Coercion, deterrence and Australia’s long-range strike options
19 Mar 2020|

My ASPI colleague Marcus Hellyer’s two recent posts open up a range of questions about the future role of long-range strike capabilities in Australian strategy. One of the more important questions involves what we want long-range strike to do. At the risk of being overly reductionist, I’d suggest that proponents of long-range strike can be divided into two groups: those who envisage an offensive role for such capabilities and those who envisage solely a defensive one. In part, the division turns on the issue of China, and whether Australia should be prepared to target the Chinese homeland during a conflict. But it turns too on theoretical arguments, such as whether deterrence by denial really is ‘inherently more reliable’ than deterrence by punishment.

Most warfare involves contests in short-range and medium-range weaponry. No surprise there—most of those who fight are neighbours. Even today, long-range strike capabilities are relatively rare. The P5 countries—China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, all of which are officially recognised as nuclear-weapon states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—have them. Among the four non-official nuclear-armed states, India and North Korea are working to develop intercontinental-range delivery systems, but Pakistan and Israel aren’t. It’s not entirely coincidental that the list essentially comprises nuclear-capable states: for a long time the limited accuracy of long-range systems has meant that only a nuclear warhead could compensate for ‘circular error probables’ that measured in the hundreds, if not thousands, of metres.

So, for most countries, the issue of what to do with long-range strike capabilities simply doesn’t arise. Even in the case of Australia, a country used to fighting its wars at considerable distance from its shores, most of our thinking about long-range strike has been subcontracted to our major ally, the US. Thinking about how we might use an indigenous long-range strike capability has been relatively rare. That it resurfaces now, at a time of shifting relative strategic weight in the Asian great-power balance, means the debate automatically centres on the rising authoritarian power, China.

So, how might Australian long-range strike capabilities—China, remember, already has them—contribute to establishing a more stable strategic relationship between Canberra and Beijing?

Let’s start with the concept of deterrence. In a purely definitional sense, deterrence is a show-stopper. It occurs when country A persuades country B not to undertake a specific action by threatening to impose a set of costs on country B that would exceed the likely benefits it would gain from undertaking the action.

That’s accurate, but long-winded and dull. And it just tells us how deterrence works, rather than what it is. So, what is it? Deterrence is a chapter in the playbook of coercion. And coercion springs from what Thomas Schelling called ‘the power to hurt’. The power to hurt is important because it underpins bargaining power.

That description probably horrifies some readers. Western audiences today like discussions about power to be qualified by adjectives like ‘soft’ and ‘smart’. Coercion, in particular, doesn’t get a lot of mileage in Australian defence white papers. Indeed, we’re inclined to think that coercion is bad, that China coerces but we don’t, and that we live by higher standards and finer principles, essentially those of a ‘rule-bound’ international order.

Moreover, in recent decades Western military capabilities have emphasised precision strike—ironically, the deliberate minimisation of pain—as the key principle in force design. That’s enabled smaller warheads to be effective against targets that previously would’ve required larger ones.

It’s possible to argue that the credibility of both deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial has increased—the first can be more selective, the second more effective. But do adversaries really fear accurate destruction more than gross destruction? If so, why do nuclear weapons retain their strategic importance?

Summing up on this point, when we’re asking ourselves what the link might be between deterrence and long-range strike weapons, we’re specifically asking how such capabilities would allow us to coerce another power—that is, how we might threaten them to our political advantage.

Second point: country B doesn’t have to be merely another second-tier power like us. In deterrence relationships, it matters not which country is stronger. What matters is whether country A can credibly threaten to impose on country B a set of costs that country B finds painful.

That’s why North Korea’s successful, if so far limited, testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile and a thermonuclear warhead is strategically significant. It allows Pyongyang to threaten to impose on the US a set of costs that Washington would find unacceptable even if it could, in response, turn North Korea into a radioactive carpark. That is to say, its subsequent devastation of North Korea would not reduce America’s suffering to any noticeable degree.

French nuclear doctrine during the Cold War turned on precisely the same axis: it threatened to undo the Soviet Union’s standing as a great power. Yes, Moscow could retaliate, but it could not escape the effects of a French strike.

Now, in both those cases, nuclear weapons provide important leverage. It might be that Australia is unwilling to head down the path to nuclear weapons. And in terms of deterrence, that would be a serious constraint, for the sheer destructiveness of nuclear weapons provides a solid foundation for a diplomatic stance based on coercive threats.

True, the same principles of deterrence apply at the conventional-weapon level. But it’s hard to threaten an aggressor with a set of costs that its leadership would find unacceptable if we don’t have some heavyweight escalation options. And we certainly can’t do that by prematurely rushing to reassure China that its homeland wouldn’t be targeted during a conflict with Australia. After all, Beijing is giving us no such reassurance.

A third point: trying to constrain Australia’s future long-range strike capabilities to those which would augment our existing doctrine—essentially ‘defence of Australia’ accompanied by a side-dish of Pacific ‘step-up’—puts the cart before the horse. Despite Hugh White’s recent effort to show that the defence of Australia doctrine could be deployed against a superpower, it was designed in the 1980s to do something different. It was a formula for managing low-level threats, in a world of US primacy and great-power accommodation. That’s not the future we confront. Belatedly appending to that formula a long-range anti-ship missile capability, so we can threaten the targeting of Chinese ships as they pull out of Hainan, merely confuses an already overburdened defence doctrine.

The threat to hurt is difficult to leverage from a strategic posture that insists on ‘defensive defence’—readers of a certain age might remember the NATO debates of the early 1980s on just that topic. After all, what ‘threat’ would we be actually making? We’d be ‘threatening’ to defend ourselves against another country’s military forces that were already attacking us. The potency of the threat depends on Beijing’s weighing of a shifting balance of conventional forces in a prospective battle far distant from its shores. That threat’s not particularly coercive, not when weighed alongside more offensive possibilities.

Where does that leave us? Three points. Deterrence is the political return from coercive threat. Effective threats can be made against a stronger power by a weaker one. And offensive threats—especially offensive threats of gross destruction—possess a persuasiveness not easily matched by defensive threats. We need to approach the issue of long-range strike with those lessons in mind.