Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


attacker’s goals and objectives. A competitor’s concerns about

unintended consequences could enhance the effects of our deterrence

activities if it wishes to control escalation or fears

blowback from its cyberspace operations. However, deterrence

of a competitor whose primary goal is to create chaos could be

undermined by the potential for unintended consequences. We

need to carefully consider how to account for such possibilities

in our deterrence strategy.

Secure the Continued Role of US Nuclear

Force in Twenty-first-Century Deterrence

We have saved a discussion of the continued role of US nuclear

forces in deterrence for the end of this article, not because it is

less important than in the past, but because it is best understood

in the context of the other aspects of twenty-first-century

deterrence strategy and activities addressed above.

Many argue that the only legitimate role of nuclear weapons

is to deter the use of nuclear weapons in a catastrophic attack

against us or our allies. This is indeed their most important

role. However, the deterrence roles of the US nuclear arsenal go

well beyond deterrence of nuclear attack alone.

US nuclear forces cast a long shadow over the decision calculations

of anyone who would contemplate taking actions that

threaten the vital interests of the United States or its allies,

making it clear that the ultimate consequences of doing so may

be truly disastrous and that the American presidents always

have an option for which they have no effective counter. Even

in circumstances in which a deliberate American nuclear response

seems unlikely or incredible to foreign decision makers,

US nuclear forces enhance deterrence by making unintended

or uncontrolled catastrophic escalation a serious concern, posing

what Thomas Schelling calls “the threat that leaves something

to chance.” 5 These are deterrence dynamics that only

nuclear forces provide.

As a result, US nuclear forces make an important contribution

to deterring both symmetric and asymmetric forms of warfare

in the twenty-first century. Our nuclear forces provide a

hedge against attacks that could cripple our ability to wage


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