Deterrence in a Complex Nuclear Future

By Mary Yelnicker

 “The most significant event of the last sixty years is the one that did not happen: the use of a nuclear weapon in conflict. One of the most important questions of the next sixty years is whether we can repeat the feat.”

~Thomas Shelling, Nuclear Deterrence for the Future, 2006

 While we strive to repeat the successes nuclear deterrence brought during the Cold War, we cannot be so foolhardy as to believe we will achieve them again using the same theories. As the United States Air Force prepares itself for the future, it must look critically at the manner in which it achieves nuclear deterrence. The world in which we live and the adversaries whom we strive to deter are far different, and so our deterrence method must also evolve. In order to defeat our adversaries in the future, we must prepare now.

The Air Force recently has made a valiant effort to stress the importance of our nuclear deterrent forces. There is no doubt US nuclear weapons are the ultimate defense against existential threats toward the United States. In addition, strategists have rightfully expended much thought and ink on anti-proliferation efforts. However, as we build the Air Force of the future, we must consider how to successfully defend our country against nuclear threats that do not threaten our existence, but that do impose limitations on pursuing our interests. Understanding traditional nuclear deterrence theories and comparing them to the reasons behind nations acquiring nuclear weapons will help expose shortcomings in the future. Additionally, developing integrated nuclear and conventional practices will prepare the Air Force to fight in a nuclear-degraded environment, as well as deter nuclear weapon use and stymie proliferation.

Nuclear Employment Strategies

“For deterrence to be effective on a wider scale in the 21st Century, we will need to greatly increase our focus on understanding the motivations and values of a far wider and more complex set of national and trans-national actors.”

~General Larry Welch, 2012

 There are currently eight self-declared nuclear states: United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea; however, we should not be so bold as to assume we can deter each actor in the same manner. The reasons for acquiring, maintaining, and using these unique weapons are as unique as each nation. By looking at these countries’ strategies and motivations for nuclear weapon use, we can make informed predictions on why both state and non-state actors may want to use them in the future. Vipin Narang, in his 2014 book, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, defines three types of nuclear strategies: assured retaliation, catalytic, and asymmetric escalation.

nuclear arsenals

The first, and perhaps the most recognized strategy, is assured retaliation. Narang reserves this description for states that maintain a survivable second-strike capability. In other words, they have the resources and ability to assure any adversary an in-kind nuclear retaliation. The United States and Russia are examples of nations that employ this strategy. Both nations maintain large stockpiles, resilient basing, and responsive command and control networks that ensure an in-kind response to nuclear attack. This traditional nuclear strategy was developed and perfected during the Cold War. An extreme example of this strategy is the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, which means a nation promises both retaliation and complete destruction of its adversary. The assured response provides sufficient consequences such that cost of using a nuclear weapon outweighs any benefit. Additionally, Narang categorizes India and China as employing the assured retaliation strategy.

Catalyst strategy is very different from assured retaliation. In this strategy, a nation attempts to thwart an overwhelming conventional attack by using its nuclear weapons in the interest of drawing in third party nuclear nation states on its behalf, thus providing assured retaliation by proxy. Narang sites Israel, on the behalf of the US, as deliberately posturing potential delivery systems during the Yom Kippur War as an example of this strategy. Depending on relations, North Korea, too, may attempt to achieve a catalytic posture with China as their sponsor to retaliation.

The final, and perhaps most threating nuclear strategy, Narang defines is asymmetric escalation:

Unlike the catalytic posture in which the use of nuclear weapons is only contemplated in the face of a significant conventional threat to a state and whose signal is directed toward a third-party patron, an asymmetric escalation posture attempts to directly deter conventional conflict by another nuclear or non-nuclear state in toto by threatening first use of nuclear weapons in either a tactical or strategic strike. [emphasis original]

According to Narang, currently France, Pakistan, and North Korea employ this strategy. France employs no third party sponsor, nor does it have the ability to assured response. However, it does reserve the right to use nuclear weapons first to deter a conventional attack. Pakistan has a very similar situation, but its use of nuclear weapons would be far more volatile with a declared adversary at its eastern border who is conventionally inferior. While it is clear North Korea desires to weaponize its nuclear technology, it is less clear what they would do with it. Within the dangers of mirror imaging, we can make some assumptions on how the North Korean regime uses weapons. Like Pakistan, they are at a severe conventional disadvantage when confronted with South Korea and its allies. North Korea does not appear to have the second strike forces to assume an assured retaliation posture. In addition, while China is technically an ally, it is extremely doubtful North Korea could depend on China to commit itself to potential nuclear exchange in defense of North Korea. Therefore, this posture, defined by Narang as the Catalytic Strategy, is also unrealistic for North Korea (however, whether or not their leadership sees it as unrealistic is unknown). Assuming it understands its precarious relationship with China, we can infer a nuclear strategy of asymmetric escalation. When faced with overwhelming conventional forces, North Korea could use nuclear weapons with the intent to shape or deter a conventional attack.

