National Institute for Public Policy

The Transformation of Deterrence: Serving War and Not Peace

b1 bomber
A US Air Force B-1B long-range bomber and F-16 fighter jet fly over the Canadian Arctic during North American Aerospace Defense Command’s Arctic air defense exercise, "Amalgam Dart 21-2" on March 24, 2021. (US Air Force)

Since 1994, five successive American administrations have published a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that, in varying degrees of detail, has outlined the nation’s nuclear plans, policies and strategies. The reviews have considerable commonality,1 including support for a Triad of nuclear platforms and an extended deterrent umbrella for our allies, while supporting what has been termed a “responsive infrastructure”2 able to sustain a credible deterrent, with respect to both our deployed and reserve nuclear warheads.

For nearly seven decades, including during the NPR era, the United States primarily aimed to deter the Soviet Union and then Russia from using its massive conventional and nuclear forces in Europe. That singular major nuclear adversary era is now over,3 not the least because China is now estimated by the US Department of Defense4 to deploy 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads by 2035, a four-fold increase from today and nearly matching the US nuclear ballistic missile forces allowed by the 2010 New START agreement.5

In short, for the first time in our history, the United States will face not one but two nuclear armed peer competitors.6

The good news is that the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review supports a Triad of strategic bombers, land-based ICBMS and submarines armed with sea-launched ballistic missiles.7 Notable is the administration’s support for deploying lowyield warheads on the submarine-launched D-5 missile, an initiative of the Trump Administration and designed to deter Russia from the limited use of low-yield nuclear weapons.8

The bad news is the administration proposed to stop funding a nuclear armed sea-based cruise missile,9 also designed to enhance extended deterrence by providing a president a wider range of responsive options. Fortunately, Congress has funded the research program in the new defense bill signed into law late in 2022.

As the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review acknowledges,10 Russia and China see the use of nuclear weapons or the threat to use nuclear weapons as serving aggression, not to deter war.11 Traditionally, nuclear deterrence for the United States has been generally thought of as a necessary retaliatory capability to prevent a nuclear armed power from attacking first, whether with conventional, biological, chemical, cyber or nuclear weapons.12 Given that any nuclear power can “go first,” the retaliatory deterrent, to be credible, had to have enough survivable force to make any attacking nation think twice about risking its own destruction.

But now we are facing not only Russia as a major attacking threat, but Russia and China together with projected nuclear forces by 2035 deployed (in the field) that are 200% of the current US deployed arsenal.13

The survivability of the US nuclear force was a concern of top US military commanders as far back as the first decade of the nuclear age. General Curtis LeMay, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) Commander and also Chief of Staff of the USAF, worried that the US strategic bomber force relied upon gravity bombs housed at 14 storage sites in the United States.14 The Soviets could strike first at the undefended storage depots and, by eliminating the US stockpile of nuclear weapons, make useless the US deterrent of strategic nuclear bombers.

LeMay proposed that the USAF look seriously at deploying a ballistic missile launched from silos—which would be safe from attack given the Soviet lack of high accuracy weaponry required to successfully destroy them. The Navy started thinking along the same lines. Following the shock of the Soviet Sputnik satellite launch,15 under the direction of USAF General Bernard Schriever, in 5-7 years the United States developed both a submarine sea-based SLBM (Polaris) and a land-based ICBM (Minuteman). The latter was first deployed at Malmstrom USAF base in Montana on the very day that President Kennedy announced the discovery of the Soviet nuclear-armed missiles deployed to Cuba. 16

Throughout the subsequent nuclear age, the US Triad, first deployed in 1958-62, has been seen as indispensable to sustaining a credible second-strike retaliatory capability sufficient to deter any Soviet and now Russian and Chinese use of conventional or nuclear weapons, including an all-out attack using many thousands of such weapons.

During the 1970s the strategic balance markedly worsened as the Soviets opened up what was described as a “window of vulnerability.”17 Upwards of 13,000 Soviet nuclear warheads were likely aimed at US military targets and capable of taking out the most accurate US ICBM missiles, including those needed to hold at risk key Soviet offensive missiles.

That first strike window was closed through a combination of US nuclear deployments and successful strategic nuclear arms control. Subsequently, the collapse of the Soviet empire was widely assumed by Western security analysts to end Moscow’s search for hegemonic power over Europe and the United States,18 and its nuclear threat to US retaliatory forces.

Having solved that Cold War survivability puzzle, the United States now faces another tough nuclear challenge which, as noted above, the 2022 NPR discusses. In 1999, Russian President Yeltsin issued a decree calling for the development of battlefield nuclear forces to give Moscow militarily and politically useful weapons.19 Current Russian President Putin has achieved the decree’s objectives with the deployment of a number of medium- and low-range, highly-accurate, low-yield nuclear weapons.20

Top US officials warned the United States about this development, including Brad Roberts,21 now director of the LLNL’s Global Security Research Center and then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, and General John Hyten,22 then head of US Strategic Command and subsequently Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Roberts explained that “escalate to de-escalate” is a Russian strategy which threatens to use a limited number of theater nuclear weapons in order to get the United States and its allies to stand down in a crisis or conventional conflict.23 General Hyten thought it better to describe the Russian strategy as “escalate to win,” where Moscow would rally to win even if at first losing the conventional battle against superior US conventional forces.

