Joshua Treviño, Austin
The need for American escalation dominance.
Herman Kahn was about as socially appealing as one would expect of a man who helped inspire Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Yet the co-founder of the Hudson Institute was unquestionably a genius of a sort: an archetype of an era when America was wealthy enough and confident enough to produce a startling array of thinkers and futurists.
Kahn’s gift for informed speculation, and his intellectual ability to think in systems, placed him alongside contemporary minds including Buckminster Fuller, Robert Heinlein, and John Boyd, each of whom possessed and employed the vital combination of comprehensive knowledge and the gift for synthesis. It is not at all clear to me that American society is creating this sort of intellect in sufficient numbers now: you might tag someone like John Robb as a present-day example, but the ranks are thin. For whatever reason, we lived in an era from perhaps 1950 to perhaps 1990 when a spirit of creative iconoclasm shot through the American mind, and then we left it.
Illustrative of the point: spend just over eight minutes of your life watching Kahn riff, here, on absolutely anything he wished in 1979.
The range is simply astonishing, and it is matched with depth and indispensable cross-referencing. Herman Kahn appears here as a sort of mirror-image Shelby Foote: a man who reminisces about the future, not the past; a man very much of the north, not the south; and a man entirely willing to hold forth at length on the currents propelling his thoughts.
One of Kahn’s signal works was his 1965 On Escalation, itself a sort of followup to his 1960 On Thermonuclear War, and to his 1962 Thinking About the Unthinkable. Kahn’s concern was to systematize, and therefore allow rational planning for, scenarios so extreme as to defy the exercise, chief among them a full-on strategic nuclear exchange. Kahn acknowledged the utility of the mutual assured destruction (MAD) framework, while positing its limits—for example, in a literally unusable Doomsday Machine. His preference, and I am tremendously simplifying, was for a controllable deterrence, allowing for human initiative and a range of outcomes between abject surrender and total annihilation. The alert citizen with basic historical awareness will note the contemporaneous, and not at all coincidental, shift in American strategic-warfighting policy, away from Eisenhower-era massive retaliation, toward Kennedy-era flexible response.
To this end, in On Escalation, Kahn created a forty-four rung escalation ladder that detailed the various steps—arranged into categories—contending parties might take toward the other. Here it is:
There is quite a bit of nuance to each of these, and also quite a bit of jargon. The ladder is nevertheless useful to the non-specialist in thinking through what conflict looks like and might look like given particular conditions.
It is not in itself dispositive. The reader should note, as Kahn would, that the time intervals from one step to another are not equivalent, nor even denoted; that the model is more or less explicitly state-on-state; and that an actual pathway from level to level need not be linear. On the final point, it would certainly be possible to proceed directly from Level 4 (Confrontation of Wills) to Level 29 (Exemplary Attacks on Population). Indeed, the Soviet early-warning apparatus feared exactly that on September 26, 1983, until Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces concluded, mercifully for mankind, that it was a false alarm. We may also understand an unconditional surrender of one state to another as an automatic de-escalation from whichever rung characterizes that war to Level 1.
Within this framework, Kahn posited the concept of escalation dominance—“a capacity,” he wrote, “other things being equal, to enable the side possessing it to enjoy marked advantages in a given region of the escalation ladder.” Escalation dominance applies to contention within specific rungs—perhaps one side is better at Level 8 (Harassing Acts of Violence) than the other—and it necessarily also applies directly to movement from rung to rung. That movement changes the correlation of forces and the probabilities of success. For example, in the present Russian war upon Ukraine, you may understand the Russian decision to invade as a deliberate movement from a rung on which Ukraine enjoyed escalation dominance, Level 4 (Confrontation of Wills) to one on which Russia believed it enjoyed escalation dominance—a non-nuclear version of Level 19 (“Justifiable” Counterforce Attack), or simply level 12, (“Large Conventional War”). That belief having been falsified, Russia has since moved to the non-nuclear version of level 28 (“Exemplary Attacks Against Property”).
At every rung, the contending parties each wish to impress one or more of three concepts upon the other party:
that the other party won’t win;
that the other party will lose;
or that the other party has no interest in moving upwards on the ladder.
(A corollary to this is that escalation dominance is much more about what is imposed upon the opponent than what is available to you.) A successful effort to communicate to these ends, and therefore to affect action, is the communication of escalation dominance. This is deterrence.
