Challenges to 21st Century Deterrence (Part II)

December 2021 No Comments

Speaker(s): Elder, R. (George Mason University); Siebens, J. (Defense Strategy & Planning Program, Stimson Center); Yeaw, C. (National Strategic Research Institute, University of Nebraska)

Date: 9 December 2021

Speaker Session Summary

SMA hosted a panel discussion with Lt Gen (Ret) Robert Elder, PhD (George Mason University), Mr. James A. Siebens (Defense Strategy & Planning Program, Stimson Center), and Dr. Christopher Yeaw (National Strategic Research Institute, University of Nebraska) as part of its SMA STRATCOM Effort Speaker Session. 

Conveying that committing the first strike in a nuclear conflict is irrational, especially if all actors have second strike capabilities, is crucial for future US nuclear deterrence strategy. This is especially true for US nuclear deterrence strategy relating to Russia and China. Lt Gen Elder commented that identifying US’ vital interests and communicating that attacking these interests will potentially result in either a conventional or nuclear retaliation is crucial to effective deterrence. A nuclear first-strike will more likely occur if a state believes there is an existential threat to their regime or physical survival. Whether or not a future conflict becomes nuclear will likely hinge on actors openly conveying when they believe a nuclear strike is an option. Mr. Siebens commented that it is possible a kinetic war between the US, China, or Russia could occur and yet never become nuclear.

Characteristics of the current armed forces, such as the development of new technology, also makes a nuclear conflict between actors more likely. New technology, which all actors are independently creating, combines conventional and nuclear capabilities and makes a nuclear strike without the approval of state leaders more likely. Furthermore, Dr. Yeaw commented that the US has shown a lack of desire to match Russia’s and China’s build-up of their nuclear forces. This lack of resilience to match Russia’s and China’s build-up of nuclear weapons is partially because the US has been a strong advocate in the denuclearization of states. However, this is only one area in which the US does not seem to want to compete with Russia and China. The US still has an overall strong military advantage against Russia and China in almost all other fields. Ultimately, nuclear coercion through a first strike should be represented as irrational because it would ensure mutual destruction if all states have second-strike capabilities. 

Speaker Session Recording

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Briefing Materials


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