Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


those very critiques sprang from the vintage balance-of-terror

narrative. Commentators responded yet again on the basis of

past strategic measures and, unsurprisingly, found the NPR in

violation of the definitions, terms, and metrics of that old, favored,

Cold War deterrence formula—as if that formula continues

to be coherent in conditions so different from those which

gave it intellectual life.

The NPR was neither beyond critique nor the final word in

“new thinking” about strategic forces and policy. Useful commentary,

however, now can be based only on recognition that

our thinking about deterrence, defense, and strategic forces

must adapt to the new realities of the twenty-first century. The

NPR’s drive to help create conditions suitable for prudent nuclear

reductions instead was challenged by traditional Cold War

standards and idioms that now have little meaning or value.

Still Holding the Horses

There is an anecdote, perhaps true, that early in World War

II the British, in need of field pieces for coastal defense, hitched

to trucks a light artillery piece with a lineage dating back to the

Boer War of 1899–1902. 102 When an attempt was made to identify

how gun crews could increase its rate of fire for improved

defense, those studying the existing procedure for loading, aiming,

and firing noticed that two members of the crew stood motionless

and at attention throughout part of the procedure. An

old artillery colonel was called in to explain why two members

of a five-member crew stood motionless during the process,

seemingly doing nothing useful. “ ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘I have it. They

are holding the horses.’ ” 103 There were, of course, no longer any

horses to hold, but the crew went through the motions of holding

them nonetheless. The author of this anecdote concludes

that the story “suggests nicely the pain with which the human

being accommodates himself to changing conditions. The tendency

is apparently involuntary and immediate to protect oneself

against the shock of change by continuing in the presence

of altered situations the familiar habits, however incongruous,

of the past.” 104

The continued application of the balance-of-terror tenets as

guidelines for US strategic policy is akin to holding on to non-


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