Deterrence Strategies

“The relative stability between the United States and the Soviet Union during the second half of the Cold War provides a poor guide to the stability of a crisis between the United States and a nuclear-armed, regional adversary.”

Robert Powell, 2003

The concept of deterrence is not new to the nuclear age. The idea that one actor should try to convince another that cost outweighs benefits is as old as warfare itself; what nuclear weapons brought was a new level of deterrence and a feeling of invincibility. At the dawn of the Cold War, the United States, the sole nuclear power on the planet, believed it was invincible to attack; there was no threat to which it could not respond. Of course, this paradigm did not last even a decade, and thus a new school of thought developed: nuclear deterrence.

Classic Nuclear Deterrence, or the nuclear theory developed during the Cold War, is characterized by a desire to limit the risk of two super-powers entering any conflict directly with each other, for the fear escalation would occur unchecked and ultimately result in full-scale nuclear war. Robert Powell adeptly describes the outcome of such thinking in his 2003 article on nuclear deterrence:

That is, a state may be able to credibly threaten and actually engage in a process—a crisis or a limited war—that raises the risk that the situation will go out of control and escalate to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. How much risk a state could credibly threaten to run would depend on what was at stake in the political conflict. The higher the stakes, the more risk a state could credibly threaten to run.

Nuclear weapons existed at the high end of military employment separate from conventional forces at the low end. The objectives of nuclear deterrence and the strategy for the employment of nuclear weapons became entwined. Second-strike capability and the ability to quickly respond to threats with responsive long-range nuclear assets became synonymous with deterrence and established the cavernous void between conventional operations and nuclear operations.

General Curtis LeMay and his Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP) became the answer to the deterrence problem. Through rigorous training and inspections, SAC was determined to prove the capability of the United States Strategic Forces. Money and attention poured on SAC in the early years, leaving the newly minted “conventional fight” to Tactical Air Command (TAC). As such, the separation of the now distinct mission sets affected operations and employment in both the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts.

b52 captionThe idea that nuclear bombers, strategic submarines, and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) had the sole responsibility for deterring USSR nuclear aggression, defined those assets as nuclear deterrent assets. Therefore, all others were conventional assets. They each had their clearly delineated roles. Using nuclear assets in a conventional setting detracted from the nuclear deterrence mission, which was very risky at the height of the Cold War. With hesitancy, SAC allowed its assets to be used in a conventional setting. SAC leadership wanted to maintain control of its assets, and led to strategic planners struggling to effectively integrate SAC bombers into operations as they often acted independently. For example, SAC independently planned and executed Linebacker II based on nuclear employment doctrine, ultimately resulting in friendly losses. In this case, the philosophy that nuclear deterrence was solely dependent on a nuclear weapons delivery capability limited the ability of the United States to engage effectively in a conventional war. Similarly, when the weight of effort shifted from nuclear deterrence to conventional engagement, the ability to effectively engage in a nuclear war also suffered.

After the Cold War, the objective of nuclear deterrence floundered as the world shifted from bipolar to unipolar. The 1993 National Security Strategy optimistically declared:

Where once a European-wide war, potentially leading to nuclear exchange, was theoretically only weeks and yards away, today such a threat has receded and would take years to rekindle. With the end of the Cold War, there are no significant hostile alliances. We have a substantial lead in critical areas of warfare. The combination of these trends has given our Nation and our alliances great depth for our strategic position.

Without an explicit nuclear adversary, the objectives of nuclear deterrence changed. Non-proliferation and stockpile reduction became a priority. New theories such as “Tailored Deterrence” have become vogue. The theory of tailored deterrence correctly posits that different capabilities will deter different actors. This concept, however, often lumps states into either the “nuclear club” through the Classic Deterrence Theory, discounting individual state motivations, or potential emerging nuclear states, who the US must counter on nuclear proliferation. The current deterrence theory often neglects adversarial motivations, still viewing nuclear weapons as the last stop in unchecked aggression. Furthermore, US Air Force strategy still solely tasks its nuclear forces with the responsibility of providing a deterrent effect to those in the “nuclear club.”

Paul Bracken argues in his book, The Second Nuclear Age, we will continue to develop nuclear strategy norknuke.jpgrather than develop strategy in a nuclear age. This is proving to be true. In the 2015 Strategic Master Plan, the Air Force advocates for a deterrence strategy that is “cost-imposing.” It is a strategy in which the United States can guarantee such unacceptable costs, the adversary will not use nuclear weapons. This is a valid and effective strategy against adversaries who employ assured retaliation or catalytic strategies, but it will not deter those using an asymmetric escalation strategy. Actors will employ an asymmetric escalation strategy when conventional forces already impose an unacceptable cost. Therefore, using nuclear weapons provides a benefit that slows or thwarts a conventional threat. In addition, asymmetrical escalation states have the greatest ability to deter any action by the United States. “In situations in which the balance of resolve is very clearly in favor of a small nuclear state, brinkmanship indicates that the small state will be able to deter the United States. Consequently, the spread of nuclear weapons is likely to give the regime of the small nuclear state—rogue or not—the ability to deter the United States from trying to overthrow that regime.” Therefore, if the Air Force continues to view nuclear deterrence as the sole responsibility of the nuclear forces, it is missing the ability to deter one of the most dangerous and probable nuclear threats.

