Tailored Deterrence and Nuclear War Fighting in the Trump Administration’s Leak Draft Nuclear Posture Review.

I have long argued that the concept of tailored deterrence will constitute the core of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, and it appears that my contention was indeed correct. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review has been much anticipated, and it appears that a draft has been leaked to The Huffington Post which also provides a link to the purported draft. Tailored deterrence is front and centre in the leaked draft, and I assume that it accurately reflects the NPR as it currently stands.

There have been three Nuclear Posture Review’s since the end of the Cold War, one from the Clinton administration when Les Aspin was Secretary of Defense, a Bush administration NPR which was not published publicly but from which excerpts were leaked, and Obama’s 2009 NPR.

The important part to the NPR is what follows after it, that is how its major themes get translated into Presidential Guidance or the Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy, although guidance can change and is not necessarily framed by an NPR. The most well known example of this was the enactment of PDD60 by the Clinton administration. Despite much talk about a peace dividend and a new era of strategic reform Clinton’s NPR was so conservative it left Reagan era Guidance, NSDD-13, with its (reported) mandate for the US to plan, size and deploy nuclear capabilities able to prevail in a protracted nuclear war, intact.

One of the main proponents, in the academic community, of the idea that nuclear capabilities should be reflective of a strategy to prevail in a nuclear war was Colin Gray, who along with Keith Payne, wrote of a “theory of victory” in the early 1980s. Colin Gray is approvingly cited in Trump’s NPR and that is no accident, as I shall attempt to convince you of.

There is a sense in which the Nuclear Posture Review of successive administrations function as a type of political rationale or political justification for doctrines and postures already committed to. That is, an NPR is a political document more directed at persuading and constraining those who are required to fund its main findings than to the adversaries US nuclear capabilities are directed against (it also reflects political constraints faced by the executive). It is interesting, in that light, to observe that to a significant, though not total, degree the Bush administration failed to make good on some of its key nuclear preferences. The Reliable Replacement Warhead, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, the planned major expansion in the nuclear weapons complex and the like did not get through a sceptical Congress.

The administration that most failed to achieve its nuclear preferences after the collapse of the Cold War framework is the one administration that did not publicly release a nuclear posture review. So, the first thing I noticed with the Trump NPR is that it is a lengthy public policy document whose invoking of tailored deterrence is designed to provide doctrinal coherence. The national security bureaucracy, during the Obama and now Trump era, have learnt something about the politics of nuclear weapons policy it would appear.

Doubtless I shall have occasion and reason to write more about the nitty gritty specifics of the Trump NPR, therefore here I shall limit myself to a broad overview. In particular I draw the reader’s attention to the concept of tailored deterrence and the manner in which it frames the entire document. This can be seen upon the most casual inspection. Look at the section and sub section headings, and see how many times the word “tailor” or “tailored” appears.

The NPR states, in the preamble written by the Secretary of Defense,

Given the range of adversaries, their capabilities and strategic objectives, this review calls for a flexible, tailored nuclear strategy. In nuclear deterrence, no “one size fits all”

Tailored deterrence is a concept of long standing, and it is most associated with, you guessed it, Colin Gray and Keith Payne. From the 1990s onward both have prominently argued that we are in the midst of a “second nuclear age” where the old idea of “one size fits all” deterrence no longer applies. Rather, deterrence needs to be “tailored” to context and contingency. The most important theoretical point made in defence of tailored deterrence is the necessity for a relaxation of the traditional rationality criterion of deterrence theory in the second nuclear age, which is closely associated with the concept of the “rogue state.”

Roughly, it was argued that a generalised existential deterrent does not apply in the post Cold War era because rogue states do not engage in instrumentally rational cost-benefit calculations typical of other states. They have their own conception of rationality, and because they do deterrence needs to be tailored to those concepts of rationality not with reference to a generalised or universal concept of rationality more typical of one size fits all deterrence. These ideas were further reinforced by non realist approaches to theoretical international relations which stressed the importance of distinct strategic cultures governing strategic behaviour and policy, international norms and the like which took off in the 1990s in the context of the so called “normative revolution” in world politics.

