Bad Idea: Relying on “Integrated Deterrence” Instead of Building Sufficient U.S. Military Power

COMMENTARY Defense

Bad Idea: Relying on “Integrated Deterrence” Instead of Building Sufficient U.S. Military Power

Dec 30th, 2021 5 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Thomas Spoehr

Director, Center for National Defense

Thomas W. Spoehr conducts and supervises research on national defense matters.
Among the many definitions of deterrence, a simple one is to “prevent an enemy power [from] taking the decision to use armed force.” U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Mician

Key Takeaways

While at first blush, the idea sounds attractive, policymakers should view this notion with caution.

While the U.S. should employ all tools available, the most certain means of deterring conflict is to build sufficient military power in concert with our allies.

Using the idea of integrated deterrence in lieu of building sufficient U.S. military power is a Bad Idea in National Security.

This summer, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin debuted the term “Integrated Deterrence” to describe the Biden administration’s proposed new concept to avert military aggression. Austin described integrated deterrence as being able to draw on the capabilities of not just the military, but on “federal agencies, partner nations and allies, as well.” He summarized the approach as “using every military and non-military tool in lock-step with allies and partners.”

While at first blush, the idea sounds attractive, policymakers should view this notion with caution. On the one hand, using all elements of national power to deter conflict has been a consistent approach of U.S. national strategy. But history has also has proven that non-military tools, such as economic sanctions or diplomatic condemnation, have limited utility in deterring a determined adversary from instigating conflict. While the U.S. should employ all tools available, the most certain means of deterring conflict is to build sufficient military power in concert with our allies. This effectively sows doubt in the minds of our adversaries as to whether they can achieve their objectives by force.

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A critically important subject is how the United States goes about deterring its adversaries. Among the many definitions of deterrence, a simple one is to “prevent an enemy power [from] taking the decision to use armed force.” After the defense of the homeland, deterring military action by either China or Russia is arguably the most vital task of a U.S. national defense strategy. It is thus extraordinarily important to devise the most effective and reliable deterrence strategies.

A common mistake in considering how to deter an adversary is to adopt a U.S. perspective as opposed to placing yourself in the position of your adversary. President Lyndon Johnson started Operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained bombing of North Vietnam in 1965, under the assumption that no leader would allow their country to suffer such consequences.  Such a conclusion reflected a valid assumption from the perspective of U.S. policymakers, but Hanoi and the Vietcong remained undeterred.

To some degree, the Biden administration’s concept for integrated deterrence calls falls into the trap of viewing security issues from the U.S. perspective by counting non-military tools such as economic sanctions, international condemnation, or perhaps legal penalties as useful in bolstering traditional military means.  While these techniques could contribute to an overall deterrence posture, there is an implicit danger in relying on these means to persuade an adversary of the folly of military aggression—particularly if that dependence is used as justification to restrict the investments necessary for building sufficient U.S. military power.

Certainly, America’s two primary potential adversaries, China, and Russia, pay little heed to non-military sanctions. Russia knew it would face both broad censure and economic sanctions after both its 2008 invasion of Georgia and its 2014 invasion of Ukraine, but still carried on with its strategy. Similarly, President Putin’s decision to use nerve gas in attempts to assassinate political enemies seemed unconstrained by any worries about reaction from the United Nations or any other international body. Finally, in mid-November a Russian direct ascent anti-satellite missile destroyed a satellite in orbit, creating a debris field of over 1,500 pieces posing a lethal hazard for other satellites or spacecraft in orbit. We can only conclude Moscow does not worry about its global reputation.

Similarly, China seems untroubled by the international consequences of its aggressions. When the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled in 2016 that China’s claims in the South China Sea were unlawful, Beijing dismissed the ruling as “nothing more than a piece of waste paper.” China responded with similar indifference in the face of international concern over its persecution of Uyghurs  or illegal crack-downs in Hong Kong. 

To some degree, the belief that non-military tools would deter China and Russia reflects a U.S. bias towards international relations, a perspective that places great value on international reputation and acceptance. China and Russia enjoy no similar burdens.

Because it has proven impossible to predict the impact of non-military tools such as economic sanctions or diplomatic condemnation on autocratic adversaries’ decision-making processes, it would be unwise to place any reliance on such techniques. 

Indeed, at its heart, deterrence is a military function. Only salient military power and the demonstrated will to employ it have the ability to create doubt in the mind of an adversary that they can accomplish their objectives at an acceptable cost. Whereas non-military tools can be unreliable, military outcomes can be effectively predicted based on the correlation of a force structure and posture that holds the promise of denying an adversary their objectives (also known as deterrence by denial).

As opposed to deterring by punishment—the technique employed by President Johnson with Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his imposition of an oil embargo on the Japanese just before World War II—deterring by denial (of objectives) has long been recognized as the sine non qua in dissuading an opponent.  In the early 20th century, Great Britain didn’t keep Germany in check through the threat of sanctions; it was their powerful Navy that dissuaded aggression.

In addition to employing non-military tools, the Pentagon’s articulations of integrated deterrence place great importance on allies. Certainly, allies can contribute to a favorable correlation of forces, and in the case of deterring China and Russia, the U.S. should expend every effort to forge strong partnerships. But such efforts must be tempered with the reality of the limits of what allies can contribute.  Many nations in NATO or the Indo-Pacific would be hard-pressed to procure and maintain even one squadron of 5th generation fighter aircraft. Many are constrained by internal politics or economic issues. In fact, most NATO nations are failing to meet the two percent of GDP metric for defense spending.

Should the United States use all elements of national power and allied contributions to deter aggression? Certainly, this approach should be employed at the national level and articulated in the National Security Strategy.  But, to develop an effective deterrence posture, the U.S. Defense Department must avoid reliance on non-military tools or unrealistic expectations from our allies. Instead, the Pentagon should narrowly focus its efforts and the National Defense Strategy on the development of the appropriate elements of military power in sufficient quantities in order to deny an adversary their objectives. Using the idea of integrated deterrence in lieu of building sufficient U.S. military power is a Bad Idea in National Security.

This piece originally appeared in Defense 360, A Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on 12/3/21