Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


particularly incredible deterrence threats based on the generally

high nuclear yields of the US Cold War arsenal, given the

civilian destruction which high yields could cause. The US desire

to minimize unintended destruction, inspire post-conflict

support from an opponent’s liberated populace, and pursue

post-conflict reconstruction may be priorities in the contemporary

period that reduce the apparent credibility of Cold War–

style assured destruction nuclear threats. 57 In these cases, US

nonnuclear and very discriminate nuclear capabilities may be

important for US deterrence credibility. During the Cold War—

when US survival was at stake and the context involved thousands

of nuclear weapons on each side—these types of considerations

were likely to have been less pertinent to considerations

of credibility. Now, however, they point toward the potential

value of advanced nonnuclear and highly discriminate nuclear

threat options for deterrence credibility. Some studies done

late in the Cold War, and looking 20 years into the future,

pointed to the same conclusion. 58

Consequently, reducing nuclear yields and improving the accuracy

of US nuclear forces may be important for contingencies

in which nuclear deterrence is critical but new, post–Cold War

priorities are in play. Again, this suggestion is not, as some

commentators charge, a rejection of deterrence in favor of “destabilizing,”

“war-fighting” nuclear weapons. Such a characterization

is to apply loaded Cold War deterrence labels to a context

in which they lack meaning. The potential value of low-yield,

accurate nuclear weapons is fully consistent with their possible

deterrent effect.

US strategic policies guided by balance-of-terror and assureddestruction

metrics subverted long-standing moral strictures

against threatening civilians in favor of the goal of deterrence

“stability.” In the contemporary era, however, when the stakes

at risk for the United States in a regional crisis do not include

national survival, and when postconflict reconstruction and

minimization of damage to the opponent and its neighbors may

be priority goals, the credibility of the US deterrent may rest

not on how much damage can be threatened à la assured destruction

but rather on how controlled is that threatened damage.

Traditional moral considerations and the efficacy of deterrence

may now merge.


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