ISSN 2330-717X

Prompt Global Strike And US Deterrence Post 9/11 – Analysis


By Alankrita Sinha

11 September 2011 proved that the logic of deterrence which had prevented a nuclear war during the Cold War era was incapable of dealing with challenges which had arisen thereafter. This realization held manifold implications for the US. Adapting itself to a new security environment which was riddled with adversaries that were not easily located, understood or threatened required the US to reconsider its time-tested reliance on nuclear deterrence. Post 9/11, the Bush administration released the National Security Strategy of the United States of America in September 2002 according to which the US would evolve a new strategy based on a more offensive military posture. One of the outcomes of this was an up-gradation of the US’ conventional war-fighting doctrine which took shape in the form of Prompt Global Strike (PGS) intended at destroying targets in as less as an hour. The other was a restructuring of the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) which would ensure a prompt conventional strike if deterrence failed. Both these developments worked towards broadening the scope of deterrence by threatening a prompt conventional attack on the adversary using precision conventional weapons instead of nuclear. Long-range precision conventional weapons were touted as a credible deterrent post 9/11, a place traditionally occupied by nuclear weapons before 9/11.This article seeks to delve into the manner in which the US strategic command was transformed to suit the security environment post 9/11. To this end it is argued that the US has redefined its own conception of deterrence post 9/11 and included conventional deterrence and military offensive as a backbone of strategic planning.

United States
United States

According to the US Department of Defense, the STRATCOM which controlled plans and operations involving US strategic nuclear weapons was merged with the US Space Command in October 2002. After undergoing further changes in 2002 and 2003, STRATCOM established a Joint Function Component Command for Global Strike (JFCC-GS) in July 2006. Amy Woolf in a recent Congressional Research Service report emphasized that “this change in command structures highlights the growing emphasis on long-range, strategic missions in conventional war-fighting doctrine.” Hence, the STRATCOM now combines a high level of emergency preparedness which relies primarily on long-range conventional strikes to destroy targets while still maintaining the nuclear option as a last resort.

The vision of such an attack is encompassed in the US PGS system which would use the threat of such an attack to deter and target (in case deterrence fails) adversaries (both states and non-state actors) in far-away regions which are not easily accessible by US bases around the world. According to Leon Panetta, the US Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration since July 2011, the PGS effort is as relevant today as it was in the period immediately after 9/11. The current security environment demands that the US employ a PGS system against “regional adversaries considering an attack using Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), high priority targets (non-state actors), or situations where a fleeting serious threat was located in a region not readily accessible by other means” Panetta argues. Thus, the restructuring of the STRATCOM along with the PGS mission has worked towards evolving a new level of strategic planning and response system for the US, one which is better suited to address the security environment as it has emerged post 9/11.

Moreover, the PGS mission is different from previous missions undertaken by the US to dissuade and deter its adversaries. Hans M Kristensen argues that PGS differs from previous missions in both, intent as well as capability as it is completely pre-emptive in nature and is rooted in the belief that deterrence in the present day and age will definitely fail. According to him, PGS has evolved into a massive conventional war-fighting doctrine rather than merely pertaining itself to deterrence. In addition to this, PGS is intended to locate and strike targets within one hour as compared to the days and weeks of planning which goes into other missions. More importantly, the PGS mission puts conventional deterrence at the forefront of overall deterrence instead of relying primarily on nuclear deterrence. Thus, a PGS would work towards deterring any potential adversary by threatening the use of conventional strikes using precision devices within an hour along with inducing the fear of conventional forces already stationed at various bases around the world.

This heightened level of conventional power projection is intended to broaden the scope of deterrence while simultaneously building pre-emptive capabilities. Therefore, PGS signals a change in the deterrence logic of the Cold War era brought forth by the unprecedented events of 9/11. As Karl Heinz Kamp points out, “the dissuasive effect (during the Cold War) came from the threat of unacceptable damage through nuclear destruction. Now, the option of nuclear retaliation remains, but it is complemented by the element of ‘circumvention’ with the help of conventional weapons.” The restructuring of the STRATCOM and the evolution of the PGS system prove that the US is yet again developing strategies to combat newer threats and challenges which have surfaced in the past decade. It also proves that the US does not shy away from abandoning or modifying strategies and command structures which have been successful in the past but have little relevance today. A conventional extension to an already strong nuclear deterrent has been a step in this direction.

Alankrita Sinha
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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