'Blurring the Lines’: Nuclear and Conventional Deterrence
Successive official documents in the UK, including its most recent (2015) National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), have stated that the purpose of the UK nuclear deterrent force is to deter ‘the most extreme threats to our national security and way of life’. France’s official statements about its nuclear deterrent use a different formulation – for example, to ‘prevent any state-based aggression against the vital interests of the nation’ – but with broadly the same meaning. Analogous phrases are used by the other nuclear-weapon states. Many commentators have understood that such language implies – or should imply – that nuclear deterrence is about the deterrence of nuclear threats, as the most destructive weapons that one state could inflict on another (although the US and UK governments themselves have not endorsed such a restrictive interpretation). But the reality has been more complicated for a long time – and current concerns about ‘blurring the lines’ between nuclear and conventional deterrence risk being overtaken by events.
The belief that the purpose of nuclear deterrence is primarily to deter nuclear attack is linked to nuclear disarmament and the negative security assurances (NSAs). These were issued by the nuclear-weapon states after the UN General Assembly held its first Special Session on Disarmament in 1978. The NSAs committed these states to not attacking with nuclear weapons non-nuclear-weapon states that were in good standing in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and not in alliance with a nuclear-weapon state.
But since the emergence of heightened concerns about non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the early 2000s, the Western nuclear-weapon states have deliberately held open the possibility that their nuclear forces could also deter chemical, biological or (conventionally armed) ballistic missile attacks – which some commentators have seen as creating a tension between their declaratory policy and their disarmament commitments under the NPT. An early example came in 2002 in the UK’s post-9/11 ‘New Chapter’ addendum to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review; its message was implicit rather than explicit, but was fully intentional. Even the US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of 2010, which made a formal commitment not to ‘use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against [NPT-compliant] non-nuclear-weapon states’, went on to claim – albeit in relation to other states – ‘there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which US nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or [chemical and biological weapons] attack’.
This line of thinking was not aberrational. In the very different context of the Cold War, NATO governments saw the alliance’s nuclear forces as deterring aggression ‘even with non-nuclear weapons’. NATO’s doctrine of ‘flexible response’ relied on possible first use of nuclear weapons to deter a Soviet conventional attack, as there was little confidence that it could be countered by NATO’s smaller conventional forces in Europe. Far from a clear separation between nuclear and conventional deterrence, the two were deliberately (and repeatedly) linked.
Current renewed concerns within the nuclear community about blurring the lines between nuclear and conventional deterrence appear to stem from a growing awareness of Russian nuclear doctrine and the US NPR of 2018.
Russian military doctrine on ‘new generation warfare’ posits a type of warfare capitalizing on indirect action, informational campaigns, private military organizations, and the exploitation of internal protests, backed by sophisticated conventional and nuclear capabilities.
Russian nuclear doctrine has not been published per se. But its contours can be divined from broader doctrinal documents – and, of course, from public statements about it by Western governments. Russian military doctrine on ‘new generation warfare’ (sometimes termed the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’ by Western commentators) posits a type of warfare capitalizing on indirect action, informational campaigns, private military organizations, and the exploitation of internal protests, backed by sophisticated conventional and nuclear capabilities. Termed ‘cross-domain coercion’ by Dmitry Abramsky, this doctrine deliberately blurs the lines between the use of unconventional means (cyber, disinformation, etc.), conventional forces and nuclear forces – with, Western governments claim, a lower threshold for nuclear use.
The NPR has attracted criticism on two main counts. First, the decision to supplement the US’s extant nuclear programme by modifying a number of existing submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads to provide a low-yield option, and by acquiring (in slower time) a modern submarine-launched cruise missile – both systems being criticized as components of a nuclear war-fighting strategy. Second, the NPR’s explicit assertion that ‘deterring nuclear attack is not the sole purpose of nuclear weapons’, and that nuclear weapons could be employed to deter ‘significant’ non-nuclear attacks, including ‘attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure’. While cyberattacks are not cited specifically, they would naturally fall into this category.
The subsequent debate has risked conflating two linked but different things – deterrence doctrine and war-fighting doctrine. This is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, almost 40 years ago, in 1981, Michael Quinlan disputed this tendency: ‘To make provision for having practical courses of action available in nuclear war […] is not in the least to have a ‘war-fighting strategy’ […] It is, on the contrary, a necessary path to deterrence […].’
Deterrence is distinct from war-fighting. In terms of its war-fighting doctrine, NATO does not see nuclear forces as part of the mix in the same way as does Russia. It continues, rather, to set them apart – as illustrated by successive summit declarations. NATO aspires to greater ‘coherence’ between its nuclear and conventional forces, but it does not see them as placed on a simple continuum. In that respect, the concern about blurring the lines is overstated.
But deterrence has always been about influencing the calculations of adversaries. It is their perceptions that matter. It is conceivable that the adherents of a continuum doctrine with a low threshold for nuclear use might believe that NATO states would not risk the use of their strategic systems in a conflict in which there is a perceived asymmetry of stakes – and hence be tempted to employ non-strategic nuclear weapons, chemical or biological weapons, or a destructive offensive cyberattack to terminate the conflict on their terms with low risk of escalation. NATO had much the same concern during the Cold War, giving rise to the development of the ‘flexible response’ doctrine. For deterrence purposes, it is therefore prudent for the Western alliance, once again, to have potential recourse to a range of systems, nuclear and non-nuclear, to counter any such misperceptions.