So it was that nuclear strategy was made conversant with the frivolous absurdities of low, often stated high, Parisian intellectual culture. You can pick up this relaxation of the rationality criterion in tailored deterrence theory from the Trump NPR itself

Tailored deterrence strategies communicate to different potential adversaries that their aggression would carry unacceptable risks and intolerable costs according to their particular calculations of risk and cost

A realist view, which I would argue has the better of the argument, has it that there is no logical correlation between the internal structure of a state, whether of political form or political ideology, and its external behaviour given that all states are functionally undifferentiated. Nuclear weapons provide a type of existential deterrence that applies across all states. I’m not an advocate of deterrence theory, I should point out, rather I would say that the realist view is closer to reality, as it were, than the theory of tailored deterrence.

Tailored deterrence also framed the 2001 Bush NPR, how could it not for some of its inventors and promoters served in the administration, and you can discern its influence also in the Obama NPR. But the Trump NPR most explicitly makes the case for tailored deterrence. You are fundamentally opposed to the Trump NPR to the extent that you take issue with tailored deterrence, anything else is mostly opposition on pragmatic or fiscal grounds.

The usage of tailored deterrence to frame and cohere the document is clever politics, for it undercuts the view that what the document calls for reflects the whims and fancies of Donald Trump (it doesn’t) and so makes it harder to oppose in Congress. What also makes it harder to oppose in Congress is that at the nitty gritty level of specific nuclear capabilities it essentially calls for what Obama’s NPR called for with three additions; a new low yield SLBM warhead, a new SLCM warhead and extending the service life of the B83-1 gravity bomb. These are important and worth analysing more closely, but I’ll leave aside such detail for now.

That shows, despite the rhetoric, the dreams, and the much trumpeted statement on declaratory policy, how conservative or hawkish Obama’s nuclear weapons policies really were something the liberal arms control community at the time tended to put aside. The bargain it made with Obama, from Russia to North Korea, was counter productive and the chickens are coming home to roost. Indeed, an important part of the Obama NPR statement of declaratory policy is verbatim cited in the Trump NPR.

As stated previously, the RRW, the RNEP and an expansive nuclear weapons complex were important Bush era goals and they do not appear in the Trump NPR, but some language leaves the door open for the future as I shall show, so we might say that the Bush era NPR was more hawkish than the Trump NPR. To be sure the Trump NPR, like the Obama NPR, calls for a more responsive and capable nuclear weapons complex but Bush era advocates of a revitalised complex spoke of the capability to surge the US nuclear warhead stockpile to Cold War era levels.

Trump, unlike Bush, is not overreaching. That is clever politics, especially when you consider that its called for on top of Obama extras are couched in the Russian context. Given the Russophobia exhibited by Democrats, and the liberal arms control community, how might they say no? I can see a politically viable no only on pragmatic fiscal grounds.

I have argued, for a long time that is over many years, that tailored deterrence functions as an ideological justification or fig leaf for the pursuit of the more familiar nuclear war fighting doctrine of intra-war deterrence. The Trump era NPR both concedes and denies this point.

It denies it when it states

To address these types of challenges and preserve deterrence stability, the United States will enhance the flexibility and range of its tailored deterrence options. To be clear, this is not intended to, nor does it enable, “nuclear war fighting”

But it concedes the point when it states,

Every US administration over the past six decades has called for flexible and limited nuclear response options, in part to support the goal of reestablishing deterrence following its possible failure. This is not because reestablishing deterrence is certain, but because it may be achievable in some cases and contribute to limiting damage, to the extent feasible, to the United States, allies, and partners. The goal of limiting damage if deterrence fails in a regional contingency calls for robust adaptive planning to defeat and deter against attacks, including missile defense and capabilities to locate, track, and target mobile systems of regional adversaries. These and other non nuclear capabilities, which we are now strengthening, can complement but not replace US nuclear forces for this purpose. In the case of missile threats from regional actors in particular, US missile defences and offensive options provide the basis for significant damage limitation in the event deterrence fails

Lest you think the above only applies to regional contingencies but not to the central strategic balance on Russia the NPR states

To support these deterrence goals and correct any Russian misperceptions of advantage, the President will have an expanding range of limited and graduated options to credibly deter Russian and non Russian strategic attacks

On China, much the same

The United States is prepared to respond decisively to Chinese non nuclear or nuclear aggression. US exercises in the Asia Pacific region, among other objectives, demonstrate this preparedness, as will increasing the range of graduated nuclear response options available to the President

When you read the NPR closely you can see that the no nuclear war fighting disclaimer is not accurate. The same applies to the claim that with nuclear deterrence no one size fits all. The NPR says the exact opposite. There is a type of “deterrence” that fits all contingencies, namely intra-war deterrence and damage limitation both long time euphemisms for nuclear war fighting it might be added.

