Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


of using the atomic bomb was an evolution of the bombing operations

and effects of that war, particularly fire bombing. The

demonstrated ability to build weapons and the willingness to

use them generated an opportunity capability for the United

States to deter other nations from taking actions that were not

in its interests.

However, attitudes change as weapons become significantly

more powerful and the consequences of their use becomes more

extreme, both to the nation being attacked and to the world’s

environment. Western civilization has become increasingly uncomfortable

with killing civilians, even if it is unintended and

incidental to the targeting of military targets. These combined

factors may cause a potential adversary to question whether the

United States or any other nuclear-armed Western nation will

use such a destructive and indiscriminate weapon. If that adversary

feels the risk of retaliation is low, it may no longer be

deterred. Additionally, a nation that depends for its security on

the extended deterrence provided by a nuclear-armed state

must also question that state’s willingness to fulfill its treaty

commitments if it is not also directly threatened. Sir Lawrence

noted that deterrence is easiest to understand if one state is

only looking after its own interests and becomes increasingly

more difficult with the addition of a first-use policy, trip wire

deployment of forces, extended deterrence, deterring the use of

chemical and biological weapons, and additional nations being

added to alliances. These complicating factors served to move

the idea of a deterrent threat from one of “if you do X I will do

Y,” to, “if you do X you will set into motion a chain of events that

may include Y.” However, if Y is sufficiently horrible, the aggressor

will still be deterred. These consequences must be clearly

stated and unambiguous to be effective. During the 1960s and

in support of the MAD deterrence strategy, Secretary of Defense

Robert S. McNamara said that the effects would be massive

brutal destruction, it would be assured, and it would be mutual.

The great achievement of nuclear deterrence reminds the

world how terrible a great-power war would be. It has discouraged

adversaries from trying something clever to get around the

strategy, and it has led to crisis stability. Measures were developed

to communicate between potential adversaries and manage

problems and issues at the lowest possible level. Clear com-


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