Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


Still other leaders might be religious, cultural, or ideological

zealots who will stop at nothing to destroy some hated adversary,

leaving the consequences to chance. For example, at the

height of the Cuban missile crisis, the Castro brothers, in a fit

of revolutionary zeal, were urging the Soviet leadership to fire

at the United States their nuclear-tipped missiles stationed in

Cuba, even though it meant their own likely deaths and the

wholesale destruction of their country. Some initiators of combat

may care more about their place in history than about the

immediate consequences for themselves and their people.

However, this is not to say that deterrence cannot or should

not work in the majority of cases. Rather, remember that deterrence

of war or escalation still can fail when a much stronger

power confronts a weaker one or even where both sides would

suffer catastrophic warfare losses if they entered into a conflict.

Cold War Deterrence Theory

Luckily this did not happen during the Cold War when a central

nuclear war could have caused hundreds of millions of

deaths. By 1949 both the United States and Soviet Union had

nuclear weapons, and both sides held the life or death of the

rival society in their hands. The peace was secured by the dualhostage

situation described as mutual assured destruction. 6 If

the system failed, it would have been deadly.

Deterrence theory developed as US and allied policy makers

and strategists worked to understand the implications of nuclear

weapons and how they might be used to keep the peace and advance

US and allied security. Several elements were eventually

recognized as fundamentally important to strategic deterrence.

First, it was deemed crucial that the United States and its

allies maintain a nuclear retaliatory force that could inflict

what an aggressor leadership would consider unacceptable

damage to itself and its vital interests. 7 Aggressors must be

made to believe that the risks of attacking the United States

and its allies were clearly and significantly greater than any

conceivable rewards they might gain from such action.

Second, a potential aggressor must be made to realize that

the US and allied leaders not only must have such lethal capabilities

but must also be willing to use such retaliatory power,


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