The Perils of Conventional Deterrence by Punishment


Too often, discussions of how to conventionally deter Chinese or Russian aggression occur in the absence of any thinking about whether a stated deterrence strategy is feasible if a war were to break out. In other words, there is frequently a disconnect between deterrence theory and real-world war fighting practice. Only very rarely do planners and strategists explicitly link the two in ways that are workable from the diplomatic, strategic, and operational viewpoints. Even then, they do so in incomplete ways. If conventional deterrence is to be credible and successful – if it is to mean anything – it must be tied to a realistic, workable military solution that is clearly communicated to a potential enemy. To deter an adversary, that adversary must understand that its enemy has a viable military answer to the adversarial challenge.

Deterrent or kinetic counters to aggression revolve around notions of either punishing or denying the enemy its objectives. Punishment involves inflicting a level of pain (or “cost,” in Thomas Schelling’s formulation) on an attacker that exceeds the benefits of attacking. Put another way, the aggressor will suffer a strategically unfavorable outcome that is disproportionate to the potential gain. Frequently, this concept includes retaliating against military forces as well as the enablers of military aggression, such as infrastructure and industrial targets. Denial, on the other hand, involves efforts to make the target of aggression indigestible and therefore too difficult to take and hold. Rather than make the imposition of cost the focus of effort, it instead attempts to lower the benefits of aggression.

It is worth taking a moment to consider what punishment  actually means in the real world of military operations. While most Cold War methods of deterrence by punishment rested on U.S. and allied nuclear capabilities, by the 1980s, NATO could conceivably deter Soviet conventional aggression in Central Europe with the threat of deep strikes into Warsaw Pact nations and simultaneous retaliatory offensives aimed at splitting Eastern European nations from the Soviet Union. In this way, as Samuel Huntington pointed out in 1983, NATO could punish Moscow by turning a liability, the Soviet Union’s strategic depth, into an advantage by using that depth to destroy the cornerstone of the Soviet Union’s security structure. All of this could be done without the prospect of military strikes on Russian territory. Huntington’s ideas were admittedly conceptual, and AirLand Battle remained the conventional warfighting strategy of choice, but his notion was nonetheless a practical possibility from a pure warfighting standpoint.

That option does not exist today. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and NATO’s eastward expansion means that Western nations are no longer able to punish Moscow by capitalizing on the fears and weaknesses of its allies. Likewise, the geography of the Taiwan Straits and the East China Sea limits options for deterrence by punishment. In practical terms, this means that a military strategy focusing on punishment makes it necessary to strike the aggressor nation’s sanctuary, that is, Russian or Chinese soil, in order to destroy its military power and ensure that it pays enough cost to forego further aggression.

The Challenges of Conventional Deterrence by Punishment

Today, conventional deterrence by punishment is increasingly risky for several inter-related reasons. In the first place, both countries make their strategic determinations based on investment risk and reward, and by evaluating U.S. and allied commitments to defending the international status quo by force.  While the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) have challenged China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing might reasonably come to the conclusion that Washington would balk at going to war in defense of the Philippines’ claims to the Second Thomas Shoal, the unoccupied Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, or its new South China Sea island bases, especially if such a conflict automatically meant carrying the war to the Chinese mainland, seemingly the logical endpoint of a punishment strategy. Given a deterrence posture predicated on this risky strategy, Beijing might rightly ask, as The Economist has, “Would anyone go to war with us over these?”

Put another way, would the United States really bomb Shanghai in response to a seizure of the Senkakus, or St. Petersburg because Russia opened a land bridge to its Kaliningrad enclave? Moreover, southern and eastern NATO countries are already split on the relative scale of the Russian threat, with many southern European countries focused more on the burgeoning refugee crisis. President-elect Donald Trump’s more sanguine stance on Russia not only reveals a split in the U.S. approach to managing Moscow, but also seemingly makes the threat of punishment even less credible. Thus, many objects of Chinese and Russian aggression fall below a deterrence threshold that is based on punishment, and there is no clear consensus that the United States or its allies have the stomach for such an approach.

Furthermore, even if Washington were to go to war to punish Moscow’s or Beijing’s aggression, it is not clear that China and Russia find any level of conventional punishment to be a deterrent, given the potential payoff of an offensive military operation. For example, Beijing has long claimed that reunification of Taiwan with the mainland government is a Chinese core interest. If the U.S. Navy were to sink the entire East Sea Fleet, and yet Beijing still controlled Taiwan, the Chinese might still count that as a strategic win. Moscow has not similarly articulated its so-called core interests is such explicit ways. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that if Russia forcibly placed friendly or neutral governments in the Baltic countries, it would do so with the understanding that the strategic achievement of dividing NATO and expanding Moscow’s sphere of influence westward was worth the loss of the Baltic Fleet and perhaps even the destruction of the port of Baltiysk. Thus, the value of the contested object is quite different to each of the belligerents, so it is nearly impossible to know how much or what kind of punishment is actually necessary to both deter and to end a conflict.

