The policy of deterrence needs to be eliminated as the guiding interest in American defense policy, says Dr. Keith B. Payne, President of the National Institute for Public Policy.
Deterrence theory has been the guiding hand in U.S. defense policy
since the start of the Cold War. Dr. Payne discussed the shortcomings
of this theory at a July 28th Heritage Foundation lecture. “We know
that the fear of escalation on occasion does not deter,” says Payne,
“We have favored a theory truly built on fallacies.”
Dr. Payne’s new book, The Great American Gamble,
uses recently declassified government documents to examine the role
that deterrence theory has played and continues to play in U.S. defense
policy and to prove that it has ultimately been an ineffective
“There are several instances where deterrence is
proven to have failed. Look at Saddam’s missile attack on Israel’s
nuclear facilities. His goal was not to shut down Israel’s nuclear
capabilities, but rather to deliberately provoke a nuclear response
from Israel,” said Payne.
Payne also discussed some of the assumptions on which the theory of
deterrence is based which are problematic. Perhaps the foremost among
those mentioned was that deterrence depends on the chain of command
always holding and does not allow for any miscommunications.
The example that Payne detailed in discussing this particular point was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In this case, the local Soviet commander was given emergency launch authority by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
That authority was rescinded shortly thereafter, but the local
commander later testified that he had not been aware that he no longer
possessed emergency launch authority. With the Soviets under tremendous
pressure from Cuban leaders Che Guevara and Fidel Castro to launch at the United States and the chain of command broken, this
presented a vastly more dangerous situation than many people ever
Another key component of the theory of deterrence that
Payne cited as being somewhat problematic is that it depended on both
nations maintaining a degree of vulnerability. If one nation pushed
ahead of the other with respect to missile defense technology, the
“balance of terror” that needs to be maintained in the theory of
deterrence is suddenly upset.
This tenet of the theory led U.S. officials to reject significant
upgrades in U.S. defense capabilities in order to adhere to deterrence
theory. U.S. officials believed that the cost of maintaining a
defensive posture was too great, estimating the cost disparity to be in
the neighborhood of 3:1.
To further buttress his argument Dr. Payne cited the twisted logic
involved in the decision-making process regarding deterrence.
“Secretary (Robert) McNamara decided to eliminate 22 air defense
squadrons because total U.S. [potential] casualties from a Soviet
attack would be only five million higher with the squadrons out of
service,” said Payne.
With the outcry over actual casualties in Iraq, which are 1,000 fold
fewer in number, this type of defense policy just doesn’t seem to fit.
It has become crystal clear that if America’s defense policy is truly
still centered on a policy that is a relic of the Cold War, it is time
for U.S. defense officials to reshape U.S. strategy.