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Kundan Kumar Singh asked: What is the difference between ‘credible minimum deterrence’ and ‘minimum credible deterrence’?

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  • Kishore Kumar Khera replies: Deterrence, a psychological phenomenon, based on reason and logic, is often used as a strategic tool in gaming various options in a competitive environment. Although in the domain of nuclear weapons, deterrence often retains the central stage, it is equally applicable in non-nuclear and even in non-kinetic domains. An illustration is a suitable method for understanding various shades of deterrence.

    Let there be two distinct entities ‘A’ and ‘B’. These could be individuals or institutions or states or non-state actors. Before initiating an aggressive action against ‘B’, it is reasonable for ‘A’ to assess the following:

    1. The damage ‘B’ would suffer.
    2. The residual power for retaliation ‘B’ would retain after being hit.
    3. The perceived resolve of ‘B’ to attempt retaliation.
    4. The damage ‘A’ could suffer from ‘B’s retaliation and its impact on overall mission objectives.

    It primarily boils down to a cost-benefit analysis of aggressive action by ‘A’. But there are many variables in this matrix making it more of a psychological and perception battle than a physical competition. In case ‘A’ perceives itself to be on the wrong side of the cost-benefit ratio, ‘B’ would have deterred ‘A’ from initiating an aggressive act.  From ‘B’s perspective, its ability to muster various tools to withstand ‘A’s aggression and still retain the capability and resolve to hit back is called deterrence strategy. With the same capability and resolve of ‘B’, ‘A’ could be deterred and equally capable ‘C’, another entity, may not be.

    Deterrence is binary, either it succeeds or it fails. Therefore, prefixes like ‘credible’ have little relevance. Both expressions ‘credible minimum deterrence’ and ‘minimum credible deterrence’ mean ‘minimum deterrence’.  Now coming to the ‘minimum’ part of the milieu and this means the minimum capability in the requisite domain that ‘B’ must have so that after a full-force attack by ‘A’, ‘B’ can still retaliate and cause unacceptable damage to ‘A’. This aspect attains significance during capability development in the relevant domain and allocation of resources for the same. Here also, there are multiple variables and besides physical resources, perceptions play a major role. Therefore, while allocating resources for developing capability in a particular domain for a deterrence strategy, strategists invariably err on the positive side and this becomes a factor in the arms race.

    Posted on June 08, 2021

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.