November 12, 2021

Germany’s Need for an Integrated Deterrence Mindset

The US administration will soon move on to strategic concepts that integrate nuclear and conventional deterrence, and NATO will follow suit. It’s time for the next German government to take account of this.

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A U.S. military aide carries what is known as the "nuclear football" with nuclear launch codes to Air Force One as U.S. President Donald Trump departs Washington for travel to Florida at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., July 31, 2020.
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The administration of US President Joe Biden is preparing a series of strategic guidance documents for release in early 2022. They will center around the idea of “integrated deterrence.” This will put new demands on Berlin but also offers opportunities for the incoming “traffic light” government, headed by Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, to shape allied strategy in NATO.

Already in March, the Biden administration released an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance to focus all parts of the US national security apparatus on a common “ground truth” as they readied themselves to kick off the various reviews. The National Defense Strategy (NDS) will translate the administration’s assessments and priorities as they relate to the Pentagon. It will “be fully nested” within the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which will outline what role the Biden team envisions for America’s nuclear weapons.

After four years of anything but warm relations between Washington and its traditional allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific under former President Donald Trump, Biden’s interim guidance was keen to announce: “America is back. Diplomacy is back. Alliances are back.” The focus on revitalizing alliances, too, will find its way into the NDS and NPR. By promoting synergies between military commands and services, between military and non-military instruments of power, and between the United States and its allies and partners, “integrated deterrence” is to provide a theory of victory against limited regional aggression by nuclear-armed adversaries.

The Fear of Waning Superiority

In an indictment of the Trump administration’s 2018 NDS, the Congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission warned that the United States “could lose the next state-versus-state war it fights.” The members of the commission lamented America’s waning military superiority and the proliferation of threats. But the primary shortcoming they saw as an intellectual one:

“We believe that the NDS points the Department of Defense (DOD) and the country in the right direction, but it does not adequately explain how we should get there. […] The United States needs concepts [emphasis added] that account for an adversary’s early reliance on nuclear means and the blending of nuclear, space, cyber, conventional, and unconventional means in its warfighting doctrine.”

Kathleen Hicks, a member of the 12-person panel, reiterated the call to develop “innovative military approaches and concepts” to “effectively deter and, if necessary, win a high-end conflict” during her confirmation hearing to become deputy secretary of defense this February.

“Integrated deterrence” will serve as the organizing principle for this effort. Critics are right to point out that the phrase hardly amounts to a strategy. Yet, even seemingly minor, semantic changes can indicate shifting priorities. The growing importance of cyberspace and outer space, for example, led the Obama administration to wrestle with “cross-domain deterrence” by improving coordination between domain-specific military activities. This move was also motivated by a desire to reduce the reliance on nuclear weapons and instead emphasize non-nuclear means of deterrence.

Following on from the realization that, more and more, non-nuclear capabilities can affect strategic-level decision-making about the use of military force in ways that only nuclear weapons could do in the past, Biden’s Pentagon team now aims to move from coordinating across domains to integrating deterrence strategy and capabilities from the ground up.

Conventional-Nuclear Integration

One major contribution of the NPR to this effort will be to promote “conventional-nuclear integration.” The Trump administration assessed that “the most likely scenario for adversary nuclear employment is a limited nuclear strike in the context of an escalating conventional conflict,” in Eastern Europe or in the Western Pacific. The Biden administration will likely arrive at the same conclusion. The purpose of conventional-nuclear integration then is not to facilitate nuclear warfighting—generating tactical advantage through nuclear use—but rather to raise the nuclear threshold by advancing substitutability and complementarity between nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities.

First and foremost, this means revising strategy, plans, and doctrine so that nuclear weapons no longer appear as an annex to conventional planning. Previously, regional commands have tended to delegate nuclear matters to the US Strategic Command, creating barriers to understanding how conventional military activities could affect the risk of nuclear escalation.

More integrated conventional-nuclear planning would also raise awareness among conventional forces about how to contribute to deterring adversary nuclear use. Conventionally-oriented planners might resist changes that affect the efficiency and effectiveness of conventional operations. However, to reduce the reliance on nuclear weapons in defense planning, as Biden envisions, conventional forces will have to assume a greater role in deterring aggression and the crossing of key thresholds, including that of nuclear use. Relearning how to operate under the threat or after use of nuclear weapons, moreover, will deny adversaries the benefits of nuclear employment on the battlefield.

Finally, conventional-nuclear integration will quickly enter the arms control discourse as experts within and outside of government contemplate strategic stability after New START—the US-Russian nuclear arms control treaty that is set to expire in 2026.

Berlin’s Nuclear Questions

Germany’s civilian and military leaders are rediscovering territorial defense. Yet, they display little appreciation of the fact that this takes place in a new, nuclear context.  Vis-à-vis nuclear-armed adversaries, deterring conventional war depends on the ability to deter nuclear war. Ignoring the very real possibility of nuclear escalation by an adversary, however, all but ensures nuclear use to be a war-winning strategy.

Although NATO speaks of “coherence” rather than “integration,” integrated deterrence and conventional-nuclear integration are sure to enter the alliance as NATO revises its own Strategic Concept, to be completed by May 2022. Regardless of whether Germany’s new government decides to abandon nuclear sharing, be it explicitly or by default, Berlin needs to engage with these concepts, seriously and publicly, to avoid creating a strategic vacuum at the center of Europe.

Drafting a National Security Strategy or creating a National Security Council can only be the first steps toward boosting Germany’s strategic IQ. While these could make German foreign policy more coherent, its strategic intellectual ecosystem remains underdeveloped. The lack of specific proposals for how to deter adversaries and reassure allies in the absence of nuclear sharing, for example, weakens the arguments of those advocating for Germany’s withdrawal.

To foster thinking in this area, the new government should expand the mandate and resourcing of the German Foundation for Peace Research to support research in defense and strategic studies. More sophisticated strategic analysis would also facilitate better assessments of Germany’s contributions to allied strategy, planning, doctrine, and capabilities. It would help the German government to advance evidence-based decision-making within NATO.

Germany’s strategic and nuclear illiteracy is a liability. Calling for a “disarmament policy offensive,” as the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) have done in their October consensus paper, is not enough. To solve the problem of adversary nuclear employment in an escalating conventional conflict the United States needs its allies. The new German government should want to be one of them.

Rafael Loss is coordinator for pan-European data projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

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