Archive for March, 2010

It seems to be good news: the United States and Russia have agreed to a new nuclear weapons reduction treaty. Given the potential horrors of nuclear war, a spectre that has haunted humanity ever since 1945, surely a reduction of nuclear arsenals is an important step towards the eventual disarmament of all nuclear arsenals.

    The Desirability of Nuclear Disarmament?

But is nuclear disarmament necessaily a good thing? As horrifying nuclear war may undeniably be, it does appear that nuclear weapons continue to maintain a terrible attraction over human imagination. After Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, an Indian general reportedly said that the signal lesson of this episode is that one should not go up against the United States without first acquiring a nuclear arsenal.

For all of the efforts of the nuclear disarmament lobby, none of the established nuclear powers have abandoned their respective nuclear arsenals. Nor has the disarmament lobby persuaded many would-be nuclear powers from abandoning their respective nuclear weapons programmes. The nuclear disarmament lobby appears to have had only a small number of success stories – Brazil, Libya, South Africa and South Korea.

This admittedly sad state of affairs probably betrays a simple truth: nuclear weapons have a strategic certainty that both military planners and policy makers have always craved. Throughout human history, much intellectual energy was expended in the search for strategic certainty, the idea that national interests can be unambiguously secured through the use of military power. There is a terrible certainty about the nuclear mushroom cloud that recalls Bernard Brodie’s conclusion that the only rational use of nuclear weapons would lie in its ability to prevent wars from breaking out in the future. This was the central tenet of nuclear deterrence – it was the near certainty of universal destruction that apparently held the nuclear powers back from the brink, although it did not always stop them from approaching the brink – witness the Cuban missile crisis, or the superpower response to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, as examples.

    What Conventional Deterrence Entails

If Brodie is correct, then surely universal nuclear disarmament is surely an invitation to return to the pre-nuclear era, and would surely bring about to a proliferation of wars since the nuclear taboo would have been removed. After all, as some strategists would argue, there is no such thing as conventional deterrence; even if there is, conventional deterrence is so inherently uncertain as to preclude any successful application of this strategy.

It is undeniable that conventional deterrence is inherently uncertain. Conventional deterrence rests on the principle of denial – denial of success, specifically; whereas nuclear deterrence rests on the principle of fear of punishment. The principle of denial simply means this: a would-be aggressor faces such poor prospects of military success that any resort to armed force is almost surely irrational. After all, why embark on a course of action, if there are almost no chances for that course of action to succeed?

For this denial strategy to succeed, it therefore requires capable and credible military power. A capable military force is one that as three components: military hardware that is as technically good as is affordable; military software in the form of doctrines and operating concepts that allow the user to effectively employ this military hardware in operations; and a well-trained and motivated ‘wet-ware’ in the form of the soldiers that make up the military force. All three are necessary for military capability to exist. It is no point having the best weapons systems, if the military force has neither the military doctrines that allow it to effectively employ these weapons systems in battle, nor the soldiers who know how to operate these weapons systems.

Credibility refers to the argument that threats of action will actually eventuate as and when necessary. It is not too dissimilar to a parent threatening to punish a child for misbehaviour. If the parent threatens punishment, but does not mete out punishment as threatened when the child misbehaves, that parent’s threat loses its credibility. Subsequently the child knows that misbehaviour will not result in punishment, and the child can thereafter ignore any threats that the parent may issue. Conversely the parent loses all capability to control the behaviour of the child.

    The Psychological Pitfalls

The problem is that this ‘calculus’ of capability and credibility, which is central to conventional deterrence, is inherently uncertain. This uncertainty stems from the difficulty in measuring the non-material elements of capability and credibility. Only one element of this ‘calculus’ of deterrence avails itself to easy measurement – namely, hardware. Weapons systems are difficult to hide, their technical characteristics similarly transparent enough. As an example, the technical characteristics of an F-22 Raptor are undeniably impressive – its low-observable nature, the angles of attack the platform facilitates, its agility and manoeuvrability, among others. It is impossible to know with the same certainty the skill of the human operator piloting the aircraft, though. It is similarly impossible to know for certain that the air force in question will employ this aircraft in a strategic doctrine that maximises this platform’s inherent technical characteristics.

Put simply, it is impossible to know if a military force is as capable as it seems. The hardware it possesses may be impressive enough, but without any clear indication of the skill of its human operators and the rigour of its military training, any hardware-centric assessment of capability is necessarily incomplete. The possession of impressive hardware does not preclude the prospect of total incompetence.

In other words, a potential aggressor may believe, for any number of reasons, that the adversary is not as capable as the latter’s hardware actually suggests. The potential aggressor can believe that it actually possesses a high probability of success against its likely adversary. In such a case, the deterrence against this would-be aggressor will be weak at best, non-existence at worst. What this demonstrates is that deterrence may be a function of capability and credibility, but it is really a function of how the potential aggressor perceives the capability and credibility of the potential victim.

Conventional deterrence is therefore a highly problematic strategy, inasmuch as it cannot guarantee the strategic outcomes the state desires. That is not to say that states should resort to nuclear arms to have a workable deterrence strategy. A deterrence posture for a conventional military force may be inherently problematic, but there may be no better alternatives.


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Having just come back from a visit to Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh, I have to say that nothing I read about the battle as a student prepared me for the sense of immediacy that an actual visit gives. Granted, the experience will still be vicarious in nature – unless and until I am prepared to participate in an actual exercise of hauling by rope a piece of metal that weighs several hundreds of kilograms, any other ‘experience’ of the Vietminh’s struggles will always be vicarious.

We know the story – the Vietminh had to manhandle their artillery to the surrounding hilltops, from which they began to pound the French positions. A daunting prospect already. Watching old film footage of the Vietminh doing this made the task of hauling by hand artillery to the top of a hill seem even more awe-inspiring. But actually standing at the site, seeing the hills with my own eyes, this began to give me an even more awe-struck respect for what the Vietminh managed to achieve.

Which brings me to the second point – the power of will in battle. Nothing quite approximates the power of human will. Clausewitz, as we know, defined war as a clash of wills. It would be tempting for the casual observer to conclude that there was no way for the Vietminh to have done what they had to do to prepare for the battle of Dien Bien Phu. I was told by the Vietnamese historians (and I am prepared to discount their accounts to some extent on account of nationalist exaggeration!) that whenever the ropes snapped, some Vietminh would throw themselves in front of the artillery in an attempt to stop it from rolling all the way downhill. If nothing else convincingly illustrates the power of human will over the machinery of war, this episode of military history surely will.

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