Healey is Wrong: It’s Deterrence, Stupid


Former British Defense Minister Denis Healey is invariably cited for his Cold War warning that it “only takes a 5 percent credibility of American retaliation to deter an attack [from the Soviets], but it takes a 95 percent credibility to reassure the allies.” That was then, and it was maybe still true last year. Today, however, the challenge is deterring competitors, not reassuring allies. This has been recognized in Europe and it is starting to take hold in Asia too.

In recent years, challenges to deterrence have surged, with North Korea, China, and Russia conducting numerous coercive actions against their neighbors, including U.S. allies. Since 2010, North Korea has sunk a South Korean Navy corvette, shelled an island, and engaged in ever more frequent missile and nuclear tests, the latest of which took place last month. China has sent vessels into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands and established an air defense identification zone in the area in 2013. Of late, China has also sent patrols to back its claims in the South China Sea and engaged in extensive dredging operations, turning sandbars into islands equipped with airfields and ports. Similarly, since annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia has conducted subversive actions in eastern Ukraine (totaling nearly 10,000 deaths according to the latest United Nations estimate) while upping its belligerent rhetoric and nuclear signaling toward European countries, notably the Baltics.

These are “gray-zone” challenges — subtle, low-level provocations and efforts to create facts on the ground — that do not rise to a level that invokes a kinetic military response. Yet their growing number and the attention they have received have unnerved U.S. allies and contributed to a perception that deterrence is eroding, especially when these challenges have led to loss of life.

The United States has begun to address these problems. In Asia and Europe, it has sought to reassure its allies by enhancing their defense capabilities, expanded military exercises with them, and coordinated response options. It has also deepened integration among allies. Japan and South Korea, for instance, now share military intelligence about North Korean nuclear and missile threats in a three-way pact with the United States. In recent years, they have also conducted joint missile-defense tests and held regular high-level meetings of defense and foreign affairs officials.

Moreover, Washington has stressed that the United States will honor its defense commitments in case of escalation to higher levels. President Barack Obama has stated that the defense treaty with Japan “covers all the territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.” He has also launched the European Reassurance Initiative to reassure members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of American “solemn commitment to their security and territorial integrity” and insisted that “the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London.” The Pacific Forum CSIS annual track-1.5 tabletop exercises, which feature an escalating crisis on the Korean Peninsula, indicate that the United States would defend its allies, even under the threat of nuclear attacks from North Korea.

These efforts have been a success. Allies are reassured. Despite the White House’s hesitations over Libya and flip-flop over Syria, allies recognize and acknowledge that U.S. treaty commitments are solid and that Washington will be standing with them in a crisis.

Allies are not convinced, however, that competitors understand the strength of American resolve. In other words, they believe that deterrence could fail. As a Japanese participant explained in a recent discussion on strategic issues, “I don’t worry about U.S. retaliation in the event of a North Korean attack. I am confident Washington will respond. The problem is I won’t care. I’ll be dead.”

Concerns about deterrence are justified. Research building on a recent landmark book shows that North Korea, China, Russia, and perhaps others are prepared to run military risks against established regional orders that they regard as unjust. They believe that the United States is in decline and that they can force it to back down in a conflict on their periphery, including with limited nuclear use, because they have more at stake.

As a renowned Chinese strategist recently put it, “For China, territory [in East Asia] is the vital national interest, and for the U.S., the credibility of its defense commitment to allies is key.” In other words, in this person’s view, Chinese interests are non-negotiable, whereas those of the United States are only important. Even if this statement is correct, Washington must convince Beijing and other competitors that it would still respond to aggression because the stakes would be high enough for the United States.

Plainly, then, the priority for the United States must be improving deterrence of competitors, rather than focusing on the reassurance of allies. Because Russia’s actions have been considerably more worrying than North Korea and China’s (and because U.S.-Russia relations seem to be on a never-ending downward spiral), the shift from reassurance to deterrence has already begun in Europe.

This shift is now also slowly taking place in Asia. Over the past few months, discussions have focused less on reassuring Japan and South Korea than on deterring North Korea and China. Pyongyang’s apparent rapid progress toward an increasingly sophisticated nuclear arsenal is driving this shift. Meanwhile, Chinese actions in the East and South China Seas have remained mostly “passive-assertive” (as two Australian strategists have put it), but Beijing’s resistance to engage in strategic-stability dialogue with Washington is pushing US officials (even those most favorable to engagement with China) to refocus on deterrence. This is a key finding of our annual track-1.5 “China-U.S. Strategic Nuclear Dynamics” dialogue, which we co-run with the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies.

