You Get Deterrence, and You Get Deterrence, Everybody Gets Deterrence!


 “Mr. Secretary, move this carrier to the Korean Peninsula immediately. It will deter North Korea. They’re eating our lunch.”

“We have to reassure the Europeans of our commitment to NATO by deterring Russia.”

 “Mr. Secretary, you must reassign the .005% of ISR that isn’t already in CENTCOM to EUCOM immediately. We must deter Russia.”

“Mr. Secretary, we need two carriers in the Gulf ASAP to deter Iran.”  

I can’t count the innumerable times I heard variations on the above during my time in the Pentagon. No doubt Secretary of Defense James Mattis is hearing similar pleas to deter adversaries from across the Department of Defense. Combatant commanders — focused on today’s challenges — want to ensure conflict does not erupt or escalate in their area of responsibility (AOR). They want more of everything in order to deter threats, and they want them yesterday. The military services — focused on tomorrow’s challenges — want to preserve platforms, readiness, and assets, including people. The Joint Staff wants to ensure the secretary hears these two competing perspectives and hears the chairman’s perspective on how resources should be divvied up. And those in the Office of the Secretary of Defense will ideally look across the cacophony of requests from all of the above, align them with the Pentagon’s strategy and the evolving security environment, and advise the secretary on a “good enough” solution.

At “Agenda SecDef,” we know how complicated, complex, and painful the Pentagon’s approach to deterrence can be. Few are wholly satisfied by the outcome and many seek to re-adjudicate it at any opportunity. We want Secretary Mattis to succeed and, with a few key adjustments, he will be better able to respond to pleas for “deterrence.”

To be sure, anyone reading today’s news onslaught should be empathetic. Balancing competing interests amid such dynamism is fraught, as the landscape is littered with national security challenges spanning the continuum of conflict. Large rivals such as China and Russia, violent non-state actors like ISIL, a nuclear capable regime in Pyongyang, and a hybrid threat in Tehran each require sustained and robust focus.

But it serves neither the country’s security nor the secretary to pin so much on deterrence alone. Doing so results in a superficial appreciation for one of the biggest dilemmas in the field of global security affairs. The application of deterrence has routinely been unsatisfying, as smart minds like Kath Hicks have argued, and occasionally shortsighted. Therefore, how can the Department of Defense more deliberately approach and operationalize deterrence given today’s national security challenges?

Three criteria should inform how the Department of Defense tackles any effort to meaningfully apply deterrence theory. First, it must be regular, so the Pentagon routinely considers the impact of its deterrence-related decisions. Second, it needs to be rigorous to ensure all relevant parties respect their findings, even if they disagree with them. And lastly, it must be clear-eyed. As the fictionalized introductory quotes underscore, a lot of emotion — understandably — is tied into these decisions, such as force allocation, which are perceived as influencing life or death circumstances (and may indeed be doing so). Efforts that are regular, rigorous, and sober will help the Department of Defense better approach deterrence. The following four policy recommendations fall under that rubric.

Stop Conflating Deterrence and Reassurance

The national security community routinely muddles its thinking on deterrence and reassurance. As Michael Howard described:

The object of deterrence is to persuade an adversary that the costs to him of seeking a military solution to his political problems will far outweigh the benefits. The object of reassurance is to persuade one’s own people, and those of one’s allies, that the benefits of military action, or preparation for it, will outweigh the costs.

Credible reassurance — say, deploying THAAD (an anti-missile system) to South Korea — differs from deterrence. Stopping North Korean missiles flying into Seoul may make it harder for Pyongyang to achieve its objectives, and having the ability to do so shows all concerned regional actors that the United States and South Korea are prepared for conflict. However, THAAD does not inflict the pain inherent in deterrence that seek to change North Korea’s decision-making calculus.

The European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) is another good example of this confusion. It is designed to convince Russia that any effort to violate the sovereignty of a NATO member will be extremely painful thanks to an increasingly capable and geographically present U.S. military and a deepened NATO network. But its messaging — as the title suggests — has largely focused on making European countries feel better.

In formulating strategies to counter adversaries, the Pentagon must differentiate between reassurance and deterrence — they imply distinct policy prescriptions — and its messaging should align accordingly. The last few weeks have shown how incoherent messaging can undermine deterrence moves. (See the USS Vinson debacle).

