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The concept of “integrated deterrence” is central to the US National Defense Strategy published by the Biden administration at the end of 2022. It entails “developing and combining U.S. strengths to maximum effect, by working seamlessly across warfighting domains, theaters, the spectrum of conflict, other instruments of U.S. national power, and U.S. unmatched network of Alliances and partnerships”.
In their report No I in Team, Stacie Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser design a framework to better understand and implement integrated deterrence with allies and partners. They interview a number of foreign officials about the challenges ahead to do so, quoting one of them in particular: “We have two problems with integrated deterrence—one is integration, the other is deterrence.” The authors kept the speaker’s nationality discreetly under wraps, but many readers probably guessed he was French.
It is no secret that France stands out among US’ allies in the degree of concern and skepticism it has voiced about the concept of integrated deterrence. France is indeed not comfortable with the idea of integrating deterrence due to its culture of independence, its capabilities but also for a semantic concern. Admittedly, France can have “an integration problem” at the strategic level, which is not always desirable nor possible. For more than 60 years now France has indeed asserted itself as a nuclear power willing to dissociate itself from US concepts deemed incompatible with French priorities and capabilities (like the “flexible response” doctrine for example). Historically, France’s nuclear deterrent has even been built on doubts about the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrence in all circumstances.
And yet, part of the debates also arises from a problem of interpretation steeped in semantics, that should not overshadow the fact that there are also many points of convergence between France and US strategic thinking on how to dissuade, deter and constrain potential adversaries. Most notably, the two countries acknowledge the unique value of nuclear weapons to deter strategic attacks, share the necessity of preserving calculated ambiguity in declaratory policies, and agree on the need for a better mutual support between nuclear and conventional capabilities. To move forward, they need to stop quibbling over semantics and focus on their mutual objective: how to better deter their common adversaries, better anticipate scenarios where nuclear deterrence could be by-passed from below, and ultimately better combine their efforts to control escalation in their favor during a regional conflict.
The French way of deterrence
The word “deterrence” describes two different things when you translate it in French. Deterrence with a capital “D” is translated as “dissuasion,” a term that refers exclusively to the nuclear realm. Meanwhile deterrence with a small “d” is generally translated as “découragement,” related to English “discouragement,” which refers to all instrument of military power in all domains.
Deterrence with a capital “D” is all about nuclear and is the keystone of French defense strategy. Its purpose, as stated by President Macron in 2020, is “to protect France and its people from a State threat against our vital interests, wherever it comes from and in whatever form.” France’s doctrine is purely defensive and relies on its capacity “to inflict absolutely unacceptable damages upon that State’s centers of power,” thereby disrupting his calculation between the nature of the stakes and the value of losses. Like Schelling, France believes that “the power to hurt is more impressive than the power to oppose,” and that only nuclear weapons can inflict unacceptable damages. Finally, nuclear Deterrence is intended a no-fail mission, unlike forms of conventional deterrence whose potential failure is anticipated (which explains why France never talks about “conventional Deterrence”).
Conversely, deterrence with a small “d” has no nuclear dimension. This is the reason why France prefers to use the word discouragement to mark the distinction, even if it creates misunderstanding and unnecessary debates. NATO allies due to translation in English; but also, in France where non-nuclear community regularly contest the hijacking and the confiscation of the word “dissuasion” by the nuclear community in the sense that the meaning of the word is truncated to its strictly nuclear dimension.
Beyond semantics, France strategic documents acknowledge the fact that nuclear deterrence is not enough to protect and defend the full scope of France’s interests. France’s autonomy also depends “on strengthening a credible, coherent and balanced armed forces model. This requires conventional forces the size and equipment of which allow for a conventional-nuclear [mutual support] that is sufficiently robust to preserve the President’s freedom of action and avoid deterrence being by-passed from below.”
In his strategic vision the French CHOD Gen Burkhard introduces the competition/dispute/ confrontation triptych (no longer referring to the peace/crisis/war continuum), emphasizing competition as the normal way to express power and a form of “war before the war” that takes place in all domains. “Win the war before the War” thus consists of signaling commitment, clarifying intentions and discouraging opponents by articulating actions in all-domain as much as possible, including by relying on all tools allowing to shape perceptions. But countries are not always in a position of prevail in a competition nor can they hope to deter every action which does not directly attack their vital interests. Stated otherwise, deterrence (with a small “d”) can fail and fails more often that we wish. Hence the need for a distinct way to protect vital interests.
In France, the question of “integration” comes on top of this unique semantic distinction about deterrence. When Washington says “integrated deterrence”, Paris hears “integrated nuclear deterrence” while dodging the question of other instruments of power. At the same time, the notion of “integration” has somehow become a buzzword, becoming often too flexible to be meaningful. Ultimately, the French “integration problem” concerns more the nuclear dimension, while there are much less hesitations when referring to deterrence with a small “d” (“découragement”).
French concerns on integration at the strategic level
French thinkers fear that the concept of integrated deterrence risks diluting the role of nuclear weapons in the grand strategy. Non-nuclear deterrence fails regularly, and the possibility of this failure is sometimes anticipated by policymakers. If one puts both general deterrence and nuclear deterrence under the same header, how does one ensure that the routine failures of deterrence against hybrid or other limited forms of conflict, do not compromise the credibility of Deterrence? The risk is particularly real considering that integrated deterrence seeks to give the US an ability to deter any type of hostile action, whether kinetic or nonkinetic, hybrid or overt, and whether it targets the US itself, or its allies. The ambition of the task necessarily comes with a greater risk of failure.
