Do tripwire forces work?

Not according to Paul Poast and Dan Reiter. In this article in War on the Rocks titled Death without deterrence, or why tripwire forces are not enough they argue that nobody is deterred by a militarily insignificant body of soldiers whose only job it is to die.

Though tripwire forces offer little deterrence power, larger or better-equipped troop contingents deployed to possible targets of aggression in peacetime can deter, if they are sufficient to shift the local balance of power. They do so by serving an operational purpose, not just as symbols of credibility. If deployed troops can stop, or even slow down, an aggressor’s attack — by fighting back, not by dying and triggering outrage — thereby blocking the achievement of a fait accompli, then an aggressor will lose confidence that it can win quickly. The fear of an attack becoming bogged down, and of risking opposition from an adversary undiscouraged by early casualties, should deter an aggressor from launching an attack. The end effect is the maintenance of peace.

This is not great news in a Baltic perspective. Nato’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Poland and the Baltic states is commonly described as a tripwire force.

I do have a problem with this part, though:

Supporters of tripwire deployments point to the successful deterrence of a Soviet attack on West Berlin as the critical episode demonstrating their power. As Thomas Schelling colorfully argued in the 1960s, “What can 7,000 American troops [in West Berlin] do, or 12,000 Allied troops? Bluntly, they can die.” The handful of Western troops deployed there were thought to have served as a deterrent because Moscow presumably recognized that their deaths would trigger a broader NATO response, not because they would actually stop a Soviet assault. However, we now know that this is a misleading account. Declassified archival sources indicate that NATO tripwire forces did not deter a Soviet attack because Moscow never intended to mount one. There was no Soviet desire to invade West Berlin, even in the crisis years of 1948–1949 and 1958–1961.

The pervasive problem of successful deterrence is you never know if it worked. It’s a counterfactual, and maybe the enemy wouldn’t have attacked anyway. But nuclear deterrence surely backed up those 7,000 American soldiers in West Berlin. Poast and Reiter’s other examples includes proxy wars, and here I think their argument is better. But in a full-blown armed confrontation between the Soviet Union and Nato, the likelihood of nuclear escalation was significant.

Also on the topic of nuclear escalation and the Berlin crisis: I really recommend this episode of Usha Sahay’s splendid podcast series A most terrible weapon.

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