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"The Rejection of Intentional Population Targeting for “Tripolar” Deterrence"

  • 04 Oct 2023 09:02
    Message # 13262824

    The Report:

    Keith B. Payne, John R. Harvey, Franklin C. Miller and Robert Soofer, The Rejection of Intentional Population Targeting for “Tripolar” Deterrence, No. 563,
    September 26, 2023


    A basic tenet of one of these narratives is that the targets the United States should intentionally threaten for deterrence effect should be, or include, an opponent’s cities and civilian population.1 This traditionally has been referred to as a punitive “counter-city” deterrent. In contrast, an alternative narrative is that the U.S. deterrent should hold at risk what opponents value most, particularly including their military capabilities and tools of power—and avoid intentionally targeting cities and population. This generally is referred to as a counterforce deterrent. There are variations on each of these approaches to deterrence. But whether an opponent’s cities and population should intentionally be threatened, or intentionally avoided has been a fundamental divide in the public debate regarding the determination of “how much is enough” for deterrence.

    A counter-city approach to U.S. deterrence policy perhaps is best illustrated by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s 1964 declaration that nuclear deterrence should be based on a threat to destroy 20 to 25 percent of the Soviet population and 50 percent of the Soviet industrial base.2 McNamara dubbed this “assured destruction” threat the “very essence of the whole deterrence concept,”3 (in less public venues he acknowledged that U.S. planning included large-scale, counterforce targeting options).4


    The Rejection of Intentional Population Targeting for “Tripolar” Deterrence

    Dr. Keith B. Payne is a co-founder of the National Institute for Public Policy, professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Defense and Strategic Studies, Missouri State University, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and former Senior Advisor to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

    Dr. John R. Harvey is former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs and former Director of the Policy Planning Staff of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

    The Hon. Franklin C. Miller served for three decades as a senior nuclear policy and arms control official in the Pentagon and on the National Security Council staff. He is a principal at the Scowcroft Group.

    Dr. Robert Soofer is a Senior Fellow, Forward Defense, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy.

    The authors together have served in multiple Republican and Democratic administrations.



    Four strategic nuclear experts recently called for keeping the 40-year policy of not targeting civilians in urban areas after two anti-nuclear, arms control advocates suggested adopting the strategy of planning nuclear strikes on Chinese and Russian cities.

    “A counter-city deterrence strategy may entail more modest nuclear force requirements and costs, as its advocates claim, but the priority goal is to deter nuclear war to the extent possible, not finding a rationale for the smallest, least expensive U.S. force posture,” the four experts, all with Pentagon experience in both Republican and Democratic administrations, said in a report made public this week.


    But recently, political scientist Keir Lieber and strategic analyst Daryl G. Press, both with the Atlantic Council, have advocated a return to the city-blasting strategy to fit the modern strategic landscape.

    In May, Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press wrote in a report that the emerging U.S., RussiaChina nuclear “tripolarity” should prompt the Pentagon to reconsider its ban on deliberately targeting enemy civilians with nuclear weapons. The policy prohibits “counter-city targeting even in retaliation for a major Chinese or Russian nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland,” they said.

    Current strategic policy directs U.S. nuclear strikes to be carried out against military, leadership and other “high-value” targets, while minimizing civilian casualties.

    Advocates such as Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press say the main benefit of targeting cities would be to reduce the need for a major buildup of warheads and delivery forces, something that likely would be required for the United States to effectively deter both Russia and China.



    Targeting Civilians

    In the 1930s, both the United States and Britain refrained from targeting civilians in wartime bombings regarding such actions as savage and ruthless.   Indeed, before the war began, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a parliamentary speech declaring that it was “against international law to bomb civilians as such and to make deliberate attacks on the civilian population.”  The American State Department made a similar statement in 1937 condemning the Japanese bombing of Chinese cities, “Any general bombing of an extensive area wherein there resides a large population engaged in peaceful pursuits is unwarranted and contrary to the principles of law and humanity.”   President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the issue as well calling civilian bombing “inhuman barbarism.” 


    But the onset of World War II began the transition away from these earlier beliefs.  The movement was first initiated by Winston Churchill and the British government in response to Germany’s dropping of bombs on London.  It was at this point when Churchill articulated the need for an “absolutely devastating exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.”  Also pushing Britain toward this change in policy was the fact that military officials began to realize that the bombs being dropped from aircrafts were not accurate enough to destroy specific targets (i.e. bases, factories), and thus a more effective use of these bombs would be to direct them at cities where there destruction would have more severe effects. 

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