Integrated Deterrence: Increasing Complexity and Decreasing Credibility

Integrated deterrence is much in debate these days. As a new term, there is still no clear definition, and a lot of confusion prevails regarding its merits and scope. Is integrated deterrence different from the simple concept of deterrence, or are both the same? Guesses can be made from the US official statements, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. By analysing these statements and comparing them with the earlier deterrence posture of the US, more understanding of the subject can be developed.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is one of the top officials to have used the term “Integrated Deterrence”. According to him, although deterrence remains the cornerstone of US defence, going forward, the integrated deterrence approach will be adopted. So how different will integrated deterrence be from simple deterrence, in his opinion? For Austin, the logic of deterrence is still the same but will now span over multiple realms, including allies and partners. It will include the best and latest weapons and technologies. However, this is not new. Throughout the Cold War, the US and Russia were engaged in an arms race to develop the latest weapons to gain superiority over each other.

Colin Kahl, the Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, defined integrated deterrence which is integrated across:

  1. domains, including conventional, nuclear, cyber, space, and information,
  2. feeders of competition and potential conflict, and
  3. the spectrum of conflict from high-intensity warfare to grey zones.

The US Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Sasha Baker, has also commented on integrated deterrence where nuclear weapons continue to play their “unique role” in the US defence strategy. According to her, an integrated deterrence framework consists of “working across warfighting domains, theatres, and the spectrum of conflict, in collaboration with all instruments of national power, as well as with US allies and our partners.” Again, there is nothing new about the uniqueness of nuclear weapons or fighting alongside allies. They already play this unique role in the national defence of all the nuclear weapons states simply as weapons of deterrence. The US has also worked with its allies to deter the potential threats against itself and its allies.

The new terminology and framework may be part of efforts to create an effective framework. However, the new framework may add confusion and complexity instead of strengthening deterrence.

From the above statements of the three US Department of Defense officials, the traditional concept of nuclear deterrence still makes the foundation of US defence policy. However, they are now formally attaching it with the other tools of national defence under the framework of the integrated defence. Nuclear deterrence posture can be either through the threat of punishment or denial. For the threat of punishment, you need fewer forces with mainly counter-value targets. However, integrated deterrence looks closer to the deterrence by denial posture where you prepare for nuclear warfighting.

The US had adopted a similar posture in the past. The strategy of flexible response was similar to integrated deterrence, where tailored responses were planned “to deter all wars, general or limited, nuclear or conventional, large or small”, in John F. Kennedy’s words. The US strategic forces, such as nuclear missiles, conventional forces, and special operation forces, could be deployed according to the nature of the threat.

So, what is the logic behind coining a new term? Every new US Administration makes its national security policies, including the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The last NPR was made by the Trump Administration, and now Biden Administration is working on its document, which will be released in the coming months. Each Administration tries to be different from the previous by bringing substantial changes in the documents or simply changing the lenses to view nuclear deterrence. However, the role of nuclear deterrence at its core has largely remained unchanged throughout the years, with a focus on improving its efficacy and credibility for allies and adversaries.

The uniqueness of nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis other elements of integrated deterrence is that there is a far more serious approach to it. Due to the unaffordable cost of not complying, states have managed not to cross each other’s nuclear threshold. For other elements, the adversary may think of affording the cost of not complying. The US has already slapped sanctions or used other elements of national power to punish its adversaries. For example, sanctions against adversaries remain a major policy action when dealing with adversaries, including Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.

The new terminology and framework may be part of efforts to create an effective framework. However, the new framework may add confusion and complexity instead of strengthening deterrence. While the hardcore military concept of deterrence remains the same, its application should also be simple to be more effective and credible. Complexity in deterrence posture can undermine the perception of the adversary who is to be deterred. Thomas Spoehr has rightly argued about the impact of military and non-military responses. He argues that non-military response to deter can be unreliable, and the outcome cannot be predicted. Similarly, the reliance on the allies for deterrence is also complicated and can easily cause confusion and misperception.

Integration can also have a paradoxical effect on the role of and confidence in nuclear deterrence. For the US, when placed in the same basket with other military and non-military tools, the emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons may increase. At the same time, the integration may make the US threat of nuclear weapons use less credible for its adversaries.

Integrating nuclear deterrence with other elements can also have implications for arms control and disarmament measures. It is also feared that the integration may increase the rhetoric on nuclear weapons. Furthermore, mainstreaming nuclear weapons through integration may also diminish their value as the ultimate but unusable capability.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is a Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad. He focuses on nuclear proliferation, deterrence, and emerging technologies. He tweets at @samranali6.

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