Michael KreponSufficient Deterrence

Are the shoe box files metaphorical or real? Given my weak memory and computer skills, they have to be real. But I know that ACW readers are a suspicious lot, so I have asked Jeffrey to accompany this post with a picture of my shoe box collection.

This week’s entry comes from my 4X6 cards on deterrence and strategic sufficiency. The Obama administration is now in the process of defining this term and attaching numbers to it. But when the enterprise called arms control first took shape, strategic superiority, not sufficiency, was a talking point. The Kennedy administration, for example, argued that by supporting the Limited Test Ban Treaty, Senators would be affirming U.S. strategic superiority.

The Nixon administration could not use this argument when it was about to negotiate limits on strategic offenses and missile defenses. The Soviet Union was engaged in a significant buildup, and neither superpower could acquiesce to the other’s strategic superiority. One precondition for success in the upcoming strategic arms limitation talks was, therefore, that both superpowers accept the notion of parity and disavow the objective of strategic superiority. But definitions of parity would become highly contentious and the nominal acceptance of parity certainly did not preclude advantageous moves. The SALT negotiations were therefore repeatedly bedeviled by fears in Washington and Moscow of falling behind in the strategic competition. (Raymond Garthoff wrote the definitive account of these negotiations — Détente and Confrontation — which aspiring wonks are required to plow through. Lawrence Freedman’s The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy is also required reading.)

NSDM 16, Criteria for Strategic Sufficiency issued on June 24, 1969, laid out the Nixon’s administration’s planning requirements for strategic sufficiency in the following way:

1. Maintain high confidence that our second strike capability is sufficient to deter an all-out surprise attack on our strategic forces.

2. Maintain forces to insure that the Soviet Union would have no incentive to strike the United States first in a crisis.

3. Maintain the capability to deny to the Soviet Union the ability to cause significantly more deaths and industrial damage in the United States in a nuclear war than they themselves would suffer.

4. Deploy defenses which limit damage from small attacks or accidental launches to a low level.

In February 1971, President Nixon provided the public rationale for his administration’s pursuit of strategic sufficiency:

In its narrow military sense, it means enough force to inflict a level of damage on a potential aggressor sufficient to deter him from attacking… In its broader political sense, sufficiency means the maintenance of forces adequate to prevent us and our allies from being coerced.

When asked about strategic sufficiency, David Packard, who served as Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Nixon administration, candidly responded, “It’s a good word to use in a speech. Beyond that, it doesn’t mean a God-damned thing.”

Some of my other favorite one-liners about deterrence and sufficiency follow.

[Deterrence] does not depend on whether we can defeat Russia; to be successful it need only prevent the Russians from expecting to defeat us.

Arnold Wolfers

When dealing with the absolute weapon, arguments based on relative advantage lose their point.”

William T.R. Fox

There is not much solace in raising the enemy’s requirements if he is still able to meet them.

Bernard Brodie

While a triad ought to lead to fewer total weapons than either a dyad or a single system, instead it seems to lead to three times as many.”

Herbert York

What is the sense in developing a weapon that can destroy a city twice over?”

Henry Kissinger

I have difficulty with the idea that deterrence of nuclear war somehow is improved by increasing the ability to fight a nuclear war.

Paul Warnke

I vaguely remember another quote from Arleigh Burke, to the effect that gunslingers in the wild west did not walk around with three six shooters; two were sufficient. But I can’t find it in my shoe boxes. If anyone out there can find the exact quote, please post it. Other one-liners on sufficiency are hereby solicited.


  1. Yale Simkin (History)

    “You very seldom see a cowboy, even in the movies, wearing three guns. Two is enough.”

    Arleigh Burke, Harvard International Seminar 1960

  2. MK (History)

    I owe you a beer.

  3. Yale Simkin (History)

    It is the political role of nuclear weapons which has prevented the nations of the world from defining nuclear “sufficiency.” – W.K. H. Panofsky 1981 BotAS

    But if deterrence of nuclear war is our most fundamental defense objective – and it surely is – what counts is what Soviet civilian and military leaders believe. – SecDef Harold Brown 1977

    Deterrence is the art of producing, in the mind of the enemy, the fear to attack. Dr. Strangelove 1964

  4. FSB

    Not to blow his rooster, but I like the quote from Jeffrey:

    “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 to 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 if it consists of only a few nuclear weapons. Beyond that minimum threshold, nuclear weapons provide little additional deterrent benefit.”

  5. yousaf

    these are a great selection of quotes!

    One small issue I have with the presentation is that, inadvertently, Cold War philosophies may get mixed up in what is now needed — the two, of course, are very different times and what may have been applicable before no longer makes any sense.

    I like Ivan’s quote distinguishing these views:

    “The basic nature of deterrence is that you might try to seize something of value from me, and I must be able to plausibly threaten to impose costs on you that are great enough to make the prize not worth the fight. If I have a million dollars on my desk and I threaten to rap you on the knuckles with a ruler if you take it, you might not be deterred; if I have an apple on my desk, the same threat might be effective. . . . If the prize one side is trying to seize is the future of the world, that is, the prize is everything, then one must threaten near total pain to make seizing that prize not worthwhile. The most basic difference between the Cold War and the world of today is not the lower levels of tension between the United States and Russia (or the Soviet Union) but the much lower stakes involved. When we talk about U.S. nuclear deterrent forces, we have to address what prize might some nation try to seize, even in theory, that is going to take a retaliation of more than 5,000 warheads to make it seem like a bad deal.”

