Lockheed Martin chief executive Robert J. Stevens made waves in the media recently by suggesting his company’s F-22 fighter might serve as a substitute for nuclear weapons in deterring aggression. Stevens told a Reuters defense and aerospace summit that the stealthy, twin-engine fighter could “dissuade an adversary without the application of nuclear weapons,” acting in a “deterrence fashion” to avert violence without requiring the need to threaten nuclear attack. Critics were quick to pounce. Former Pentagon weapons tester Thomas Christie said Stevens was “grasping at straws” in his pursuit of a justification for buying more of the planes. Aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia said the capabilities of the F-22 “hardly rival the kind of fear you inspire from the threat of nuclear incineration.”
However, as any expert on deterrence can tell you, Stevens was probably right for one simple reason: credibility. Nobody really believes that the United States will use its nuclear weapons unless national survival is at stake. Look at the historical record. North Korea attacked the south when America had a near-monopoly in atomic weapons. North Vietnam delivered the biggest military defeat in American history during an era when the U.S. could have destroyed all of Indochina with 1% of the nuclear warheads in its arsenal. Al Qaeda launched the 9-11 attacks despite America’s nuclear might.
Obviously, effective deterrence requires more than just the ability to blow up the world several times over. Adversaries have to believe that a country will actually use its arsenal in response to aggression, otherwise they will not be deterred. I used to teach nuclear strategy at Georgetown University, and wrote a 600-page doctoral dissertation on the subject, so I know a fair amount about the past failures of nuclear deterrence. For example, the Eisenhower Administration tried to deter Russian aggression by threatening “massive retaliation,” only to find that the aggression it faced never really justified using nuclear weapons. Once the Russians built up their own nuclear arsenal, it became obvious that any U.S. use of such weapons might prove suicidal.
Under President Kennedy, the United States embraced a policy of “graduated deterrence” that called for having proportional responses at each rung on the “ladder of escalation.” In other words, if the Russians attacked with tanks in Central Europe, we would respond in kind with superior forces. If they attacked with guerrillas in Southeast Asia, we would respond with counter-insurgency forces such as the Green Berets. Nuclear weapons would be reserved mainly for situations where the other side was threatening nuclear use too. Thus, 90% of the U.S. military budget during the Cold War was spent on non-nuclear forces, to provide a credible deterrent posture across the full spectrum of potential threats.
The F-22 fighter fits comfortably into this framework. Because it is more survivable, agile and versatile than other fighters, it can achieve air dominance even in places where adversaries have a big numerical advantage. Once air dominance is established, enemies are left naked to the other instruments of U.S. military power without being able to attack our own forces. The F-22 is also equipped to conduct an array of secondary missions such as missile defense, reconnaissance and network attack, enabling the precise tailoring of effects that contributes to effective deterrence. But what really makes it a powerful deterrent — unlike nuclear weapons in most cases — is that enemies know we won’t hesitate to use it. That has to influence how potential aggressors weigh their options.
Find Archived Articles: