“We believe that preventing wars is as important as winning wars…(w)e will pursue an approach to deterrence that includes a credible and scalable ability to retaliate against aggressors conventionally, unconventionally, and with nuclear forces”
- A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, October 2007

“…(O)ne of the things that we were stressing is an area that I personally have seen little academic work, and that is the notion of escalation control. I think that speaks to your example of how do you deter confrontation between two nuclear capable countries…” 
– VADM Morgan (DCNO, Information, Planning & Strategy), DoD Blogger’s Roundtable, 27 March 2008.

At the height of the Cold War an entire intellectual industry had grown around nuclear deterrence – of strategies, game theory, nuclear calculus and yes, escalation dominance to name but a few of the more esoteric concepts that were the lingua franca of the age.  However, as ADM Morgan correctly points out, post-Cold War this academic industry has mostly fallen away, in part based on reduced tensions between the two primary nuclear powers, but more due to a shift in focus away from the primacy of nuclear weapons and towards the Global War on Terror which required a different toolset.   However, as the complexities of the 21st-century geopolitical order have emerged conventional weapons and capabilities are fielded that have first- and second-order effects that approach lower yield nuclear weapons, there is cause to re-examine the extant toolset. Perhaps it is best to start with an explanation of what constitutes escalation dominance.

In a deterrence scenario there are essentially two parties – a “disturber” and a “stabilizer.” It is assumed that the stabilizer’s interests lie in maintaining the status quo and the disturber’s in disrupting it to accrue some benefit. Therefore, the initiative lies with the disturber as does the level and type of conflict to be employed. To maintain primacy then, a stabilizer must be prepared to maintain a capability to defeat the disturber at every possible level of conflict, or else to maintain escalation dominance with both the means and the will to escalate the conflict.

To employ escalation dominance requires the possession of forces in such manner that higher orders of conflict are of greater advantage to that actor.  For example, two nation-state actors are engaged in a low-order campaign where state A is enforcing sanctions against B via established "no-fly" zones over B.  B moves surface to air missiles into the no-fly zones to challenge A and A responds with a significant air campaign that destroys the launchers and missiles, their control network and reveted supplies, leaving B in a worse condition than before.  Nation-state C, a neighbor of B and also under no-fly zone sanctions had been considering similar actions and upon witnessing the three-day campaign, opts to not take that avenue of action.   Nation-state B unwittingly played to state A’s strong suit which is integrated air campaigns.

 Conversely, without those forces, threats of escalation are not only meaningless, but could potentially threaten widening the conflict. This is, of course, a simple explanation of a fairly nuanced series of subjects – and it does not end there. For if merely returning the disturbed order to status quo ante was the objective of the stabilizer, then the costs would fall disproportionately on the stabilizer vis a vis the disrupter. The latter, in some scenarios, could turn to waging a prolonged guerilla campaign to achieve its objectives – complete with accompanying propaganda campaign. In order to provide an adequate deterrent threat then, the disturber must be faced with the very real possibility of significant loss – of territory, power, wealth and so forth. In order to accomplish this, the stabilizer must be ready and able to threaten to go beyond the status quo whenever the equilibrium is upset by a disturber.

This threat is what restores initiative to the stabilizer and in turn, promotes and incentivizes stability on the part of both parties. It is also the area that is the most problematic in conventional, unconventional and nuclear deterrence credibility in the current age.   A “surge” of conventional forces, for example, in an urban environment in the hands of a manipulative disturber can readily appear to be a massive, indiscriminate attack on an unarmed civilian populace and at best, yield a Pyrrhic victory for the stabilizer. Shift to nuclear matters and one need look no further than Gulf War I and ambiguous signals from US leadership regarding employment of nuclear weapons in response to chemical weapons attacks on US troop concentrations for public pronouncements to lack credibility. On the other hand, the very clear, consistent nuclear guarantee enumerated from one American Administration to the next for NATO was an enduring glue that both held the alliance together and continued to challenge the Soviet/Warsaw Pact to the bitter end.

Placed in the context of the Maritime Strategy, it would appear then that the intent would be that maritime forces would, of course, be the stabilizers seeking to maintain a stable, safe environment to permit the free flow of goods and services across the world’s maritime commons. These forces would be linked through peacetime theater security cooperative engagements, bilateral agreements, regional alliances and the like – a host of those expanded cooperative relationships that have been played up in the new MS. The expectation is that such a regime serves to dissuade the majority of low(er) level disturbers from engaging in disruptive behavior.

The challenge, however, comes as one moves up the scale, particularly to the regional actors that seek to dominate their regions. These are the larger geopolitical entities that have seen significant post-Cold War growth in any one of several sectors but are correspondingly resource poor in one or more areas. They are countries like India and China who have tremendous growth potential, but also have natural and man-made imposed boundaries that will impose chaffing on that growth and in turn, inject complexities into the stability equation for the Maritime Strategy. That will be the next item for discussion.

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