Perry on the politics of deterrence


in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Security

Discussions of the adequacy of our defensive forces are typically based on their ability to deter. Indeed, that is a fundamental requirement. But I was soon to learn that it was not the only requirement, and not necessarily the primary driver of force size. Our deterrent forces were also weighed on a political scale: do they give us parity with the forces of the Soviet Union? I did not regard that as the key issue, but I can testify that during the Cold War, no US president was willing to accept nuclear forces smaller than those of the Soviet Union. And I believe that this perceived imperative did more to drive the nuclear arms race than the need for deterrence. But I am convinced that we could have confidence in our deterrence even if we only had submarine-based missiles. Thus, once we were satisfied that we had adequate deterrence, the reality was that the size and composition of the deterrent force was determined primarily by a political imperative: that our force was at parity with the forces of the Soviet Union. (This same imperative seems to apply. We do not need thousands of nuclear weapons to deter Russia today, but for political reasons we are unwilling to reduce our deployed weapons below the equal numbers – 1,550 deployed strategic weapons – agreed to in the New START arms agreement.)

Perry, William. My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. Stanford Security Studies. 2015. p.46 (paperback)

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Milan August 5, 2016 at 5:49 pm

Perry’s account of nuclear policy-making in Cold War America is valuable to consider alongside of those of fellow practitioners like Robert McNamara and historians like Richard Rhodes.

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