Michael KreponDeterrence-palooza

For four years now, STRATCOM has hosted an annual deterrence symposium that provides opportunities for younger officers and their seniors to hear old hands, U.S. government officials, foreign perspectives, policy influentials, and the occasional heretic. As a networking and learning experience on all matters relating to deterrence, it doesn’t get much better than this.

I was on a panel this year with Frank Miller and George Perkovich addressing the question of whether nuclear weapons are becoming more or less influential in the emerging international security environment. Peter Lavoy, the Pentagon’s Principal Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and the Pacific, served as moderator. Videos of the panel discussions and speakers will be posted on STRATCOM’s event web site. [Update: videos have been posted here.] A common answer to hard questions throughout the two-day event, held on August 8-9, was “it depends.” My presentation follows.

Appearances matter. Appearances matter for deterrence. But in all matters other than cosmetic surgery, the force of gravity trumps appearances. Gravity is having its way with the U.S. nuclear stockpile and deployed forces. The effects of gravity are reinforced by budgetary woes and significant trends, including the absence of actual battlefield use and the use of threats to use nuclear weapons. The former is now 67 years old as of this very week. The latter has mostly become the province of outlier states. Responsible states don’t threaten nuclear weapons’ use; irresponsible states do. Numbers matter, but norms matter more. Numbers become a way to reinforce norms. Numbers as well as norms point to the diminished utility of nuclear weapons for the United States. The question before us is whether to assist or resist gravity.

The concept and practice of deterrence are as important as ever. The constituent elements of deterrence are familiar, but the mix is shifting. The use of economic instruments in deterrence equations is growing among four of the P-5, if not all five. Two other elements – space and cyber – are also gaining prominence.

The element of nuclear deterrence has variable salience, depending on individual cases. Every case is unique and hard to categorize. But for purposes of discussion, and to spark rebuttals, I propose the following typology:

1. States with strong conventional forces and significant economic equities, in a global or a regional sense. In these cases, states try to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in deterrence equations. I place the United States, India, and perhaps Israel in this category.

2. States with multiple weaknesses – military (relative to potential foes), economic, political, and institutional – that have worrisome security challenges. In these cases, the salience of nuclear weapons in deterrence strategies is increasing. Nuclear weapons provide a porcupine defensive strategy, while compensating for worrisome internal and external trends. In this group I would place Pakistan, the DPRK, and Russia.

3. States for whom nuclear weapons are primarily a refection of Cold War history. In these cases, nuclear weapons have a very limited role in deterrence strategies, even though they cost a great deal. Government leaders have difficulty acknowledging this. In this category I would place Great Britain and France.

4. The wild card category: China, a state with a growing economy, rising status and worrisome internal prospects. China has previously demonstrated relaxed requirements for nuclear deterrence, even when Beijing was on poor terms with two superpowers. China’s strategic modernization program continues, but at a modest pace. Beijing’s strategy for achieving great power status has been about economics, not nuclear weapons. Will Beijing become increasingly attached to the Bomb as it becomes better off?

All of these cases, with the exception of Great Britain and France, have important qualifiers.

Israel’s public silence and private reliance on nuclear weapons could be reconfigured in the event that the Iranian nuclear program continues to advance.

India is a status-conscious society with risk-averse leadership that largely views nuclear weapons as political instruments. Consequently, it has a poorly operationalized deterrent. India has done well for itself by trying to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in deterrence equations, but how long will this continue to be the case, if Pakistan and China take nuclear weapons more seriously?

Pakistan is increasing the salience of nuclear weapons in its deterrence calculations more than any other state. Pakistan’s high-low deterrence mix – nuclear weapons and proxy groups – is deeply problematic. This mix speaks volumes about the severity of the challenges Pakistan faces and how much autonomy Pakistan’s military enjoys.

North Korea is a black box. Surprises are inside. Some might even be positive.

Russia is increasing the salience of its nuclear deterrent even though its external threats are, by historical standards, very modest.

Trend lines that reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in the United States are now a quarter-century old and very well defined. It will take very serious shocks to reverse these trend lines. The shock of 9/11 certainly didn’t.

