21st Century Deterrence

  • Published
  • By Bennie J. Davis III
  • Airman Magazine


Since the employment of nuclear weapons to end WWII, deterrence has been a cornerstone of U.S. military strategy. The display of preeminent military power 75 years ago ushered in security to international order, enabled the economic prosperity of the United States and its allies and provided a strategic deterrence to prevent major power conflict.


The Defense Department defines deterrence as, “the prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” In theory, it’s the threat of force not the actual use of force, communicated to an adversary. There are two basic methods to deter an adversary. One is deterrence by punishment, or plainly, “if you attack us, we’ll destroy you.” The other is deterrence by denial. This method focuses on making the enemy’s objective more difficult to achieve, by rendering the target harder to take, harder to keep or both during the act of aggression.

Historically, the United States provides for the security of its allies by threatening a nuclear response in the event of an enemy attack. This threat of retaliation serves as the foundation for what is defined as extended deterrence and sometimes described as providing a nuclear umbrella for our partners.

In the 20th century and throughout the Cold War, U.S. deterrence primarily focused on the nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction on both sides.

In the Post-Cold War era, the traditional “threat-based” posturing against a well-known specific foe gave way to Capability-Based Planning posture to develop technology to defeat a generic enemy like terrorist and extremist groups, rogue states and other potential adversaries inside a volatile security environment.

Now, with the emergence and modernization of Russia and China, the National Defense Strategy defines the great-power competition with these near-peer rivals, not terrorism, the primary focus of U.S. National Security.

“China is on a trajectory to be a strategic peer to us by the end of the decade. So, for the first time ever, the U.S. is going to face two peer-capable nuclear competitors,” said Navy Adm. Charles A. Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, adding Russia is the other peer. “We have never faced that situation before.”

Richard, speaking to the Nuclear Deterrence Forum sponsored by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute, also stressed that defining deterrence in 2020 can be difficult, noting that “strategic deterrence is more than just nuclear deterrence, particularly now, today. It is non-kinetic space, cyber; it’s your conventional piece of this. All of this has to be integrated together. It’s not just a STRATCOM job, it is all combatant commands. And we have to be able to rethink the way we do business,” he said. “We’re going to have to change the way we think about deterrence.”

Across the Air Force restructuring, modernization and advances in technology are at the forefront of priorities to meet today’s threats defined in the NDS.



As long as nuclear weapons exist, there will be no mission more important in the Air Force than maintaining the nation’s nuclear capability and ensuring strategic deterrence and assurance options. Air Force Global Strike Command demonstrates this operational readiness and reliability through strategic weapons’ tests, exercises and operations of two parts of the America’s nuclear triad, strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

The U.S. nuclear triad serves as the backbone of America’s national security. The triad, along with assigned forces, provide 24/7 deterrence to prevent catastrophic actions from our adversaries and they stand ready, if necessary, to deliver a decisive response, anywhere, anytime from land, sea or air.

“Maintaining the credibility and readiness of our strategic capabilities requires a long-term, visible commitment to sustainment and modernization, and we are well under way with that,” said Gen. Timothy M. Ray is Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command and Commander, Air Forces Strategic – Air, U.S. Strategic Command.

Deterrence goes hand-in-hand with having a credible force of ready bombers and ICBMs, capable of communicating to potential adversaries that the cost is not worth it, and that restraint is a better option, said Ray. As a force provider, the strategic deterrent capabilities and options we provide our nation’s leaders are foundational to our national security, assuring our allies and supporting the nation’s non-proliferation objectives.

The changing nature of the threats to American and allied security interests has stimulated a considerable broadening of the deterrence concept. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review calls for the modernization of America’s nuclear deterrent, while providing flexible capabilities designed to deter adversaries across a diverse set of potential contingencies.

Ray said the use of emerging technologies to discredit and subvert democratic processes in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine is concerning enough; but, when coupled with Russia’s expanding and modernizing nuclear arsenal, the challenge is clear.

