipei, and other lesser powers, the deterrent looks pretty good.

  8. James (History)

    Lao: that’s a good point, and gives ammunition to those who have complained that “strategic defense” will spur an equal and opposite increase in the opponent’s offensive capabilities. Thicker walls lead to bigger cannon and all that.

    The usual definition of an arms race is of two nations gathering stockpiles of nominally equivalent weapons, but the ABM Treaty was based on the logic that, if a nation truly gained an advantage in strategic defense, they would have a narrow window in which to launch a first strike. It was fundamentally destabilizing, because leaders would be under pressure to make use of the window before it closed and the huge investment was rendered strategically irrelevant.

    And this is where we’re at. After the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, the US may be able to deploy an ABM system that just barely makes China uncertain about the quality of their strategic deterrence…which they can fix by spending tens of billions on new missiles. You might say that missile defense makes “minimum means of reprisal” obsolete. China simply has to boost its nuclear capability or risk a US first strike in the early hours of a confrontation.

  9. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    The Chinese have the financial capability to spend hundreds of billions to improve their traditional deterrent. A little shopping spree in Russia / CIS mixed with some indigenous effort will easily freshen up their deterrent against the US ABM system for a few decades or more.

    But there is a even cheaper path which I term “Nuclear People’s War” which virtually cost zero in incremental costs.


    Not that governments make rational choices, but for the amount of money invested in nuclear deterrence, a much bigger and better, and more usable bang for the buck can be had from R&D on, and fielding RPVs, UAVs, and drones.

    It is not clear to me how many militaries around the world really understand the meaning of peak petroleum and its impact on war fighting in the coming decades.

  10. Andrew Foland (History)

    What might other world leaders conclude about minimum deterrence from watching a collective governmental shrug over the loss of a city the magnitude of, say, New Orleans?

  11. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    From the Rovian perspective, New Orleans is a solid democrat city.


    On the other hand…. the burbs….

  12. Boston

    I enjoyed your article in the BAS, glad you mentioned Herman, far too many people do not give him credit where credit is due – though you did not even touch on the hedge. What about the hedge? When discussing minimum deterence lets assume that it is the day after, what are the ramifications of having nothing in the store room?

  13. Arch (History)


    You say that, “[T]he ABM Treaty was based on the logic that, if a nation truly gained an advantage in strategic defense, they would have a narrow window in which to launch a first strike.” My memory has doubtless faded considerably, but my recollection is that the ABM Treaty was designed (and inextricably linked to the SALT process) primarily to deter a first strike by protecting the threat of a second one. And over the last near-forty years of negotiations, the US-Russia balance has declined fantastically in number (albeit with plenty of room for further reductions). Without intending to spark yet another round of hot contention over whether SORT (START III until Bush ruined a perfectly good acronym by changing it to SORT) accomplished anything, to me the US-Russia process merely demonstrates how much farther along the learning curve the Chinese are: their strategic nuclear position has always been to pursue the minimum nuclear deterrent, something made easier over their history by their own strategic environment, not to mention the sheer size of the PLA.

    As an aside, I was in the room in 1989 when General Beg proposed to a congressional delegation that Pakistan accept full-scope safeguards on a prospective basis (effectively a freeze). This indicated to me that Pakistan’s policy was also to build only a minimum credible deterrent. I believe it was a serious probe at the time of what a US reaction might be. Sadly, someone who shall not be named blew any serious further discussion of this or any other arms control modality by blurting it out to a room full of Indian and Pakistani journalists on his return to Washington.

    I am sorry not to have read Jeffrey’s article (no dough, no subscription -hint, hint), but I hope these tidbits can contribute something further to a good discussion of a too-often overlooked topic.

  14. James (History)

    Arch wrote:

    “You say that, “[T]he ABM Treaty was based on the logic that, if a nation truly gained an advantage in strategic defense, they would have a narrow window in which to launch a first strike.” …my recollection is that the ABM Treaty was designed (and inextricably linked to the SALT process) primarily to deter a first strike by protecting the threat of a second one.

    Quite right. “Minimum deterrence” assumes that you will have sufficient forces to launch a counterstrike. But if the opponent has a missile defense system, this introduces an uncertainty to the equation that is fundamentally destabilizing.

    The nation with the missile defense system has a momentary advantage: right now, it might be able to launch a first strike and successfully defend against the counterstrike. Soon, however, the enemy will build additional, hidden weapons that are intended to negate his strategic defense. Meanwhile, the nation without a strategic defense is inclined to ensure it gets off the first shot, because nothing less than ALL of its missiles will penetrate the defense. Thus, the ABM nation has a powerful incentive to launch a war while it has the advantage and the nation without has a powerful incentive to launch “on warning” with all its weapons. Both sides advance to a hair-trigger for very different reasons.

    In the 1970’s no sensible person wanted to introduce such uncertainties and motivations to the strategic situation. Despite decades of debate and staggering sums of money, I remain unconvinced it’s a good idea to do so now.

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