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No short cuts to deterrence in a world of hybrid warfare

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In their submission to the Integrated Defence & Security Review, the authors explain that nuclear deterrence not underpinned by credible conventional deterrence is a dangerous delusion. Whenever a new way of war fighting is developed, it does not ipso facto render existing forms obsolete. Rather it creates a new vulnerability. This truism is an essential part of the test for effective deterrence, which depends on a continuum of credible deterrence.

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Some Contexts

The essence of dealing with threats, whether military or other, is to have identified those threats, actual or generic, which might arise and to make adequate plans to counter them. We must, too, ensure that we have the hard and soft power  available, properly manned and equipped as well as whatever other resources create real capability– industry, adequate stocks, friends and allies, treaty agreements etc – all available and ready.   If we doubted this, the Covid-19 experience should be a wake-up call to our response to national emergencies.  Such emergencies are unforgiving to those who fail to prepare.  Of course, there is a significant price tag to this, but the price tag for failure is very much higher on any measure.  Yet at the moment, even if you believe we have adequate forces for military and security emergencies, it is no secret that many of our capabilities are undermanned, insufficiently supported and do not meet their advertised specifications.

We now have in hand what is billed as the ‘the most profound review of Defence and Security since 1945’, described as ‘The Integrated Review of Defence and Security’.  Given the great depth and radical nature of the reviews of 1968, 1974, 1981 and even 1998, this is a big and ambitious claim.  If the security of the realm remains the first duty of Government, then this review must not just be profound, but a coherent, realistic and carefully judged review of the entire geo-strategic environment and of Britain’s role within it.  It must also deliver convincing means to respond to a world of increasing tension, in which nuclear weapons abound and environmental dangers, food shortage, disease and overpopulation pose existential threats to us all.

The United Kingdom has since 1945 relied increasingly on Alliances for its defence and security, particularly on NATO, on a so-called special relationship with America, and on shared strategies, principally deterrence, for its security. Without shared political alignment, alliances fare less well; the strongest are those based on mutual benefit. We can say therefore that Brexit adds considerable complexity to the task. Moreover, past experience suggests that our departure from the EU will  increase the pressure from France for a European Army and for a greatly increased European self-determination in the security field; without UK to argue against this, NATO could be seriously weakened. Additionally, whilst a new resident in the White House might change course, the tide of American connection to Europe and NATO under Trump is moving towards the far east and relationships are at a level of discord not seen for decades. The UK’s security can no longer be taken for granted.

Deterrence and Deterrence Strategy

Given the significance of deterrence strategy, a discussion of this issue, once widely taught and understood, deserves some explanation and analysis.  It is not simply about nuclear deterrence.  Fundamentally its purpose is to persuade a potential enemy that he cannot expect to succeed with a military, cyber or other attack without risking significant damage to his own interests if he persists.  He is therefore faced with an escalation from this level of aggression, and if this too is deterred in the same way he has serious choices to make, since the end of escalation is massive nuclear exchange from which no-one can gain; indeed humanity is more likely to be destroyed.  It is vitally important to understand that the success of deterrence does not reside in what we think about our forces and capability, but rather in what the potential enemy thinks – does he find our overall deterrence posture credible enough to deter him?

It follows from this that although we, in UK, have deliberately never foresworn the first use of nuclear weapons, any first nuclear use is so transformational in a conflict  that it is  unlikely  to be considered until our very existence is threatened.  If our conventional capability is such that we reach its limits at a level of force below an existential threat, an enemy is unlikely to believe that we would resort to nuclear weapons and we may be obliged to capitulate before any nuclear weapons are used.  In other words, weakened conventional capability renders the nuclear level of deterrence both incredible and irrelevant. Looking round the world at our potential adversaries, it seems plain that we are close to or beyond that point already.

Thus, any conventional military action must be deterred if we are to reduce the risk of escalation. The key here is that deterrence is a broad continuum; conventional deterrence also deters. The threatened use of conventional force, at a lower level of intensity, is genuinely credible because it is plainly usable. Any potential adversary is likely to believe in the possibility of its use, but only provided that it is also clearly sufficient for the particular purpose or operation to hand. And in so doing it can snuff out dangers before they escalate, thus preventing bad things happening and getting worse, and greatly reducing the risk of unstoppable escalation towards ‘nuclear territory.’ Nuclear deterrence that is not underpinned by serious conventional capability is a dangerous delusion.

