WASHINGTON — Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Friday defended the Biden administration’s strategy of integrated deterrence against adversaries such as Russia, despite its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has not yet felt the full effect of the economic sanctions much of the world imposed shortly after the country launched its invasion in February, Hicks said at a Ronald Reagan Institute event discussing the National Defense Strategy. And Russia has not struck any NATO territory, she said as an example of how deterrence has worked in the Ukraine crisis.
Integrated deterrence is a cornerstone of the National Defense Strategy the administration sent to Congress in March, and seeks to dissuade adversaries from acting aggressively by using a wide range of tools available to the government. Those tools include joint military forces in all domains, a nuclear deterrent, sanctions, diplomacy, and a network of alliances and partnerships worldwide.
The classified strategy has not been shared with the public, except for a two-page summary the Pentagon released outlining its broad strokes.
But though the U.S. and allies loudly and repeatedly warned Russian President Vladimir Putin not to invade Ukraine, those warnings did not dissuade him, Reagan Institute director Roger Zakheim pointed out to Hicks.
“It’s reasonable to say that deterrence didn’t work,” Zakheim said. “We anticipated this. … We tried to put the tools of deterrence into place. [But] we didn’t deter him.”
Hicks responded that the Defense Department focuses on “combat credibility” to provide a deterrent. The United States does not have the same security commitments with Ukraine it does with NATO allies, she said. The U.S. also has not historically provided to Ukraine the kind of military assistance it provides to Taiwan.
“What we focus on in the Department of Defense is bringing that combat credibility to the fore,” Hicks said. “Note that Russians have not attacked NATO territory. And we continue to stand by that deterrent as quite effective.”
Hicks also said the massive economic sanctions imposed on Russia will prove to be “tremendously powerful.”
“They clearly were not convincing to Russia in advance,” Hicks said. “It’s not clear anything would have been convincing to Russia in advance; I’m not going to try to get into the head of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. But what I can tell you is they will be devastated.”
Russia is facing a massive drain in talent as businesses exit and highly skilled people depart the nation, Hicks said. She hopes those talented people will come to the United States or other Western nations.
Hicks also said the National Security Strategy will likely come “in the coming months.”
In a roundtable discussion after Hicks’ appearance, Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said the U.S. needs to shift its deterrence focus to trying to deny adversaries from acting in the first place, which she referred to as “deterrence by denial,” and away from the “deterrence by punishment” strategy she feels describes integrated deterrence.
And to be able to field an effective “deterrence by denial” strategy, Luria said, the U.S. needs to have the forces and presence overseas to make it credible.
The U.S. may not be building a force that can do that over the next couple of years, she added. Luria raised particular concerns about military plans to divest existing assets to free up resources to modernize.
“Rather than being creative, investing in the readiness and maintaining those platforms that we have now, that we can continue to use during that [near-term] window, we’re just saying ‘divest to invest,’” Luria said. “It’s obsolete, we need to move on to new concepts that don’t actually equal new weapon systems that exist.
“AI, quantum computing — certainly those are part of the mix in the future,” Luria continued. “But we have to focus on the near term.”
Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, said deterring China from invading Taiwan — an attack that would involve large numbers of quickly attacking Chinese ships and aircraft — could require more than just counting how many traditional platforms such as destroyers are in the U.S. arsenal. It may require different concepts of operations, she said, such as arming standoff Air Force planes with Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles.
The U.S. also needs to address munitions shortfalls now being exacerbated by the need to provide assistance to Ukraine, she said.
“Services constantly trade off munitions to pay for shiny objects,” Flournoy said. “We’ve got to focus here.”
Luria said the nation needs to reassess the policy of “strategic ambiguity” that has for years governed the United States’ commitment to helping Taiwan defend itself if China were to invade. Luria said the U.S. should shift to “strategic clarity” and explicitly say it will come to Taiwan’s defense in an invasion.
Mac Thornberry, former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, suggested Putin may have been considering issues besides raw military strength when he decided to invade Ukraine.
“You can argue that perhaps Putin … was [also] looking at our divisions domestically, and a whole variety of factors, and thought maybe this is a time when he could get away with it,” Thornberry said. “Remember, deterrence is in the mind of the adversary.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.