How does all of this net out?

The economic element of deterrence is growing as the nuclear element is declining, with prominent exceptions. Sanctions have come a long way – to the point where they can even hurt a big oil producer like Iran. They may not deter or compel Tehran, but these sanctions could be an object lesson for potential fence-sitters.

One definition of deterrence is what the competition worries about. We in the United States worry more about China’s economic clout than its nuclear arsenal. Even the Kremlin, with its reflexive, atavistic tendencies toward nuclear and BMD issues, gets more mileage out of threats to turn off pipelines than to vaporize cities.

Can those who now seek increased salience for nuclear deterrence — the outliers and Russia – tip the scales? Not yet. When outliers seek more nuclear weapons, they gain more notoriety, not power. And nuclear weapons are a very poor substitute for what ails Russia. The top line indicators of reduced salience remain strong. The two biggest nuclear stockpiles and deployed force levels are shrinking, and the absence of nuclear testing further reduces the salience of nuclear weapons. If the DPRK tests another nuclear device, it will not gain power, influence, or foreign aid. No one seems to be lining up behind North Korea.

Will nuclear weapons become more or less influential in the emerging international security environment? Given this mixed picture, it depends. It depends mostly on China and whether the Iranian nuclear program will have cascade effects.


  1. Cthippo (History)

    I think China should rightfully be in the first category. it is a de facto great power with a modest, but adequate stick to back up it’s economic carrot. I don’t see it’s situation vis a vis nuclear deterrence to be significantly different from that of the US.

    On the other hand, I think Israel is in some ways closer to North Korea in that they view deterrence, both conventional as well as nuclear as being more critical to their national survival than other states. Pakistan probably also falls into this category. In short, these states perceive themselves to be under mortal threat which is only held at bay by their deterrent powers. I think that most other nuclear weapons states understand that if their arsenals were to evaporate tomorrow life would, for the most part go on. Conversely, these Israel, Pakistan and North Korea seem to act as if they have enemies on their doorstep waiting to swoop in at the first sign of weakness. In all three cases, the actual threat is probably less than the perceived threat, but perception IS reality in so many ways.

  2. ChrisB (History)

    Mike: A nice tight around the worlder on the state of nuclear deterrence. I would offer one prognostication: Should Iran acquire a demonstrable nuclear capability, it may not lead to the feared cascade in the region due to the fact that its neighbors will quickly absorb the fact that all the money and effort spent on acquiring the NW did not alter Iran’s political and security challenges. This is because it still couldn’t use the NWs without imposing unacceptable levels of damage on the regime. In short, no salience for Iran’s NW which in turn equals no cascade effects. In a perverse way Iran’s acquisition of NWs may actually enhance the NPT regime’s overall salience.

  3. Issaquah (History)

    I would disagree That the balance of evidence indicates Russia faces multiple strategic weaknesses and is increasing the salience of nuclear weapons in response. Her nuclear doctrine contains purposeful ambiguity but displays no eagerness to use nuclear weapons nor assertion of them as war-winning weapons. Her strategic military modernization program places equal weight on advanced conventional systems, space and communications and reconstituting an effective air defense and missile warning capability as it does on nuclear weapons. The modernization of Russia’s nuclear weapons delivery systems will provide a smaller force in 15-20 years that has no fundamentally new capabilities than it possessed 25 years ago. Finally, Russia has no interest in other states increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons so she will not try hard to defy gravity.

    The key question, as indicated in the post is whether it is in U.S. security interest to assist or resist a decline in the salience of nuclear weapons. That should be the focus of the strategic debate. Where does STRATCOM stand and what is it doing to harness and shape the flow of gravity?

  4. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    The only “wild card” factor related to China is U.S. perceptions, which have swung wildly over the course of the nuclear era, while Chinese nuclear weapons policy is relatively consistent.

    Who were the “Japanese friends” who spoke at lunch that day about their “fears of Chinese nuclear intimidation?”