Nuclear deterrence ‘theology’ tends to support this view. As the Cold War progressed, the two then superpowers decided that the only safe and balanced way to proceed was to allow themselves to be vulnerable to the other side’s nuclear arsenal, thus making the conventional arm of deterrence more significant. Things could not be allowed to get ‘out of hand’. The inevitable consequence of this was a gradual move to limit the numbers of nuclear weapons and prevent nuclear proliferation to the position where we now have a proposed Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which has already attracted the signature of 82 nations and will enter force upon ratification by 50 states – so far 44 nations have done this.  Whilst it is true that most of these are small nations and that no nuclear capable state has yet signed the treaty, the direction of travel for most nations is clear and  the pressure to remove an existential threat to the whole of mankind will not go away.  Any further movement in this field will heighten the importance of adequate conventional defence and the dangers of conventional weakness.

The key issue here is the balance of investment in conventional and nuclear capability.  Any ‘fundamental’ review must examine both carefully and ensure that the cost of nuclear weaponry does not so reduce conventional capability that the credibility of nuclear deterrence itself is fatally undermined.  If this happens then it is highly debatable whether we should continue to deploy a nuclear deterrent, and whether our security might not be better assured by greater conventional capability.

 ‘New ways of warfare’ and asymmetric warfare

It is currently fashionable to say that the growth in hostile cyber attacks has completely changed the face of warfare, such that significant conventional kinetic force is no longer necessary.

Let us, therefore, consider the advent of technology and asymmetric warfare in the equation. And equation it is:

As most security practitioners now accept, the credibility of a threat is some function of its capability, multiplied by the resolve and the enemy’s belief in the credibility of the deterrer.

Deterrence = f(Capability x Resolve x Credibility).  Keep this in mind.

The situation has become further complicated by the development of so-called ‘new ways of warfare’ of which the best known, but not the only, example is cyber warfare.  This phenomenon has become categorised, perhaps rather lazily, as ‘asymmetric warfare’ and is held by some to signal the decline of kinetic warfare and to justify an assumption that future wars will not be of the kinetic variety and thus to smuggle in an assumption that they may also replace nuclear warfare and the risk of it.

This is surely to misunderstand the nature of asymmetric warfare. It is not warfare of any particular kind.  Rather it is an attempt to fight the war on a battlefield where the enemy is not significantly present – to find his greatest vulnerability, his ‘weakest link’ and attack that.’ The unfortunate consequence of this is that, whenever a new way of war fighting is developed, it does not mean ipso facto that an existing form is rendered obsolete and unnecessary. It means rather that there is a new vulnerability, a new base to be covered. But if the old base is stripped of cover in order to fortify the new one, then the old base may become a new vulnerability, and more attractive for an enemy to target. This leads to the very uncomfortable consequence that kinetic warfare is not dead (as a brief glance round the world will confirm, Russia and China, for example, are increasing and modernising the capability of both their cyber and kinetic capability) whilst both are masters of a range of hostile activities crafted to remain below conventional retaliatory level. Rather this new form of warfare means that kinetic warfare is only one of the possible forms of warfare.  We face not asymmetric warfare but hybrid warfare.  The invention of new forms almost certainly means that a nation’s defence becomes more complex and more expensive as new types of threat appear. This was probably best put by the late Sir Michael Quinlan:

“In matters of military contingency, the expected, precisely because it is expected, is not to be expected………What we expect we plan and provide for; what we plan and provide for, we thereby deter; what we deter does not happen.  What does happen is what we did not deter, because we did not plan and provide for it, because we did not expect it.”[1]

The greater the risk of defeat in any of these varying forms of warfare, the closer comes the decision point for a nuclear nation between capitulation and escalation to nuclear use, which the whole concept of deterrence is designed to avoid. From a rational strategic viewpoint therefore, and for as long as nuclear weapons exist, we would argue that it is not possible to separate nuclear doctrine, and hybrid capabilities across an increasingly wide range of non-nuclear war making capabilities. Moreover, this is of particular relevance to the second-rank nuclear powers, such as Britain and France which have tended to sacrifice substantial conventional and other non-nuclear capabilities in order to finance their strategic nuclear forces, thus undermining the credibility of those very forces.

Of course, this all appears to argue for increased money to be spent on security, ‘the first duty of government’ as our politicians frequently remind us, though currently our fifth highest public expenditure.  How can we approach this conundrum?

Approaching the Review

We have spent some time on deterrence theory because we believe that in the present Covid-19 crisis and its financial and social consequences, the importance of our deterrent strategy and indeed an understanding of its foundations may be lost. We would urge that those addressing the review against the present challenging background, keep always in mind that whatever is proposed will bear on the credibility of a strategy that has served us well over many years and that deterring war is surely our principal objective.

