Minimum Nuclear Deterrence: Explaining the Absence of a Chinese Breakout

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By Matthew Watterson

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The increase in destructiveness of nuclear weapons can change the speed, the control, and sequence of events. The destructiveness nuclear weapons offer has given nuclear states the ability to coerce a non-nuclear state into ending a conflict or war because there is no conceivable defense against them. The qualities that nuclear weapons possess—immense destructiveness, speed, and a psychological impact, should force a state to abandon their aggressive moves when threatened with nuclear punishment. Nuclear weapons have enabled states to make more compelling threats in international conflicts and wars. The logic is that nuclear states can more easily intimidate their opponents into submitting to their compelling demands because the nuclear state has the ability to impose an extraordinary level of punishment. This dynamic therefore presents a puzzle: if a state has the ability to increase their nuclear capability—giving them more destructive power, coercion, and deterrence—then why would they not do so? It is important to first start with defining deterrence and the relationship that deterrence has with nuclear weapons. Generally, deterrence is the threat of force intended to convince a potential aggressor not to undertake a particular action because the costs will be unacceptable or the probability of success is low; this threat has always been one of the central strategic principles by which nations attempted to prevent conflict. Nuclear weapons do not fundamentally change the nature of warfare, and that deterrence they provide rests on the operational usability of nuclear weapons themselves. Balance of terror arguments state that the ability to have a credible threat of inflicting unimaginable damage on the enemy is the source of deterrence; one way to make a credible threat is for a state to threaten to take discretely rational moves that increase the perception that subsequent actions may lead to mutual destruction. Another view argues that deterrence is achieved by both punishment and denial; that is, threats to inflict future pain are made credible by the damage that was already inflicted, which implies that it will escalate to the point where the state being harmed is denied victory. Minimum deterrence is threatening the lowest level of damage necessary to prevent an adversary from attacking, with the fewest number of nuclear weapons possible. On the other hand, limited deterrence requires a limited war fighting capability to inflict costly damage on the adversary at every point of escalation, resulting in the denial of victory in a nuclear war.