Kill ’Em All? Denial Strategies, Defense Planning, and Deterrence Failure

September 24, 2020

Should the United States be ready to destroy hundreds of Chinese vessels or thousands of Russian armored vehicles in just a few days during a conflict? Could these clear-cut yet ambitious operational objectives spur innovation within the Department of Defense? Would threats to inflict mass attrition on high-value military assets in a short span of time dissuade Beijing and Moscow from attacking their neighbors? These questions are moving to the forefront of the U.S. defense policy debate as the difficulties of preparing for great-power rivalry become more apparent.



Yet a closer look reveals how efforts to encourage outside-the-box thinking and enhance conventional deterrence have the potential to backfire without the right guidelines in place. A narrow focus on the operational problems associated with a Chinese assault on Taiwan or a Russian invasion of the Baltics, for example, along with a corresponding emphasis on denying aggression via rapid attrition as the solution to those problems, could actually weaken deterrence in several different ways, especially if planners and policymakers do not take unintended consequences into account. Specifically, these efforts could heighten doubts about America’s willingness to intervene in the moment, raise the costs of sustaining a denial strategy over time, and leave Washington ill-prepared if adversaries adjust their offensive tactics.

Searching for Innovative Solutions to Stressing Operational Problems

The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, released in late 2017 and early 2018, respectively, are notable for calling out China and Russia as competitors bent on overturning the status quo. Equally important, these documents also maintain that the best defense depends on denial, as opposed to punishment or rollback. According to the National Security Strategy:

We must convince adversaries that we can and will defeat them — not just punish them if they attack the United States. We must ensure the ability to deter potential enemies by denial, convincing them that they cannot accomplish objectives through the use of force or other forms of aggression.

Moreover, new military concepts and capabilities will be required to prevent rivals from achieving their aims by force. As the National Defense Strategy explains, that includes concepts and capabilities “to strike diverse targets inside adversary air and missile defense networks to destroy mobile power-projection platforms.”

Denial is a tempting defense strategy for dealing with a revisionist power — especially a revisionist power that is poised to launch a sudden assault in pursuit of a fait accompli. After all, the ability to protect allies and partners is arguably the best way to deter attacks against them, or to win a war quickly if deterrence fails. Alternatives, like punishment and rollback, have obvious drawbacks. For instance, punishment typically involves bombarding or blockading an adversary until the costs of aggression become so high that it abandons its efforts. This strategy has a mixed if not mediocre track record, however, and many analysts are skeptical that targeting an enemy’s will to resist rather than its ability to fight could prevent aggression or produce victory in a major clash. Rollback, by contrast, entails mobilizing military forces gradually and then reversing an opponent’s gains. Although this strategy has worked in global conflicts like World War II and regional campaigns like Desert Storm, it also cedes ground from the start by delaying a direct response.

Despite its understandable appeal, and regardless of the particular form that it takes, a strategy of denial also has inherent challenges, which can be onerous for a geographically insular great power like the United States that is facing off against widely dispersed, well-armed, and highly motivated rivals. To start, denial can require overcoming an unfavorable balance of military power at the outset of a conflict because an aggressor would be fighting close to home and could choose the time and place of its attack. In the case of a Taiwan contingency, for example, Beijing would be massing its offensive forces across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, whereas Washington would be reinforcing its defenses in the region from over 6,000 miles away. What’s more, denial can also require overcoming an unfavorable balance of interests since an aggressor cares about the issue at hand enough to initiate a war. For instance, although America has an enduring stake in the security of Taiwan — and possibly a larger stake in avoiding a world where China or Russia can invade and occupy other countries — Beijing ostensibly has a greater interest in the island’s fate. Compounding these challenges, militaries are often slow to adapt and innovate when facing new threats, especially if legacy ways of warfare have not yet been discredited decisively. That could leave the United States without the tools necessary to implement an effective denial strategy as its previous military advantages continue to decline.

One way of addressing these constraints is to concentrate on a set of straightforward but stressing operational problems. For instance, if Pentagon planners are most concerned that adversaries might conduct large-scale amphibious or armored assaults that overwhelm frontline states before Washington can defend them, then they could opt to focus more intently on destroying large numbers of critical targets, during small windows of time, inside of contested areas.

The history of military innovation shows that specificity is often crucial for success. Simply put, organizations that tackle well-defined problems are more likely to devise novel and effective solutions. Channeling this insight, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work has proposed giving each of the services a goal of killing approximately 350 Chinese vessels or 2,400 Russian armored vehicles in 72 hours, and reserving a significant pot of money for the branch with the best response. In theory, this should catalyze new ideas due to the clarity of the military objective, the promised budgetary reward, and salutary effects of interservice competition, which are often lost when senior leaders emphasize joint solutions from the very start. “Give goals to the joint force that they have to solve,” he has argued, “and I guarantee you, that will generate operational concepts.”

Achieving these goals should also keep rivals on guard and in check. According to former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy:

If the U.S. military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan; they would have to wonder whether it was worth putting their entire fleet at risk.

Not only would this enhance conventional deterrence by denial, insofar as China would be unable to conduct a brute force assault or count on militarized economic coercion, but the ability to wipe out expensive and prestigious assets such as modern submarines and surface combatants could have the added bonus of contributing to conventional deterrence by punishment.