How should the United States strengthen deterrence? For starters, given that there is an apparent perception of U.S. weakness among competitors, the United States should show absolute determination to respond to attacks against its vital interests or those of its allies, even in the face of escalation. As the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review puts it, competitors must understand that they cannot “escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression.”

Demonstrating resolve to act is notoriously difficult, yet on this matter one should remember the thinking of nuclear strategist Herman Kahn, who noted during the Cold War that the best way to look willing is to be willing. Practically, it means that the United States should practice — and showcase that it practices — ways to respond to and win contingencies involving its vital interests or those of its allies.

The United States now conducts large-scale wargames and exercises with South Korea. These exercises have increasingly involved U.S. and South Korean forces reacting to war breaking out on the Korean Peninsula, leading operations in and around Pyongyang, and recovering key military facilities in North Korea. The United States and South Korea should continue these exercises and coordinate their activities with Japanese forces, given that Japan would be automatically involved — directly or indirectly — in any contingency on the Peninsula. The United States should also conduct regular exercises involving its forces and those of its allies to practice defending and taking back islands from China and Baltic territory from Russia.

In addition to demonstrating resolve to act, the United States should adapt its concepts and capabilities to 21st century warfare requirements. Today, unlike during the Cold War, the challenge is not to deter nuclear war against one adversary with a global appetite, but to prevent the escalation of conventional conflicts against different competitors in various regions, notably with Russia, China, and North Korea. This suggests that the United States should prepare for limited military engagement with these competitors and should be clear in communicating its intentions to them.

This requires not only adapting military concepts, but also investing in non-nuclear capabilities, notably conventional strike and missile defense options. Despite taking a greater role in U.S. deterrence strategy since the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, non-nuclear remain underutilized. Yet, as a general rule, the threat of conventional strikes is more credible than that of nuclear use in a limited conflict. Moreover, non-nuclear capabilities offer significant deterrence benefits. Missile defense, for instance, can dissuade a competitor from engaging in provocative actions or from striking back in an escalating contingency, or it can reduce its ability to cause damage. At present, while significant advances have been made in building missile defenses under NATO auspices in Europe, progress has been slower in Asia, despite the deployment of a second radar to Japan in December 2014 and the recent decision to deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea. Efforts in this direction should continue and intensify.

To better manage escalation and in the event of an intensifying crisis, the United States should also maintain the ability to compete with its opponents at higher levels of conflict. This means that, as outlined in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (and as allies in Europe and Asia constantly remind Washington), the United States should maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal and proceed with its modernization. While debate about the need (and cost) of all its components is healthy, U.S. nuclear modernization is paramount.

Therefore, and as a Northeast Asia strategist has recently claimed, the United States should focus on two seemingly contradictory requirements to strengthen deterrence: show unshakable resolve to respond to aggression and have the capabilities — and convey its intention — to conduct limited military actions, while preserving the potential to escalate if necessary.

Finally, and significantly, Washington should double-down on coordinating actions with and among its allies. While in Europe this means bringing NATO members closer together, in Asia, where there is no equivalent to NATO but a “hub-and-spoke” architecture, this suggests strengthening bilateral and increasingly trilateral security cooperation. Such coordination is critical not only because allies are the primary targets of today’s competitors (and therefore have much at stake, even more than the United States), but also because they can — and should — contribute to enhancing deterrence, especially in a fiscally-constrained environment.

The United States and its allies will reap important benefits from strong coordination. In addition to strengthening deterrence, it complicates the ability of competitors to use divide-and-conquer strategies in an escalating conflict. Competitors, in other words, will struggle — and ideally fail — to create wedges between the United States and its allies, or force them to concede defeat in a fight.

Deep integration between the United States and its allies also reduces the risks that Washington or an allied capital acts in ways that could cause unwanted escalation or “entrapment” of the others into general war. In short, it is both important and necessary for the United States and its allies to deter competitors together.

Thankfully, the task of adapting deterrence requirements to current realities (and strengthening coordination with and among allies) has begun, both inside and outside government. Yet while important progress has been made in Europe and while similar dynamics are slowly emerging in Asia, these efforts remain in their infancy and fundamental questions persist.

One thing is abundantly clear, however: the work ahead of us in both Europe and Asia concerns deterrence, not reassurance. The “Healey theorem” has shown its limits.


David Santoro (david@pacforum.org) and Brad Glosserman (brad@pacforum.org) are respectively senior fellow for nuclear policy and executive director at the Pacific Forum CSIS. You can follow David Santoro on Twitter at @DavidSantoro1

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Burke