The enduring relevance of nuclear deterrence

nuclear deterrence

After a bit of a lull, officials, experts, and commentators in Russia are again talking up the possibility, if not the imperative, of Russia using nuclear weapons against Ukraine or countries in the NATO alliance. In response to this latest wave of commentary and Russia’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, President Joe Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons is “real.” All of this was just before an armed rebellion by the Wagner mercenary group cast further doubt on the command and control of the Russian military. In troubled times such as these, rigorous thinking about Western deterrence strategy is needed to keep the nuclear wolves at bay. To that end, there are many thought leaders to draw upon, such as Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, whose works are both foundational and adaptable. Among this cadre is someone perhaps not as well known in the United States, Sir Michael Quinlan. 

If nuclear deterrence is a religion, as some critics contend, then Sir Michael surely is one of its patron saints. He capped off a long career of government service as the United Kingdom’s permanent secretary to the Ministry of Defence — the top civil servant — from 1988 to 1992. He was widely recognized within the British establishment and NATO as a preeminent thinker about nuclear deterrence and steered some of the biggest decisions of the day, such as the United Kingdom’s acquisition of the Trident strategic deterrent and the modernization of NATO’s long-range theater nuclear forces. Sir Michael left us far too soon, in 2009 due to cancer, but his framework for thinking about deterrence offers a clear, adaptable guide for safely navigating today’s nuclear currents. 

Throughout his career, Sir Michael helped educate policymakers at all levels on the fundamentals of nuclear policy and doctrine, going beyond the tendency to think only of weapons systems. He equally was keen to engage with skeptics to explain why nuclear deterrence was both essential and reliable. Quinlan also gave generously of his time to aspiring analysts in the field, myself included. Sir Michael was of enormous help to me in understanding U.K. nuclear deterrence policy in the early 2000s. A tribute publication to him in 2011 reads as a “who’s who” of Western strategists. Lately, I find myself wondering what Sir Michael would make of the nuclear deterrence scene today and what advice he might have for us. Fortunately, he left us a substantial paper trail, intentionally it seems, from which to extrapolate. That legacy attests to the enduring relevance and durability of nuclear deterrence.

The “Big Q”

To understand the importance of Sir Michael’s views and how they bear on us, we first should know more about his character. He was not, as some might assume by the nature of his position, a hawk. His support for nuclear deterrence had limits. He once opined that if it ever came to a choice for the United Kingdom between funding its nuclear deterrent or a viable conventional force posture, he would lean toward the latter. He was a Jesuit-educated devout Catholic who grappled with the morality of nuclear deterrence and found it acceptable compared to the alternatives and within certain narrow bounds. He publicly opposed the 2003 Iraq War as an unjustifiable war of choice. 

Central to Sir Michael’s effectiveness as a thought leader and senior policy advisor was his focus on the merits of an argument. In this, he was formidable. He was above all a very decent man, one not given to ad hominem attacks. Reminiscing some years ago with a senior U.K. official who had worked for Sir Michael, dare say I detected a misting of the eyes beneath that British reserve. Such is the respect that Sir Michael — “Big Q,” as they referred to him — garnered.

So, what would Sir Michael make of the nuclear deterrence scene today? Generally, he would find the contours of 2023 very familiar to the Cold War — a totalitarian Russia wielding nuclear threats to dominate its neighbors and intimidate NATO alongside activist calls for the West to unilaterally relinquish its nuclear deterrent. Three aspects of the contemporary landscape bear further exploration with a Quinlan lens: deterring Russian nuclear use, the latest U.S. nuclear posture review and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Deterring Russian Nuclear Use

For Michael Quinlan, the vast destructive power of nuclear weapons made any notion of military victory in a nuclear war an absurdity. Even as the Cold War was receding, he made a point of reminding the Soviet general staff that it had no hope of ever winning a nuclear war in a remarkable lecture he gave in Moscow in 1990. Quinlan also placed great stock in the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons:

From as long ago as the 1950–53 Korean War this taboo has increasingly meant that any thought of initiating the use of nuclear weapons would be burdened with huge global political costs, quite aside from any other consideration (and that has almost certainly been one of the reasons why, as the Korean and Vietnam Wars illustrated, any superpower use of nuclear weapons against small states or for non-vital interests can have virtually no credibility or purchase).

Against this backdrop, Sir Michael would likely be cautioning the United States and its allies against over- or under-reacting to Russia’s nuclear threats in the Ukraine War. That is, Putin is probably bluffing, but we cannot take that for granted; we should remain vigilant and be prepared to respond. Indeed, such prudent contingency planning, properly communicated to the Russian government, could further diminish the prospects for Russian nuclear use in Ukraine.

