Reflections on Deterrence and the Lessons of History


The reflections of ‘Cold War warriors’ provided prescient insights into the wider application of deterrence during a recent Witness Seminar organised by the Defence Studies Department and the Institute for Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research.

The term ‘deterrence’ is often used by policy makers, academics and the media to encompass a more complex construct beyond purely deterring an adversary to encompassing acts of ‘compellence’.  While the two terms are subsets of coercive practice, the distinguishing feature of deterrence is that the aim is to maintain the status quo, while compellence involves seeking to modify an extant situation and usually requires an escalatory approach involving the threat of force and its application if required; deterrence fails, of course, at the point an adversary pursues a course of action which the deterrer was seeking to avoid.  Both deterrence and compellence can be based upon threatening either to punish an adversary or to deny its objectives.  It is important to understand that such approaches can only work if they are deemed to be credible on the part of the adversary. This applies in the realm of both conventional and nuclear strategies.

It is commonly assumed that Britain’s approach to deterrence in the Cold War primarily relied upon the threat of nuclear retaliation, but the Witness Seminar demonstrated that a major element of the British deterrence posture involved conventional forces.  In particular evidence was presented about deterring Indonesia during the Confrontation under Plan Addington in 1964.  This saw a complex series of tactical and operational plans to target critical Indonesian infrastructure utilising the RAF’s V Force in a conventional role.  The plans were heavily dependent on tanker support and raised questions about the effects that could be achieved, which has resonance with some of the planning considerations that affected the bombing raids against Port Stanley in 1982.  The evidence challenged some assumptions about the effectiveness of the deterrence of Indonesia; there have been suggestions in recent years that the Indonesians did not fully appreciate that Plan Addington was meant to deter them. However, the evidence of witnesses points to the apparent delay in certain Indonesian troop deployments which took place once the V-bombers had been withdrawn; this hints at a more complicated picture. The complimentary nature of long-range strike platforms and aircraft carriers was brought out through this example.

The inter-action of air and maritime forces was further highlighted by witness presentations on maritime patrol, anti-submarine and Royal Navy submarine operations in the face of a growing Soviet naval threat.  Prior to the event some of the witnesses sought approval for their presentations from the Ministry of Defence and were asked to remove references to specific operational details, perhaps suggesting a degree of continuity between the supposedly obsolescent methodologies of the Cold War and current preoccupations.

Nuclear deterrence, once an area of extensive debate, has since the end of the Cold War been ‘de-prioritised’ but has remained a subject in which thinking and practice has continued to evolve. The concepts relating to Assured Destruction remain relevant although traditional thinking based upon the primacy of offense over defence has been subject to challenge.  Developments in defensive technology, notably in the United States have created new debates in which missile defence has become part of the American deterrence posture.

The presentations nonetheless highlighted conceptual continuities with consideration of the British approach to denying Soviet freedom of action through the use of these air and maritime assets.  The credibility of this approach to denial was illustrated through a number of tactical examples in which witnesses had participated showing the complex relationship that can exist between tactical level activity and strategic intent. The evidence presented by all the witnesses gave rise to a view amongst the audience that despite populist commentary that the Cold War was very much sui generis there is still much relevant read-across between this period and the present.  Questions of how to deter potential adversaries and how to measure the effect achieved upon opponents remain critical considerations in the planning and execution of contemporary operations, as does the matter of how to make clear that deterrence as a concept is not exclusively about nuclear weapons.

It is timely perhaps to remember that deterrence even during the Cold War was about the whole range of capabilities, rather than just the ultimate nuclear ‘big stick’.  The dual-hatting of the V force for these operations placed a strain on the routine maintenance of Britain’s nuclear deterrence, illustrating some of the challenges in the balancing of deterrence forces and achieving a satisfactory blend of nuclear and conventional capabilities.

Image: Trafalgar Class Fleet Submarine HMS Turbulent is pictured in front of Type 23 frigate HMS St Albans, during an anti-submarine exercise in the Gulf of Oman. Courtesy of

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