“We’re on track with our modernization programs and in the meantime, we continue to move forward with investing in multiple improvements to ensure continued readiness in today’s combat environment. The B-21 is under development and will replace much of the legacy bomber fleet,” said Ray. “However, we must continue to sustain and modernize the B-1B, B-2, and B-52H until sufficient B-21 aircraft are operational. We plan to start retiring the existing bombers when there are sufficient B-21 aircraft in place to replace them.”

With regards to our ICBMs, the as-yet named Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent

(GBSD) is on track to end its technology maturation and risk reduction phase in 2020. A preliminary design review was held in late April and the review advanced the program toward its next milestone and acquisition phase. The Air Force anticipates receiving DoD approval to enter Milestone B later this year and awarding the contract for the engineering and manufacturing development phase before the end of the current fiscal year.

Fifty years ago, on Aug. 19, 1970, Strategic Air Command placed the first flight of 10 Minuteman III ICBMs on alert at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and shortly after its emplacement at the 741st Strategic Missile Squadron, Minuteman III has stood watch as the nation’s strategic deterrent.

This noteworthy occasion was the byproduct of the Air Force’s nine-year Minuteman Force Modernization Program governing the replacement of all deployed Minuteman I (A and B) ICBMs with either Minuteman II or Minuteman III missiles.

The Minuteman III was the first U.S. ICBM designed to carry the Multiple Independently targetable Re-entry Vehicle capability, or MIRV. This configuration allowed individual targeting upon release for each of the weapon’s three warheads.

“Until GBSD comes online fully, we must continue to take the actions necessary to ensure Minuteman III remains a viable deterrent for the Nation,” said Ray. “We all owe a large debt of gratitude to the missileers, maintainers, security forces and countless others, who held the watch over the past generation. However, the Minuteman III is 50-years-old. It’s time to modernize and bring on the GBSD.”

Adapting the Agile Combat Employment framework to AFGSC assets provides the ability to deploy bomber aircraft to unfamiliar locations on short notice, in a similar fashion to what’s been done with other air platforms. 

“The ACE concept isn’t new, but the application to bombers is, which means in a sense we’re reshaping the way in which the Air Force is able to respond to the challenges of today and tomorrow,” said Ray. “We must ensure an agile, mobile, modern and lethal bomber, missile and command and control force while operating out of austere locations that are unprepared, moving from one location to the next with the smallest footprint possible.”

A number of bomber ACE exercises were conducted over the past year with both the B-52H and B-1B, allowing rapid deployment to unfamiliar locations and self-sustainment. Air Force “Strikers” demonstrated they are fully capable of generating global power, anytime, anywhere and at a moment’s notice.

“Our Western Alliance has no bombers, or open bomber production lines.  Nor does our Alliance have any ICBMs or ICBM production lines.  The 156 bombers and 400 ICBMs operated by Strikers are all our nation has to compete, deter and win when it comes to strategic victory,” Ray said. “We have the ability to stand-in, or standoff, making it clear to the joint warfighter and our allies that we have their backs.”



Throughout the European theater the Air Force is restructuring and rewriting the playbook on how to deter adversaries to any short-notice threat with the concept of Agile Combat Employment.

ACE ensures U.S. Air Forces in Europe and our partners are ready for potential contingencies with little notice by allowing forces to operate from locations with varying levels of capacity and support, ensuring Airmen and aircrews are postured to respond across the spectrum of military operations.

“Our future as a command hinges on our ability to achieve air superiority in a highly contested environment. However, our current force posture presents our adversaries with a simplified targeting problem,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Basham, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa deputy commander. “We must complicate and confuse adversary targeting, and agility is required to achieve that end.”

Basham explained that due to the dynamic nature of the agile operations, ACE demands a ready and resilient joint all-domain command and control (JADC2) architecture. When we use these two things together, ACE and JADC2 greatly enhance our ability to conduct combat operations with speed and operational unpredictability. 

Along with the ACE concept, the Defense Department recently announced restructuring of its forces in Europe to deal with today’s threats, said Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Air Force will begin winding down U.S. operations at Germany’s Spangdahlem Air Base, pulling out Air Force F-16s and canceling plans to move tankers and special-operations forces.

