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Biden’s “integrated deterrence” fails in Ukraine

Perhaps desperate for victory after their failures in Afghanistan, senior Pentagon officials boasted to the Washington Post about the success of “integrated deterrence” in Ukraine. This lively new phrase serves as the intellectual basis for President Biden’s forthcoming national defense strategy, which combines diplomacy, alliances and new technologies with conventional hard power to deter bad guys from doing bad things.

That may sound reasonable, but the government’s adoption of integrated deterrence is a departure from the Pentagon’s previous strategy of denial deterrence. This required the US to maintain sufficient military strength to repel an adversary’s aggression, particularly in Taiwan and Eastern Europe. In April 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin justified the new approach on the premise that allies and “galloping advances in technology” could bridge the gap.

Innovative technologies and allied cooperation are important, but deterrence ultimately rests on the adversary’s assessment of existing US military might and Washington’s willingness to use it. For this reason, integrated deterrence failed its first major test in Ukraine, where the Biden administration relied on the threat of non-military punishment to deter Vladimir Putin. The government delayed deadly aid to Kyiv for months and repeatedly signaled that military force was off the table for fear of provoking Mr Putin. Instead, the White House threatened to punish Mr. Putin with sanctions and diplomatic isolation if he invaded. Since then, while the Ukrainians have wowed the world with their bravery and the Russians have shocked the world with their incompetence, integrated deterrence has not worked.

Still, anonymous Pentagon officials are whipping the football and moving the goalposts, arguing that integrated deterrence is working because Mr. Putin has not expanded his war into North Atlantic Treaty Organization territory. This is a low bar for geopolitical success and ignores the obvious reality that a NATO-Russia war has become more, not less, likely since the invasion of Ukraine.

Moreover, the war is not over, and while some Pentagon officials are celebrating, others in the Biden administration are warning of Russian cyberattacks on US domestic infrastructure. Many are concerned that Mr Putin could use tactical nuclear weapons. The confidently anonymous Pentagon officials crow “that the integrated deterrent model smells pretty good.” You should go to Kyiv or Mariupol, breathe in the smell, and spend some time looking at the bombed-out city blocks and the bodies lying in the street. If this is the success of integrated deterrence, what would failure look like?

Not content to confine their hubris to Eastern Europe, anonymous Pentagon officials also suggest that integrated deterrence works in the western Pacific, where Xi Jinping may be considering a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. If Ukraine turns out to be Mr. Putin’s graveyard, perhaps Mr. Xi will abandon his ambitions. But there is little evidence for this wishful thinking, especially as China may yet provide military aid to Russia in Ukraine. It’s also possible that Mr. Xi will sense an opportunity and decide to accelerate his timetable on Taiwan, especially as Mr. Biden has consistently signaled a desire to avoid a direct military confrontation with a nuclear-armed adversary.

To defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, the US would have to take direct action against a nuclear-armed state. Deterring such an invasion in the first place, as the devastation in Ukraine reminds us, is a far better outcome than America having to integrate more conventional hard power into deterrence as soon as possible. Sanctions, diplomacy, and promising but unproven technologies cannot replace hard power. Nor will they replace arming Taiwan to the teeth with asymmetric capabilities before Mr. Xi launches an invasion.

The Pentagon appears to be moving in the opposite direction while taking an anonymous victory lap. Its new defense budget is not keeping pace with inflation. Instead of expanding the Navy, the budget calls for buying four fewer ships than the 13 that Congress has funded in the current fiscal year. Nor does it contain a plan to arm Taiwan to resist a Chinese invasion. This lack of urgency confirms that the Biden administration is using the academic jargon of “integrated deterrence” to justify cuts in conventional hard power and avoid the hard work of fielding combat-ready forces capable of giving our enemies theirs deny goals.

It’s not difficult to understand why. The government is cutting defense due to pressure from progressives who see it as a distraction from its domestic spending agenda. Even after the dismemberment of Ukraine, a $2 trillion stimulus package for Covid-19, and a $1 trillion bill for so-called infrastructure, Democrats are still talking about rebuilding better. You have gone so far as to project these preferences onto Mr. Putin. “The Russian people don’t need another foreign adventure,” an anonymous senior government official chided the Russian dictator. “What they need is better health care, better reconstruction, roads, schools, economic opportunities.”

Unfortunately, the integrated deterrent didn’t convince Mr. Putin. It failed, at great cost to the Ukrainian people and at great risk to the world. It’s nothing special, not even anonymous.

Mr. Gallagher, a Republican, represents Wisconsin’s eighth congressional district and is a member of the House Armed Services and Intelligence Committees.

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Ethan Gach

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