Nuclear Strategy and Deterrence Theory

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The United States is at the crossroads when it comes to its nuclear deterrence policies.  The dilemma the United States faces is how to best adjust the structure of its strategic nuclear forces and the makeup of its nuclear deterrence policy.

Being the ‘benevolent world leader’, the United States is expected to adjust to a changing world.  After September 11, a number of changes have been introduced in order to effectively curb international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

President George Bush wanted to change the nature of nuclear deterrence.  He made an alliance with nuclear peer Russia.  He also started a plan that intends to change the number of nuclear weapons being kept in stock, creates strategic alliances, arms control and ballistic missile defense (BMD).  In the process, drastic cuts to nuclear forces were introduced. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was abolished and the use of BMD System was introduced. The year 2002 saw a change to the fundamental nuclear deterrent strategy of the United States.  The nuclear deterrent strategy is clearly outlined in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).  In these new guidelines, changes to the ABM Treaty and the formulation of the BMD were introduced.  The Bush Administration framework for nuclear deterrent strategies was based on the following objectives – Deterrence, Dissuasion, Defense and Denial.

The objective of the nuclear deterrence theory is to find ways to influence the way an enemy thinks and acts.  Deterrence is a frame of mind that prevents a deterree in committing an act harmful to the deterrer. Deterrence is only effective if the deterree allowed to be deterred.

Deterrence is both a physical and psychological strategy. It requires military instruments to be able to threaten the opponent to submission. Then, it should be make the opponent reconsider attacking.  Deterrence is effective if the deterring nation has the political will and the capacity and willingness to use its weapons.

Historians believed that the fact that there was no large-scale war in Europe after the Second World Was is enough to prove that nuclear deterrence worked.  This prompted British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to comment to Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev that “Both our countries know from bitter experience that conventional weapons do not deter war in Europe whereas nuclear weapons have done so over 40 years”.

It is hard to measure the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence strategy though.  The effects of deterrence are only assumed to succeed when it is able to prevent actions by opponents. To be able to be truly effective, the strategies and forces must be able to respond in case of direct military assault.   Without this response, deterrence will not succeed. Nuclear weapons make the response ability of the US military credible.  These weapons are used to deter weapons of mass destruction whether nuclear, chemical or biological.


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