Hyten said personnel will be moving back to the United States to improve readiness, but our Airmen will be deployed back around the European theater on a rotational basis to allow better be posturing to threats.  
“You’ll see Poland be a more active partner, you’ll see Romania be a more active partner, [and] you’ll see the Black Sea area more active because that’s where we improve our deterrence versus Russia, which was [Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper’s] No. 1 priority,” Hyten said.

After the military is done with the restructure, the largest number of forces will still be in Germany, he said, calling Germany “a critical ally.”

Air Force strategic bombers are also deployed across the European theater supporting joint and coalition integration and interoperability helping to extend deterrence.

“Our Bomber Task Force missions demonstrate U.S. commitment to the collective defense of the NATO alliance, and are a visible demonstration of extended deterrence. The last iteration of BTF is a great example of our reach, with some of the CONUS-to-CONUS missions lasting approximately 23 hours. Additionally, integrating with multiple partners within Europe we are able to maintain readiness through training with our NATO allies, partner nations, and other U.S. Air Force and joint units,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa commander.

Hyten believes if DOD and its allies can do all of this together it creates a huge advantage for the future joint combined force, and it will create huge challenges for competitors around the world to try to figure out how to deal with it.

“It’s pretty exciting to see,” he said.



Within the Indo-Pacific, deterrence in many forms plays a critical role in day-to-day operations. 

Strategic bombers in the theater play a multitude of roles. Beyond the strategic deterrence that is often associated with bomber aircraft, bombers provide our allies and partners an assurance that reinforces the U.S. commitment to regional stability, security and extended deterrence.

Since Pacific Air Forces do not have a direct nuclear mission, forces in the area of responsibility or AOR cannot leverage nuclear deterrence as the main force against adversary aggression. Alliances and partnerships play a critical role within the theater and allow the U.S. to leverage a capability that is not existent for our adversaries. 

“Our efforts help strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains,” said Brigadier General Michael Winkler, Director of Strategy, Plans, and Programs, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces. “This together with allied partners brings a deterrent force to the theater, giving adversaries pause.”

Demonstrating airpower, bomber and fighter aircrew assigned and deployed to Pacific Air Forces launched four B-1 Lancers, two B-2 Spirit Stealth Bombers, and four F-15C Eagles and conducted Bomber Task Force missions simultaneously with joint and allied partners within the Indo-Pacific region over the course of 24 hours, August 17.

“Our unique strength as an Air Force is our ability to generate integrated actions with our joint teammates and allies and partners to challenge competitors in a time and place of our choosing,” said Gen. Ken Wilsbach, Pacific Air Forces commander. “These simultaneous airpower missions demonstrated our capacity and readiness to deliver a wide range of proactive, scalable options to quickly deploy our forces to support our mission of ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific theater.”

While the two BONES were en route to the Sea of Japan another set of two B-1s took off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.  

In addition to the two sets of bomber missions, four F-15C Eagles from Kadena Air Base, Japan, also made their way to the Sea of Japan to integrate with the four B-1s, the U.S. Navy’s USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, F-35 Lightning IIs assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, and F-15J aircraft from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force to conduct large force exercise training.

“High end, integrated training with our Air Force peers enhances our capability to respond to any contingency, and meet any challenge,” said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. George Wikoff, Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group commander. “U.S. joint integration demonstrates our unwavering commitment to regional defense agreements with our allies and partners.”

Upon completion of integration and training, the fighters returned to Kadena while the two B-1s returned to their home station in South Dakota and the other two returned to Dyess.

“U.S. strategic bomber forces project strength and deter regional threats to our free and open Indo-Pacific. Integrating Marine tactical aircraft allows us to demonstrate the advantages created by our own unique capabilities and support these important assets,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific. “Our joint aviation team is unmatched in its ability to command and control the missions required in this complex and dynamic global environment. We are committed to our allies and partners across the region.” 

Finally, while integration and training were happening in the Sea of Japan, two B-2 Spirit Stealth Bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri currently deployed to Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia delivered their own unique capabilities in the theater.

In the Indian Ocean, the Spirits conducted joint interoperability tactics training before returning to Diego Garcia.

The first display of airpower came when two B-1s from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas took off from Dyess and flew to the Sea of Japan. Once there, they integrated with the Koku Jieitai JASDF, and further strengthened relationships by training together.