Quinlan would generally approve of NATO’s response to these threats thus far. The warnings that the United States has conveyed to the top levels of the Russian leadership seem to be vague enough to keep them second-guessing yet clear enough to raise in their minds that the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine will transform the conflict, elevating our stake in its outcome and probably opening the door to direct U.S. intervention. As Quinlan explained:

[D]eterrence does not require a precise specification of what form [a threatened response] will take. It requires only that it be made plain that the objectionable action will not be allowed to stand; that there is ample power to prevent its doing so; and that there is also the resolve to use robustly … whatever is found necessary for the purpose. Over-exact advance specification of intended means may actually weaken deterrence. For instance, it may help the adversary in one way or another to calculate how to evade or head off the response.

At the same time, Quinlan would have been quite concerned that Putin’s ability to objectively weigh the benefits and costs of limited nuclear use was being skewed by the information bubble in which he seems to reside:

[S]ome leaders — especially autocrats not well supported by candid counsellors — may be apt to let over-optimism or even fatalism cloud their sense of the weight and likelihood of medium- or long-term penalties compared with nearer-term ones like losing face domestically. Such possibilities have to be studied carefully and borne in mind by others seeking to build frameworks of deterrence to constrain states like these.

Quinlan was a consummate user of intelligence and later a senior advisor to the U.K. government on intelligence reform. I imagine he would likely favor how U.K. defense intelligence has been declassifying and publicizing its intelligence on the war in Ukraine to expose and thus deter Russian false flag operations. Arguably, this declassification may also help inject some “inconvenient truths” into the Kremlin information bubble; recently Putin acknowledged publicly Russian shortages of high-precision munitions and drones, as well as losses of armor in the unfolding Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The 2022 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review 

Turning to nuclear policy more broadly, the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review aligns well with Quinlan’s writing style. It is a concise document, saying what it needs to, but just. Quinlan was the master of the “bureaucratic brief,” which he impressed upon his staff at the expense of much red ink, they would recall.

Substantively, however, Sir Michael would likely have been troubled by the Nuclear Posture Review’s assertion that “the fundamental role of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our Allies, and partners” and that the United States retained the goal of one day declaring that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons was to deter nuclear attack. For Quinlan, nuclear weapons served a larger purpose. He long ago recognized that the most likely path to the use of nuclear weapons was an escalation from a conventional conflict:

Most discussion of deterrence has understandably tended to center upon the immense reality of nuclear weapons. But it must not be supposed either that preventing their use is the sole aim of deterrence, or that they are its sole instruments. The imperative has been to prevent all war between major powers, not just nuclear war.

[N]on-nuclear war is not just appalling in itself. It is also the likeliest route to nuclear war. In practice, indeed, it is the only likely route since … scenarios of the holocaust being launched by accident or through technical malfunction are far-fetched to the point of fantasy. The risk would be at its highest when bitter conflict had already broken out at a lower level. War prevention needs therefore to operate on all levels of military conflict between nuclear capable states.

In short, Quinlan concluded that the central purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter conventional conflict between nuclear-armed rivals. The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review acknowledges elsewhere that U.S. nuclear weapons serve to deter regional aggression by China and Russia but not in the direct manner that Quinlan would have preferred.

Sir Michael very much believed that having a wide range of potential nuclear response options was critical to convincing the adversary of the credibility of our deterrent. He would be dismayed to see that Russia had rearmed itself with all manner of theater-range nuclear delivery systems, violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to do so, while NATO’s only nuclear delivery system on the European continent was a relatively small number of tactical aircraft. Indeed, it was Sir Michael’s concern over the “penetrative” (not “penetrability,” as he once corrected me) of such aircraft against modern air defenses that led him successfully to advocate within NATO during the late 1970s for the deployment of new theater-range missiles.

It follows that Quinlan would be keen for the United States to redress that balance today. While the incoming F-35 has formidable stealth capabilities, NATO dual-capable aircraft remain tied to a small number of vulnerable air bases, another concern of Quinlan’s in the late 1970s. Though Quinlan was not particularly perturbed by Russian threats to walk out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the early 2000s, now that it had been accomplished, it is not unreasonable to suggest that he would once again support new missile deployments by NATO. He may well have been agnostic as to whether they were mobile land-based missiles or were deployed on attack submarines in the European theater. Regardless, the 2022 Biden administration’s cancellation of the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile leaves NATO with one less option to redress the nuclear imbalance in Europe.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

It is with great vigor that Sir Michael would have engaged the latest incarnation of the nuclear abolition movement, which remains fixated on getting the West to disarm unilaterally. Foremost, I sense that if he were with us, Quinlan would lay to rest any suggestions that after the Cold War ended, he had somehow lost confidence in nuclear deterrence and saw real hope for disarmament.

