Rethinking Strategic Stability – Part 1

This past week I attended meetings with the former head of STRATCOM in which deterrence and strategic stability were a key focus. The former official mentioned a couple of times the article a few years ago by the ‘4 Horsemen’, in which the statesmen argue that nuclear weapons are now destabilizing, rather than stabilizing. This is a result of the non-use norm, by which even though parity is achieved, the weapons will never be used and restrict operations in the sub-nuclear arena. The official seemed to be a strong proponent of increasing the US’s capability to operate in the sub-nuclear arena with ever increasingly complex weapon systems, with a particular focus on information capacity. The logic here is that the US needs a wide selection of tools to escalate the costs of action of an adversary.

I have been thinking quite a lot about this perspective, and wanted to put some thoughts down on ‘paper’ to better conceptualize this perspective and a larger perspective on strategic stability of the future over the course of several posts. Fundamentally, my trouble with the above perspective is that by implementing this new scale-able “escalation ladder,” to crib Schelling, perhaps promotes two destabilizing attributes: US technological primacy and weaponry more likely to be used. With this in mind, I’d like to set up my arguments for these by just setting up a definition by which to work from by first examining deterrence logic and then the core of strategic stability.


Fundamentally, deterrence rests on the strategic logic of dissuasion, with the primary objective being to dissuade someone from taking a particular course of action. From a game theory perspective, deterrence is meant to turn games of common interests into games of common aversion (Schelling 1966). This requires escalating the costs of an opponent’s actions to the point at which any action they take would be imprudent. Unlike coercion, which is intended to change the status quo by the use of force, deterrence’s ultimate goal is to threaten the use of force in order to maintain the status quo. It is based on this objective that the success of deterrence is measured.

Several requirements are required for effective engaging in an effective deterrence strategy. First, threats should be credible, in that the state engaging in a deterrent strategy should have the capacity to carry out the threat. Secondly, preventing the attack should be conveyed by a deterring state as critically important. Thirdly, credible signals need to convey that the deterring state possess the political will to use military force if necessary. Lastly, the ability to effectively communicate and credibly signal an adversary is critical to ensuring that a deterring state is able to convince the adversary that they will respond if necessary. Deterrence as a strategy rests upon the ability to effectively escalate costs and to credible signal intentions in a way that modifies an adversary’s decision making process.

While a deterrence strategy could be applied to any weapon system, a point that will be discussed in greater depth in the next post, nuclear weapons have shaped and dominated this field. The reason why nuclear weapons has been so important in the study of deterrence is that it provides the most credible and costly punishment that helps to anchor the deterrence logic. The threat of a mutually assured destruction should one attempt to attack is the main logic behind the nuclear weapons’ importance in deterrence. Yet, the above discussion also show that deterrence does not require a bipolar, arms-racing situation like the Cold War represented: as long as the threat of unacceptable cost to one’s action is credible that no states would be willing to actively change the status quo, deterrence logic can prevail.

Defining Strategic Stability 

Strategic stability lacks a universally accepted definition, varying in conceptualization between states and strategists within states. No consensus exists on how it evolves, what factors advance it, what factors diminish it, or how to measure it. Rather, the conceptualization has developed and evolved over time. A fundamental definition could be considered the combination of mutual vulnerability and assured retaliatory capabilities of opposing actors, by which no meaningful advantage in striking first persists, particularly in times of crisis thereby creating a situation of stable strategic relations.

As mutual vulnerability and survivable second-strike capabilities were key elements to the strategic paradigm during the Cold War, strategic stability was seen as effective. Since the end of the Cold War, however, strategic stability has struggled to find contextual footing, a contributing factor of which stems from the debates on global zero. Since the end of the Cold War, a crisis within the strategic stability thinking as occurred, aligning with the debates that have occurred in deterrence theory. Scholars decried the mechanistic and a-political characterization of certain kinds of nuclear forces as “stabilizing” and others as “destabilizing.”(Gray) Strategic stability was further weakened in the early 2000s, as the Bush administration dismissed mutual vulnerability from the strategic equation and sought to expand the strategic arsenal by diversifying and modernizing nuclear weapons, leaving the ABM and advancing missile defense, and expanding conventional means of response (Prompt Global Strike, MBD). These moves highlight what Gerson has called the ‘transform’ school, which wants to push beyond mutual vulnerability. The two other schools Gerson describes are the traditional, those proponents of the Cold War style stability that emphasizes crisis stability and vulnerability, and ‘expanded’, which expands strategic stability’s conceptualization beyond nuclear weapons into broader weapon systems and political factors.

Future of Strategic Stability

Should deterrence theory and strategic stability conceptually shift in the next century in light of the perspective that due to the non-use norm that nuclear weapons are irrelevant and destabilizing as a result of their constraining influence in conflict? Yes and no. Generally speaking, as the numbers of nuclear weapons go down, which has been and will likely continue to be a priority, strategic stability would not necessarily get undermined as long as the nuclear powers take measure to maintain the survivability and retaliation capacity of their nuclear forces. However, if the reduction goes deeper and as the number of nuclear weapons approaches zero, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain strategic stability as it will become easier for countries to break out of mutually assured destruction and obtain a first strike capability. Furthermore, the specific configurations of nuclear arsenals can affect strategic stability as the number of nuclear weapons goes down. Due to characteristics of different weapon delivery systems, strategic stability is easier to be maintained if nuclear powers firstly cut those delivery systems that favor disproportionately to offense than defense. Similarly, the practice to keep multiple warheads on a single land based ballistic missile will negative affect strategic stability.

Additionally, other weapon systems beyond nuclear ones can also influence strategic stability in the 21st century, particularly when integrated with existing nuclear arsenals and deployed unilaterally with adversarial states unbalanced in their armaments. Missile defense systems, for instance, can provide protection and reduce the vulnerability of its possessor against a second nuclear strike, and therefore, can negatively affect strategic stability; and the emergence of conventional strategic weaponry which have the potential to effectively target and destroy nuclear facilities can also change the existing balance towards favoring offensive military strategies. The next installment will look further  at these issues as well as the impact of diversifying the triad to include conventional weaponry.

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