The Only Winning Move

Nuclear deterrence means knowing how not to fight

The Only Winning Move The Only Winning Move
Since 9/11, military conversations have largely focused on how the armed forces will fight wars. Today’s military professionals discuss and debate issues such as... The Only Winning Move

Since 9/11, military conversations have largely focused on how the armed forces will fight wars. Today’s military professionals discuss and debate issues such as how drones and Joint Strike Fighters and cyber weapons will shape battlefields, how forward-positioned 3D printers will enable front-line resupply at the speed of need and how women will plan an increasingly large role in combat operations.

These are important conversations to be sure, and during my time in uniform I witnessed and participated in many of them. However, something is missing. With all the talk about how to fight, there very little attention paid to not fighting. The emphasis is on prosecuting war, with scant attention paid to deterring it. This is a significant omission and the sooner we remedy it, the better for us all.

Not long ago, deterrence was a primary focus of military thought, and preventing war was a primary mission. The U.S. military was organized, trained and equipped with deterrence in mind. Accordingly, the Pentagon developed new technologies to prevent hostilities – advanced radar systems, rapid communications networks, secure launch facilities.

Military units were permanently stationed across Europe, Japan, and Korea, with the express purpose of discouraging aggression rather than engaging it. And until it was disestablished in 1992, the USAF Strategic Air Command was explicitly and emphatically a deterrent force. SAC’s motto, “Peace Is Our Profession,” highlighted their strategic goal – not to fight World War III, but to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Yes, SAC warriors were prepared to fight, but nuclear war was a secondary mission, one they hoped to never accomplish. SAC professionals were fundamentally peace-keepers, and not fighting was the main mission. The fact that there was no nuclear war shows that SAC succeeded in its peace-keeping mission.

Sadly, deterrence is not a common topic of conversation among military professionals today. As evidence, consider the limited role deterrence plays in the 2015 update to the National Military Strategy. While the new strategy mentions deterrence, it is mostly in the context of nuclear deterrence or as one third of a “deter, deny, defeat” formulation which treats deterrence as a first step rather than a final objective.

In fact, two mentions are in the context of what to do “if deterrence fails.” Throughout the Strategy, deterrence is a minor topic, a temporary waypoint on the path to security that relies on violently defeating an enemy rather than exercising what Sun Tzu described as the supreme art of war: subduing the enemy without fighting.

How did we get here? For much of the 20th century it was clear that armed conflict between the U.S. and the USSR would eventually, perhaps rapidly, lead to an apocalyptic nuclear exchange. This was unacceptable to all concerned, so military leaders committed themselves to take steps to prevent armed conflict, to not have a war. The Pentagon aimed to ensure our strength and warfighting capability were sufficient to deter the Soviet Union and to encourage them to seek alternatives to armed conflict with us and our allies.

U.S. Air Force B-47s. Photo via Wikipedia


The world situation changed and deterrence became less important when the Soviet Union collapsed. No longer did we face an Evil Empire whose destructive might matched our own and whose aggressive tendencies needed to be deterred because the cost of conflict would be so unacceptably high. Instead, in the first Gulf War allied forces readily won a conflict where the ground campaign lasted all of 100 hours and involved minimal losses. Who needs to deter that sort of war? It is probably easier to just fight and win it than to go through the effort to prevent it.

The world changed even more profoundly in 2001, and the attack on 9/11 further diminished the military’s interest in deterrence for two reasons. First, it meant we were actively engaged in a new kind of fight, and the Pentagon correctly spent a significant amount of intellectual capital trying to make sense of the new situation. Military leaders and strategists could not easily afford to spend time thinking about how to deter tomorrow’s hypothetical war when they were in the middle of fighting today’s actual war.

Rather than seeking to prevent nuclear conflict between superpowers, the best and brightest minds in uniform were focused on learning how to fight counter-insurgency operations against non-state actors.

Second, the general consensus was that there was nothing the military could do to deter the attacks that triggered the Global War on Terror. A strong and ready nuclear arsenal did not prevent 19 terrorists from hijacking airliners. The same goes for troops in Europe or aircraft carriers at sea or even spy satellites. And so for logical, justifiable, understandable reasons, the military’s focus shifted. The concept of deterrence fell out of favor and became less prominent in military circles. The new focus was on how to fight wars rather than how to prevent them.

Unfortunately, that focus continues even today.

One more factor contributes to diminish the importance of deterrence. During the Cold War, the phrase “nuclear deterrence” was essentially redundant. War was expected to be nuclear, so deterring war and deterring nuclear war were the same thing. This linkage continues today, and most modern discussions about deterrence are nuclear-related. It is long past time to break that connection and talk about preventing all types of war, not just nuclear.

Preventing hostilities from breaking out between nations is a group effort. Diplomats, economists, theologians, business leaders, and cultural ambassadors all have a role to play in building relationships that provide alternatives to armed conflict. Athletes and artists have a long history of working for peace. And so do military professionals, the past 20 years notwithstanding.

Some people in uniform today are engaged in thinking, discussing, and writing about this important topic, but they are small groups working in relative obscurity. It is long past time to remedy this, to increase the profile of the deterrence discussion. The military’s contribution to this topic should be hard to miss, not hard to find. Deterring war, not fighting, should be a primary subject of conversation and strategy, a major focus of our efforts.

In the classic ’80s movie War Games, a computer describes global thermonuclear war as “a strange game,” then goes on to point out “the only winning move is not to play.” That observation rather perfectly captured the principle behind America’s deterrence strategy during the Cold War (and Russia’s strategy as well, to be honest). The objective of this strange game was to avoid playing it in the first place. It turns out this is true for all types of war.

It is time for military leaders, strategists, and students to put deterrence back into our vocabulary. We must dedicate ourselves to preventing wars, not just fighting them. This is not about embracing pacifism. It is about pursuing the “supreme military excellence” that Sun Tzu wrote about. We need to look at how we might organize, train, and equip ourselves to not fight, to play the only winning move in this strange game and to re-embrace the old SAC motto, once again proclaiming that while we wear our nation’s uniforms and serve as its warriors, peace truly is our profession.

Lt. Col. Dan Ward, USAF (ret) served in the U.S. Air Force for over two decades before launching Dan Ward Consulting LLC. He is the author of The Simplicity Cycle: A Field Guide to Making Things Better Without Making Them Worse and F.I.R.E.: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation. He holds three engineering degrees, is a Cybersecurity Fellow at the New America Foundation and a Senior Associate Fellow at the British Institute for Statecraft.

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