The Fallacy of Finite Deterrence

November 7, 2023 Topic: Nuclear Deterrence Region: Global Tags: Nuclear WeaponsRussiaChinaMilitary

The Fallacy of Finite Deterrence

Unless the United States plans to jettison global responsibilities, it will require extensive and diversified nuclear forces.


What’s old is new again. The onset of intensive great-power nuclear competition has revived calls for finite deterrence and its associated industrial (countervalue) targeting doctrine. A relatively modest strategic posture, its advocates contend, one designed to ride out a massive attack and inflict societal devastation in return, constitutes a readily measurable force-sizing standard. The fixed threat of industrial ruin is enough—irrespective of political context and adversarial disposition.

Finite deterrence has a long history stretching back to the 1950s, notwithstanding its repeated failure to steer U.S. nuclear strategy away from broader attack options. In the Cold War, American proponents deemed a relatively small nuclear stockpile, uploaded predominantly on survivable ballistic missile submarines, sufficient. The purported advantage of this posture was its fixed requirements—in terms of numbers and types of weapons, delivery systems, and target sets. After all, targeting a set number of “soft” industrial assets—as opposed to “hardened” military targets—required a smaller and comparatively unsophisticated arsenal. This deterrence standard would reputedly freeze or reduce strategic force levels, extinguish arms racing, and therefore staunch a simmering nuclear “volcano.”


Today, advocates of finite deterrence have been energized by a bipartisan report sensibly urging a strategic nuclear overhaul and expansion. Their prescriptions vary. For instance, some analysts allow for a degree of counter-military targeting but still emphasize countervalue missions. The assorted proposals nonetheless coalesce around three interrelated precepts: 1) reduced targeting requirements provide a natural ceiling on force levels; 2) targeting should prioritize soft infrastructure assets; and 3) a failure to adopt these measures will likely ignite an action-reaction arms competition. Nuclear restraint, it is hoped, will encourage China and Russia to reciprocate and forestall a mindless “arms race.” In this sense, tranquilizing nuclear competition and sealing the volcano constitutes a vital objective—if not the objective.

By accepting these precepts, the advocates of finite deterrence are committing strategic malpractice. They do so by ignoring geography, a fundamental factor in any sound strategy. The spatial dimension helps explain why past and present nuclear rivals exhibit distinct deterrence requirements, nuclear competencies, and, therefore, force postures, a dynamic that dispels notions of an imitative arms race. And today, as in the Cold War, geography imposes peculiar demands on the U.S. strategic posture—demands that make finite deterrence a dangerous fallacy.

Nuclear Geography, Force Asymmetries, and the Arms Race Myth

The “nuclear revolution” has neither flattened nor conquered the geopolitical map. To be sure, geography is not the sole determinant of nuclear strategy and force design. But contra arms-racing theory, strategic postures are more a function of physical geography than reflexive responses to adversarial programs. Fears of an action-reaction arms race are overblown.

Classical geopolitics recognized geography as an independent variable that molds peculiar strategic cultures and military postures. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Halford Mackinder sketched out distinct yet complementary geopolitical orientations. Maritime powers, especially for Mahan, tended to have broader strategic horizons and far-flung interests. After all, their commercial and military power depended on access to the global commons. Both geopolitical theorists agreed that in the Age of Sail, sea mobility had conferred tremendous advantages to maritime powers over their continental rivals.

Given their expansive outlook, maritime-oriented defense establishments are generally more comfortable with long-range missions—whether by air, sea, or, with the onset of the missile age, even land. Note how the United States, in its rivalry with the continental Soviet empire, cemented astonishing nuclear advantages in global targeting, as well as in the naval and air domains. Unlike the Soviets, the United States had substantial experience with long-range bombardment, as well as a strong naval tradition dating back to Revolutionary-era raids in British home waters.

America’s nuclear prowess partly derived from a political culture favoring openness and human ingenuity—traits nurtured in seafaring nations. These embedded values were byproducts of commercial citizens traversing the high seas. This helps explain why, in the United States, political legitimacy is conferred from the bottom up and why Americans prefer values-based alliances. Thus, the burdensome challenge of extended deterrence is a uniquely American dilemma where its nuclear umbrella must cover the homeland and globe-spanning non-nuclear allies.

