March 27, 2008
How to deter nuclear states, proxies
By Louis Rene Beres, Thomas McInerney and Paul E. Vallely
For our nation, there is no more urgent need than strategic doctrine. Without it, every U.S. response to enemy threats would lack coherence. We deserve better than a “seat of the pants” program for national survival. We now deserve to hear from each presidential candidate about such vital plans.
America’s military has always drawn operational plans from a previously codified doctrine. During the Cold War, this was done largely with reference to the Soviet Union. Today, facing a different and multipolar set of threats, including certain jihadist or Islamist proxies, we will need to implement far-reaching doctrinal changes. For the next president of the United States, this imperative should be a top priority.
Enemies of the United States include assorted sub-national actors. Some of these enemies can already confront us with near-existential harms. How shall they be deterred? Can we rely upon deterrence when an enemy may not be rational? Such reliance could be mistaken even if American planners were to focus on the state sponsors of terrorism. These states, like their proxies, might value particular religious or ideological preferences more highly than their own lives and freedoms.
Once there was “massive retaliation” and “mutual assured destruction” (MAD). Later, this gave way to “flexible response” and “nuclear utilization theory” (NUT). Interpenetrating these doctrines, first conceived with reference to the Soviet Union, were fierce debates over nuclear targeting options. Again, we need to examine both “countervalue” (countercity) and “counterforce” targeting doctrines, but this time with regard to both state enemies and nonstate proxies, and to both rational and nonrational ones.
A core concern of any modified U.S. strategic doctrine will still have to be pre-emption. Although this concept has elicited criticism in response to Operation Iraqi Freedom, there are other major threats on the horizon that may call for “anticipatory self-defense.” Where enemy rationality cannot be assumed, and where the effectiveness of ballistic missile defense would be low, the only alternative to apt forms of American pre-emption could be intolerable vulnerability.
Any strategic doctrine for dealing with myriad threats to our national security will have to be meticulous, comprehensive and creative. If we should allow Iran to become a nuclear weapons state, our doctrine will then have to identify viable and satisfactory options for coexistence. The key doctrinal question would then be: How shall we deter a now-nuclear Iran from launching direct missile attacks and from dispersing nuclear assets among terrorist proxies?
A nuclear threat to American cities need not come from enemy missiles. It could also come from cars, trucks and ships. Ballistic missile defense would be of no use against such ground-based attacks. Could we really make Tehran and its surrogates believe that any proxy act of nuclear terrorism would elicit a massive nuclear retaliation against Iran itself? We must, but functionally operational answers can emerge only from a refined and modernized U.S. strategic doctrine.
All enemy state proxies were once limited in the damage they could inflict. Today, certain terror groups could bring greater disasters to the American homeland than could most countries. They could even bring us more devastation than was deliverable by our enemies in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
A new American security doctrine must include both a forward strategy (offense) and a homeland strategy (defense). The Soviet Union is gone, but Vladimir Putin’s Russia cannot be disregarded. Moscow now projects some of the same threats that worried us during the era of bipolarity.
We must take seriously the Russian president’s declarations on resumption of long-range bomber flights and on his related plans to expand missile production (ICBMs). Should we now undertake expanded programs for ballistic-missile defense or would such plans simply spur Mr. Putin to produce new offensive missiles?
Strategic doctrine remains a work in progress. For the United States, such doctrine must soon coalesce into a flexible, timely and purposeful framework of options. A first order of business should be strategic planning that takes into account the growing threat posed by both nuclearizing states and by certain enemy proxies.
Louis Rene Beres, who served as chairman of Project Daniel, is a professor of international law at Purdue University. Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who served as Air Force vice chief of staff, co-authored “The Endgame: Winning the War on Terror” with retired Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely, host of the radio program “Stand Up America.”