    -Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists

  6. George William Herbert (History)

    And yet – the reasons cited match well with what modern deterrence theory, including psychological aspects and the stabilizing/destabilizing inversion in crisis situations, argue for.

    I don’t spend all day reading on the theory side here, but from what I have seen, there are no good arguments that nuclear crisies are inherently different from conventional ones. And conventional ones have a very complicated interplay between action and reaction, perceptions of weakness and strength, and risk and reward during a crisis. Apparent or perceived weakness has been a critical step in the decisionmaking that led to several wars.

    This is part of why ratcheting down forces has to be balanced between the major nuclear players. Avoiding either giving or taking a perception of weakness is important.

  7. bobbymike (History)

    I prefer Josie Wales who had four pistols.

  8. Yale Simkin (History)

    Admiral Burke may have been right about cowboys (except Josie Wales, as bobbymike pointed out), but it sure didn’t apply to Blackbeard…

    I guess the difference is the 12 warheads of dual MIRV-ed sixshooters vs the single warhead muzzleloader.
    Blackbeard’s triad of pistols, cutlass, and dagger made a pretty formidable strike force. (plus having burning cannon fuses radiating out of his head was an excellent PSYOPS tactic)

  9. Yale Simkin (History)

    Not sure how this applies, but its a nice quote:

    “Power? The only power I’ve got is nuclear and I can’t use that.” – Pres. Lyndon Johnson

  10. Smith (History)

    Is that a bag of birdseed sequestered inbetween a box and a folio?

  11. archjr (History)

    The nuclear freeze debate in the early 80’s was about a lot of things (marches in Europe and NYC, fears of Cowboy Ron incinerating Europe, etc.), but it had at its core the question of sufficiency. In explaining his opposition to the freeze resolution and to the unilateralism of many in the disarmament movement, Harold Brown said of the Soviets, “When we build, they build. When we don’t build, they build.”

    My age makes me reminisce about a seemingly simpler time; my experience tells me it really wasn’t, and that questions like that of sufficiency can never really go away.

  12. Yale Simkin (History)

    Weapons are like money; no one knows the meaning of enough. – Martin Amis

    We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed. – John F. Kennedy

    The superpowers often behave like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other, whom he assumes to have perfect vision. – Henry Kissinger

    Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat. – Hermann Goering

    You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline – it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer. – Frank Zappa

    There are some people that will be deterred by the fact that we have nuclear weapons… But those people are the folks we can deal with anyway. – Chuck Horner

  13. MK (History)

    You are on fire. Frank Zappa free associating on nukes?
    ‘Tis true.

  14. Matt Hoey (History)

    Very cool thread guys! I didn’t have a chance to go through some of my reads here at home but I did remember one of Kahn’s zingers that I just had to look up.

    “The Soviets think that we will still be deterred from attacking them because they can destroy 50 partially empty cities in their retaliatory blow. We, on the contrary, do not intend to let the Soviets get away with their aggression. If necessary, we are willing to lose these 50 cities, but we are in no sense anxious to lose them.” Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, Page 177.

  15. yousaf

    Yale, unfortunately, all those MIRV’ed pistols and the triad didn’t do Blackbeard much good in the final measure.

    Perhaps there is a lesson somewhere in there. 😉

  16. Yale Simkin (History)

    Blackbeard was cornered in a narrow channel at anchor. He had one ship with 19 men and was attacked by 2 ships with about sixty men.
    It is reported that it took 5 gunshots and 20 stabbings to finish him off.

    One lesson is that any defensive system can be overwhelmed by a sufficiently massive sneak first-strike.

    Another is that rapacious piracy is both safer and more profitable for bank executives than for buccaneers…

  17. kme

    Smith: No, it’s a spare bag of FOGBANK.

  18. Bobby McGee

    First, I would like to preface this with the information that I am a college debater, writing this to prove a point that people should not use blog comments as evidence. If anyone uses this, they should know I have no expertise whatsoever.

    If the United States declares a policy of retaliatory launch only after detonation toward any country, it seems likely to me that deterrence will collapse. Countries could attack us with nuclear weapons in hopes of wiping us off the planet. It will also inevitably collapse U.S. hegemony. And it will cause rampant proliferation as countries under the nuclear umbrella build nuclear weapons.

  19. Nomen Nescio (History)

    If the United States declares a policy of retaliatory launch only after detonation toward any country, it seems likely to me that deterrence will collapse. Countries could attack us with nuclear weapons in hopes of wiping us off the planet.

    countries that have enough nukes to wipe us off the planet, you mean. and the delivery systems to strike us with. and that somehow had no fear of U.S. second-strike capacity.

    i don’t count too many that can satisfy the first two, and most of ‘em are our allies either politically or economically. i can think of none that would satisfy the third.

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