In general, there are two possible approaches to a defence review.  The first is, putting it very simply, to see what forces and capabilities we have, are in the process of constructing or have the ability to procure.  These then can be cut or disposed of where they are judged to be too expensive and a strategy written subsequently to justify the resultant force structure. It is important to understand that while capabilities and equipment can be shed overnight, the creation of completely new capabilities, including providing appropriate equipment, properly trained manpower, suitable support facilities and operational doctrine is a key part of any capability.  This takes in peacetime a long period; 10 years is not an excessive estimate, witness the replacement of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft. In the meantime, the nation is at the mercy of events which, as Covid-19 has shown, can have profound effect on the future, whilst being handled with whatever capabilities we have in service at the time.

The other approach, although it takes longer, involves more expertise and a good deal more work, is to conduct a global geostrategic review, determine what strategic role we, as UK, wish to be able to play in it, decide what defence and security capabilities we will require and then set out to acquire them.  If this turns out to cost more than we wish to spend, as it might, then the initial strategic role and budget must be re-examined and reconciled.  If the force structure is changed, the strategy must be too; and vice versa.  But this approach too requires a long period of time to deliver a greatly changed force structure. Any ‘profound’ review must surely take this route, whilst remembering that events will not wait on our convenience.

The government of the UK appears to wish to play a major global role, influencing events globally and, presumably, wishing to remain a member of the Security Council P5.  Unfortunately, playing a global role does not come cheaply. A nation’s ability to have significant influence abroad depends on a number of factors whose relative importance changes depending on who you are dealing with. But strong and demonstrably effective hard and soft power are both critical.

In the end, as Thucydides observed in the Melian dialogue in the 5th century BCE, a nation’s power and influence in the world depends, as it always has done, on its perceived ability to enforce its will when necessary.[2]  This in turn depends on our ability to outface opponents, if necessary with our military capability, at whatever level they challenge us. In a phrase – it depends on the credibility of our deterrence.

It is not our intention here to say that we should necessarily dispense with our nuclear capability, but we must bear in mind that continued erosion of our conventional and other non-nuclear capabilities must call into question the whole basis for credible deterrence.   Thus. in our view an ISDR which aspires to be a fundamental and radical review, must, as a minimum:

  1. Analyse the global geostrategic scene and the trends emerging in it
  2. Examine the range of threats confronting us, both military and other
  3. Establish what our own aspirations are and what are the threats to them and be prepared to reset our aspirations if we are not prepared to afford them.
  4. Determine an appropriate mix of hard and soft power capabilities which appear convincing and credible not to ourselves, but to potential enemies.
  5. Ensure that we have a seamless, coherent force able to deal with the escalation ladder effectively to whatever level we feel we wish to afford, accepting the limitations that our cost limit imposes and making sure that every element of our deterrence posture, including all the elements of a survivable, coherent and credible nuclear deterrent if we decide to maintain one.
  6. Ensure that the plan has sufficient stability over time to allow sensible investment to be made and the defence and security forces to be developed and designed as planned

In advance of this, no part of our force structure should be exempt from review and no assumptions should be made.  In particular this review must avoid falling into the trap of obsessing with specific systems and platforms. That is the professional job of military officers. Anything less would not represent a profound and thorough review of defence and security, and would simply be yet another in the long and dismal series of defence reviews which can only agree on salami slicing, which are misleadingly costed, which fail to provide adequate manpower and support, and which crumble under the pressure of real world events.  This has been the fate of most defence reviews in the past half century and it is not an adequate or responsible way to address what successive governments of all colours have always claimed to be their first priority.

All this requires a level of intellectual and political honesty that has frequently been missing in defence reviews in the last generation.  In particular, it requires close alignment between political ambition and military capability.  Nothing could be more dangerous to national security than deluding ourselves about the level of real operational capability we can deploy at short notice.  It is a very demanding challenge to all those involved in meeting the prime duty of any government


Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon served as a fast jet pilot (Lightnings), later as Air Officer Commander in Chief Support Command during the first Gulf War and subsequently AOC in C Strike Command.  His final appointment was as Chief of the Air Staff.  Importantly for this article he once served as Assistant Chief of Staff (Policy) at SHAPE..  Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham commanded the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, and the Royal Naval Staff College at Greenwich. Subsequently he served as Deputy Commander in Chief Fleet and as Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff for Capability.  On retirement he edited The Naval Review and is a visiting lecturer at KCL.  Both authors are frequently published writers and lecturers on defence and security matters.  

[1] Sir Michael Quinlan, ‘Quinlan’s Law’ 2008, unpublished but quoted in Hennessy,P.,Distilling the Frenzy: Writing the History of One’s Own Time, Biteback Publishing, London, 2012.  For a more idiosyncratic and fuller treatment of the unexpected, readers may wish to read Taleb, N.N., The Black Swan, Penguin Books, London, 2007.


[2]  “As the world goes, right is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.  History is replete with examples of the truth of this statement

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About the author

Sir Jeremy Blackham

About the author

Sir Michael Graydon