Minimum Deterrence: Examining the Evidence
John Collick /
The minimum deterrence posture, based on the premise that few nuclear weapons deter all adversaries, is unsubstantiated by historical evidence and contrary to vital U.S. national security interests, according to a new report by the National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP).
NIPP president Keith Payne, NIPP senior scholar Ambassador Robert Joseph, and Heritage visiting fellow Rebeccah Heinrichs recently hosted a discussion on the report at The Heritage Foundation.
The NIPP’s report, “Minimum Deterrence: Examining the Evidence,” found this posture to be inadequate because Russia and China are increasing and modernizing their nuclear capabilities, while Iran actively pursues its own program. If the U.S. continues to decrease its arsenal, then it may not be able to effectively deter nuclear states from threatening the U.S., its interests, or its allies.
Joseph pointed out that while President Obama’s current policy rejects minimum deterrence, his policies point to some of the similar assumptions held by proponents of minimum deterrence. For example, they claim that deterrence would function reliably and predictably at low U.S. nuclear force numbers now and in the future. U.S. conventional forces could supposedly substitute in many cases for nuclear forces to meet U.S. deterrence goals. But history shows otherwise, “in part because leadership decision making can be highly variable and idiosyncratic.”
As discussed by the panel, minimum deterrence—or unilateral nuclear arms reductions—may lead to a destabilized world because other nations may view U.S. nuclear force cuts as an incentive to increase their own capabilities. This could result in increased nuclear proliferation, which is one of Ambassador Joseph’s greatest concerns.
The future is not fully predictable, and nuclear capabilities are necessary to ensure the President has the most options available if the need to respond to an unanticipated threat ever arises. The nuclear triad remains relevant, and it offers flexibility that no other system can provide.
The Heritage Foundation recommends a “protect and defend” strategy consisting of nuclear and conventional, offensive and defensive forces. These forces must be able to target what U.S. adversaries value with high confidence, and nuclear weapons serve this purpose.
The study concluded by stating that deterrence for today’s dynamic world “should reflect a vivid understanding of contemporary security realities and available evidence.” The minimum deterrence posture does not meet these criteria.
Jake Collick is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.