Nuclear deterrence dominated U.S. national security strategy during the Cold War. The word deterrence is a product of the nuclear age and is not found in international relations literature or strategic theory prior to World War II. However, the concept was successful in preventing nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Russia. Although the global landscape has evolved since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. still requires a robust nuclear deterrent.
The main purpose of strategic deterrence is to prevent nuclear war by ensuring that costs and risks associated with an attack outweigh potential benefits. Nuclear deterrence is dependent on the perceptions and evaluations of potential aggressors, and if successful persuades possible adversaries that an advantage could never be gained by a first strike.
Cold War critics did not expect nuclear deterrence to last forever. Due to its heavy reliance on rational actors, it was expected to eventually break down as a result of irrational behavior, miscalculation, misinterpretation of intelligence data, subconscious psychological needs of the challenger and defender, or other factors. Furthermore, policymakers have to make important decisions under stress, possibly without adequate sleep, and in compressed time frames, which may diminish the rationality of their thought processes.
Effective deterrence is a function of real capabilities and the perception of a credible national will to respond to aggression. A nation must respond to an attacker before its weapons are destroyed or by making sure it has a second-strike capability. A second-strike capability means enough of the deterrer’s forces have survived attack and are capable of damaging the aggressor in retaliation. The U.S. and Russia possess nuclear triads to ensure a frightening second-strike capability that includes long-range bombers like the B-52, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) like the Minuteman, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) like the Trident II.
Today’s nuclear deterrence is different from the strategy used during the Cold War. During the Cold War strategic deterrence focused almost exclusively on two nations, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Today, a group of states, and possibly eventually non-state actors, possess nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. More players in the nuclear weapons game complicate the task of sustaining deterrence. Now, even more potential aggressors must be convinced that the threatened nation will follow through with its threat of retaliation – a complex balancing act.
The U.S. should not expect other states to respond to deterrence in the same way as the Soviet Union in the past. The U.S. must become familiar with multiple potential opponents and understand their individual concepts of rationality, value structures, and varying opinions about the credibility of U.S. policy. This will allow Washington to tailor deterrence to various actors and to the specific circumstances of the deterrence situation.
As Henry Kissinger wrote, “Deterrence requires a combination of power, the will to use it, and the assessment of these by the potential aggressor… If any one of them is zero, the deterrence fails.” Any proposal to reduce the size of the nuclear arsenal must take these realities into account. At some point, the reduction in nuclear capabilities could put America at greater risk as adversaries begin to doubt the credibility of its deterrent.
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