Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, argued in favor of a defense strategy known as “minimum deterrence.” Minimum deterrence was posited as making the most strategic and ethical sense in today’s world. This policy, which relies on flawed assumptions, would be wholly inadequate in today’s security environment.
The minimum deterrence argument is based on flawed assumptions, namely that deterrence is predictable at low force numbers and that conventional forces can be relied on more to credibly deter an adversary. Gvosdev’s argument mirrors a contradiction made by some minimum deterrence proponents: He holds that targeting an adversary’s civilian population (countervalue targeting) is a “policy that can be discarded,” while also advocating for a minimum deterrent strategy that relies on countervalue targeting.
At the heart of minimum deterrence is the idea that deterrence is predictable at low force numbers. As Gvosdev correctly notes, deterrence focuses on an opponent’s psyche, which leads one to ask: How predictable is deterrence? As noted by defense expert Keith Payne in his book The Great American Gamble, policymakers must “understand the opponent’s ‘mindset and behavioral style’” to gauge if deterrence would work. In essence, this psychological component makes deterrence unpredictable.
Minimum deterrence advocates also hold that conventional forces can credibly deter alone, making a nuclear deterrent unnecessary. As retired Air Force General Kevin Chilton stated: “We have to be careful when we start talking about one-for-one substitutions of conventional weapons for nuclear weapons,” because “the nuclear weapon has a deterrent factor that far exceeds a conventional threat.” The Russian Federation has reportedly increased its reliance on nuclear weapons to offset its deteriorating conventional forces.
Holding few nuclear weapons may limit U.S. targeting options to an adversary’s population and economic centers. This would be contrary to American principles and could diminish the U.S.’s deterrence credibility.
Rather than base a U.S. strategy on minimum deterrence, the U.S. needs to adopt a “protect and defend” strategy that would deter conflict, and if deterrence failed, quickly end a conflict on terms favorable for the U.S. while limiting damage to the U.S. and its allies. To meet this end, the U.S. military would consist of nuclear and conventional forces with offensive and defensive capabilities, with specific force quantities driven by target sets. A force comprised of nuclear and conventional forces with offensive and defensive capabilities would give the President the most options to respond to any given threat, ensuring there are few barriers to defending the U.S., its allies, and foreign interests.
John Collick is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.