Deterrence for the Future

 “Trust is strengthened with confidence built by practice and consistency. The Air Force must train in a manner that assesses the Airman’s ability to execute tasks successfully in dynamic situations, as well as the leader’s ability to deliver clear strategic guidance appropriate for the same environment. Trust will empower Airmen—in both real and perceived ways—and it must be a touchstone if operations in the future are to succeed.”

~Air Force Future Operating Concept, 2015

The transition from a bi-polar world to a multi-polar world and the expansion of nuclear weapon states further complicated nuclear deterrence. In order to keep up with the more complex world, the US must move beyond the simplicity of traditional nuclear deterrence, and look at deterrence more holistically. To do this, it must reach beyond “cost-imposing” deterrence and include the deterrence-by-denial strategy. As T.V. Paul explains in his book The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons, deterrence-by-denial convinces the aggressor that the defender will deny any perceived gain from using nuclear weapons. This denial strategy does not rest on our own possession of nuclear weapons, but rather on our ability to maintain our conventional superiority in a nuclear degraded environment. This will address the goals of asymmetric escalators.

If deterrence is the effect achieved by convincing an adversary that the consequences of an action outweigh any benefit realized by that action, then the Air Force must demonstrate to states employing an asymmetrical escalation strategy that any perceived benefit will not be achieved. In the long term, weapons systems, munitions, communication networks, and command and control schemes must be tested and certified to work under these conditions. In addition, contingency systems must be developed, trained and demonstrated as effective in the same degraded environment. In the near term, the US military must develop doctrine, training, tactics, and exercises that ensure the ability of its conventional forces to operate in a nuclear- degraded environment. Additionally, these exercises will increase the trust between Airmen and military services in a degraded environment, while showing resolve to our adversaries. The United States applying asymmetrical escalation demonstrates that conventional forces will not be deterred, slowed, or rendered ineffective by nuclear weapons; any benefit the adversary could have reaped will be negated. Moreover, all that remains for the aggressive state are the consequences of use.

This strategy will also serve to prevent nuclear weapon proliferation. When nations look for ways to increase their military capabilities, they may consider building a few nuclear weapons as a more cost effective option than building, training, and sustaining a large conventional force. However, if the Unites States demonstrates the ability to operate effectively through a nuclear-degraded environment, the nation using nuclear weapons gains little. The key factors to this new deterrent effort are no different from those of traditional deterrence: capability and will.

Conversely, if the United States demonstrates the ability to operate in a nuclear-degraded environment, others may interpret this as a veiled way to prepare for its own use of nuclear weapons. This, however, should not be a concern. If the United States finds itself using nuclear weapons against an assured retaliation state, then the ability to fight in the resulting nuclear degraded environment does not outweigh the cost of accepting nuclear weapons on our own soil. If the United States was foolish enough to initiate nuclear weapons use against a catalytic postured state, the result would be the same. Finally, using a nuclear weapon against an asymmetrical escalation state does not reap any benefit for the United States who already has the advantage with its overwhelming conventional military forces. The only thing the United States would achieve is the ire of the international community. This strategy then will not destabilize relations between nuclear states.


In turn, the United States must invest in deterrent strategies that address the many motivations for nuclear weapon use. The Air Force of the future must be prepared with a capable nuclear force ready to impose unacceptable costs on any adversary that threatens use of nuclear weapons. This, however, is not sufficient now or in the future. In addition, the United States Air Force must be prepared to employ its conventional forces just as effectively, just as lethally, and just as capably in a non-nuclear environment as within a nuclear environment. This means developing, testing and training tactics, and doctrine to do just that, as well as mending the Cold War split between conventional and nuclear warfighting. The Air Force of the future must be one that fights and wins our nations wars, regardless of the environment.

Major Mary “Shakes” Yelnicker is a graduate from the University of California Davis, Air Force Weapons School, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and Air Command and Staff College with a Multi Domain Operational Specialist Concentration. She is a Nuclear and Missile Operations Officer, and is currently a student at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell AFB, AL.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.



  1. It seems the most time-consuming requirement to prepare for deterrence-by-denial is ensuring the survivabilty of the conventional equipment. Are the services currently postured with the equipment to execute conventional operations in a nuclear-degraded environment?

  2. Sir, I think that is one of the main things that needs to be fleshed out. But it isn’t just equipment that needs to be examined; we also need to test and exercise how conventional C2 will operate and integrate with Nuclear C2. And like any fully functional plan, I do not believe “table-topping” it will be adequate.

  3. The only way to win the game is not to play. The best deterrence strategies are those the foster growth in mutual economic interests, security and stability. Also, combating the causes and effects of climate change that lead to fights for survival due to famines, drought and sea level rise. Moving toward a humanistic foreign policy, putting people before corporate profit, is a must. Then and only then can the World move toward Global Zero.

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