How Does Nuclear Deterrence Differ from Conventional Deterrence?
Wirtz, James J.
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Nuclear and conventional deterrence are in fact quite different in terms of theory, practice, and impact. The differences play out in various ways depending on whether strategies of denial, punishment, or retaliation constitute the basis of the deterrent threat. The fact that battle outcomes with conventional weapons are so difficult to predict highlights the observation that conventional deterrent threats are “contestable.” The contestability of conventional threats can raise doubts in the minds of those targeted by conventional deterrence concerning the capability of the side issuing deterrent threats to actually succeed. Contestability is the Achilles’ heel of conventional deterrence. By contrast, deterrent threats based on nuclear weapons are largely uncontestable. They offer an ideal deterrent capability because they tend to eliminate optimism about a positive war outcome. The fact that nuclear threats are uncontestable does not guarantee that they will be viewed as credible, while the contestable nature of conventional threats does not preclude their credibility.
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