Rational Security

Last War Standing

Why preemption is the only thing that can keep America safe.

Reynaldo Ramon/US Air Force via Getty Images
Reynaldo Ramon/US Air Force via Getty Images

The three tools of security strategy most heavily relied upon for the past 70 years -- deterrence, prevention, and preemption -- have never worked very well. Today they are on life support, sustained because of their appeal to civilian policymakers' and military strategists' habits of mind and institutional interests. There is no more pressing need today than to rethink these concepts, perhaps even to jettison long-accepted practices associated with them.

The Latin root of "deterrence" is the word for "to terrorize," and that was certainly how the first nuclear weapons were used: to kill hundreds of thousands of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and intimidate Japanese leaders into surrendering. The stated goal: preventing an even more costly, large-scale conventional invasion from becoming necessary. Whatever the true impact of these nuclear attacks, the idea of preventive action -- striking before threats could arise or dire consequences could unfold -- became attractive. Soon there were plans for mounting atomic attacks on the Soviet Union -- communist China. too, after Mao came to power.

But once the Russians obtained their own nuclear weapons, American ardor for preventive war cooled. As President Dwight Eisenhower put the matter in 1954, the Soviets could be "destroyed but not disarmed," and he gave up on preventive war in favor of a policy of deterrence. Still, it was deterrence based on the notion of engaging in "massive retaliation" -- that is, it had a large preventive flavor based on the belief that the threat to nuke enemy lands into radioactive dust for even minor acts of aggression would keep the peace. It didn't. Massive retaliation did little to stem the rising tide of insurgencies that have dominated the landscape of war over the past half-century. As Thomas Schelling summed this strategy up in his Arms and Influence, massive retaliation was "a doctrine in decline from its enunciation."

The three tools of security strategy most heavily relied upon for the past 70 years — deterrence, prevention, and preemption — have never worked very well. Today they are on life support, sustained because of their appeal to civilian policymakers’ and military strategists’ habits of mind and institutional interests. There is no more pressing need today than to rethink these concepts, perhaps even to jettison long-accepted practices associated with them.

The Latin root of "deterrence" is the word for "to terrorize," and that was certainly how the first nuclear weapons were used: to kill hundreds of thousands of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and intimidate Japanese leaders into surrendering. The stated goal: preventing an even more costly, large-scale conventional invasion from becoming necessary. Whatever the true impact of these nuclear attacks, the idea of preventive action — striking before threats could arise or dire consequences could unfold — became attractive. Soon there were plans for mounting atomic attacks on the Soviet Union — communist China. too, after Mao came to power.

But once the Russians obtained their own nuclear weapons, American ardor for preventive war cooled. As President Dwight Eisenhower put the matter in 1954, the Soviets could be "destroyed but not disarmed," and he gave up on preventive war in favor of a policy of deterrence. Still, it was deterrence based on the notion of engaging in "massive retaliation" — that is, it had a large preventive flavor based on the belief that the threat to nuke enemy lands into radioactive dust for even minor acts of aggression would keep the peace. It didn’t. Massive retaliation did little to stem the rising tide of insurgencies that have dominated the landscape of war over the past half-century. As Thomas Schelling summed this strategy up in his Arms and Influence, massive retaliation was "a doctrine in decline from its enunciation."

With the rise of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the rapid growth of arsenals of nuclear warheads, it soon became clear that the only real value in possessing these weapons lay in deterring their use. Quite the paradox, acquiring a capability so as never to use it. Still, given the "law of the instrument" (when one has a hammer, more and more things start looking like nails), strategists and policymakers expended huge effort trying to figure out how to wage nuclear war. A key element here was getting the drop on the enemy with preemptive strikes — hitting first in anticipation of an imminent attack. The high point of this sort of thinking came in Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Directive 59. But given the vast size of American and Russian arsenals, this was all nonsense. However successful a preemptive first strike might be, there would always remain enough — on both sides — to rubble-ize the enemy’s country.

So, through the end of the Cold War, deterrence worked only when it came to keeping the nuclear peace; many conventional and irregular wars erupted throughout the world. The idea of waging preventive war faded like another darkening dream, abandoned early on. And the extended flirtation with preemption was ended decisively by Ronald Reagan who asserted that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." Reagan instead focused on improving classical defense, in the firm belief that the best path to security lay in rebuilding the conventional U.S. military — the Special Operations Command arose on his watch, too — in the wake of its post-Vietnam doldrums.

But all that was then. Since the turn of the millennium and the onset of the long conflict with al Qaeda, the hope has been that deterrence, prevention, and preemption might somehow prove more useful than ever before. With the principal enemy being a network rather than a nation, deterrence now focused on the basic principle of denial rather than punishment. A network has no clear homeland that can be threatened with nuclear or other forms of retaliation, so the focus must be on making it seem so hard to reach a target — "denying" it to the enemy — that attackers call off their operations or strike elsewhere. To some extent, American homeland defensive measures have achieved a bit of this kind of deterrence. But this has not deterred terrorism overall, just redirected it. Indeed, there is now so much more extremist violence today than there was a decade ago that it can be truly said that the war on terror has morphed into terror’s war on the world. Recent closures of so many American embassies and consulates across a swath of Muslim countries only reinforce this point. Deterrence may be working, but only a little, and in a very limited way.

What of preventive war? Fifty years after Eisenhower rejected it, George W. Bush brought it back in his invasion of Iraq. While the Bush administration called it "preemptive war," this was a misnomer given the absence of any imminent threat. The war was really preventive, the idea being that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would keep him from developing nuclear weapons and would somehow create a less permissive environment for the future growth and sustenance of terrorist networks. There is little need to detail the costly failure of this preventive campaign, beyond noting that today the U.S. military is out of Iraq, al Qaeda is back, and that tortured land has become a hothouse environment for the growth of violent extremism.

With deterrence on life support, and preventive war fully discredited, preemption is the world’s last, best hope for security. While it is a concept that proved poorly suited to strategies for the use of weapons of mass destruction, an era of "mass disruption" caused by small terrorist cells and hacker networks cries out for preemption. A raid on a terrorist training camp or safe house, a cyberstrike on a malicious, hacker-controlled robot network, these are the ways in which preemption can be used to reduce the threats that so imperil our world.

The beauty of the kind of preemptive operations that are possible today lies in the very low material costs of such a strategy. The challenge lies in the need for knowledge — indeed, increasing knowledge over time — to enable these sorts of strikes to be conducted. And the fact that preemption can only function on the basis of accurate insight should make the case for governments around the world to continue to amass and employ big data to search out the small cells that bedevil our era. One can only hope that the mass publics of the world will come to see the purpose, and the promise, of the information systems that support the only pillar of international security still standing.  

John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.

Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.

His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).

Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”

In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.

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