There are also many reasons to be skeptical of the chances of operational success in pursuit of a strategy of punishment. Such an approach implies that not only would the aggressor’s forces conducting offensive operations be struck, but also that other military, political, industrial, and other targets that enabled the aggression would be destroyed. This raises significant operational challenges by requiring the United States and its partners to, at a minimum, conduct strikes both on the forward edge of the battle area and on heavily defended areas inside Chinese and Russian mainland borders. It is also not clear how much punishment would be enough to make a potential enemy cry uncle, feel sufficiently chastised to the point that it sees the errors of its ways, and agree to give up on future aggression. In any case, in the event that such a threshold could be determined, U.S. conventional capabilities are likely insufficient to punish Russia or China to a level that would convince either nation to forego the object of its aggression. Leaders in Moscow and Beijing are not stupid, and they understand how tall an order this actually is, even for the most powerful military on the planet. Therefore, the threat of military punishment, given the operational realities of executing the punishment, may not function as a credible deterrent.

Assuming that these operational challenges could be overcome, another and perhaps most important obstacle to a war fighting strategy based on punishment is that it risks rapid and uncontrolled escalation. Both governments rely to great extent on their respective militaries as a source of their legitimacy and a tool by which they can assert state prerogatives. Thus, removing their ability to conduct national defense on their own soil removes an essential element of legitimacy and state power, presenting a grave threat to the government itself and risking massive escalation. While China has declared a “no first use” nuclear policy, its doctrine of active defense leaves room for what it calls a “post-emptive” strike in those cases in which the prerogatives of the Chinese Communist Party are threatened.

Russia’s nuclear thinking is even more worrisome, as it contemplates the notion of “escalating to de-escalate,” that is, conducting tactical nuclear strikes to convince an enemy to back down. While Russia’s doctrine may well not be on such a hair-trigger behind closed doors, this is, in any case, an idea that has purchase inside the Kremlin and the Russian military. No matter what, both nations have announced unambiguously that they would use nuclear weapons to ensure the survival of the state. Unless they wished to suffer a major strategic defeat, the United States and its allies would be forced into their own nuclear response.

Thus, conventional strategic approaches based on punishing an enemy for its transgressions are unnecessarily escalatory, lack credibility from a deterrence perspective, and are loaded with operational unknowns. So what is to be done? The answer lies in an approach that starts with the operationally feasible and informs a war fighting strategy that can, in turn, fill in the deterrent picture.

Deterrence, Denial, and Operational Feasibility

A specific approach focusing on denial, both deterrent and kinetic, may be the answer. Rather than punish transgressions by conducting military operations that carry grave risk of escalation and that may not work anyway, the United States and its allies in NATO and the Pacific can embark on approaches that prevent the enemy from profiting from aggression by denying them the ability to achieve their strategic objectives. In short, they can turn the proverbial tables on Russia and China in wartime by imposing anti-access/area denial regimes over their objects of military aggression. Such an approach is more limited in its own objectives and therefore stands a better chance of success, is operationally more feasible, and carries with it less risk of escalation because it minimizes the need for homeland strikes unless absolutely necessary. For these reasons, it also constitutes a serious and credible conventional deterrent threat by providing limited, and therefore more achievable objectives.

This approach may vary depending on the theater. In Europe, as studies by RAND and the Center for a New American Security have pointed out, most NATO member nations are not currently optimized for conducting a large-scale, high-end ground war, nor does geography work in its favor. Russia’s contiguous borders with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (the latter through its enclave at Kaliningrad) and nominally cordial relationship with Belarus make geography Russia’s friend and NATO’s enemy. The answer to this conundrum cannot simply be a heavier ground force in the Baltics. Such a gesture may serve useful signaling purposes, but ground forces are an unrealistic way to practice denial. While ground troops are still essential in order to complicate Russian conventional and so-called hybrid warfare solutions, a heavy forward ground presence in the Baltics may make conflict with Russia a self-fulfilling prophecy and will put those forces in the crosshairs of Russia’s considerable force of surface-to-surface strike capabilities. Ground troops complicate Russia’s problem and are important, but in a conventional conflict fought with long-range munitions, their ability to survive and to deny Russia the ability profitably occupy and hold territory must be questioned.