The long-running debate about ‘blurring the lines’ now needs to be repositioned within the contemporary strategic environment – and the emerging framework of so-called ‘modern deterrence’. As widely accepted, the former is characterized by a diversity, complexity and concurrency of threats, from multiple potential adversaries who are able to synchronize dynamically non-military and military options, up to and including nuclear forces. In essence, ‘modern deterrence’ theory is an updating of classical deterrence thinking to reflect changed circumstances, not a new concept. It does not draw a sharp distinction between nuclear and conventional deterrence – but its approach may provide some mitigation of concerns about the blurring of lines.
This is not the place to describe ‘modern deterrence’ theory in detail. While it presents no simple recipe, it contains four main ingredients: improving our understanding of potential adversaries; maximizing the utility of the full range of non-military and military tools at states’ disposal; enhancing our resilience; and close coordination with Western allies and partners. It starts from recognizing that a feature of the contemporary strategic environment is that certain actors seek to advance their agendas by actions that remain ‘sub-threshold’ – in other words, that are calibrated not to provoke a significant military response. To some degree, this is a backhanded compliment to the continued efficacy of nuclear and conventional deterrence. In response, Western governments have sought to expand their deterrence ‘toolbox’ – less through inventing new tools than by making better use of existing ones, such as diplomatic action or economic sanctions. A key facet is a greater willingness to expose or call out malign activities, with the intention of deterring repetition by raising general awareness, and thus making such activities more difficult to undertake, or by raising the reputational price. Recent examples include the UK and Dutch governments’ respective responses to the 2018 Salisbury nerve-agent poisoning of Sergei Skripal (a former double agent for the UK and Russian intelligence services) and his daughter Yulia, and the subsequent attempt to hack the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague. Measuring the effectiveness of ‘modern deterrence’ entails the same analytical challenges as classical deterrence. It is difficult to prove a negative; and, arguably, it is simply too early to try, as the changes in approach and posture are still being implemented.
So, in terms of concerns about the blurring of lines, ‘modern deterrence’ focuses on – and seeks to provide the toolbox for – deterring threats across the spectrum. By making clear that costs will be incurred by ‘sub-threshold’ malign activity, it aims to discourage any temptation on the part of other actors to keep pushing their luck – with escalation potentially leading to miscalculation. With a wide range of tools with which to deter, Western governments have no need to reach straight for the nuclear option. In this context, the role of nuclear deterrence is to neutralize efforts to use nuclear sabre-rattling to intimidate opponents (or even bystanders) in what are otherwise mainly ‘grey zone’ conflicts. NATO’s deterrence posture has done just that in the months and years since Russia’s 2014 intervention in eastern Ukraine; indeed a number of countries, including the UK, have provided non-escalatory training and assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces for many years.
If they ever really existed, the old ‘silos’ of nuclear and conventional deterrence make even less practical sense now. A deterrence posture should, of course, be consistent with states’ disarmament commitments – the NSAs continue to be a stabilizing factor – as well as compliant with the principles of international humanitarian law. But to deter effectively, it should not needlessly foreclose options. The declaratory policy adopted from the early 2000s remains right. And, in the face of more nebulous ‘grey zone’ threats, the modernization of nuclear and conventional forces should continue to be accompanied by work to maximize the availability of non-military deterrent options, so that states can deter such threats at the lowest practical level. It is the credibility of the overall posture that deters.
106 HM Government (2015), National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, para 4.6.3, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-security-strategy-and-strategic-defence-and-security-review-2015 (accessed 14 Aug. 2019).
107 Présidence de la République (2008), Défense et Sécurité nationale: Le Livre blanc, Paris, Odile Jacob/La Documentation française, https://www.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr/var/storage/rapports-publics/084000341.pdf (accessed 14 Aug. 2019).
108 The first legally binding NSA protocols were those enshrined in the Treaty of Tlatelolco, signed in 1967: however, these were applicable only on a regional basis.
109 See Chalmers, M. (2010), Nuclear Narratives: Reflections on Declaratory Policy, RUSI Whitehall Report 1-10, pp. 9–10, https://rusi.org/sites/default/files/201005_whr_nuclear_narratives_0.pdf (accessed 14 Aug. 2019).
110 Ministry of Defence (2002), The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter, CM 5566, Vol I, para 21. For a summary, see House of Commons Defence Committee (2003), A New Chapter to the Strategic Defence Review, paras 21–22, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmselect/cmdfence/93/93.pdf (accessed 14 Aug. 2019).
111 Quoted in Chalmers (2010), Nuclear Narratives: Reflections on Declaratory Policy, p. 5.
112 UK Ministry of Defence (1980), The Future United Kingdom Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Force, Defence Open Government Document 80/23, p. 2.
113 Adamsky (2018), ‘From Moscow with coercion: Russian deterrence theory and strategic culture’.
114 Office of the Secretary of Defense (2018), Nuclear Posture Review, p. 21.
115 HM Government (1981), Statement on the Defence Estimates 1981 [CMND 8212–1], p. 13. Reproduced in Quinlan, M. (2009), Thinking about Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Appendix 1, p. 182. At the time of the 1981 statement, some critics of nuclear deterrence claimed that tactical nuclear weapons were seen as just ‘bigger’ weapons that could tip the balance on the battlefield.
116 For a (very) brief official description of ‘modern deterrence’, see HM Government (2018), National Security Capability Review, box on p. 11, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/705347/6.4391_CO_National-Security-Review_web.pdf (accessed 6 Dec. 2019). The term ‘modern deterrence’ has not been officially adopted by NATO or the US.