“The Koku-Jieitai has participated in bilateral training on a continuous basis, and I have no doubt that our efforts result in strengthening the Alliance and partnership between Japan and the U.S.,” said JASDF Lt. Gen. Shunji Izutsu, Air Defense Command commander. “Training in a complex situation like this large force employment improves not only tactical skills, but also interoperability and mutual trust.”

The Air Force announced in April it will no longer base strategic bombers outside of the continental United States, marking an end to the service’s 16-year continuous bomber presence at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

But before the last bomber left the island, USAF reminded the world of its combat power with an impressive “elephant walk” that included five B-52 strategic bombers, six KC-135 tankers, an MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter, an RQ-4 Global Hawk, and a U.S. Navy MQ-4C Triton.

“U.S. strategic bombers will continue to operate in the Indo-Pacific, to include Guam, at the timing and tempo of our choosing,” said AFGSC in a statement. “We will maximize all opportunities to train alongside our allies and partners, to build interoperability, and bolster our collective ability to be operationally unpredictable.” 

The transition to a “dynamic force employment” model allows the bombers to operate from a “broader array of overseas locations” with greater resilience, while keeping the aircraft permanently based in the U.S., AFGSC said.

The National Defense Strategy directs the Joint Force to ‘introduce unpredictability to adversary decision-makers through Dynamic Force Employment.’ Dynamic Force Employment allows us to develop a wide range of proactive, scalable options and quickly deploy forces for emerging requirements while maintaining readiness to respond to contingencies.

There are three critical characteristics of dynamic force employment: unpredictability, agility, and proactive deployments.

“Today’s and tomorrow’s fights will execute at a speed, scope, and complexity exceeding the pace of recent campaigns and hinge on the ability to seize air superiority, command and control (C2), and deliver decisive combat effects against a peer. Enterprise adaptations and innovations that support mission generation in a distributed environment are a key to success,” sad Winkler. “Adaptive cluster operations, or “cluster basing,” use distributed networks of hub and spoke locations to maintain operational momentum in a high-end fight, defend allies and partners, and present layers of operational unpredictability to complicate an adversary’s calculus. “



“Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, as well as our components and regions, are conducting our no-fail mission of defending our homeland,” Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said during a telephone news conference.

NORAD is a United States and Canada bi-national organization charged with the missions of aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning for North America. Aerospace warning includes the detection, validation, and warning of attack against North America whether by aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles, through mutual support arrangements with other commands.

Under Operation NOBLE EAGLE, the name given to all air sovereignty and air defense missions in North America, F-22s, supported by a KC-135 Stratotanker, intercepted two Russian IL-38 maritime patrol aircraft entering the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone in the late hours of June 24.

“For the fifth time this month, NORAD has demonstrated our readiness and ability to defend the homeland by intercepting Russian military aircraft entering our Air Defense Identification Zone,” said O’Shaughnessy. “The mission assurance measures we are taking to protect our people ensure we are meeting the challenges and operating through the COVID-19 environment to defend our nations, just as NORAD forces have for more than 60 years.”

NORAD continues to track and remains ready to respond to North Korean missile activity as well. North Korea launched a short-range missile March 29, which was identified by the Japanese coast guard. North Korea also had launched three missiles March 9, and two additional missiles March 21.

Both the Russian aircraft and the North Korean missile launches are considered typical activity, rather than an effort to take advantage of any ill-conceived perception the U.S. military capability might be diminished due to COVID-19, O’Shaughnessy said. Rather, he said, he believes Russian activity is part of an ongoing effort to probe and check the U.S. ability to respond.

“We just wanted to make it very clear to them — which we did by the way we intercepted them — that there are no vulnerabilities as a result of COVID-19,” the general said. “We are postured to maintain that ability to respond at a moment’s notice and have no degradation in our ability to defend the homeland.”

The same is true of North Korea, he said.

“We have seen continuous activity,” he told reporters. “It’s not necessarily outside of the realm of historical norms, especially given some of the significant dates that have gone by. And so, as always, we’re ready to defend the homeland with the ballistic missile capability, defense capability, to be able to respond.”