That Russian strategy was partially evident in serial aggression in Syria, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia since 2008, backed up with harsh rhetoric from Moscow, as part of an “escalate package” of (1) newly deployed nuclear weapons, (2) exercises with and tests of such weapons, (3) rhetorical salvos threatening the use of nuclear weapons, and (4) published strategies making the use of such nuclear force an explicit part of Russian policy.24

In doing so, Russia has flipped traditional notions of nuclear deterrence upside down. Nuclear force from Moscow’s perspective is now seen predominantly as a tool to help aggression succeed,25 (not to deter it)—even when Moscow’s conventional capability may not be up to the task if faced with the full capability of US and its allied conventional forces.

The Russian escalate to win threats are likely the reason the United States and NATO refrained from using their own conventional forces to directly intervene in the Ukraine war.26 The United States and its allies have provided Ukraine with over $18 billion of military equipment, but not front-line fighters, bombers, long-range cruise missiles or artillery.

On the other hand, so far, the US nuclear deterrent likely has prevented Putin from actually using nuclear weapons in the theater. However, as Stephen Blank of the Foreign Policy Research Institute has warned, standing down in the face of such Russian threats undermines the very faith the United States and allies should have in the credible nature of America’s nuclear deterrent, as repeatedly expressed in the 2022 NPR.27

While the NPR does acknowledge the Russian adoption of an escalate to win strategy,28 and hints the Chinese may similarly adopt such a hegemonic strategy,29 it fails to lay out a complete policy for countering the Russian escalate strategy.

To be clear, this is not simply a matter of “escalation dominance.” The idea of being able to prevent a conventional or nuclear conflict from escalating to a more destructive level has always been a central feature of US deterrent declaratory policy, although the extent to which the United States has built and deployed forces to implement such a strategy has varied.30

As previously discussed, the window of vulnerability opened up when the Soviets built an arsenal of 13,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons with which to coerce the United States. Given such numbers, it has been an article of faith that any use of nuclear weapons, however initially limited, would quickly rise to what Paul Nitze once told me could be described as the “Armageddon option.”31

While US nuclear officials may believe any limited use of nuclear weapons will quickly escalate, it is clear Mr. Putin and many of his high military officials don’t believe that is the case. However reckless the United States may deem such Russian thinking, it is what Moscow thinks;32 and probably China as well.33

Importantly, although arms control has markedly reduced deployed strategic nuclear forces in Russia and the United States, and assisted in closing the first window of vulnerability, Moscow’s escalate to win strategy assumes the use of a relatively small number of nuclear weapons which no potential arms deal short of complete disarmament would address.

The NPR only partially explores the road the United States must travel to block Putin’s escalate to win strategy. It is not enough to enhance America’s conventional capability,34 as that is precisely what Putin has adopted an escalate strategy to counter. Putin seeks to get the United States out of the fight unilaterally by securing what Sun Tzu described as “winning without fighting.”35

Another challenge for the US government is how to downgrade and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US defense strategy, as called for by the NPR,36 to get Russia and China to follow what Washington sees as the better moral standard. But Russia and China are not seeking to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. If anything, the Russian and Chinese massive nuclear modernization of dozens of new types of strategic and theater nuclear systems shows the opposite intent, especially Russia’s just announced 2023 program to increase funding for strategic nuclear systems by 1.5 times current levels.37

Whether the proper US and allied response is the development of a sea-based new nuclear armed cruise missile38 is not fully knowable; but such a deployment at least begins to address a gap Putin seeks to exploit.39 The United States also has to determine the extent to which new space, cyber, missile defense and artificial intelligence technologies, when added to current nuclear modernization, are all part of the needed mix of capabilities the United States needs to sustain and improve deterrence against the new threats. Unfortunately, the 2022 NPR does not fully explore these questions.40

To date, US military conventional military exercises and wargames do not end in victory when nuclear weapons—however limited in number—are introduced onto the battlefield.41 That firewall was long assumed to be solid, while allowing US conventional forces to prevail. Putin thinks otherwise.

The use or threatened use of nuclear weapons is currently explicit Russian policy.42 Even should the United States develop a strategy that provides ample options for Russia to de-escalate, Putin (or a future Russian leader) may paint himself so deeply into a corner that whatever offramps are available, he still refuses to take that option for fear it would be interpreted as a surrender or defeat.43 Not getting into a conventional conflict in the first place would avoid such a scary future, but having acquiesced in previous Russian invasions of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, our options to avoid such future nuclear blackmail may still be seriously limited, even should Russia fully withdraw from Ukraine.44

Read in the National Institute for Public Policy's Occasional Paper.