The Case for Conventional Deterrence

Rogue states would be better deterred by our military than the threat of nuclear destruction.

We need nuclear weapons. Let’s just stipulate that at the outset, at least for now. But the United States needs a new deterrent strategy against rogue states that does not require threats of nuclear retaliation.

Since the 1950s, strategic nuclear weapons have served an amorphous psychological condition we call “deterrence.” During the Cold War, when we were struggling with a Soviet opponent for the future of the planet, the U.S. nuclear arsenal was meant to deter Communist aggression both by punishment and denial: if the USSR attempted to seize Europe or to destroy the United States, U.S. strategic nuclear weapons would ensure that Moscow would end up ruling only the ashes of whatever was left – including the burning remains of the Soviet Union itself.

Today, only China and Russia can cause such grievous damage to the United States, and the terrible equation still stands: an attack on the United States might mean the end of America, but it also means the complete destruction of the attacker. But what about small states, the “little guys” with the big weapons? These are nations – like North Korea, and soon, others – who will never be able to destroy the United States, but who could cause immense damage to an American or an allied city. Does the old bargain of a “nuclear eye for a nuclear eye” still hold? And should it?

It’s time to be honest with ourselves. We are not going to inflict nuclear destruction on small states in crowded neighborhoods, killing thousands, maybe millions, of innocent people, and poisoning swaths of territory inhabited by friends and enemies alike. The United States and its allies need to create a new and radically different deterrent against small nuclear powers, one that does not include threats of nuclear retaliation.

This is a bitter pill for American strategists. It upsets all of our traditional and well-worn equations about nuclear use that seemed to serve us so well (or at least, so we think) during the Cold War. If North Korea strikes an American or Japanese or South Korean city, it is simplicity itself to say that the inevitable U.S. nuclear retaliation will vaporize North Korea. Such threats, however, are bluster. They are not only unrealistic, but they violate precepts both of morality and practicality.

There are three reasons we must abandon outdated, Cold War-type deterrent threats against small states.

First, we will not be able to contain the damage from retaliatory strikes, no matter how precise our attacks. Even Richard Nixon admitted as much when he shelved various plans to use nuclear arms against a far stronger North Korea in 1969, and subsequent presidents have all had to deal with the realities of using weapons meant to stop the Soviet Union against much smaller states. As U.S. Air Force General George Butler noted in 1999, “this lesson has been made time and again, in Korea, in Indochina and most recently in the Persian Gulf, [when] successive presidents of both parties have contemplated and then categorically rejected the employment of nuclear weapons even in the face of grave provocation.”

Geography itself is the enemy of small-scale nuclear weapon use. Iran’s most important nuclear reactor, for example, is less than ten miles from the city of Bushehr and its approximately 170,000 inhabitants; likewise, the Iranians have placed a uranium enrichment facility some 20 miles outside Qom, one of Iran’s treasured holy cities. North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility is slightly more than 50 miles from Pyongyang, the capital city of more than three million that itself could be a target for retaliation.

Leaving aside the problem of proportionality within the targeted state, there is also the problem of nearby nations. Nuclear conflict with a vast country like the USSR meant aiming for complete destruction, with little regard for the morning after the war. The goal was to prevent the Soviet regime from emerging from the wreckage, and the damage to other nations would be an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect. That is the nature of strategic nuclear war.

Nuclear war with a small state, however, will affect other countries and could place them in mortal peril, even if the attack is only revenge for a single nuclear strike on the U.S. or its allies. Japan’s shores are less than 700 miles away from North Korea, with Pyongyang less than 800 miles from Tokyo. On the other side of the world, Iran borders the Islamic-majority NATO nation of Turkey as well as nuclear-armed Pakistan. Nor is it far from Iran’s borders to a collection of former Soviet republics, including southern Russia itself. The Fukushima reactor meltdown, an accident in Japan smaller than the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, still has people across the world, including along the U.S. West Coast, worrying about nuclear contamination nearly three years later. Imagine the pure panic that would ensue from dropping a nuclear weapon – or several – on targets in Asia or the Middle East.