Inadequacy of Deterrence against Asymmetric Threats

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/7422.htm)

The doctrine of ‘mutually-assured destruction’, as described in the previous sub-section (, relies upon the assumption that countries wouldn’t use nuclear weapons because a retaliation would destroy the attacker.  A symmetrical retaliation would not be possible, though, if a terrorist organisation were to obtain a nuclear weapon and use it – there would be no target to aim at.  Small numbers of terrorists might be dispersed over a wide area and be living anonymously among people who were unaware of their presence.  Nuclear weapons and overwhelming force are therefore not a credible threat against guerrillas and terrorists.  America’s nuclear arsenal did not deter Al-Qaeda from bombing the twin towers.

Less obviously, perhaps, even the possession of massive conventional forces does not deter attacks by guerrillas and terrorists.  As described previously (7.4.1), military force is of very limited use in someone else’s country: it stirs up resistance and the attackers have to go home eventually.