*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.
Two centuries ago, Napoleon embodied warfare’s changing character. This conqueror of Europe took advantage of new ways of thinking about warfare and its organization to bend Europe to his will.
Of course, it wasn’t just the French emperor driving these changes, all by himself. But he’s become the focal point, his name attached to an entire era of warfare and strategic upheaval.
Today’s world is characterized by similar upheaval, as the clear lines that defined the Cold War fade further into the rearview mirror and the subsequent unmatchable primacy of American power diminishes. As different as today’s threats are from those of the early nineteenth century, they’re certainly as dangerous, in no small part because oceans, borders, and multiple lines of latitude and longitude don’t stop weapons or invasions the way they once did. Distance isn’t much of a tyrant anymore.
More importantly, strike is cheap. North Korea, with an economy approximately half of what Americans spend on their pets every year, has the ability to menace far-flung cities with strategic strikes. That’s how bargain-basement the acquisition of nukes has become.
Other culprits include the proliferation of ballistic missile programs, even cheaper cyber weapons, inherent vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure, and the emergence of China as an unsteadying force in the balance of international relations.
These changing characteristics that impact the ability of bad actors to threaten others have collectively led strategist Andrew Krepinevich to assess in Foreign Affairs that the “greatest strategic challenge” of our time is the “decline of deterrence.”
What is clear is that classical models of deterrence—discouragement through fear of punishment or failure—were born in the first Nuclear Age and that specific timestamp has left them somewhat stale. During the Cold War, the West essentially set one big red line for the Soviets. Mutually assured destruction: fire nukes at us and we’ll fire nukes back. And, generally speaking, it worked.
But in the post–Cold War era, the United States and many other governments have sought to deter more, moving from one big red line against one big adversary to setting many little red lines against many different adversaries in several different areas (or domains). The objectives are more nuanced now, and the shift in these objectives can be seen in at least three dimensions.
The United States in particular has lowered the bar on what it seeks to deter. In addition to deterring nuclear attacks, the US government now routinely engages in activities designed to deter actors from lower-level, non-nuclear strikes including chemical weapons attacks (e.g., to halt Assad in Syria’s civil war), intermediate-range conventional missiles (e.g., to match Russian and Chinese missile threats), and potential human rights abuses (e.g., Qaddafi’s planned 2011 military offensive against civilians in Benghazi).
The United States, and its allies, also seem to have set a wider perimeter in what they seek to protect. Events like the North Korean hack on Sony Pictures, the Russian Novichok attack on British soil, and the possibility of cyber strikes designed to take down electric grids have all raised important implied questions: Just what should governments seek to deter? How far should they go to protect infrastructure that’s private, when that infrastructure also connects with important governmental functions or equities?
And governments are now reaching deeper for a greater range of response. Deterrence models in the first Nuclear Age tended to be based on the threat of a like-for-like response, but nowadays threats are much more likely to be cross-domain—something functionally very different.
The upshot is that the United States and allied governments are trying to deter more, but with tools that might be wholly inappropriate for the task, like brandishing nukes at a knife fight. The old models of deterrence by punishment and denial don’t seem to be working anymore. The good news is there just may be another option—a slower one.
As luck would have it, two centuries ago, the Russians dealt with the great challenge of their era in a way that can aid our thinking. With their backs against the wall, they learned to deliver Napoleon his own nightmare, and they still exploit it today.
Napoleon attacked into Russia in June 1812 with over 600,000 men (mostly French, but with many troops of other flags)—intent on forcing the Russians to comply with the Continental System of trade much more than on taking territory. His army was twice the size of the Russian army.
It started out fairly well. The French won the Battle of Borodino in early September 1812, but the Russian defenders withdrew in good order, and went on to scorch their own earth. They destroyed everything that could be of value to an attacking army requiring supplies.
And so, Napoleon’s intended limited campaign instead became a six-month-long, hellish experience in which he went all the way to Moscow only to find it empty.
Troops starved. Everyone got lice, including Napoleon. Typhus spread. And the invading army had no choice but to retreat.
An account of this retreat, written by French Lt. H.A. Vossler, is horrifying. He spent the beginning of the month of November 1812 in Smolensk, in western Russia, which he described as “little more than a heap of rubble.” He also noted that everyone—every single one of the thousands that lived in Smolensk—was gone. They’d all left.
Vossler departed from Smolensk to follow the crippled remains of his emperor’s army west, and recorded that “by the next day I was already reduced to eating horse flesh. . . . Never was it enough to kill the pangs of hunger.”
