Nuclear Logics: Uncertainty Is Not Necessarily Bad

by Stephen M. Saideman

Reading Andrew Coyne’s piece on North Korea and the need for Canada to join the American Ballistic Missile Defence System reminded me of lots of old deterrence theory stuff.  The piece raises good questions about the reliability of the key actors, especially Trump, but confuses what is necessary for deterrence.  Still, there are some problems that we need to think about.

The big problem in the piece is that Coyne thinks that the American commitment to defend its East Asia allies is now largely unbelievable with the North Koreans developing the ability to strike the continental US (and Canada).  It is true that the US, under several Presidents, has failed to deter the North Korean effort to develop both nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.  But deterring their effort to develop some deterrence and deterring an attack on allies are two different things.  Coyne is right to point out that extended deterrence (don’t attack my allies or else) is less believable than regular, vanilla deterrence (don’t attack me or else).  The threat to start or expand a nuclear war is problematic in either case, but seems a bit more believable if it is in retaliation for a big attack on the homeland.

The key is that for deterrence to work, the side being deterred (North Korea in this case for the moment) does not need to be certain that a counter-strike would happen.  They just need to think that there is some possibility of such a response.  Why?  Because the costs of nuclear war are so very high, if one does the probability math (probability of x times value of x), the prospective costs of attacking first are simply too high compared to the status quo (.01 times infinity = infinity) …. as long as the status quo is bearable (which is why we have to stop threatening regime change).  We do not have to convince North Korea that a retaliatory strike is certain if North Korea attacks South Korea and/or Japan, but that it could happen.  The placement of US troops in South Korea is far more about being a tripwire to raise the probability of the US responding than actually defending South Korea in a conventional attack.

Again, one might say that this is not sufficient, but the key to nuclear threats is that classic Schelling phrase: a threat that leaves something to chance.  One does not have to threaten, for instance, total nuclear annihilation of North Korea crosses the Demilitarized Zone–one just has to threat to start a process that might lead to things getting out of hand and ultimately leading to nuclear war.  This was the old extended deterrence logic for Europe and Asia during the cold war.

Certainty?  That is for allies.  That is, the tripwires and all the rest over the years are mostly aimed at reassuring allies.  The enemy is deterred by a modest chance of the US responding, of sacrificing Chicago for Bonn or now Seattle for Seoul.  The allies?  They are very nervous and require a great deal of assurance.  Ballistic missile defense both in the region and in the US might assure them somewhat–that the US can stick around and meet its commitments knowing that it is protected.

Except for one thing: BMD may be at best a coin flip.  We have lots of uncertainty about whether the efforts to invest in destroying missiles in flight have produced anything remotely reliable.  Again, that is ok from a deterrence perspective–uncertainty is not bad.

While I think that joining the US BMD program makes sense, my reasons do not center on the NK nuclear threat.  The US would try to stop an attack on Vancouver or Toronto since they are very close to American cities whether Canada is in or out of the BMD program.  And North Korea is not going to be gunning for Calgary or Edmonton.  North Korea barely notices Canada, and, given its small supply of nuclear arms, it will not be aiming at Canada.  The BMD arguments I buy have more to do with building a robust NORAD that addresses a variety of threats in the 21st century, and strengthening a key US-Canadian institution in these uncertain times.

While we should all doubt Donald Trump, I am far more worried about his starting a process that leaves something to chance via a small strike at North Korea’s missiles or at its leadership than I am about his not responding to a North Korean attack.  Yes, we are now deterred from attacking North Korea, but that has been true since it developed the capability level Seoul with its artillery.  Yes, we have much to worry about, but then so does Kim Jong Un.  If he wants to survive, he will avoid a process that might lead to escalation.  The costs of being wrong are just too high.

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Old Deterrence Logics Still Apply

by Stephen M. Saideman

Reading Andrew Coyne’s piece on North Korea and the need for Canada to join the American Ballistic Missile Defence System reminded me of lots of old deterrence theory stuff.  The piece raises good questions about the reliability of the key actors, especially Trump, but confuses what is necessary for deterrence.  Still, there are some problems that we need to think about.

The big problem in the piece is that Coyne thinks that the American commitment to defend its East Asia allies is now largely unbelievable with the North Koreans developing the ability to strike the continental US (and Canada).  It is true that the US, under several Presidents, has failed to deter the North Korean effort to develop both nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.  But deterring their effort to develop some deterrence and deterring an attack on allies are two different things.  Coyne is right to point out that extended deterrence (don’t attack my allies or else) is less believable than regular, vanilla deterrence (don’t attack me or else).  The threat to start or expand a nuclear war is problematic in either case, but seems a bit more believable if it is in retaliation for a big attack on the homeland.

The key is that for deterrence to work, the side being deterred (North Korea in this case for the moment) does not need to be certain that a counter-strike would happen.  They just need to think that there is some possibility of such a response.  Why?  Because the costs of nuclear war are so very high, if one does the probability math (probability of x times value of x), the prospective costs of attacking first are simply too high compared to the status quo (.01 times infinity = infinity) …. as long as the status quo is bearable (which is why we have to stop threatening regime change).  We do not have to convince North Korea that a retaliatory strike is certain if North Korea attacks South Korea and/or Japan, but that it could happen.  The placement of US troops in South Korea is far more about being a tripwire to raise the probability of the US responding than actually defending South Korea in a conventional attack.

Again, one might say that this is not sufficient, but the key to nuclear threats is that classic Schelling phrase: a threat that leaves something to chance.  One does not have to threaten, for instance, total nuclear annihilation of North Korea crosses the Demilitarized Zone–one just has to threat to start a process that might lead to things getting out of hand and ultimately leading to nuclear war.  This was the old extended deterrence logic for Europe and Asia during the cold war.