With regard to its analysis of the international security environment four important points stood out for me; the discussion of the escalate to deescalate nuclear strategy often attributed to Russia in the context of Russian nuclear modernisation, statements regarding an aggressive and expansionist foreign policy pursued by Russia, sections on an aggressive strategic policy pursued by China to supplant US strategic primacy in Asia that also is supported by nuclear modernisation, and a clear statement regarding North Korea that Washington will not accept a position of mutual deterrence with Pyongyang.

The first three are false, or at the very least highly exaggerated. As Nikolai Sokov, most especially but also other careful analysts such as Pavel Podvig, have often pointed out the “escalate-to-deescalate” strategy that supposedly adopts US Cold War era nuclear war fighting ideas is a myth, but a convenient one as the Trump NPR amply demonstrates. Furthermore, Moscow’s nuclear modernisation is largely driven by the upgrading of aging delivery platforms, so not dissimilar to the stated US modernisation policies of long standing although US modernisation plans enhance nuclear war fighting (for example the super fuse on the W76-1 warhead), and the desire to counter ballistic missile defence. In other words, deterrence is more driven by a desire to maintain the continued reliability and credibility of deterrence not a drive reflective of nuclear war fighting strategies like escalate-to-deescalate. The Russian actions in Ukraine, most especially the annexation of the traditionally Russian and, moreover, Russian populated territory of Crimea, violate agreements however the context, both of continued NATO expansion and US violation of a modus vivendi on Ukrainian neutrality are the salient factors here not an intrinsically expansionist Russian foreign policy. The United States went to war to prevent a neutralist South Vietnam, killing millions in the process, which was hardly as strategically significant to Washington as a neutral Ukraine, on Russia’s borders, is to Moscow. This is a nuance wholly lacking in the document.

I’d like to write a separate article on the INF Treaty, but the NPR repeats the canard that NATO’s double track decision in response to Moscow’s SS-20 deployment compelled the Soviet Union to sign the INF Treaty, so arguing for a similar robust response today to the alleged, although the allegation is not made with public detail, Russian INF violation is false and so its purported lessons do not apply.

Similar considerations apply to the anti area/access denial strategy pursued by China, again along China’s not the US’ borders, which is mostly concerned with deterring US power projection (a point, another contradiction, at one place conceded in the NPR). Furthermore, China’s nuclear modernisation also consists of upgrades to vintage capabilities and also is couched in the context of maintaining the reliability and credibility of its posture of minimal deterrence given ballistic missile defences. That latter point also applies to hypersonic vehicles, much of interest of late.

With regard to North Korea, there is a loud and clear statement that the US shall not accept a condition of mutual deterrence with North Korea for “the United States reaffirms that North Korea’s illicit nuclear program must be completely, verifiably, and irreversibly eliminated, resulting in a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.” That’s interesting, hopefully not potentially foreboding, given that the NPR also repeats the oft made claim, especially by NSC adviser General McMaster, that North Korea has yet to demonstrate a strategic nuclear capability directed against the United States, which I have argued elsewhere on this site is too optimistic a reading of recent North Korean missile tests, although it does say that capability is months away.

It also lowers the bar on deterrence with respect to North Korea

Further, we will hold the Kim regime fully responsible for any transfer of nuclear weapons technology, material or expertise to any state or non state actor

Needless to say, nuclear war fighting doctrines of intra-war deterrence apply in the Korean context and they too are couched within tailored deterrence. I wonder what Pyongyang will make of the statements on the F35-A aircraft in the NPR. That too is for later.

This is a broad overview. There are important analytical details that remain to fill out, but I hope that I have impressed upon you the political nature of the leaked draft, but more importantly I hope that you are left with the impression that tailored deterrence is the core concept underpinning the document and that, additionally, tailored deterrence amounts to a strategy of intra-war deterrence that found its fullest fruition, hitherto, in the nuclear war fighting ideas of the Reagan era.

There remains a Ballistic Missile Defense review and a space policy review to come, but this document gives us some clues regarding the nature of both.