Modern Deterrence: From Rhetoric to Practice

Main Image Credit 'If Crisis or War Comes', a pamphlet distributed by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency to all households in Sweden, an example of the Nordic strategy of Total or Comprehensive Defence, which seeks to enhance societal resilience. Courtesy of Pontus Lun

The final communique of NATO’s Brussels summit pledges Allies to ‘continue to respond to the deteriorated security environment by enhancing our deterrence and defence posture’. But developing NATO’s deterrence strategy against a range of current threats needs a more comprehensive approach, as evidenced by the current debates in the UK.

At this week’s NATO summit, deterrence was the first item on the agenda. Deterrence has been at the heart of the Alliance’s strategy for much of its existence, fundamentally to deter a single adversary, the Soviet Union, from a single activity, a military invasion of Western Europe. But developing NATO’s deterrence strategy against a range of threats will require a more comprehensive approach than in the past, as reflected by the UK’s current national strategy. The National Security Capability Review (NSCR) published in March 2018 outlines initial thinking on what is being called Modern Deterrence, noting the linkage to NATO’s deterrence approach and the importance of collective defence. The Review highlights the breadth of potential threats to the UK, from the catastrophic to those that may cause harm or subvert national interests in less destructive ways, noting that many modes of attack are designed to stay below the threshold that would trigger an armed response. But what does a deterrent strategy look like?

Much of contemporary thinking in the West has been framed by the experience of nuclear deterrence in the last half of the twentieth century. In essence, this is an extreme example of deterrence by punishment; raising the costs of initiating nuclear war for the aggressor by threatening a retaliatory strike, but more broadly, deterrence is about imposing any credible threat of loss in blood and/or treasure on a potential aggressor. As well as by the threat of punishment, this can also be achieved through denial and entanglement. In the former, the deterrent effect is achieved by heightening the resource expenditure to make the attack so unlikely to succeed that it is not worth the risk, for example by putting in place cyber defence measures to protect a potential target. In contrast, entanglement seeks to envelope the aggressor in a network of beneficial relationships, such that it ceases to be in the interests of the aggressor to take action. This might be illustrated by the construction of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, which sought to fold Germany into the European economy such that it would not reinitiate war on the continent.

Thus, a strategy of Modern Deterrence will need to both identify the full range of significant threats and then prioritise them such that all levers of government power can be applied through the appropriate combination of punishment, denial and entanglement. This requires an approach that would be described as inter-agency or whole-of-government. Indeed, this is recognised by the UK in the NSCR, which notes the need for improvements in cooperation and the importance therefore of its Fusion Doctrine that was launched for this purpose. However, it is not clear, in the UK at least, that there is an appropriate focus in government for such work. The National Security Council is the obvious place to begin, but the challenges involved in bringing together a Modern Deterrence programme of this sort should not be underestimated.

The importance of building any deterrence strategy based on punishment or denial is recognised in the final communique of this week’s NATO summit; the Alliance not only recognises the need for it to be resilient, but that it needs to contribute to building resilience within member states. Societal resilience is not something that is much discussed in the context of UK national security thinking, although it is recognised by some other states. In China, ensuring that the people able to demonstrate resilience, particularly to foreign propaganda attacks, is explicit in the Three Warfares strategic approach. Closer to home, the Nordic countries’ focus on Total or Comprehensive Defence seeks to improve both state and societal resilience by a much closer integration of military and civilian functions. Thus, both Norway and Denmark operate auxiliary forces called Home Guards, that provide not only an on-call military capability in times of conflict, but also assist the police and security services with other tasks. While that particular label has unfortunate connotations in the UK as the result of the 1970s sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’, this degree of citizen engagement is felt by the governments of Norway and Denmark to play a significant part in ensuring that society remains robust. Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency has recently gone so far as to issue a pamphlet to all its citizens entitled If Crisis or War Comes, which aims to give advice on how to be prepared for emergencies by having standby food and water, but also provides advice on how to look out for false information, while exhorting Swedes to resist in the event of an attack with the observation: ‘If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up. All information to the effect that resistance is to cease is false’.

So, for the UK, evolving Modern Deterrence from a bland label to practical processes and activities represents a significant challenge. There will be a need to consider how the current system of government can be configured with clear lines of responsibility to ensure that the Fusion Doctrine really does deliver cross-government coherence to an integrated deterrence strategy, one that refines the threat of punishment while also seeking to build up resilience that will contribute to denial, and also develops foreign and economic policies that may entangle potential adversaries in ways that decrease the potential utility of conflict and aggression. This will not be easy, but there are plenty of lessons to be learned from friends and neighbours, as long as there is a willingness to listen.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Ewan Lawson

Associate Fellow

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