In part, such perceptions are a function of presentation and circumstances. Sir Michael’s interests in the early 2000s reflected the world at that time — Western defense establishments had turned their attention from nuclear deterrence to the global war on terrorism, and hopes were raised in Western Europe that remaining U.S. tactical nuclear weapons could be withdrawn. Running counter to those currents, India and Pakistan were openly nuclearizing and embarking on a deterrence relationship of their own. Sir Michael thus applied his immense intellectual talents to the situation in South Asia and to the downstream requirements of global disarmament. But it would be a mistake, not to mention a disservice, to suggest that Quinlan was somehow on the road to embracing nuclear abolition. Rather, Russian revanchism, not to mention China’s and North Korea’s rapid build-up of nuclear capabilities and coercive strategies, would have Sir Michael reminding us today of the indispensability of nuclear deterrence to the preservation of Western democracies.

While he refrained from personal invective, Sir Michael did not have high regard for disarmament activists, referring to them as “campaigners.” In part, this was because he believed that they did not bear or appreciate the responsibility for ensuring national survival. He also saw their fear-mongering as potentially undermining public support in the West for nuclear deterrence, the centerpiece of major power war prevention.

On his watch in the British government, Quinlan had to contend with activists’ dire warnings that “technological advance was accelerating, and that by the 1990s it would be possible for either side to destroy the entire military capability of the other (including submarines) in a single first strike, thus undermining the basis for deterrence; and that this lent great urgency to the need for early progress on arms control/disarmament.” Thirty years later, that world still has not materialized, yet little has changed in such clarion calls.

Quinlan was neither complacent about nor consumed by the risk of inadvertent nuclear use, noting:

The history of the nuclear age does not bear out suppositions that risks of accident, mistake, or overreaction leading to weapon launch are acute. Such risks of these kinds as do exist could and should be alleviated by less drastic and complex but more practical measures to ease alert states.

Sir Michael refuted the notion that NATO’s 1983 Able Archer exercise nearly provoked Soviet nuclear use, as some nongovernment analysts had contended relying mainly on a subsequently declassified U.S. Air Force intelligence report. A more recent assessment of the exercise using a wider collection of declassified and authoritative U.S., Russian, and European sources seems to bolster Quinlan’s conclusion. 

It is true that he gave serious thought – he did not know how to do otherwise — to the practicalities of disarmament. On a couple of points, he was crystal clear. First, there was no easy escape from nuclear weapons — they simply could not be dis-invented, and the temptation to redeploy them in a war would be strong. Second, to pave the road to disarmament, there would have to be fundamental change in how nations conducted their affairs with one another. In this regard, I believe Sir Michael would be deeply disappointed by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. He would find its absence of verification means the sure sign of an unserious endeavor. 

Quinlan would doubtless have been deeply disappointed at the conduct of the first meeting of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons state parties in June 2022, as well. There, rather than rightfully condemn Russia by name for its irresponsible and reckless threats to use nuclear weapons in its war against Ukraine, signatory states’ parties equivocated and piously asserted that all nuclear weapons threats were unacceptable. This would have saddened Sir Michael on two accounts. First, reliance on nuclear weapons to safeguard freedom and national survival in the West is patently not morally equivalent to their exploitation by an authoritarian regime in conducting a brutal war of national extermination. Second, by conforming to diplomatic conventions not to call out transgressors by name, the treaty actually missed a major opportunity to effect the kind of systemic change that Quinlan said will be needed if we are to realize nuclear disarmament.

In this regard, Sir Michael left us with a clear and enduring message:

We have to seek unremittingly, through arms control and otherwise, for better ways of ordering the world [than deterrence]. But the search may be a very long one. No safer system than deterrence is yet in view, and impatience would be a catastrophic guide in the search. To tear down the present structure, imperfect but effective, before a better one is firmly within our grasp would be an immensely dangerous and irresponsible act.

Toward a Revival of “Quinlanism”

In fact, Michael Quinlan left us with much more. Particularly after retirement from government service, he published widely, and his extensive personal correspondence on nuclear issues resides in the Liddell Hart Military Archives at King’s College London. In his final publication, Quinlan seems to have anticipated that the West would one day need to restore its “nuclear IQ”:

I should like also, if I can, to help ease the task of generations later than my own in positions of public responsibility for nuclear-weapon issues. They may have to face difficult decision-making about such issues from a basis of relevant experience and discussion less extensive and continuous than my generation had occasion to accumulate.

[T]here has clearly been, on both sides of the Atlantic, much less attention to issues of nuclear policy than there was in the Cold War, and even a good deal of forgetting the thinking that was developed and the lessons that were learned. There are risks in that.

Thus, if we are to resist nuclear coercion by authoritarian states, reassure nervous publics and bring more balance to the debate on arms control, it behooves us to revisit the clear, sober-minded writings of Sir Michael Quinlan, adapt them as needed and engage in publicly defending the practice of nuclear deterrence with the same elan he exhibited throughout his life of service.

Gregory Giles is a senior director with Science Applications International Corporation. For more than three decades, he has been advising U.S. government clients on issues related to deterrence, nonproliferation, and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of Science Applications International Corporation, the Department of Defense, or Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.