The Uses and Limitations of Nuclear Deterrence in Asia

Author/Editor: Charles Wolf, Jr.

Publisher/Sponsor: The RAND Corporation


Report Date: August 1964

Document Number: –


Nautilus Filing Number: 1299

Box Number: 37


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In this 1964 report Wolf explores US extended nuclear deterrence in China, Japan, and South Korea as well as the impact it could have in Asian countries then “under Communist threat”. Wolf uses two frameworks to assess the effectiveness of US conventional military and nuclear options in Asia: “broad-deterrence” and “narrow-deterrence” options. Wolf uses these two views to consider the provocation threshold, military and political pressures and alternative actions at play in each situation. Wolf writes, “In Asia, we are left with a wide range of current and potential undeterred conflicts.  Although nuclear deterrence is more operative and effective than is often believed, its limitations are manifest not only in the Vietnamese and Laos cases, but in the unambiguous Indonesian confrontation with Malaysia and in the case of various forms of possible Chinese aggression against India or Burma.  It is in this area of undeterred conflicts where our greatest need for improvements in programs and policies lie.” [Page 13]



It may be useful at the outset to contrast two polar positions that are tacitly or explicitly held on this subject. If my opening suggests something about the position that will be taken in this paper, I should hasten to say that there are many points between two extremes besides the median.

At one pole is a position that used to be held more actively in some quarters, particularly in the United States, than it currently is, although it may again assume prominence during the forthcoming American election campaign. According to this view, which I shall call the “broad-deterrent” view, the primary military threat in the Far East is posed by Communist China, acting alone or through its proxies in North Vietnam and North Korea. This threat can be effectively deterred by a declaratory policy that focuses on the controlled use of nuclear weapons against targets in China or in the proxy countries at the upper limits of an escalation process that would first employ conventional weapons inside or outside the tactical objective area, but would move rapidly to nuclear weapons if the precipitating aggression did not cease. The broad-deterrent view recognizes that the basic threat can, indeed is likely to, take many forms besides large-scale overt aggression. But the presumption is that the underlying stimulus, support, and control of these different manifestations remains the responsibility of Communist China, or its proxies. This presumption makes credible the use of nuclear weapons against the responsible parties themselves, thereby providing an effective deterrent against many of the lesser forms of provocation, as well.

At the opposite extreme is the “narrow-deterrent” view, according to which the threat of nuclear weapons use is neither effective nor relevant in Asia, nor is it applicable to the kinds of contingencies that may arise there. (I will pass over the question of whether the “irrelevance” of nuclear deterrence to the kinds of threats that are likely to arise is itself an indication of the effectiveness of deterrence in eliminating from consideration those contingencies that are presumed unlikely to arise:) According to this view, which has been held in many American and British quarters and is, frequently expressed in France, the threat of nuclear weapons in Asia is ineffective because it is incredible, and it is incredible because of the constraints imposed by the political environment and by the type of conflicts which the ferment of social, political, and economic change in this area generates.

For reasons that include, but are not confined to, the World War II use of atomic weapons against Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Asian political environmental will, it is argued, inevitably make the use of nuclear weapons inappropriate, because the political costs that would be associated with their use would exceed whatever military gains might be obtained. The types of conflict that are bound to arise in this area are too small, too ambiguous, and too deeply embedded in complex processes of social change, to give the use of nuclear weapons any plausibility. Other options will always be more attractive than using nuclear weapons, so the threat of use is academic. Finally, according to this view, the major national interests of the nuclear powers are not as directly involved in Asia as they are in the defense of the homelands of these powers. Hence, it must be assumed that the nuclear powers could not “wish to assume the enormous risk of a general war,” as deGaulle recently put it, which a first use of nuclear weapons would entail in Asia, as well as in Europe. (The reasoning here is, of course, analogous to and, in one sense, stronger than the argument about the ineffectuality of the American deterrent in the European context, where major American interests are more deeply involved than in Asia. However, the essential difference between the two contexts, which the quotation ignores, is the different adversary and the differing power that it possesses — a point I will return to later.)

The essential difference between the broad-deterrent and the narrow-deterrent views can be reduced to the basic question of the threshold of stimulus, provocation, or violence, at which a U.S. nuuclear response becomes sufficiently credible to be an effective deterrent. Clearly, the threshold question conceals a number of complex issues, in Asia no less than in Europe. Would the use of nuclear weapons be militarily effective? (Are there tactical targets within the objective area that can be more effectively destroyed with nuclear weapons than with other means, without inflicting more significant damage on friend than foe? If not, then is geographic escalation with nuclear weapons against targets outside the tactical area likely to be more effective than conventional weapons in relieving the military threat? Is there a risk that use of nuclear weapons will involve the Soviet Union in further escalation moves? etc.) Are the political costs of using nuclear weapons likely to be too great in relation to military effectiveness to make their use credible? Can these political costs be reduced, or are they likely to be offset by the political costs of failing to make a stand?

Implicitly, or explicitly, these questions are answered in sharply different ways by the two contrasting views of deterrence. As a result, each would establish the provocation threshold at grossly different points. The broad-deterrent view sets the provocation threshold at a relatively low level, while reserving flexibility for the type and targeting of the nuclear response that might be invoked. A wide range of contingencies can then be effectively deterred by nuclear means. The narrow-deterrent view sets the provocation threshold at a relatively high point, thereby implying that a wide range of contingencies, varying with respect to geography, level of violence, duration, and the Asian countries that may be involved, will remain irrelevant to the use of nuclear weapons, and therefore undeterred.


This report was released to the Nautilus Institute under the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).