The Russian Federation’s unprovoked and unjustified military aggression against Ukraine offers an interesting case study: from NATO’s point of view, it is reasonable to say that nuclear deterrence worked, since Russia refrained from attacking NATO countries, even when the Alliance set up logistical and training facilities in Ukraine’s neighboring countries to support it. Conversely, there is no doubt that the West has failed to deter Russia to attack Ukraine. The problem is that many observers have made the confusion by claiming that “deterrence” more broadly has failed. Critically, the unique value of nuclear weapons to inflict unacceptable damage probably deserves a distinct and more specific approach.
Second, integrating deterrence may be confused in France with the will to establish a continuum between conventional and nuclear, idea that France totally rejects. Based on the conviction that any use of nuclear weapons would inevitably change the nature of a conflict, France aims to use its nuclear arsenal to avoid wars not win them. Avoiding the impression of a continuum is particularly important as France is also wary of trying to use red lines to provide further clarity. There is not any explicit definition of what Frances’s vital interests actually are. Thus setting a red line may be interpreted as “greenlighting” every type of aggression that remains below that threshold. A degree of imprecision supports effective deterrence by complicating calculation for any potential adversary who would try to act “under the threshold”. The idea is to cast doubts in the adversary’s brain, not in ours.
Last, true integration at the strategic level between Allies (even close ones) “is rather an aspiration than reality”, as Pettyjohn and Wasser highlight. Indeed, it can raise entanglement issues which go both ways: for the United States on the one hand, and for allies vis-à-vis the US on the other hand. This is particularly true if “integrated deterrence” tends to become “integrated compellence” which could potentially drive one of the actors in a direction not consistent with its own interests. As the “precise definition of vital interest is the sole responsibility of the President, depending on circumstances”, it is a misleading to think that French nuclear deterrence can be integrated with US strategy in any circumstances. In addition, even if it was the case, it is not granted that a more strategic integration would increase the deterrence value vis-à-vis our common competitors. Within NATO for example, French independent strategic nuclear forces have a deterrent role of their own and contribute significantly to the overall security of the Alliance by complicating the calculations of potential adversaries as acknowledged since the 1974 NATO summit in Ottawa onwards. By making the exercise opaquer to the adversary, a form of “disintegration” of the nuclear deterrence postures within the P3 (France, US and UK) may thus have beneficial effects on the common ambition of deterring any nuclear aggression against them.
And yet, substantive agreement remain
But U.S. “integrated deterrence” considers deterrence writ large, and France should acknowledge the fact that the word embraces much more than its nuclear dimension. At the same time, it is necessary for the U.S. to clarify what is behind the word integration. “I never argue with a label, as long as I am told what it means”, wrote the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in Les Provinciales in the 17th century: ultimately, getting rid of semantic quarrels allows a more thorough examination of both French and US doctrine and policy reveals indeed a great deal of common grounds.
First, the US 2022 Nuclear Posture Review claims that “for the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons will continue to provide unique deterrence effects that no other element of U.S. military power can replace.” This should be music to French ears considering the critical importance of the nuclear deterrent in the French strategy. Washington has also rejected adopting a no First Use or a Sole Purpose declaratory policy, thereby preserving the notion of calculated ambiguity. As discussed, calculated ambiguity is also part of French declaratory policy to prevent any adversary to get a leeway for strategic intimidation or aggression.
Furthermore, nothing in the Nuclear Posture Review indicates that the US have established a continuum between conventional and nuclear forces. But both countries underline the contributing role of non-nuclear capabilities in deterrence plans. While France 2022 National Strategic review emphasizes that credible conventional forces will “allow for the robust backing of nuclear forces”, the NPR calls for a pragmatic approach to integrated deterrence that “leverages the unique attributes of a multi-domain set of forces to enable a range of deterrence options backstopped by a credible nuclear deterrent.” The inversion of formulation is worth noting though, shedding light on where each states focuses first and foremost. For France, nuclear deterrent is “backed by credible conventional forces,” for the US, conventional forces are “backstopped by a credible nuclear deterrent.”
Last, at the non-nuclear level, it is worth noting that France also relentlessly promotes all-domain integration to “win the war before the war,” while still being able to prevails with allies and partners in a high-intensity conflict. This is captured in Gen Burkhard’s ambition for the French armed forces which must be able to “deliver a very wide range of military options, associating controlled effects in all confrontation domains, paying specific attention to actions in the exo-atmospheric and cyber domains as well as in the information environment, in order to bend opponent’s determination by imposing favorable force ratios.” In short, a kind of “integrated deterrence”.
Ultimately, even if integration at the strategic level is neither always possible nor desirable, there is still room for a better synchronization of activities and messaging under specific circumstances, while avoiding entanglement. It can only be beneficial to better tackle the real challenge: keep common adversaries at bay.
David Pappalardo (@DavPappa) is a French air force and space officer currently serving as an air attaché at the French Embassy in Washington. As a Mirage F1 and then multirole Rafale pilot, he is the former commander of the 2/30 fighter Squadron “Normandie-Niémen.” He is credited with 2,300 flight hours and 134 war missions in the Sahel, Afghanistan, Libya, and the Levant. He graduated from the French Air Force Academy and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the French air force, the Ministère Des Armées, or the French government.