He then described the attempt to cross the Berezina River two weeks later, on November 28, where a bridge collapsed and just after noon, someone cried, “The Cossacks are coming.”
“Groups of cavalrymen closed ranks and ruthlessly rode down everything in their path,” he wrote. Then, “all semblance of order had ceased. By now there were many trying to swim the river, but few succeeded. Most perished in the icy river. . . . From now on it was a fight of each man against his neighbor.”
“This day, and the cruel spectacle of it all, is something I shall never forget as long as I live.”
Neither has France. To this day, berezina is akin to “catastrophe” in the French language.
While there were still three years until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, British historian Andrew Roberts has acknowledged this was the turning point—Napoleon was on his way down, and out, after 1812.
Two hundred years later, the Russians haven’t forgotten the lesson either. In 2012, to mark the bicentennial of Napoleon’s defeat, President Vladimir Putin described that “the Russian army decided to make a temporary tactical retreat in order to ensure their subsequent victory,” and that act earned the Russians the right to be called “unvanquished.”
In part, Russia’s enormous geography has fused with the strategic culture reflected in its 1812 “victory” into a potent, valuable deterrent.
This is “slow deterrence.”
One aspect to offensive deterrence (punishment) and defensive deterrent measures (denial) that often gets overlooked is that we think only about the immediacy of the response. What can we do to punish, right away? What can we do to deny benefits, right away? This is natural, of course, because immediacy heightens the adversary’s fear and thereby potentially diminishes the likelihood of an attack.
But immediacy may not always be possible, or even desirable. What about latent—or “slow”—deterrent approaches? Deterrence that promises response over a longer period of time, designed to dissuade an aggressor from a particular course of action.
This is nothing new. Small countries have employed a form of this deterrence for territorial defense because they lacked the resources to threaten the immediate punishment or denial that a larger state might have. In that context, it’s typically been referred to as “total defense.”
Austria’s program began in 1975, a scheme of area defense that accepted a larger adversary would certainly breach sovereign soil but then relied on a system of “bunkers, blockades, and dispersed depots” to bleed, hurt, and harm attackers through small-unit guerilla warfare.
Sweden has recently revitalized its form of total defense to hold out against an adversary for three months, presumably enough time for a third-party intervention to come to its aid. The Norwegian Home Guard (a force the author has trained with) is clearly oriented on making its state indigestible by a larger power, promising to be a poison pill—another “slow” deterrence.
Singapore also practices a variant that began in 1984. “As a small, multi-racial, multi-religious nation dependent on free trade to survive, and connected to the world by air, sea, and the Internet,” it espouses the message “that every Singaporean has a part to play to help strengthen our defences against these threats and challenges.” It complicates the strategic challenge for any attacker if every single citizen is a defender. Promise a bloody quagmire, and the attacker may just move on.
It’s easy to see why theories of deterrence would overlook what these smaller states practiced in the latter part of the Cold War. With the focus on the Fulda Gap, the ever-present potential of a titanic confrontation there, and the eye-popping nuclear missile numbers, it’s no wonder deterrence theorists didn’t pay much attention to the ways small states thought about territorial defense.
But these smaller states can teach us something today. They can provide a fresh way of thinking about deterrence for militaries, governments, public entities, and critical national industries.
Even great powers like the United States can learn something from these smaller countries, because their many-decades-long reality of routine vulnerability is now essentially shared by all. More than just an “era of persistent conflict,” we are in an era of persistent vulnerability, and so it’s time to think hard about cost-effective counters and deterrents for continuous strategic exposure.
What does slow deterrence look like in practice?
Like “total defense,” a theory of slow deterrence accepts an aggressors’ advance when it has to, limits tactical damage, and yet holds onto the ability to impose significant strategic costs on the adversary. Importantly, this slow, assured retribution would be clearly expressed to potential attackers well ahead of any strike. It promises protracted pain. It’s anticipatory, announced, anti-fragility.
If deterrence by denial threatens a maddening, full-body straitjacket, and deterrence by punishment threatens an immediate, razor-sharp guillotine, then slow deterrence is to threaten the attacker with a steady, but certainly terminal, stomach cancer.
Slow deterrence is not denial, in that denial is a threat to control the situation by removing an opponent’s options. Slow deterrent measures recognize that some aggressor options aren’t removable, and so tactical damage limitation and subsequent strategic counterstrike make for a more realistic and achievable threat.