Ask Whether It Worked

Substantial energy is spent throughout the Department of Defense on allocating forces and assets; however, there is insufficient focus on integrating assessment into these allocation decisions. To be sure, the Global Force Management process by which the secretary allocates U.S. forces around the globe has become increasingly dynamic to ensure these decisions are tied to broader strategic goals. However, there is no forcing function to assess the impact of specific allocation decisions.

Therefore, Secretary Mattis should task the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to specifically track the impact of significant force or asset allocations. It should also track and assess when these requests are unmet. Before Mattis responds to a combatant commander’s request, the DIA should offer its best estimate of the impact this decision will have. And when the secretary does decide to, say, send a carrier to the Persian Gulf — or declines to do so despite pleading by the CENTCOM commander — the intelligence community should track and then proffer its assessment about the impact of this decision over the coming weeks. Did it deter the Iranians, for example, or was it another force allocation decision in which “deterrence” was really a proxy for giving a combatant command more assets?  The Defense Policy Board — Mattis’s cohort of erstwhile officials and (very) grey beards — should also consider how best the department’s deterrence-related decisions are meeting their objectives.

Get into Red’s Head

Effectively deterring an adversary only works if we can actually understand what the adversary is thinking. This notion of “thinking red” (“red” being the adversary) has surged in popularity thanks to Deputy Secretary Bob Work and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Paul Selva. As they’ve helped revitalize wargaming throughout the department, one of the smartest efforts has come from those astute “Hobgoblins” previously chronicled in War on the Rocks. They established a series of wargames known as “red-to-red” which seeks to view conflicts from the adversary’s perspective. The adversary is depicted as complex and dynamic as it would be in reality. There’s no scripted ending, like in the case of the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame. This allows for a rich exploration of vulnerabilities and risks — key elements that should inform effective deterrence. If Russia’s leadership really seeks to “escalate to deescalate” in a conflict with the United States, gaming how that would play out in Moscow and the debates that would occur among the Russian leadership can illuminate new thinking on the U.S. approach.

Mattis should redouble investment in these wargames. He should prioritize his personal involvement and the participation of other senior leaders. Doing so would help the Department of Defense and the broader government better understand what it takes to deter an adversary. Their findings are a lens through which to view efforts to address adversaries, ranging from allocation decisions and war plans to political-military engagements.

Introduce Mars and Venus

It often feels like policymakers are from Mars and intelligence analysts are from Venus. Their engagement with and approach to global security affairs is radically different. That’s often a good thing since policymakers are focused on policy implementation while intelligence analysts are looking at how best to understand a topic. Taken together, these two perspectives can facilitate rigorous strategies for deterring adversaries. But this gap is left unbridged when most of their contact is limited to periodic interagency discussions on the issue of the day or snap intelligence briefings before a policymaker travels.

Nevertheless, it means the gap between their understanding of the other’s views and needs can be problematically deep. In the best-case scenario, as Jami Miscik recently put it, “the relationship between intelligence officers and policymakers resembles that of scouts and coaches.” But that partnership is only feasible if both sides are engaged in the same conversation.

Nascent efforts inside the department to establish a regular, focused, and sustained dialogue on deterring key adversaries seek to bridge this gap. They involve bringing together the intelligence and policy professionals who think about adversaries from regional and functional perspectives on a consistent bi-monthly basis. Intelligence analysts gain a better understanding of the nuance behind those often amorphous and lofty policy prescriptions. Policymakers gain a richer appreciation for the intelligence community’s views toward what’s working (and what isn’t) as they seek to deter conflict beyond often inchoate terms like low, moderate, and high confidence. These efforts should be continued and broadened to include all of the Pentagon’s top challenges.

Improving deterrence efforts won’t be easy, but it’s time we take real steps to do so. Otherwise, the melodrama and incessant debates over what signaling is and whether or not it is occurring will continue. Besides, we may as well make Tom Schelling’s ghost happy.


Dr. Mara Karlin recently departed the Pentagon as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. In June, she will join Johns Hopkins University-SAIS as associate professor of practice and associate director of strategic studies. She already misses her four months on the high seas.

Image: Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro, U.S. Navy