Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


if challenged. Adversary risk-taking leaders must be convinced,

by word and deed, that our leaders are willing, not simply to

threaten to use force in response to aggression, but also to act

should the line be crossed. Without both the physical capability

to inflict unacceptable levels of damage on an aggressor

party and the evident will to use such force, the US and allied

deterrent would lack credibility and might risk war where an

adversary adventurer misperceived the situation. For example,

this might have been the cause of the October 1962 Cuban

missile crisis. 8

Third, the origin of the attack must be known, if the real aggressor

is to be deterred. If an adversary leader thought he or

she could disguise the origin of the attack, perhaps making it

seem as if it came from another state, the attacker might feel

he or she could strike and escape the consequences. This is the

problem discussed by the late Herman Kahn when he talked

about the possibility of what he termed catalytic war. 9 Party A

might strike Party B, making it look like it came from Party C,

causing B and C to fight. Thus, a vigilant early warning and

tracking system and an effective forensics capability should be

a fundamental part of any successful deterrent posture. Deterrence

requires a return address.

Fourth, the US and allied retaliatory forces must be able to

ride out an adversary surprise attack and still retaliate with

overwhelming and accurate force, holding hostage what the rival

leaders value most. This has led the United States to rely on

a mix of forces in a strategic triad of nuclear-armed ICBMs deployed

on US soil; strategic bombers, deployed worldwide, carrying

both nuclear standoff missiles; nuclear gravity bombs;

and nuclear-tipped submarine-launched ballistic missiles carried

on ballistic missile submarines that roam the world’s

oceans. Even the former Soviet Union, with its extensive nuclear

forces, could not have hoped to preemptively destroy so

much of the United States and allied nuclear forces to escape

nuclear annihilation in return. It was seen as impossible for

anyone to destroy all retaliatory elements of the US alliances

and strategic triad to escape assured destruction in return.

Maintaining this second-strike capability was deemed an essential

component of a classical deterrence posture.


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