Thursday, March 05, 2020

The Paradox of Aggressive Deterrence


Secretary of Defense Mark Esper oversaw a tabletop war game exercise two weeks ago where Russian military forces used a “tactical” nuclear weapon against NATO territory during a conflict in Europe, prompting the US to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike. The exercise prompted a flurry of reactions from Russia and US allies alike.

Russian politicians expressed anger at the exercise and accused the Pentagon of “reckless nuclear fear-mongering”, The Moscow Times reported. Members of the Russian Defense Committee argued that American actions were intended to intimidate European populations and justify the presence of American bases as security guarantors for their allies.

Democratic lawmakers in American have also criticized the action, likening the Trump administration’s decision to add new nuclear weapons to their arsenal as akin to the Cold War nuclear arms race. To be fair, it is a sharp turnabout from the Obama administration’s attempts to stabilize and preserve our arsenal without driving the development of new nuclear weapons.

The Defense Department defended its actions as a necessary response to Russian buildup of nuclear weapons – though this reasoning does not assuage fears of a new arms race. The disparity between Russian and American capabilities recently led the Trump administration to develop and deploy the first new US nuclear weapon in decades, a submarine-launched low yield weapon known as the W76-II.

The weapon arguably promotes deterrence by demonstrating American retaliation capabilities. However, European allies are concerned that the weapon would merely lower the threshold of nuclear weapons use and encourage their deployment.

As the recent strategic plays exemplify, American military strategy is still fundamentally dependent on escalatory doctrine. Though nuclear policy has at times diverged into deterrence, and there is significant support for disarmament, it will require a fundamental shift of American military policy to comprehensively. Though its urgency has faded in recent decades, the perennial question of balancing nuclear power remains pertinent today.

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