Putting Will, Endurance, and Relevance at Risk

At first glance, concentrating on these operational problems and challenging the services to pursue denial via the rapid attrition of high-value enemy platforms seems like a sensible way to break through innovation barriers, prevent latent threats from manifesting, and bring strategy and operations into alignment. Indeed, it might offer the best chance of turning the aspirations of the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy into concrete actions. Even if senior leaders throw down this gauntlet and service planners successfully meet the challenge, however, there are several risks that could arise. Specifically, a narrow focus on these operational problems could heighten the prospect of deterrence failure via three distinct mechanisms: a lack of will, a lack of endurance, and a lack of relevance.

First, the rapid attrition objective could fuel doubts about Washington’s determination to uphold its threats and intervene on behalf of a beleaguered partner during a crisis. The measures required to achieve denial in this fashion are bound to create escalation concerns, even if one sets aside the extreme possibility that adversaries might resort to nuclear use after sustaining major losses — a potentially suicidal gamble, particularly for an opponent like China, which remains inferior to the United States on the nuclear front. In most cases, any type of denial campaign should be implemented during the initial stages of a conflict. Simply put, the longer the United States waits to intervene in support of an exposed ally, the greater the risk it will find itself attempting to reverse aggression rather than trying to thwart an assault. Moreover, a version of denial that entails destroying so many forces in such short order could put an even greater premium on conducting attacks quickly. Achieving this difficult aim would almost certainly be easier the earlier it was attempted, before ships, submarines, tanks, and other targets have taken precautions to reduce their vulnerability.

Yet it is not difficult to envision scenarios in which a U.S. president would be reluctant to sanction the immediate use of force, let alone commit to a course of action that would inflict enormous losses on an opponent from the outset. This might be due to domestic politics, alliance dynamics, or doubts about the veracity of indications and warnings if opponents attempt to mask their preparations with large-scale exercises or other methods of deception. Whatever the reason, an expectation of reticence would come at the expense of credibility.

Second, the goal of rapid attrition might set an untenably high bar for the capabilities needed to execute a threat. If this requires employing force at speed as well as at scale, a significant portion of U.S. surveillance, strike, and logistical support assets would probably need to remain at a high level of readiness, both to provide early warning of an impending attack and to launch a response as soon as possible. Not only would preserving this force-in-being be financially taxing, potentially drawing resources away from other investment areas such as modernization, but it could also create openings that adversaries might exploit.

China, in particular, has proved adept at wearing down opponents through peacetime cost imposition. For instance, dispatching ships and scrambling fighters each time Beijing sends coast guard vessels into Japan’s territorial waters or conducts air patrols near its southwest islands has taken a heavy toll on Tokyo’s platforms and personnel. It would not be surprising, therefore, to see Beijing attempt to bait Washington in a similar fashion. In other words, raise and lower tensions just enough, and just often enough, that the price tag and political costs of a rapid attrition posture become increasingly burdensome over time. Meanwhile, signals of an actual assault might become lost in the noise of frequent provocations.

Third, rapid attrition could simply become less relevant. Because this objective is geared mainly toward blunting a major amphibious or ground assault, it highlights a fundamental tradeoff between the operational focus needed for military innovation and the strategic flexibility required to keep the international status quo intact. Organizations might benefit from tackling clear problems when it comes to devising new ways of warfare, but revisionist powers often have many options for aggression. Depending on the contingency, for instance, China could choose to launch an invasion, implement economic strangulation, engage in missile coercion, or some combination of the three, not to mention the various “hybrid” uses of force it might pursue.

Closing off one of those options, especially the most serious option, would be an achievement. Yet it could also drive a dynamic adversary to explore substitutes as it seeks to “design around” U.S. conventional deterrence, leaving Washington the victim of its own success. As Alexander George and Richard Smoke cautioned many years ago, “The defender’s strategy must be made relevant to the range of alternative options possibly available to the initiator.” Otherwise, a determined revisionist could exploit “loopholes, weaknesses, or uncertainties” to achieve its aims. 

Designing New Approaches to Denial

None of this means that the Pentagon should completely forgo the recommendations of Work, Flournoy, and others who share their views. There is a clear rationale for denial in regions characterized by contested frontiers and U.S. security commitments. There is also a compelling demand for new operational concepts to prevent hostile actors from dominating those regions as military balances shift in dangerous ways. And there is a corresponding need to overcome organizational barriers to adaptation and innovation, which can keep those concepts out of reach.

These considerations should not obscure the risks that stem from focusing on narrow operational problems and prescribing rapid attrition as the solution to them — risks that could increase the danger of deterrence failure via a perceived lack of will, an imposed lack of endurance, or an eventual lack of relevance. A defense strategy that addresses pressing operational problems but leaves policymakers with an all-or-nothing decision, is too costly to keep up, or becomes less applicable if opponents play by a different set of rules could, in the end, do as much harm as good.

Ideally, then, efforts to devise new versions of denial should pursue solutions that are scalable enough to give policymakers flexibility when tensions are high. This could entail, for example, collaborating even more closely with allies and partners to improve their resilience and ensure the United States has the option of graduated escalation in the event of a conflict, rather than being painted into the corner of rapid attrition as those allies or partners quickly approach the point of defeat. These efforts should also prioritize solutions that are sustainable over time. That, in turn, could involve placing greater emphasis on forward defense over expeditionary reinforcement so that the United States is better poised for day-to-day denial, rather than rushing to protect allies and partners from thousands of miles away. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, these efforts should emphasize approaches that are fungible enough to enhance deterrence across a range of scenarios. That means avoiding point solutions that cannot easily be adapted to address alternative forms of aggression.



Evan Braden Montgomery is the director of research and studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and the author of In the Hegemon’s Shadow: Leading States and the Rise of Regional Powers.

Image: Russian Ministry of Defence