  5. Jim Hackett (History)

    Mike Krepon, as usual, has produced an excellent commentary on deterrence. Of the various nuclear weapon states, Pakistan probably is most dangerous in that its arsenal is more at risk of falling into the hands of irresponsible actors. Pakistan’s leaders seem incapable of arresting their country’s spiral toward becoming a failed state under the thrall of radical Muslims. Thus, helping responsible elements in Pakistan to keep the government on an even keel must be a high priority. Of the other nuclear powers, Russia under President Putin is the most challenging. Putin, his generals and ex-KGB officials are obsessed with the importance of nuclear weapons to maintain Russia’s status as a great power. Bitter about the loss of the Soviet Empire and its ability to dominate Eastern Europe, they are determined to maintain at least the image of a great power. And the modernization of their nuclear delivery vehicles is a way to show that despite a declining birthrate, a two-product (gas and oil) economy, and many other problems, Russia still is capable of destroying its adversaries. There is little we can do to diminish this persistent Russian nuclear threat until Putin leaves the scene. But building defenses against his weapons will at least reduce their value, reassure our citizens and allies, and show how phony his threat really is.

  6. Seb (History)

    I would argue that neither the UK or France regard the nuclear arsenal as a anymore. The justification is about capability (if we abandon them they will be hard to re acquire) and so maintaining it is almost never discussed as being about current strategic deterrence, but long term insurance for when we might need a deterrent.

    I’d say that is a very real acceptance of their lack of modern relevance. Leaks during the last strategic review and spending review indicated the military were quite happy to ditch useless nuclear bombs for much more relevant onventional forces, that probably are more for heading off any plausible conflict or threats.

    On the other hand, who knows what that will be in 50 years time. I’d argue then the cold war hangover is actually about small states unable to anticipate or shape the strategic environment they will face in the longer term seeking to maintain capabilities and competences they have, which may be a cold war hangover in themselves.

    Does this matter as a distinction? Yes, I think it does in terms of progressing to global zero.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Excellent point. And if the world is headed for global zero in the next generation or two, there’s a strong case for Britain or France taking the first step now. Or at the next upgrade cycle, at least. There would be little present risk, it would save them a few hundred billion wasted dollars, and it would be a safe and effective way to exercise some level of moral leadership.

      But, as noted, if the barriers to proliferation fall and nuclear arsenals become widespread, this would turn out to have been a very expensive mistake. Not just because of the financial expense of reconstituting a nuclear arsenal, but the political costs as well could be substantial. The decision to retain today’s nuclear arsenal for another year is a relative non-event; the decision to rebuild a nuclear arsenal previously dismantled as irrelevant, unaffordable, or unconscionable could be divisive to national unity or damaging to Britain or France’s diplomatic relationships.

      And in the middle, there’s the status quo where half a dozen or so nations (perhaps not coincidentally corresponding to the UNSC’s permanent membership) are accepted as having “good” nuclear arsenals which they are expected to devote to the general cause of world peace and non-proliferation. I don’t see that situation lasting forever, but for as long as it does, any roster of “good” nuclear powers that doesn’t include Britain or France is in my opinion a step down from the status quo. But that has Britain and France spending an awful lot of treasure on what is, in this view, a global rather than national benefit.

  7. jeannick (History)

    What was rose Gottenmuller “very insightful” comment
    the lunch discussion wasn’t available ?

  8. John Doe (History)

    According to Bill Gertz, wild card China just tested the MIRV-capable DF-41 on July 24, 2012.


  9. Peacekeeper (History)

    “States with strong conventional forces and significant economic equities, in a global or a regional sense. In these cases, states try to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in deterrence equations. I place…India…in this category…”
    Consider SM Krishna’s recent statement that “nuclear weapons today are integral part of our national security and will remain so…” http://ibnlive.in.com/news/india-to-keep-narms-till-universal-disarmament/284262-3.html?utm_source=Paulo%27s+Corner+Daily+Nuclear+News+Digest&utm_campaign=60236c6af2-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email
    It is a shocking reminder that states are never angelic, no matter how we want to perceive them.