What If Deterrence Fails?

14 Aug, 1998    ·   132

Dinshaw Mistry in responding to Gen. Vohra article on nuclear doctrine, questions what if deterrence fails

All good strategists and policymakers should take into account the possibility that nuclear deterrence may fail. While deterrence ultimately assumes that nuclear weapons may never be used, what if this assumption fails? One then has to deal with the possibility of limited war or various possible levels of escalation.



For example, from a theoretical perspective, Kahn’s ladder of escalation noted a range of scenarios from tactical nuclear warfighting to full scale exchanges with thermonuclear weapons.



On actual policy grounds, policy makers in some countries have noted both the counterforce and countervalue aspects of nuclear weapons.



Counterforce (the use of nuclear weapons against military, economic and strategic or tactical nuclear targets) is a form of "warfighting" and in some ways assumes that deterrence may fail—even if this "failure" is simply failure to prevent a conventional attack—and therefore nuclear weapons may have to be used.



Countervalue (the use of nuclear weapons against cities) more closely approximates deterrence, whereby threatening cities would appear to deter any form of nuclear or conventional aggression.



US nuclear scenarios moved from a massive retaliation strategy to considering limited war and then again to assured destruction, varying according to the relative balance of US-Soviet forces. In parallel, one was always prepared for warfighting (ranging from limited to larger nuclear exchanges) especially in Europe .



While one may certainly hope that deterrence holds, this is by no means assured. Should there be any contingency planning to keep wars limited if deterrence fails? If not, would deterrence failure and the initiation of war (even conventional war) automatically mean immediate nuclear escalation to assured and large-scale destruction. These questions need to be explored further.



Even considering such a question may raise ethical considerations or public uproar—this is exactly what happened in many of the nuclear states (recall the various "Peace Movements" or "Freeze" campaigns)? Yet ultimately such questions should be asked and debated.