Nuclear deterrence need not be the end of war by nuclear powers

Friday, August 25th, 2023

In An Introduction to Strategy (1965), French general André Beaufre describes the indirect strategy:

In essence, this sort of strategy is the answer to how two nuclear powers can still compete with each other without triggering a nuclear war. It is, “the art of making the best use of the limited area of freedom of action left us by the deterrent effect of the existence of nuclear weapons.”

When I explain this to my students, I explain it in a spatial metaphor. Imagine two countries (let’s use the USA and the USSR for simplicity), both with nuclear weapons. They each have ‘red lines’ where they would use nuclear weapons. Neither country wants a nuclear exchange, so they have to avoid crossing their opponent’s red lines which would trigger that. But below that threshold, you have a window of ‘freedom of action’ — a sort of ‘space’ (really a set of options) — where either power can engage in all sorts of activity, including military activity (typically against third parties, as directly attacking a nuclear power is almost always over the red line). Beaufre’s term for the things you do inside the window of freedom of action to gain direct advantages is ‘interior maneuvers.’ For instance supplying weapons to the Afghan mujaheddin in order to degrade Soviet control of Afghanistan — that’s an interior maneuver. Intervening militarily to topple a government that is aligned with your competitor but who they have no formal obligation to protect — that’s also an interior maneuver.

But those two powers can also engage in activity designed to alter the window itself, to give themselves more freedom of action or their opponents less. Remember that deterrence is all about perception, not hard and fast rules. If you can convince the world (and your opponent) that a third-country regime isn’t worth defending (because it is evil or a pariah state, etc.), you can potentially do more or more extensive interior maneuvers against it without nearing that red line. Alternately — especially in a democracy — if you can convince your own people that a third-country regime is noble and just, you can generate the political will to harden your red line, thus closing down some of the freedom of action of your opponent. This sort of thing is what Beaufre terms the ‘exterior maneuver’ — efforts made not to manipulate the direct theater of competition, but the freedom of action each side has to act in that theater. A broad range of activities fit here, as Beaufre notes — appeals to international law, propaganda with moral and humanitarian bent, threatened indirect intervention, economic retaliation (sanctions), and of course ultimately the threat of direct intervention.


All of which means that nuclear deterrence need not be the end of war by nuclear powers; indirect strategy exposes a gap in Brodie’s dictum that the only useful purpose a nuclear military can have is to avert wars.

One such method that Beaufre discusses is what he calls the ‘piecemeal maneuver,’ but is often in English referred to as ‘salami tactics’ — including in this absolutely hilarious bit from Yes, Prime Minister, which is also a surprisingly good explanation of the method. The idea is that to make gains while avoiding escalation, a state can break up the gains they would make into a series of smaller actions, each with its own exterior maneuver ‘cover,’ so that it doesn’t rise to the level of triggering nuclear escalation. Putting together several such maneuvers could allow a state to make those gains which had they all been attempted at once, certainly would have triggered such an escalation. Beaufre’s example, unsurprisingly, was Hitler’s piecemeal gains before his last ‘bite’ into Poland triggered WWII.

Beaufre notes that for piecemeal maneuvers to be effective, they have to be presented as fait accompli — accomplished so quickly that anything but nuclear retaliation would arrive too late to do any good and of course nuclear retaliation would be pointless: who is going to destroy the world to save a country that was already lost? Thus Beaufre suggests that the piecemeal maneuver is best accomplished as a series of coups de main accomplished with fast-moving, armored, mechanized, and airborne forces seizing control of the target country or region before anyone really knows what is happening. The attacking power can then present the maneuver as fait accompli and thus the new status quo that everyone has to accommodate; if successful, they have not only made gains but also moved everyone’s red lines, creating more freedom of action for further piecemeal maneuvers.

Avoiding this problem is why NATO is structured the way it is: promising a maximum response for any violation, however slight, of the territory of any member. The idea is to render the entire bloc immune to piecemeal maneuvers by putting all of it behind the red line (or at least letting the USSR think it is all behind the red line). It is also why American forces are often forward deployed in effectively trivial numbers in key areas in the world in what are often referred to as ‘tripwire’ deployments. Those American forces, for instance, in Poland, the Baltics or on the Korean DMZ (and during the Cold War, in West Germany) were not there to win the war; their purpose was, in a brutal sense, to die in its opening moments and thus ensure that the United States was committed, whether it wanted to be or not. And the reason to do that is to signal to both enemies and allies that any incursion into allied territory, no matter how trivial, will cause American deaths and thus incur an American military response. In that way you can shift the red line all of the way forward, obliterating the area of freedom of action, but only for countries where such a commitment is credible (which is going to generally be a fairly small group).


  1. Jim says:

    So true.

  2. Jim says:

    (Although the troops in Germany are there, four generations later, in the spirit of brutal kiddy-diddling revenge.)

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