16 September 1987


The seemingly upcoming withdrawal of American Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) currently based in NATO Europe will not hurt the credibility of "extended deterrence"i.e. the coupling of US nuclear forces to the defence of Western Europefor the simple reason that their deployment did not enhance it to begin with: extended deterrence does not depend on where the forces which back it up are based, but on the degree to which the US is willing to incur the risk of a Soviet nuclear response against itself for the sake of Europe.

Some, like all French governments since de Gaulle, believe that willingness to be quite tenuous, and have opted to build their own deterrent. Most others in Europe either believe the US commitment to be credible enough to be relied upon, or have other reasons for renouncing an independent nuclear force. Be that as it may, it is utterly ridiculous, and yet one reads it every day in much of the European press, to hold that the US nuclear guarantee is credible only if US nuclear forces capable of reaching Soviet territory are based on European soil. To use INF to rejuvenate the trust in extended deterrence which many Europeans see as no longer credible is a product of their political schizofrenia, but carries no logic whatsoever.

Those who hold this view argue that while the US would be reluctant to defend Europe by threatening to use its intercontinentalforces because it would fear Soviet retaliation in kind, it would be less reluctant to threaten the Soviets with its INF based in Europe. For this proposition to be true, one must assume that the Soviets would consider a US INF strike somehow less escalatory, and respond differently, presumably sparing US territory. Yet this assumption is completely untenable.

Why should the Soviets, in shaping their response, care where the US missiles come from? Rationally, while evaluating their next move, they would be concerned about things such as where the warheads land, what type of targets they destroy, whether Soviet territory and cities are attacked, and who controls the weapons which are attacking them.

But what surely will not matter is the geographical location where the weapons are coming from, especially since the Soviets know that US INF capable of reaching Soviet territory are USonly controlled, unlike other "dualkey" systems where the US provides the warheads and the European man the delivery vehicles. Can anyone imagine an emergency Politburo meeting at which the Soviet Chief of General Staff takes the floor: "Comrades, Soviet territory has been struck by US weapons, but don't panic, it's not a 'strategic' attack, they are just using their INF based in Europe". At which point the Secretary General would reply: "This is intolerable Comrades, we must respond in kind, and strike with our own INF, but we'll refrain from using our intercontinental weapons as long as they do..." thus sanctioning the unilateral "sanctuarization" of US territory?!

At the time of the Cuban crisis Kennedy made it clear that the US would consider any nuclear attack coming from [Soviet INF then based in] Cuba as an attack from the USSR against the US. Obviously so,since US territory was threatened by Soviet controlled forces. Why should the Soviets think differently?

Therefore, there is every reason to believe that the US would be equally reluctant (or inclined) to threaten to use its INF against the USSR as it would be to use its intercontinental forces, which is why INF have not enhanced the credibility of extended deterrence: in light of the likely Soviet response, US risks would not be diminished by striking at the USSR from Sicily or the UK rather than from Montana or from a submarine in the arctic.

This of course says nothing about the real issue, namely whether the US nuclear guarantee is credible. But to perpetuate the myth that extended deterrence depends on US INF based in Europe only serves to create false illusions or, perhaps worse, unjustified fears in the minds of those it is supposed to defend.