'Integrated deterrence' must be a strategy, not a slogan

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says "integrated deterrence" is the cornerstone of U.S. defense strategy. Pool Photo by Rod Lamkey/UPI
1 of 4 | Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says "integrated deterrence" is the cornerstone of U.S. defense strategy. Pool Photo by Rod Lamkey/UPI | License Photo

At the change of command for the Indo-Pacific region in Pearl Harbor last spring, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced his concept of "integrated deterrence" as "the cornerstone of defense to make sure U.S. adversaries know that the risk of aggression is out of line with any conceivable benefit."

Austin went on to explain that ID "is the right mix of technology, operational concepts and capabilities -- all woven together and networked in a way that is credible, flexible and so formidable that it will give any adversary multi-domain, spans numerous geographic areas of responsibility, is united with allies and partners and is fortified by all instruments of national power." Further, ID "means working together in ways that were not done before...and all of us giving it our all."


But the question is whether integrated deterrence is a slogan or a real strategy. That is far from clear. No matter the answer, the Defense Department is confident that integrated deterrence will be central to the Biden administration's forthcoming national security strategy due out in early 2022.


Many recall that in earlier times, this was called a "whole of government" or "comprehensive approach." Because the secretary spoke in aspirational and non-specific terms, it is impossible to know in what ways we will work together that is different from the past. And it is also clear that the secretary believes that Cold War and 20th century definitions of deterrence still apply in the 21st century, despite the profound and even revolutionary changes that transpired beyond the attacks of Sept. 11 and what is viewed by the last three administrations as the threat from China politically, strategically, ideologically, militarily and, perhaps most importantly, economically, as well that continuing to emerge from Russia.

Start with the meaning of deterrence. During the Cold War, deterrence was expressed in the shorthand of MAD for Mutual Assured Destruction, meaning that in a thermonuclear war, the side struck first had the capacity to destroy the other several times over. The ability to retaliate in essence deterred war.

The Soviet Union never shared that definition. Sderzhivanie is the Russian term. It applies a more active defense namely to constrain by threatening to minimize the effects of a first strike that is more than just retaliation. Indeed, some analysts concluded the Soviet Union was preparing to fight and not deter a nuclear war if one started. The Russian Federation has not changed that view.


In the 21st century, from what are China and Russia being deterred? Given that neither the United States nor China and Russia want war, where is deterrence applicable? It surely has not prevented China from Belt and Road; intimidating Taiwan; militarizing islets in the China seas; and adopting "wolf warrior" tactics by its diplomats. Russia was not deterred from moving into South Ossetia; eastern Ukraine; annexing Crimea; or conducting "active measures" to disrupt and destabilize the West.

About "integrated," what does that mean? In some ways, given inter-service rivalries and more or less equal budget shares, the military services are not necessarily integrated. The Unified Command Plan in its divisions of areas of responsibility is not integrated with how the State Department had divided up the world in its organization or the CIA, or for that matter the NSC. And there is no commonality with the key congressional committees that oversee the Pentagon: the armed services and appropriations committees.

One can argue that the United States traditionally has been less than candid with its friends and allies, choosing to inform rather than consult on key matters. The decision to leave Afghanistan by Aug. 31 stunned NATO, and the Doha Agreement negotiated by the Trump administration ignored allies, particularly the government in Kabul. What will be different under integrated deterrence?


Slogans are not strategy. And it appears integrated deterrence so far is a slogan. The same can be said of the Trump National Defense Strategy that aimed "to compete, deter and if war came defeat" China or Russia without defining with specificity those objectives. Indeed, if integrated deterrence is foundational, more effort must be applied in specifying what is integrated and how and why it will deter.

For outside observers engaged at a distance and lacking access to Pentagon thinking, it is difficult to see how integrated deterrence will be made operational in terms of policy, strategy, budget priorities, military capabilities and capacities and organizational changes. That is Austin's challenge: to ensure integrated deterrence drives strategy and is not a slogan.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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