U.S. Can’t Rely on Tripwire Forces to Deter China and Russia

Bloomberg Opinion

A small contingent of troops can dissuade an enemy from attacking, but only if backed up by a much bigger commitment. By  +Follow8 November 2021, 01:00 EET

A few good men in West Berlin, 1965.
A few good men in West Berlin, 1965. Source: Three Lions via Getty Images

If U.S. troops were deployed on Taiwan, China’s government-run Global Times warned in August, Beijing would “destroy and expel” them and “realize reunification by force.” Two months later, media reports confirmed that the Pentagon had indeed placed small numbers of U.S. forces on Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army didn’t strike. But the episode was enough to make one wonder whether the U.S. can rely on the presence of its own military personnel to discourage a Chinese assault.

It also raised broader questions about whether so-called tripwire deployments — forces too small to defeat a determined attacker — can still help deter aggression, in Taiwan or elsewhere. The answer is that tripwire forces can indeed signal American resolve to protect vulnerable territory. But they only have the desired effect if tied to a credible plan for what happens after the shooting starts.

The presence of roughly two dozen U.S. special operators on Taiwan wasn’t entirely a secret, but it got global attention after the Wall Street Journalbroke the story in October. Such a tiny contingent cannot prevent Beijing from conquering the island; its purpose is to train Taiwan’s ground forces and strengthen defense ties between Washington and Taipei. Whether such deployments have deterrent value is something American strategists have debated since the early Cold War.

The flashpoint then was West Berlin, which hosted some 12,000 U.S. and allied troops that had no hope of protecting a city surrounded by Soviet armies. What could those troops do? “Bluntly put, they can die,” the strategist Thomas Schelling wrote. “They can die heroically, dramatically, and in a manner that guarantees that the action would not stop there.”

He meant that once U.S. troops were killed in West Berlin, American honor would be engaged, and a larger intervention would follow. A tripwire force could thus dissuade aggression on even an isolated, dangerous frontier.More fromLow Bond Yields Are Helping the Big Get Bigger5 Central Bank Unknowns That Will Shape Markets in 2022Is India Really Ready For the Next Big Outbreak?Where BlackRock Sees Value in India’s Biggest IPO

The debate has flared again as great-power war has become more likely. Earlier this year, two leading political scientists argued that token deployments don’t really deter, because the enemy can simply execute a fait accompli — a quick seizure of territory that leaves overmatched defenders no chance to respond. Other analysts countered that tripwire forces put the fear of obliteration into aggressors by manifesting U.S. commitment.

The debate isn’t simply academic. U.S. policy makers need good ways of protecting strategic terrain in Taiwan, the Baltic region and the South China Sea. So they also need a nuanced understanding of what small deployments can achieve. History suggests that tripwire forces work best when they are strong enough to put up a decent fight and carry the plausible promise of something worse to come.

Consider again the Berlin scenario. America’s theory of deterrence was not that the Soviets would blanch at killing 12,000 armed hostages. It was that this tripwire contingent was mighty enough to make Moscow use a lot of force if it attempted to conquer West Berlin, an aggression so egregious that it would trigger a more devastating war. That threat was realistic because the Berlin garrison was backed by a much larger allied presence in Western Europe, which had well-rehearsed plans for fighting the Red Army — and for using nuclear weapons if that resistance failed.Sponsored ContentSber to Put Technology and Customers at Centre of ESG EffortsSberBank

Now consider a different scenario. In June 1950, the U.S. had several hundred troops in South Korea. But as the scholars Dan Reiter and Paul Poast note, they were insufficient to deter a North Korean invasion, because Washington had given no indication that it could or would come to Seoul’s defense. President Harry Truman did ultimately decide to fight in Korea, waging a bloody war the U.S. had could perhaps have averted with a stronger deterrent force.

Today, deploying more special operators to Taiwan, or adding permanently stationed U.S. forces to the small North Atlantic Treaty Organization presence in the Baltic countries, can help lessen any uncertainty about whether Washington would defend its friends against unprovoked attack. This kind of signaling is particularly valuable in Taiwan’s case, where the U.S. is inhibited — by longstanding fears of Chinese sensitivities — from making ironclad defense commitments.

But these deployments won’t do much good by themselves. The presence of Ukrainian troops in Crimea didn’t deter Russia’s seizure of the peninsula in 2014, because those troops gave up rather than fight a war they would surely lose.

Likewise, if the U.S. can’t actually defend Taiwan — by helping the island survive air and missile barrages, and flooding the region with naval and air power — then Beijing might think that an American tripwire is only a bluff. Unless NATO can stop Russian forces from winning quickly in the Baltics, Moscow might conclude that token deployments are signs of weakness, not strength. And just sticking a few dozen U.S. troops in an exposed position — such as on one of the defenseless offshore islands claimed by Taiwan — might be dangerous, because Beijing could subdue that force with small-scale aggression and then dare Washington to escalate wildly in response.

The tripwire metaphor is apt: The idea is that breaking it leads to a large, deadly explosion. Small deployments can pack a big deterrent punch when they are part of a broader, credible defense strategy, but not when they are a substitute for it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Hal Brands at Hal.Brands@jhu.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.netHal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of “The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.”

6 comments

  • For many years Britain maintained a combat force of 50,000 in Germany: The British Army of the Rhine. This was a formidable deterrent and was equipped with tactical nukes.
    We don’t have that capability these days unfortunately. Nor do we or our fellow Budapest signatories the US have the desire to provide the level of support to Ukraine that Budapest requires.
    In short, we were prepared to fight to the death for the fucking Germans, but are not willing even to provide a token land force for Ukraine, which I find to be despicable.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’ve read that the British Army only has about 65,000 troops these days. That’s just a bit larger than 4 divisions. That’s not an army. British politicians are as stupid as US politicians. You can do little with an army that size.

      Liked by 1 person

  • “A small contingent of troops can dissuade an enemy from attacking, but only if backed up by a much bigger commitment.”
    And this much bigger commitment must be led by a real president … strong, rational, skillful, tactful and wise. I’m afraid that Biden has none of these features. I would not be surprised if the chinks and the mafiosi were to test us while this old, frail, weakling is in charge.

    Liked by 3 people

    • With Biden, and his associated morons, the US has no military credibility. The fact the US military has also caved to the wokesters, I expect little from them. I used to be in the Army National Guard after my active service, and ANG I was part of, had more of an army than the active service has these days.

      Liked by 1 person

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