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    December 8, 2015

    Strategic deterrence and the Rubicon theory of war

    December 8, 2015 -

    Translated by Kristina Rus - Fort Russ

    By: Leonid Savin

    American military-political thought is abundant with many concepts. One of them is the theory of Rubicon. It implies that decision makers have certain limitations and, on the other hand, there are some mental guidelines, which provoke certain action. This theory is an integral part of American military science taught in universities and implemented in military codes. The task of those studying this theory is to better understand the intentions of the enemy and to avoid any provocative actions, as to not cause a reaction which will bring about the point of no return.

    The Rubicon theory of war has several important implications for the theory and practice of international relations. First, it helps to address the fundamental paradox of international relations: the fear and anxiety that underlies the security dilemma in peace times and the prevailing self-confidence on the eve of war.

    Second, the Rubicon theory advances the debate whether the leaders or the states are rational actors in international politics. If rationality depends on the mindset, the accuracy of the model of the rational actor depends on when and how people seek evidence in times of crisis. At the very beginning of the decision-making process, the leader is likely to be in the deliberative stage of the thinking process and can resemble a rational actor. Later, during the crisis, the same leader is likely to be in a narrow, imposed, confined thinking pattern, and can display a range of biases or prejudices that deviate from rationality.

    So, fear and rationality, which are inherent in human nature, underlie many decisions related to a conflict.

    It seems that during the Cold war both sides - USA and USSR - understood each other very well. During the Cuban missile crisis no one pressed the red button and even the muscle flexing was mostly demonstrative. 

    Even in the area of technology, the human factor played a primary role. When on November 9th, 1979, an American computer recorded a massive nuclear strike by the Soviet Union, the original data from early warning satellites and radars around the United States was checked immediately. None of the systems showed a sign of missile attack, so the alert was cancelled. The analysis of the causes of the alarm found that a training tape on repelling a nuclear attack was loaded into the computer by mistake.

    On January 25th, 1995, a sounding rocket was launched from the Norwegian coast, which had a stage from the American tactical missile "Honest John". Russian air defense system has identified it as a Trident D-5 launched from aboard a submarine. It was assumed that a Trident could be used for a high-altitude nuclear explosion to bring down the Russian radar warning system. Similarly, the investigation helped clarify the cause and nature of this launch.

    Although in recent years talks about the possible return of the Cold war and the need for strategic deterrence have intensified (the United States stresses the importance of deterring Russia's aggressive intentions, as Moscow accuses Washington of provocation and NATO expansion to the east), it seems that behavioral patterns, which were previously required for analysis, are no longer taken into account. 

    At least on the part of some of the members of the North Atlantic alliance (NATO). The incident with the downed Russian SU-24 indicates the need to analyse how the Turkish side understands the red line which should not be crossed. Previous incidents of violation of Turkish airspace and Erdogan's reaction show that such incidents were not rare over the past few years and Ankara has not acted so aggressively.

    What has changed the attitude of the Turkish leadership? 

    Who could influence the thought pattern that led to this irrational action?

    In addition to Russia's response, including a belated material increase of military presence in Syria, it is necessary to analyze not only the consequences but also the reasons of such behavior from our neighbor.

    One can propose the following theories:

    1. We don't know enough about the Turkish military-political command and control. Despite Ankara's appeal to NATO Charter, this excuse is irrelevant. The decision about the attack on the Russian plane was taken directly by Turkey and, probably, personally by the pilot of the aircraft patrolling the border. Even a thorough international investigation will not delve into the probe of the Turkish standards for use of force and Turkish military procedures. This can be accomplished by increasing the intelligence network inside Turkey and a more thorough work on the analysis of various documents and precedents that had already occurred in Turkey (for example, the repeated violation of Turkish air force of Greek air space).

    2. The attack on the plane coincided with the updating of the Turkish military doctrine, national strategy and personnel rotation.

    Since the last Turkish defense strategy was adopted in the spring of 2012 and Turkey's actions in relation to the legitimate government of Syria and the militants have become quite clear from the outset of the civil war in this country, it is hardly associated with dramatic changes in strategic vision.

    However it is necessary to consider reforms of recent years and a sweep of Turkish officer ranks in the case of "Ergenekon". Eliminating the old elite, Erdogan was forced to turn to new recruits, who brought with them the new ideology (narrow behavior pattern which destroys rationality).

    3. Erdogan engaged in pure adventurism, having listened to American advice, as such provocation could weaken Russia. From a position of geopolitical confrontation this version looks the most obvious, but it is not clear why the Turkish leadership went against its national interests.

    4. A mix of all theories. In this case, it is difficult to track the degree of influence of each of all these variants. In fact, we are facing a black box. You can calculate the input and the output, but what is inside and how it interacts can be difficult to discern. It is also necessary to consider the populist nature of Erdogan's policy, who does not admit his own mistakes and is constantly looking for excuses to justify his actions.

    The Rubicon theory has important policy implications, because people are hard to resist psychological biases or even recognize them. To conduct adequate policy world leaders must develop a policy or institutional structures immune to the negative consequences of the imposed decision-making patterns. While the opponents (and instigators, including among allies) may adapt imposed patterns and become overly self-confident in the face of approaching conflict, increasing the possibility of failure in containment, escalation and war.

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