Monday, April 19, 2010

Ron Smith: Classical Deterrence and the Proportionate Response

Classical deterrence was based on the notion that certain events would inevitably trigger a particular response. Specifically, it was taken that an attack on a nuclear-capable state, using a nuclear weapon, or weapons, would result in a reciprocal attack that would cause almost unimaginable damage. For this reason, it was considered that the initial attack could not take place because the party contemplating it could not avoid the conclusion that, whatever objective he might have had and however worthy he had deemed it to be, the cost would be totally unacceptable. During the Cold War this strategic stand-off came to be known as mutually assured destruction, with the acronym MAD also representing what some saw as a fundamental absurdity about the situation.

On the other hand, many, including this author, saw nuclear deterrence as the prime explanation of the non-occurrence of ‘World War Three’. Or to put it differently, deterrence seemed to provide an absolute block to direct conflict between the major states, which, with the march of conventional war-technology, could have had devastating consequences. Arguably, it has continued to operate up to the present time and provides the major reason why India and Pakistan have not fought what would be their fourth war since independence on the sub-continent. Of course, deterrence did not by any means prevent all conflict. Especially it did not prevent non-state conflict. Indeed, it arguably provided a fertile environment for civil war, insurrection and terrorism to flourish, and it continues to do so.

Over time, the notion of deterrence was also extended to the possibility that smaller players might acquire and potentially use nuclear weapons, either themselves or through proxies that they might supply. In relation to direct use, it was assumed that even if the initial attack by the smaller player was not overwhelming (perhaps, only a few detonations), the response would certainly be so. There were also people who argued that the state of ‘nuclear forensics’ was such that even if the attack was carried out by a third party (say a terrorist group), the source of the fissile material would be quickly determined and the deterrent response could be directed there. The assumption in this case is that, although the terrorists themselves are not susceptible to being deterred (since they have no territory that could be attacked), those who supply them certainly are. Even this, though, is now in question, with an American academic (Louis Beres) suggesting in a recent article that ‘A Nuclear Iran Could Become the First “Suicide State”’, with the present Iranian leadership seeing the destruction of Israel and its Jewish population as a kind of transcendent triumph for Shiite Islam.

Over time, deterrence doctrine was also extended to attacks by other kinds of weapon in the general class of ‘weapons of mass-destruction’ (notably gases or biological agents), which would also bring in a full nuclear deterrent response. There was a certain vagueness about these latter entailments, since it was less clear just how devastating such attacks might be, but, equally, it was commonly hinted that such might be the case.

Particularly, for these latter scenarios, it might seem that the threatened response would be disproportionate and indiscriminate and, thus, not justified in law or morality. Indeed, some have thought that the MAD response would have been not only immoral but even imprudent, since it would have added further contamination to a shared environment, without any benefit to the party first struck.

There is, of course, force in all these objections. On the other hand, deterrence does seem to have worked to limit the consequences of the human propensity for violence. The possession of nuclear weapons by some states has not only led to the use of nuclear weapons by nobody but seems to have effectively prevented the most serious kind of conventional conflict: war between the major states.

If deterrence has worked we should be foolish to weaken it. Not only does this mean that the project to abolish all nuclear weapons is misconceived but it means that it is necessary to maintain the imperative force of deterrence pronouncements. The appearance of any doubt about the consequences for those who supplied the material for (say) a crude nuclear device detonated by terrorists, is only likely to make such an event more probable and a sequence of events involving such a scenario that is not followed by overwhelming action will merely ‘set the tariff’. It will produce precisely the opposite of the end that was ostensibly sought. Nuclear weapons will have become usable and proliferation more desirable. A similar line of argument suggests that legalistic distinctions between the various classes of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, might also have the effect of setting a tariff and making a gas or biological attack more likely. The situation of Iran is different again. If Professor Beres is right and Iran is, indeed, effectively non-deterrable, then prevention can be the only policy.

The recent Washington summit and the more or less coincident discussion of the recently released US Nuclear Posture Review has been characterised by a great deal of ‘loose talk’ on these matters. The enormous and indiscriminate destructive power of nuclear weapons is such that any use would raise serious moral questions. On the other hand, ‘abolishing’ nuclear weapons in any meaningful sense is probably quite impossible*. For the medium term, at least, we are stuck with nuclear deterrence. We need to make it work and, particularly, we need to be careful about the way we talk about it.

*Arguments in support of this assertion will be the subject of a subsequent blog.


Brian Arrandale said...

A Comment.

Deterrence has worked, is working and will continue to work between most countries for the reasons Dr Smith has outlined. Whatever State instituted a nuclear attack, would if fact, have only a Pyrrhic victory and a destroyed economic infrastructure to deal with!

The problem is that the Muslim fundamentalist terrorist has no such concerns; neither according to Louis Beres has Iran, and I would suspect has other small Muslim nations.
We are however, in this case NOT dealing with a secular state, but a strong religious belief adhered too over centuries, which forms an integral part of their existence as a nation.

To attempt to defend the present concept that the West must not be the aggressor, places the whole defensive system of the West under immense pressure. No people/state/country can keep up permanently a Grade A alert, human beings will eventually relax allowing the terrorist to detonate a nuclear weapon.

On the section paragraph 3

“There were also people who argued that the state of ‘nuclear forensics’ was such that even if the attack was carried out by a third party (say a terrorist group), the source of the fissile material would be quickly determined and the deterrent response could be directed there.

My question is when this does happen, will we have the time to determine or even the capability to ascertain just where such nuclear material came from? Also can we be totally accurate in determining their supplier and retaliating? I have grave reservations that this method would be successful; as first and foremost, it is a defensive counter measure.

Wars are not won by defense, as Voltaire once stated:-

God is not on the side of the biggest battalions,
But on the side of those who shoot the straightest.

I may be wrong and possibly inhuman, but to me the only method to deter such terrorist fundamentalists is to issue a broad enough threat that if such a terrorist nuclear strike was carried out against the Western World. Then the entire Arabic world would feel the direct consequences of a nuclear retaliation.

However I am practical and realistic enough to know that the United Nations would never sanction such a policy, nor indeed would those Western and Asian countries whose very life blood, namely oil, comes from the Arab States.

In your final paragraph Dr. Smith you state that Iran is non-deterrable…and prevention can be the only policy!

I would suggest to you Sir that “intervention” is the only solution to attaining prevention.

As the history of the 1930’s shows so clearly.


Anonymous said...

The largest problem with Deterrence - and thus it's inability to control Iran, Iraq, Afgahistan etc - is simply time. Nuclear weapons have not been used for 65 years, and so most people alive, especially in the Middle East, have simply no comprehension of the vast power the US and Israel posses, nor the amount of restraint they show in all their dealings with openly genocidal terrorist regimes.

The solution here is simple: a preemptive countervalue strike against Iran will not only forcefully remind the rest of the world of the value of Deterrence, but will also clearly address all the issues of the current terrorist regime. Any other non-complying terrorist state would then rightly fear the same fate, and would quickly disarm to avoid it.