Conversely, continental powers are more insular, hemmed in by rivals and icebound coastlines. As Mackinder and Mahan recognized, land powers generally lack unfettered access to natural harbors or blue waters, with the latter positing that this predicament compressed strategic horizons. Recognizing the significance of transcontinental infrastructure, however, Mackinder feared that interior railways had trumped sea mobility. If a hostile continental power, or a combination of powers, were to consolidate the vast EurasianWorld-Island,” the majority of the world’s population and industrial potential could be arrayed against offshore rivals.

Notwithstanding Mackinder’s palpable anxiety, history illuminates how geography shapes and frustrates land-oriented nuclear powers. Continental states like Russia perceive acute threats emanating from contiguous territory or the “near abroad.”This provincial mindset tends to complicate the cultivation of global partnerships and overseas basing—which, in the nuclear age, enables the stationing of shorter-range missiles and strike aircraft.

Consider the Soviet prioritization of theater missiles to range a swath of Western Europe and its stark failure to field robust long-range bomber, missile, and submarine fleets in the first half of the Cold War. Note that Soviet territorial air defenses, covering eleven time zones, dwarfed the United States—which, unlike its continental rival, dramatically drew down defensive systems and instead prioritized global power projection. And when the Soviet Navy moved to secure its ballistic missile submarines in home-water bastions, the blue-water U.S. Navy skillfully held these vulnerable second-strike platforms at risk. Moscow’s negligible global-basing posture only compounded these asymmetric weaknesses.

The same nuclear geography persists today. Russia has poured vast resources into shorter-range theater nuclear systems, even though the United States has abstained. And the Ukraine War reveals Russia’s enduring struggle with long-range aviation. As for China, which is caught between maritime and continental power, Beijing is also fielding a sizeable regional missile arsenal and, much like the Soviet Navy, faces imposing maritime challenges. Both revisionist powers continue to suffer from a lack of global bases. In contrast, the United States still enjoys comparative advantages in air and naval power projection—capabilities that exploit a robust overseas basing system.

To be sure, geography is not the overriding determinant in force planning. The spatial dimension, however, subtly molds the composition and character of national postures. This should alleviate concerns that American efforts to shore up deterrence will ignite an imitative arms race. It would be reckless to let such a misguided fear erode American security. After all, geography imposes unique nuclear force requirements on the United States.

Nuclear Geography and U.S. Deterrence Requirements

The strategic thought of Mahan and Nicholas Spykman, a geopolitical theorist writing as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan ravaged the World-Island, illuminates the enduring yet peculiar demands weighing on the U.S. strategic nuclear posture. Spykman, like Mahan before him, championed sea power as a counterweight to ward off Mackinder’s Eurasian nightmare. Offshore powers like the United States and Britain would check Continental aggrandizement by supporting partners positioned along its vast periphery—what Spykman and Mahan respectively dubbed the “rimland” and the “debatable zone.” This geostrategic dilemma endures today, as China, Russia, and Iran constitute an informal combination bent on extinguishing American influence on the rimland.

Prior to the thermonuclear age, offshore powers depended on sea and later air mobility to project conventional firepower ashore and, more generally, impose disproportionate costs on land powers defending on multiple fronts. The offshore-rimland combination preserved a favorable Eurasian—and therefore global—balance of power from the late seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. Just look at Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany’s fate when it attempted to transcend geography and, therefore, the nature of its respective national power. This suggests that states are more likely to run into severe counterpressure, if not national disaster, when they move to break free from geographic predicaments.

However, the advent of the hydrogen bomb, combined with the rise of a survivable Soviet nuclear arsenal, complicated offshore power projection. The NATO partners, to offset their conventional inferiority, initially depended on America’s pledge to meet a determined conventional assault with an all-out nuclear campaign. But now the specter of a catastrophic “city-busting” exchange brought such a threat into question. How could the United States credibly project thermonuclear power ashore with the Soviets threatening a response in kind? Would Washington, if Soviet armor rolled across the German lowlands, really trade New York City for Hamburg or Chicago for Marseilles?

France doubted as much, built an independent force de dissuasion, and eventually withdrew from NATO’s integrated military command. As for West Germany, the lynchpin of any rimland defense of Western Europe, Bonn veered from fears of abandonment to entrapment — that it would either be discarded and left to Soviet predations or ensnared in an unwanted nuclear conflagration. This dilemma intensified when the Soviets achieved nuclear parity in the early 1970s. West Germany protested that the Soviets had effectively neutralized the U.S. intercontinental posture, which magnified the importance of the “Eurostrategic balance”—the “gray area” where the Soviets had built a theater nuclear advantage. Unless Washington repaired a deteriorating European balance, the situation jeopardized NATO’s future.