America Must Prepare for 'Limited War'
Mere primacy is still enough for security—but Washington will need to relearn the art of fighting under restraint.
By its very nature there is no easy or pat or even a very good solution to this problem. But under the reigning defense thinking of the last generation, there is probably not even a decent one. This mindset essentially presumed, when it did not overtly state, that, to be able to credibly and effectively deter on behalf of and defend its many allies and partners, the United States needed to be able to decisively dominate and defeat any potential opponent. In this era, then, Washington gave the impression through successive Quadrennial Defense Reviews and other Pentagon documents that, in order to credibly extend deterrence, if it did not elect to go to its opponent’s capital and forcibly oust a hostile regime, as it did against Afghanistan and Iraq, then it would at the very least seize control of the battlefield and overawe its adversary into a cowed submission. In this heady age, many judged this to be the minimum standard for effective deterrence.
But obviously such a standard will be more and more unrealistic and, indeed, perilously ill-suited when control of the battlefield is the very thing at issue and when actions that could prompt dramatic escalation by the opponent, such as would likely be necessary if the establishment of dominance were the goal, could well draw a retort orders of magnitude more grievous than what the Taliban’s Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq could mount. In other words, if the United States makes war against Russia or China without serious regard for their red lines, as the logic of dominance would dictate or at the very least strongly suggest, it risks greatly increasing the chances of both inadvertent and deliberate escalation and the use of nuclear weapons by its adversaries. Blithely adhering to the American way of war from the era of military hegemony, that is, will push conventional wars towards becoming nuclear ones.
FORTUNATELY, HOWEVER, the United States is not limited to pursuing this approach to defense strategy. For the truth is that we know that it is at least possible to effectively deter and defend without being able to dominate. This is not a novel proposition, but rather one that we have collectively forgotten. For the proof of this proposition was amply demonstrated in the success of the U.S. Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War, the United States and its allies faced an opponent near-universally assessed to be militarily stronger with respect to the main theater at issue—Europe—and, from at least the 1960s onwards, one that could also strike with apocalyptic effect at the American homeland. Indeed, it is worth remembering that, despite the growing prowess of U.S. military-technological might in the latter part of the Cold War, NATO commanders regularly judged well into the 1980s that Soviet Bloc forces could punch through Allied defenses in Central Europe and reach the English Channel in as little as three weeks. At the same time, the United States and its allies had no meaningful defense against a Soviet strategic attack that could have been composed of literally thousands of unimaginably destructive nuclear warheads.
Yet, despite this truly daunting strategic problem, NATO was able to deter not just an outright Soviet attack but even serious attempts by Moscow to coerce it or pick it apart. Indisputably, this was the product of a multiplicity of factors. But it was also in significant part the product of a great deal of thinking in the United States and NATO about building the capabilities needed to fight and, at least in a particular and very modest sense, win a limited war. The problem of limiting a war under the nuclear shadow and prevailing in such a conflict first came to prominence in the 1950s and was thoroughly plumbed over the ensuing years by the most brilliant strategic minds of the Cold War period, thinkers like Thomas Schelling, Herman Kahn, James Schlesinger, Kissinger and a bevy of others at places like the RAND Corporation. This type of thinking influenced and interacted with comparable deliberations within governments and was ultimately reflected in official strategies like NATO’s Flexible Response doctrine and, in the United States, the Schlesinger Doctrine of the Nixon-Ford administration, the Countervailing Strategy of the Carter years, and the “prevailing” strategy of the Reagan period. Indeed, one of the most noteworthy aspects of American Cold War defense policy, especially after the late 1960s, was the continuing commitment by the U.S. government to developing meaningful ways of fighting a limited war with the USSR.
Of course there emerged a myriad of different approaches as to how to effectively bound and fight a limited war, and, indeed, it is very far from clear that the West ever figured out how to actually reliably do this. In fact, a great amount of skepticism and caution about the ability to tolerably limit a war between NATO and the USSR was always in order, not least because there was often more in the way of rhetoric expressing the desire rather than demonstrated ability actually to control a conflict. And, at the end of the day, the West’s deterrent always fundamentally rested on the threat to escalate to the most cataclysmic levels of destruction, a point mordantly captured by Morton Halperin’s reported observation at the close of the Cold War that NATO’s strategy could be summarized as “ . . . we will fight with conventional forces until we are losing, then we will fight with tactical nuclear weapons until we are losing, and then we will blow up the world.” In other words, NATO’s strategy was always, in practice if only partially in theory, to fight a limited war only up to a certain point and in large part as a way of smoothing the escalatory path to general nuclear use, with the purpose of increasing the latter’s credibility and thus its dissuasive force against Moscow.
But while NATO never figured out how to fight and beat the Soviets while confidently controlling escalation, the fact remained that Soviet leaders clearly saw that the West, and particularly the United States, was resolved to be ready to try, and that this readiness was tied to and designed to fortify the West’s fearsome threat to annihilate the Soviet Union if it pushed too far. Thus, even if NATO could never have been at all confident that it could have limited a major war with the Soviet Bloc, neither could the Soviets. Starting a war with NATO, in other words, would have meant Moscow taking on an opponent able to imperfectly fight a limited war—and history indicates that was sufficient to deter aggression against NATO.
The Cold War shows that one can deter even an opponent far stronger (in context) and far more menacing than either present-day China or Russia, and that one can do so without dominating the foe over the interest at issue. The point is simply that deterrence without dominance—even against a very great and fearsome opponent—is possible. And the way to achieve this appears to be by showing that potential foe that one has the ability either to adequately defend oneself and one’s confederates or to impose enough damage on the adversary to make embarking on the venture prohibitively costly, while fighting the war in a way that at least stands a decent chance of limiting the war’s destructiveness. Or, in Richard Nixon’s memorable phrasing, it means being able to fight off or bloody an opponent well enough while avoiding—or at least meaningfully delaying or shifting the onus for—the awful choice of “suicide or surrender.”
RECOGNIZING THAT deterring and defending without dominance is possible is one thing. Figuring out how to protect American interests and the security of Washington’s allies in such a situation is quite another. The starting point in doing so is to recognize that Washington will have to be prepared to fight a limited war, and fight it well. In other words, the United States will need to be able to fight a war against the likes of China and Russia without prompting them to use their nuclear weapons, or use them too much.
The concept of limited war describes the reality that conflicts can be (and often are) deliberately restrained in some fashion by the combatants, usually because both sides fear the destruction that could be caused in the absence of the establishment and mutual observation of boundaries. Such limitation can be the product of deliberate, formal agreement between the warring parties, but more often is a result of implicit bargaining. Limitation can affect the ends for which the war is fought, the geographical spread of the conflict, the intensity of violence, the types of weapons employed and a range of other factors. The purpose of such limitation is to confine the scale and scope of damage in order to protect oneself, one’s affiliates, or some broader interest (such as one’s international reputation).
This concept aptly describes the dynamic that will almost certainly obtain in the event of conflict between the United States and its potential major-power adversaries, especially China and Russia. In such a war, both sides are almost without question going to want to limit the conflict. Washington and its allies will want to restrain it primarily because of their adversaries’ nuclear-weapons capabilities. At the same time, these U.S. adversaries will want to constrain such a war as well, even though they may believe they care more about the plausible stake at issue (like Taiwan or a former satellite in Eastern Europe), because they will justifiably fear suffering the full weight of American military might, ultimately including U.S. nuclear forces.