Integrated Deterrence: An Admission That America Is No Longer Militarily Dominant?

Integrated Deterrence: An Admission That America Is No Longer Militarily Dominant?

Under the current administration, the United States is more risk-averse than in the immediate past, a tacit admission that it is no longer confident of its military superiority.

This, arguably, is what the United States undertook after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Here, it endeavored not only to supply Ukraine with what it required to defend itself but also sought to ensure that the conflict did not spread beyond Ukraine and/or escalate to a Russia-NATO conflict. The administration, as Janice Gross Stein argues, combated Russia’s “strategy to manipulate uncertainty”—through its repeated threats of nuclear escalation—with “a strategy to reduce uncertainty” based on the establishment of “boundary conditions” (e.g., communicated to Russia that the United States did not seek war between Russia and NATO) to guide the American response. Indeed, as reported by Politico, President Joe Biden, as early as October 2021, had identified three guidelines for the U.S. response should Russia not be deterred from invading Ukraine: “Support Ukraine—nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine, bolster NATO, and avoid a war with Russia.”

Second, the “integrated deterrence” construct suggests that the administration is concerned primarily with escalation management and burden shifting rather than deterrence. Concerning the former, the NDS (and Nuclear Posture Review, NPR, released with it) seeks to subordinate U.S. nuclear strategy to overall defense strategy where U.S. nuclear capabilities become a “backstop” to its advanced conventional capabilities. As such, “integrated deterrence” envisages U.S. nuclear capabilities as providing a “defensive mission meant only to complement offensive but non-nuclear ones.” The objective, as the NPR states, is to “strengthen deterrence and raise the nuclear threshold of our potential adversaries in regional conflict by undermining adversary confidence in strategies for limited war that rely on the threat of nuclear escalation.”

Concerning the latter, “integrated deterrence” (as detailed in policy documents such as the NDS) clearly emphasizes the role of allies and partners in both deterrence missions and force planning. Not only are “allies” mentioned 141 times in the eighty-page NDS, but the document asserts that a central task is to “anchor” American strategy in them. Such “anchoring” will be attained through prioritization of “interoperability,” enabling “coalitions with enhanced capabilities,” and developing “new operating concepts” as well as “combined, collaborative force planning.” As Van Jackson notes, this constitutes a major shift in U.S. strategy as allies “have historically featured in force planning as sources of political legitimacy, or providers of territorial access, but their expected battlefield contributions were typically treated as marginal.” “Integrated deterrence,” however, canvasses the possibility that future deterrence contingencies will not only be “all-domain but all-coalition.”

Taken together, the themes of dissuasion, escalation control, and burden shifting evident in “integrated deterrence,” combined with the contours of the U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, indicate that under the current administration, the United States is more risk-averse than in the immediate past and constitutes a tacit admission that it is no longer confident of U.S. military superiority (across the spectrum of capabilities) in possible conflict scenarios with great power rivals.

About the Author 

Dr. Michael Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in Strategic Studies at the Centre for Future Defence and National Security, Deakin University, and an Adjunct Professor at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney.

Image: Shutterstock.com.