For all the satire Kubrick and others might bring to Kahn and the whole milieu of nuclear-strategic thinkers, their concepts—including, quite deliberately, the creation of a military apparatus with the power to end civilization in the northern hemisphere—kept the peace for generations. This is a shining achievement of the synthesizing intellect: anyone can create a theoretical framework, but very few can create one so practical, and so real, in the realm of something so terrible.
It is worth walking through all this now as we think about the policy options available to the United States in the war in Ukraine. The public conversation about it is exceptionally strange in several respects, but the strangest aspect of it is the cohorts taking avid counsel of their fears. That is not, by the by, the individuals rejecting obvious open-warfare pathways, such as an enforced no-fly zone or Ukrainian air-combat missions from third-country airfields. Kahn would recognize immediately that recklessness and imprudence deprive the actor of its own escalation dominance, and therefore strip deterrence of its power. The chorus calling for these things in Ukraine—American attacks upon Russia, in essence—do not grasp that their preferences if enacted would constitute a substantive weakening of American power. It is those who reject those pathways who preserve our strength.
The counsel-of-fears cohorts exist much more in the realm of sanity, even if they are probably in error in their analysis. The most consequential set among them is now in governance and actually making decisions on American war policy. This is of course the Biden administration apparatus, including the president himself. They have indulged in exceptional caution in support for Ukraine, including but not limited to refraining from meaningful action versus Russia in the war’s opening days, thereby ceding initiative to the Europeans; imposing a needless time delay upon battlefield intelligence shared with the Ukrainians, rendering it vastly less useful; and killing an opportunity for the transfer of NATO-nation MiGs to Ukraine. Set aside the objective merits of each proposal—the aircraft transfer in particular is of debatable value—and focus on what they signify. Nearly without trying, the Russians established deterrence upon the Americans. Escalation dominance, in certain spheres, has been lost.
One might argue, correctly, that this is not the whole picture: The Congress, after all, just approved a genuinely remarkable and overt wartime-materiel package for Ukraine. But it is part of the picture, and that is what makes it so dangerous. Having established deterrence in part, the rational imperative for the Russians is to seek the same outcome by comparable means, in this case, the generation of fear of retaliation. This is the context in which we must understand recent Russian nuclear threats: Putin’s public alert to his nuclear forces some weeks ago is a modified level 16 (Nuclear Ultimatums). They are grasping for the right lever, and we have provided the incentive.
The less consequential counsel-of-fears cohort is on the right, out of power, and therefore unable to affect real policy decision making. Here we see, across a variety of media and in significant sections of the commentariat, the sort of binary thinking that Kahn and his intellectual milieu overturned: It is all or nothing, they say, and action at any rung of Kahn’s ladder runs the meaningful risk of procession straight to level 44 (Spasm or Insensate War).
The word meaningful does some work here, and it is important to acknowledge it, but it is necessary and not to be dismissed. In this mindset, the provision of nearly any aid to Ukraine risks nuclear Armageddon and should therefore be avoided.
Arriving at this sort of conclusion requires one of a few prior assumptions, including the belief that Ukraine is existential to Russia and the belief in the Russian state’s extraordinary irrationality. The fatal problem is in its near-total concession of escalation dominance at all levels to any nuclear-armed adversary. Its outcome is necessarily paralysis at best, and surrender at worst. It involves discounting the mechanism of our victory in the Cold War against very nearly the same state. Set aside that it is falsified by history and focus on what it means for policy and governance. If we desire stewardship of the American national interest, it is a mindset unfit for both.
We ought to note that this is very much a minority cohort on the right, restricted mostly to media circles. The majority sentiment among conservatives, when it comes to American support for Ukraine, is: more.
If we want a peace that is not the peace of the grave, then we need to turn to our hard-won national experience in that vein. The question we must be asking ourselves now is how we impress one or more of those three concepts upon the Russians:
that they won’t win;
that they will lose;
or that they have no interest in moving upwards on the escalation ladder.
How do we create a mindset of deterrence that leads them to constrain their own conduct in their own war? We’ve done it to them, and it has been done to us. That is what we work toward.
The way to it is unclear, and it must be undertaken with prudence and deliberation. Russia is a nuclear power. Its battlefield doctrine is more open to weapons of mass destruction than ours. All this is certain.
What is also certain is that these are not new problems. We have been here before. The genius of yesterday, in the work of Herman Kahn and unnumbered others, is in the pathways it provides us through the perils of today.
Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.