One non-“total defense” example would be the British government’s practice of the “Letter of Last Resort” (known more colloquially as the prime minister’s “dead hand”). These are secret instructions, sealed in the safes of four British submarines, where the prime minister provides guidance for the use of the nuclear weapons aboard these subs if the country suffers catastrophic destruction. This “dead hand” threat is another form of strategic retribution that contributes to deterring strikes on British soil.
Slow deterrence isn’t exactly societal or strategic resilience either. While in some cases slow deterrence may overlap with good recovery practices, it is indeed distinct in that slow deterrent measures would be pre-announced to dissuade aggressors from certain actions or objectives, while recovery and resilience are simply after-the-fact responses to harm.
Slow deterrence’s strong point is that it seems generally more stable and certain than faster forms of punishment and denial. As Lawrence Freedman has written, in general, “denial is a more reliable strategy than punishment,” because through “punishment, the target is left to decide how much more to take. With denial, the choice is removed.” The relative advantage of slow deterrence is that it doesn’t require ratcheting up the pain level to some unknown level and it doesn’t require the full removal of choice. It merely pledges persistent pain and sustained strategic challenge to an adversary considering aggression—much more achievable for even modest-sized strategic actors.
More recently, it’s worth considering whether Ukraine should have prepared measures to make Crimea a little harder to swallow than finger-held hors d’oeuvres. (It took Russia about a month to completely consume Crimea in 2014.) Had Ukraine applied some of the principles of “total defense,” Russia might have looked elsewhere for expansion, or at the very least Russia may have paid some higher strategic price for the endeavor. Of course, the fact that many in the Ukrainian military had Russian sympathies, and that the Ukrainian president since 2010 had sought to foster closer ties with Russia, may explain this embarrassing lack of preparedness.
Slow deterrence promises perhaps its greatest utility in the cyber domain. Indeed, it’s been written that deterrence is not possible there. But that’s not entirely accurate. It’s more accurate to say that defense is what’s essentially impossible, and if that’s the case, then injecting well-advertised poisonous pills into protected data sets or finding creative ways to deliver latent responses to a hacking organization may be a method of achieving some limited deterrent effect.
More recently, the Saudi oilfield strike provides another potential example of how to put slow deterrence into action. In the early days that followed the attack there were some ambitious targets set for restarting oil production (reconstitution of one-third of lost production within days, which they were unable to meet). Going forward, one slow deterrent option would be to hold back a strategic reserve that’s sufficiently large to enable enough time for a complete rebuild of the full destruction of all oil facilities. By publicly announcing that such an amount has been set aside (in some undisclosed location), it would demonstrate to potential attackers that while they may achieve some tactical objectives through destruction, it would be literally impossible to gain the full strategic goals of such a strike (i.e., an adversary couldn’t count on crippling the Saudi economy or harming global oil markets). When you cannot deny the initial benefits of blowing up some oil facilities, or guarantee you’ll know who to punish right away, you’ve got to figure out another way to restore deterrence.
Slow deterrence provides that other way.
As a policy recommendation, this isn’t to suggest faster forms of deterrence like punishment and denial should be shelved—instead, it’s to integrate slow deterrence alongside its faster cousins. As strategist J.C. Wylie once advised, “Our strategic success in the future may be measured in great part by the skill with which we are able to balance” our efforts “toward the most effective and least costly attainment of our goals.”
Deterrence should always be a kit bag with different implements for different purposes: a spear to punish, a club for protection, and a third tool that doesn’t hit back right away—a sturdy staff, to help rise over the longer run—enables latent retribution, and provides, in turn, a slow deterrent.
One useful mental model is to imagine a military ship in the open ocean, limited to a set of defensive resources to deter potential attackers. It has guns with long-range standoff that threaten to punish aggressors (deterrence by punishment). It has small arms and well-trained sailors and marines to repel boarders and defend the boat and deny benefits any raiders might hope to achieve (deterrence by denial).
But if the first two don’t work, the ship also has several slower options as the enemy approaches. It can radio for help. It can sabotage secret material onboard, or scuttle the ship. It can allow members of the crew to be captured with explicit plans to slow the enemy possession of the ship and fight back, or perhaps even to threaten to capture the aggressor’s vessel at an opportune moment for counterattack.
The goal for countries confronting modern threats ought to be a layered deterrence—deterrence-in-depth—to construct tiers of deterrent measures that collectively dissuade a potential adversary’s strike.
The Duke of Wellington reportedly once said Napoleon’s presence on the battlefield was worth forty thousand men. But although additional soldiers likely wouldn’t have helped him in Russia, additional deterrent options, organized in depth, would help us today—because if one option fails, we’ll need more with which to dissuade the adversary. And in the end, it may just be the slow one that works best.