PONI Debates the Issues Blog

If We Were Them, Would We Be Deterred?

When I began my career, I remember hearing senior leaders talk about the success of deterrence during the Cold War and it was summed up best by Ambassador Paul Nitze when he said he wanted the Soviets to conclude every day when they examined the situation, "Not Today Comrade." The answer was known then why their conclusion was "not today." The reward was not worth the risk. Looking at the present situation, do our adversaries all reach the same conclusion? Are they being deterred or just delayed? 

The success of deterrence has become increasingly difficult to measure. While nuclear weapons are still successfully used every day to deter some adversaries the question remains are all adversaries deterred by our nuclear forces? It is time to flip the microscope and look back at our own deterrence from the adversary's perspective: Would we be deterred by similar actions? That answer may help shape future deterrence efforts. 

Would UN sanctions and stern, official comments from country X make the United States pause and rethink its efforts to expand or develop its nuclear capability? Put aside the reaction to this question that there is no country in a position to limit the United States in this way. An adversary has this same thought, "Why should I let another country tell me what to do?" If the United States felt threatened by country X's expanding nuclear force and tried to recapitalize its own capability in order to have stronger capability, would sanctions and stern comments dissuade the United States? Highly unlikely. If our adversary tried to limit our non-nuclear testing or future weapon-system development (Next Generation Bomber, Long Range Standoff Weapon, Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, SSBN-X, to name a few) with sanctions or stern comments would we stop our actions? Again, highly unlikely. 

Sanctions and stern, official comments are important tools for diplomacy. But they are not always enough. Analyzing the success of these actions if levied against the United States illustrates an unsuccessful attempt to stop expansion or development. If sanctions and comments are not a motivator against the United States, why is it any different for an adversary? Especially an adversary that thinks it needs a nuclear capability to compete on the global scale. At best it may delay them, but it has not deterred them. If they are not deterred during the expansion or development phase, how are they going to be deterred from employment? It won't be with sanctions or stern comments. Based on risk and reward, this gives them a strategic pause but does not force them to draw the conclusion that Ambassador Nitze desired: "Not Today Comrade."


Capt. James L. Gutierrez is the Maintenance Operations Officer for the 791st Maintenance Squadron; he oversee a 173 person squadron responsible for the scheduling, dispatching and prioritization of ICBM maintenance, balancing sustainment and alert readiness requirements for 150 Launch Facilities and 15 Launch Control Centers.  Capt Gutierrez entered the Air Force through ROTC at the University of New Mexico.  Additionally, he attended the Advanced Maintenance and Munitions Officer School Combat Support Course.  Capt Gutierrez has been an Officer in Charge of the Vehicles and Equipment Section responsible for 42 personnel maintaining 233 vehicles and 4.5K pieces of equipment and a Munitions Accountable Systems Officer, responsible for nuclear weapon accountability and Nuclear Ordnance Commodities worth $1.2 billion.  In his previous assignment Capt Gutierrez served as the Chief ICBM Flight Test, responsible for planning, executing and reporting activities for four $34M Minuteman III operational test launches.  Prior to his current position Capt Gutierrez served as the Chief of Quality Assurance for the 91st Maintenance Group, responsible to the Group Commander for all inspections and evaluations and leading the Groups primary technical advisory agency.

The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Project on Nuclear Issues, the U.S. government or any of its agencies.

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The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues. The content of this web site does not constitute an endorsement by or opinion of the Department of Defense or any sponsor of the Project on Nuclear Issues.