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.

This challenge persists today, as U.S. extended deterrence is increasingly in doubt. Japan, like West Germany before it, values theater options and expressed frustration when the United States retired the nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile. Securing Spykman’s rimland thus poses an enduring and formidable challenge.

Cold War planners resolved this dilemma by designing a coercive nuclear strategy. Strategic forces would be postured to hold at risk the Soviet regime’s most valued assets. Instead of attacks on industrial potential, limited and controlled operations would erode Soviet war-fighting capabilities. This would coerce the Soviet leadership into terminating the conflict on terms favorable to the United States—well before a cataclysmic exchange. Furthermore, discriminate targeting, by managing escalation and limiting damage to the American homeland, would reassure allies of strategic employment if Soviet armor overwhelmed conventional defenses.

The strategy was both evolutionary and bi-partisan. It progressed from the Nixon-Ford administration’s selective and limited options, the Carter administration’s “countervailing” strikes on political controls, to the Reagan administration’s emphasis on “protracted” nuclear warfare. Each iteration required large, diverse, and increasingly sophisticated strike forces to conduct a range of discriminate operations. As such, finite deterrence was a non-starter.

It remains so today due to enduring geopolitical realities. Since nature abhors a vacuum, and revisionist powers are menacing the rimland, finite deterrence is a dangerous fallacy. Unless the United States plans to jettison global responsibilities, unless it aspires to retreat into a hemispheric defense, it will require extensive and diversified nuclear forces to extend deterrence across a vast ocean expanse. Strategists, then, ignore geography at their peril. 

Kyle Balzer is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, specializing in nuclear strategy and long-term strategic competition.

Image: Public Domain.