Certainty?  That is for allies.  That is, the tripwires and all the rest over the years are mostly aimed at reassuring allies.  The enemy is deterred by a modest chance of the US responding, of sacrificing Chicago for Bonn or now Seattle for Seoul.  The allies?  They are very nervous and require a great deal of assurance.  Ballistic missile defense both in the region and in the US might assure them somewhat–that the US can stick around and meet its commitments knowing that it is protected.

Except for one thing: BMD may be at best a coin flip.  We have lots of uncertainty about whether the efforts to invest in destroying missiles in flight have produced anything remotely reliable.  Again, that is ok from a deterrence perspective–uncertainty is not bad.

While I think that joining the US BMD program makes sense, my reasons do not center on the NK nuclear threat.  The US would try to stop an attack on Vancouver or Toronto since they are very close to American cities whether Canada is in or out of the BMD program.  And North Korea is not going to be gunning for Calgary or Edmonton.  North Korea barely notices Canada, and, given its small supply of nuclear arms, it will not be aiming at Canada.  The BMD arguments I buy have more to do with building a robust NORAD that addresses a variety of threats in the 21st century, and strengthening a key US-Canadian institution in these uncertain times.

While we should all doubt Donald Trump, I am far more worried about his starting a process that leaves something to chance via a small strike at North Korea’s missiles or at its leadership than I am about his not responding to a North Korean attack.  Yes, we are now deterred from attacking North Korea, but that has been true since it developed the capability level Seoul with its artillery.  Yes, we have much to worry about, but then so does Kim Jong Un.  If he wants to survive, he will avoid a process that might lead to escalation.  The costs of being wrong are just too high.

Crisis in US Civil-Military Relations? Not Yet

by Stephen M. Saideman

Yep, no process, no policy, no implementation.  I wrote yesterday that Trump’s transgender in the military “policy” would depend on how the military would feel about implementation.  Well, from the very top, the attitude is: wait and see.  More than that: a smidge of contempt seems to be in the reaction:

Dunford has informed service
members that there will be “no modifications to the current policy until
the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense
and the Secretary has issued implementation guidelines.”

“In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with
respect,
” Dunford wrote in a memo to the military that was obtained by
CNN. “As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we
face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned
missions.”CNN (I would have cited NYT but they don’t let me cut and paste!)

If Dunford were General (ret.) Kelly of Homeland Security, he might have taken the tweet and ran with it, as Kelly enforced an immigrant ban with very little backing it up.  Dunford, like the other active senior officers, has opposed kicking transgender people out even as they hem and haw on how to deal with recruiting.  So, this agent has preferences that are distinct from the principal and, as a result, does not imagine what the tweet actually means, but instead asks for the paperwork to be done.

And, yes, DC runs on paperwork …. or Word docs shipped around town as attachments to emails (yes, on the classified servers mostly).  Since Mattis has thus far been silent (did he say anything while I was at Costco?), Dunford went ahead and interpreted how far he could go and went pretty far.  I had some responses on twitter asking for him to do more.  Such folks don’t understand civil-military relations–that civilian control of the military means that the civilians have the right to be wrong (which they are here), that the military must obey clear orders.  But they can fudge implementation if the orders are not clear or are not handed down through the chain of command.  Dunford could have started a process to weed out the transgender soldiers, sailors, marines and aviators, but chose not to do so.  This is kind of a work-to-rule thing, where resistance of this form is merely following the rules.  Trump would need to find another general who is more enthused about discrimination to get faster action.  Firing a Chairman for this?  Unlikely.

Finally, it is good to see someone indicate that a tweet may be a policy direction but is not a policy itself.

Learning Too Few Lessons

by Stephen Saideman

Several years ago, I had heard in various bars in the Byward Market that the Canadian government under Stephen Harper had engaged in a serious Lessons Learned exercise about Afghanistan.  I heard that the document was buried (I used the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark to illustrate).  I tried an Access to Information Request in January of 2013, but got rejected because the document was viewed as “advice to cabinet” and containing sensitive information about Canada’s allies.  I thought this was hogwash, so I appealed.  I got the document just before my recent trip to Brazil (here it is),* so I didn’t have time to process it.

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Crisis in Civ-Mil? Sajjan and Canada’s Misplaced Attention

I spent much of November and December arguing that naming a very recently retired former general as Secretary of Defense is problematic–that there is much confusion to be had, by the former officer, the person who picked him, and the public.  Well, we see in recent days that this argument may have applied to the country to the north as well.

Harjit Sajjan has gotten into hot water for stating that he was the architect for a major effort, Operation Medusa,* in Afghanistan in 2006.  Whether he was or was not (probably not), this is problematic to those soldiers who serves because he is seen as taking credit for what was a multi-person effort.  So, either bragging or lying violates the sense of honor that Canadian soldiers have.  Today, Sajjan will be answering questions about it in Parliament.

So, what is my take?  Is this just a tempest in a teapot? No.  Is this a fireable offense? Probably not. Is this mostly distraction sauce?  Probably.  Let me explain my still confused take.

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First Reactions to Syria Strike: Yet More Uncertainty

by Stephen Saideman

The missile strike against the airfield in Syria raises far more questions than it answers (for an excellent initial take, see here).  As I think about it, I have to be honest that my confirmation bias might be at work: that anything Trump does is wrong in my mind.  Would I have approved of Hillary Clinton doing the same thing?  Not so sure as I have become quite skeptical about the use of force, so let’s run through the situation itself before we get to the Trumpness of it all.

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