Instead, the United States and NATO must go with their strengths. A contest with Russia, as it did in Cold War scenarios, is going to hinge on whether or not air and naval air power can penetrate Russian air defenses in time to defeat Russia’s vulnerable troops at the forward edge of the battle area, as well as follow-on forces as they cross the border. While Russia’s air defense is formidable, there are a variety of tactical strike tools already in the NATO arsenal that, when used in concert, can enable this sort of strategic approach. Ultimately, NATO must make the object of Russian aggression too difficult to occupy, or even risk occupying, through use of its unmatched ability to strike and destroy targets on the ground.

As a deterrent mechanism, a denial strategy that is backed up by this more operationally feasible approach based on air power, denial from a distance, and, yes, a contingent of ground troops, might force Moscow to ask if the juice is worth the squeeze in the first place. After all, while Russia’s ground forces look impressive on paper, only about 300,000 active-duty, professional contract military personnel (“kontraktniki”) are spread across the Russian military (by comparison, the U.S. Army alone has approximately 450,000 active duty professional soldiers). There is also reason to believe that the actual number of combat-effective units is much lower than Moscow would have the West believe, as the same forces show up in Ukraine and Syria, and even the professional troops are showing serious signs of strain.

Russian conventional forces are undoubtedly dangerous. However, their challenge is that while they are a threat to their militarily inferior neighbors in the post-Soviet space, their exposure to a wisely employed near-peer or superior military force is extremely risky. The prospect of losing their few effective troops to a vigorous defense may very well make Moscow think twice. Militarily, the task would be extremely difficult for NATO, given Russia’s excellent anti-access/area denial capabilities, but a strategy aimed at punishment would be doubly so.

In the far east, the same approach is more practical from the operational and strategic perspectives. In this case, the proximity of Taiwan and the East China Sea to China’s formidable mainland-based anti-access/area denial architecture makes a military strategy based on denial equally urgent. Full control of these areas would be difficult if not impossible to maintain, given the massive distances and vulnerabilities confronting U.S. forces, but continuously denying them to the enemy using air, surface, and undersea assets until a diplomatic solution can be worked out is a properly calibrated deterrence goal precisely because it is well within U.S. operational capabilities to achieve. Punishing the Chinese by destroying the foundations of their military power may not be, and Beijing undoubtedly knows this.

How? In Europe, the $3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative is a good start, but these funds must be translated into sensible action. Certainly, investments in weapons that turn the Baltics into a painful-to-seize strategic porcupine  are wise, as are efforts to engage and train both the conventional military and police forces in at-risk states. However, large-scale joint exercises that practice suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), close air support (CAS), and even anti-submarine warfare (ASW) are absolutely necessary as well, both from the perspective of sharpening tactical proficiency and deterring Moscow. Moreover, a more extensive forward stationing of surface naval and naval air assets, not only in U.S. bases at Rota and Souda Bay, but perhaps even in British ports such as Portsmouth, would also effectively project mobile, long-distance power from the sea to the land. Such efforts would communicate a more realistic deterrent mechanism and complicate Moscow’s military planning.

In the Western Pacific, a U.S. military pivot to Asia has already put significant resources at U.S. Pacific Command’s disposal. U.S. and partner naval forces should exercise joint counter-blockade and counter-invasion techniques that include SEAD and ground strike missions for potential contingencies in either Taiwan or the Spratly Islands. Added to this mix should be vigorous anti-surface warfare and ASW exercises, but also exercises that demonstrate the ability to quickly reinforce and resupply via maritime means areas that are potentially at risk of Chinese aggression.

Thus, it is air and naval forces that will have to carry much of the burden in an era when long-range precision guided munitions rule and geography favors the aggressors. Of course, the U.S. Army will have an important role to play in a European scenario, but as Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, Commander of U.S. Army Europe has pointed out, Russia could overrun the Baltic more quickly than ground forces could be there to defend them, and positioning troops forward only plays to Russia strengths, not NATO’s.

In short, conventional deterrence doctrine, if it is to be credible, should be predicated on operational and strategic realities. It is unrealistic to expect that the United States and its partners can sufficiently punish an aggressor nation or do so in a way that does not lead to nuclear escalation. Instead, a strategic and operational approach that denies the enemy the object of its aggression and makes that object indigestible is militarily efficacious and, in being so, offers a much more improved prospect for deterrence in the first place. Operational warfighting realities make denial the only feasible option against Russia and China, and therefore, the only credible deterrent mechanism.


Dr. Michael Petersen is the Director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the official views of the U.S. government, Department of Defense, or the Department of the Navy.

Image: U.S. Navy