Paul Robinson addresses challenges, possibilities for post-Cold War strategic deterrence
Editor’s note: On June 10, Labs Director C. Paul Robinson addressed the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Project on Nuclear Issues on the subject of deterrence. Specifically, his speech asked: "Is there a purpose for deterrence after the Cold War?" In his remarks, Paul offered a historical overview of deterrence, noting that "the concept of deterrence has been applied for millennia." He spoke in broad terms of the vital role deterrence played in keeping the Cold War from ever erupting into total nuclear war. His remarks then turned to the subject of post-Cold War deterrence. Here are some excerpts. (The entire presentation can be read ) here:
I believe that when the history of the Cold War is written, it will show that — on the whole — the thinkers and planners of that day should be commended by all of us who came afterwards, for their accomplishment in developing a strategic deterrence formulation which has endured remarkably well to usher us to today. Moreover, the Cold War never became "hot" — at least not with "nuclear heat."
A number of years ago, as it finally seemed clear that we could place the Cold War into history and begin facing whatever was to come next, the Commander in Chief of the United States Strategic Command — then Admiral Hank Chiles — tasked the Policy Committee of the Strategic Advisory Group (which I led) to examine the fundamentals of the deterrence that had served us so well during the Cold War and try to sort out what lessons or principles might be used going forward. . . .
As we examined how deterrence had emerged and how it matured in its effectiveness during the Cold War, we began to see deterrence not as a theory, a concept, a doctrine, or even just a strategy, but as an active and dynamic process. . . . Use of the terms "active" and "dynamic" as modifiers for the deterrence process is meant to capture the thought that, just like human history, deterrence has no end point. Each generation must try to understand, adapt, and apply it to the unique circumstance and the world actors of their times. . . .
We . . . concluded that communication with an adversary is central to deterrence. Just as it is said that a "voodoo hex" will not work unless the target of the hex knows of the enmity plotted against them, so in deterrence we must communicate in a convincing manner to adversaries our capability to hold at risk what they value. . . .
While it is crucial to explicitly define and communicate the acts or damages that we would find unacceptable and, hence, what it is that we are specifically seeking to deter. We should not be very specific as to exactly what our response would be. . . .
Without saying exactly what the consequences will be if the United States has to respond, or whether the reaction would either be responsive or preemptive, we must communicate in the strongest ways possible the unbreakable link between our vital interests and the potential harm that will be directly attributable to anyone who damages (or even credibly threatens to damage) that which we value. . . .
Thus, our deterrence plan must always be country-specific and leadership-specific. . . .
We must be ambiguous about details of our likely actions if what we value is threatened, but it must always be made clear that our actions would have terrible consequences. Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the United States may do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it hurts deterrence if we portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. . . . This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the United States may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries. Finally, we pointed out that without perceived national will, and actual military capability, none of the above steps work. An adversary must always perceive that we have the national will to carry out decisive responses. . . .
. . . I believe we can improve our deterrence message by declaring and meaning the following: (1) The United States will never directly target civilians or non-war-fighting populations. (2) We do not maintain nuclear weapons for war-fighting purposes, but as "weapons of last-resort." (3) We keep our nuclear arsenal only to ensure any potential adversary that our capability to destroy those four essential categories of their military power is so certain that it will restrain them from committing aggressions in the first place. It is in this prior restraint that we want them to have no doubts about as they contemplate our deterrent message. . . .
There will be those in the audience who will notice that I did not mention terrorist groups and other non-state actors. . . . [I]f there is no "return address" or lands or sanctuaries with physical assets to be targeted, the deterrent becomes hollow. Acts by terrorists apparently cannot be directly deterred with nuclear (or other) weapons.
However, we can substantially cap the level of violence by ensuring that any nation-state that gives either assistance or sanctuary to terrorists will be held directly responsible should major aggression occur. The threat of retaliation to any state regimes that support terrorists can be a powerful disincentive to such adventurism, and we should not rule out any weapons in order to give maximum effectiveness to our deterrent message.
As a final comment in that regard, those of us who watch these rogue states have noted that, for several decades, they have been seeking ways to escape the otherwise sure United States deterrent by either hiding their valuable targets or burying them so deeply underground that they are out of reach to attack by United States weapons. Uninformed (or uncaring) critics have falsely attributed United States motives in developing new nuclear weapons (to deal with these changes) as a desire to build new "tactical or battlefield weapons." That is not the case. Our interest is clear: We need to have some of these weapons available that could strike strategic targets to make sure that no aggressor can escape our deterrent and its effects in securing peaceful behaviors. Earth penetrators prevent anyone from breaking the deterrent equation — thus they are needed to preserve the peace