Wednesday, 17 April 2024

    To Deter

    by Navy Capt. (Ret) Peter O’Brien

    There has been some interesting talk in the past week about deterrence and escalation and proportionality and I’m beginning to wonder if those words still mean what I thought they mean, like the word “secret” on the front page of a newspaper. But it’s important to review what they really mean because getting this wrong can have significant consequences.

    First, deterrence. The idea is simple: to prevent hostile actions (while obviously protecting your national interests).

    The key point is that deterrence takes place in the mind of the enemy. It doesn’t matter what you say or do, if the enemy doesn’t believe it will affect him all that much. Deterrence only exists when you have the capability to ensure that the cost to some possible enemy of doing some thing far outweighs any benefit he might accrue by that action; AND, you have the will to actually cause that harm; AND the enemy really does  believe you will. Particularly with regard to nuclear weapons, it’s that third element that is so very important.

    Consider the case if you lack that third element: You have the capability to do great damage and you have the will – you will strike if the enemy crosses some red line. But the enemy doesn’t believe you will do it; he thinks you won’t “pull the trigger,” and you know you will. Such a situation would invite a nuclear exchange. Said differently, loss of credibility is more than losing face; loss of credibility increases the risk of war.

    Escalation is nothing more than two sides engaging in actions that prompt the other side to do more, to be more destructive. 

    Escalation is an interesting problem: the possibility of escalation, and some times escalation in fact, is necessary to establish that a deterrence posture is credible. If an enemy commits an act of violence against you, you can either respond to it or not. If you do not, he will in all likelihood commit another one. At some point you will find yourself either needing to appease – surrender, or respond. If you respond with a low level of violence, one that does not eliminate the benefits of the enemy’s earlier violence, the violence will continue. Only by escalating, making the response more destructive than his accrued benefits, more destructive than he is willing to accept, will you force him to consider stopping.

    With nuclear weapons, that is, in a confrontation with a nuclear armed state,  there is the concern of escalating too far and drawing a response from the enemy in the form of a nuclear weapon. That is obviously to be avoided and so, in dealing with the Soviet Union, and then Russia, the general understanding was that direct confrontations needed to be kept to a minimum and every effort was made to keep confrontations from escalating.

    And then there is proportional response.

    There are two different views on proportional response. The first is proportional response within the construct of the Law of War; within the law of war promotional response limits military actions to what is necessary to achieve the military objective, and any violence to civilians must reasonable – proportionate – to the military objectives. 

    Obviously, a very subjective evaluation is made here, but the idea is fairly clear.

    But there’s a further shading: proportional response when the conflict is between two nuclear powers means that there are limits as to what you can do, if it were clear that actions beyond a certain threshold would bring the two nuclear powers into direct conflict. The US reticence to engage in certain actions in North Vietnam that might result in Soviet deaths, or the sinking of Soviet ships delivering weapons to Haiphong, were causes for a great deal of worry in Washington during the war.

    The key then is to understand that deterrence between the two nuclear powers, such as the US and Russia, is a different problem than between the US and Iran.

    It is, in fact, a different problem between a smaller nuclear power (with a few weapons) and one with a large arsenal: Russia or China. Which isn’t to say that you can’t confront Russia or China, you can, and often should. But it requires different tactics.

    Said differently, with the exception of Russia and China, once shooting starts, escalation is how you get the “genie back in the bottle.” Responding in a “proportional” manner to an attack by Iranian proxies by attacking those proxies (and in fact informing the world ahead of time so that they could get their people out of the camps) leaves the Iranians not only untouched, it allows them the opportunity to escalate the level of violence to whatever level they choose. Proportional response grants the enemy the initiative; Iran now has the option to dial up or dial down the violence as it chooses.

    Policy makers in Washington will undoubtedly respond that the US has sent a signal to Iran, and the choice Iran has to make is whether to stop or continue.

    But from the Iranian perspective no damage has been done to Iran, little damage has been done to their proxies (casualties in double digits), and they lost a few rockets and a few small buildings. 

    Have the waters of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, the North Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf been once again returned to a peacetime, freedom of navigation condition?

    Has Tehran received any meaningful message as to the cost of continued aggression against the US or its allies? 

    Has Tehran received any signal at all that would make them think twice about further pursuit of a nuclear arsenal?

    Have other bad actors – China, Russia, North Korea – seen anything in these actions that would lead them to pause before considering aggressive behavior? 

    The answer to each of the above is “no.” And the consequences of that are likely to come back to haunt us. Indeed, by failing to act decisively to put Iran back on its heels, and restore freedom of navigation, but leaving our ships and our sailors at risk in the Red Sea, and accepting the economic costs in the Red Sea as we continue “shooting arrows, not Indians,” we are setting ourselves up for an eventual failure – one of our ships hit by a Houthi missile, a spike in economic impact, and a resultant further loss of credibility.

    Of even greater concern is that we are sending the signal to our enemies that we are hesitant to act decisively. And that is likely to mean that they will act decisively.