Deterrence by denial?

Undoubtedly the thwarted plot to blow up transatlantic airliners is big news. ‘Target Britain’ adorned the front page of The Independent on Sunday (alongside the obligatory image of a rugged, fully-armed, bullet-proofed young man, protecting the homeland). And it went on to devote the first 10 pages (minus advertising space, of course) to the apparent facts, the speculation and the analysis. This was a pattern repeated across the newspapers. I was left in no doubt- the plot was massive, yet MI5 agents and anti-terrorist police had worked together to uncover it and neutralise the threat.

There are myriad ways in which this relates to the discussions on this blog. Isn’t this whole affair just more evidence that the threat we face now (and likely twenty years hence) is not one emanating from nation-states? Doesn’t reporting like this contribute to a climate of fear amidst which legislating for peace becomes impossible? Isn’t money spent bolstering the UK’s intelligence and police services better spent than money to fund Trident’s replacement?

I want to look more closely at this last question. It’s been said previously here that arguing against Trident-replacement on the basis that the money is ‘better spent elsewhere’ is a weak claim, but I think it can be strengthened by relating it to a clarified concept of deterrence. Trident provides Britain with second-strike capability; that is, in the event that – let’s be honest, here – a nation (not a terrorist cell or disgruntled postal-service employee) launches a strike against the UK, there will be uncompromised nuclear weapons somewhere off the coast which will in turn be launched, visiting immense and disproportionate damage on the initial aggressor. The UK’s strategy in holding these nuclear weapons, then, is one of deterrence by punishment. However, deterrence can also be achieved by putting in place systems that make a successful first-strike very unlikely. This is deterrence by denial and the ‘systems’ referred to may be anything from the US’s ‘Son of Star Wars’ missile-defence system, to a highly-evolved intelligence and security programme.

Now, it seems to me that, unless there is a clear state-sponsor, a terrorist attack is unlikely to be deterred by the threat of punishment. Terrorism by its very ill-defined and nebulous nature seems almost immune to this kind of deterrent. Therefore if the most credible threat to the UK is from non-state aggressors (the ‘T’ word is problematic, after all), then the government ought not to put defence money into expensive and inherently provocative strategies (in terms of arms proliferation) for deterrence by punishment, i.e. Trident. Rather, it ought to fund strategies for deterrence by denial, ostentatiously souping up defensive security and intelligence systems.

Which point brings us back to the issue that provoked this post. The media reaction to the foiled attacks of last week seemed an over-reaction to me: an over-reaction whose only effect was to provoke the very fear that *anti*-terrorism measures are meant to prevent. But maybe I missed the point. Maybe the media are acting as part of a broad strategy of deterrence by denial: the audience is the proto-aggressor, and the message is “Don’t even think about it. We’ve got good intelligence, we’ve got top-class security and we’ve got ruggedly handsome policemen- it just won’t work.”

Or maybe I just don’t want to believe that the media are all about attention-grabbing headlines, viewing figures, readership statistics and market share.


5 Responses to Deterrence by denial?

  1. Ali says:

    All the journalists would have been stuck in the airport that day, with laptops and wi-fi access – no wonder we got ten pages in the Independent; the poor things had to pass the time somehow.

    But this seems like a pretty good argument to me.

  2. Pete Cheer says:

    I realise that folk who favour the UK keeping nuclear weapons do not on the whole have much time for legal arguments based upon international law. However if my memory serves me right the current advisory opinion on this is that the use or threat of the use nuclear weapons would only be lawful under international law IF the very existance of the state was under threat.

    Awful as terrorist attacks are no one could claim that they threaten the existence of the UK state.

  3. Ali says:

    Hi Pete,

    I think the best argument of the pro-Trident theorists is that the weapons should be kept against the day when an aggressor is considering deploying a weapon which would indeed threaten the existence of the UK itself. So they could agree with you that one can’t defend possessing nuclear arms on the grounds that they deter conventional attacks – for one thing, they don’t; for another, it’s illegal; for another, it’s immoral.


  4. kca77 says:

    Do you think there’s anything that might deter the Edinburgh Evening News from using headlines such as Tuesday’s ‘City is at risk from terror’? I assume they mean ‘terrorist attack’. Or perhaps they didn’t: perhaps they really were reporting that the city is at risk of terror as irresponsible media attempt to terrify residents with news that the city is at risk from terror.

    Either way- well done The Evening News. I’m looking forward to future headlines supporting the anti-terrorist cause. May I suggest ‘F***ing terrified? You SHOULD be!’

  5. moniblobe says:

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