Deterrence: What Has and Has Not Changed
Dr. Michael Wheeler, Institute for Defense Analyses
What Has Not Changed
1. The importance of being able to retaliate with nuclear weapons if attacked with nuclear weapons. Bernard Brodie emphasized this in his classic studies at the start of the nuclear age, as did senior Air Force leaders in the 1946 study (since unclassified) led by Generals Spaatz, Vandenberg, and Norstad.
2. Nuclear weapons are uniquely lethal and can threaten societal existence. The loss of even one city would be devastating; debates took place during the Cold War about how much damage a society could suffer before it would collapse. This was discussed in the 1950 American security review (NSC-68) led by Paul Nitze (who then was head of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department), and in the 1950s British study by the Joint Inter-service Group for the Study of All Out War.
3. Nuclear weapons are different. A nation can lose a conventional war and recover politically, while nuclear weapons imply otherwise. North Korea has been able to threaten turning Seoul into a sea of glass for decades, but look at the intensity of diplomacy now that it has nuclear weapons. Also, look at the massive response that would be expected if a nuclear bomb ever is discovered being smuggled into a country (compared to the responses for other weapons smuggling).
4. The realities of domestic and bureaucratic politics have not changed: interagency bickering, key players being cut out, and the like. There are many examples where regional experts were excluded. For example, the Russian experts George Kennan and Chip Bohlen were kept out of the NSC-68 project (with whose conclusions they disagreed), as was Marshall Shulman (the State Department’s Soviet expert during the Carter administration) during the studies leading up to Presidential Directive 59.
5. The broad outlines of the nuclear infrastructure and posture have not changed; for example, we still have three national laboratories and a triad of strategic forces.
6. Many legacies remain. For example, Russia still has the largest arsenal. Also, alliances such as NATO still rely upon the American extended deterrent.
What Has Evolved
1. Extended deterrence.
2. Proliferation challenges.
3. Arms control (e.g., the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks process, the Non-Proliferation Treaty).
What Has Changed
1. The fiscal environment and industrial base in the United States has contracted, while that in China has expanded.
2. N-party nuclear interactions are more common, as are regional interactions not directly involving the United States (as in South Asia).