Deterring aggression is a constant challenge for both small states and their larger allies and partners. For many small states, resource and military limitations lead them to resort to guerrilla warfare or other denial strategies, hoping to use the fear of a prolonged insurgency with large human and financial losses to deter aggression. Due to worst-case assumptions on these states’ ability to resist conventionally, Western allies and partners further encourage the use of guerrilla strategies via the provision of short-range, often man-portable, weapons to these countries.
While such support is politically and strategically less risky, it may not contribute to deterring wars, especially in the face of aggressors that are willing to engage in high-casualty attacks and have few qualms of levying full military force even on civilian targets in retribution for defiance, as evidenced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Nor would the threat of insurgency and traditional denial strategies necessarily work against gray zone aggression or incremental occupations. There is a need to reconceptualize deterrence for small states by both the West and small states themselves.
This paper asserts that traditional concepts for small states’ defence and deterrence, such as “deterrence by insurgency” and non-offensive defence, are insufficient, and that instead, small states should be encouraged and supported to build up sufficient military capability that allows them to hold adversaries at greater risk. This may require the calibrated transfer and development of affordable strike technologies such as increasingly capable drones and long-range guided missiles, paired with improved strategic thinking, the development of theories of victory, and enhanced coordination with appropriate maritime enforcement agencies, that allow for small states to succeed in preserving their sovereignty without resorting to costly insurgencies or risking failures of deterrence.
The paper ends with some policy considerations tailored for small states in Southeast Asia, like the Philippines, facing particular deterrence challenges.
Author: Erick Nielson C. Javier
This report is a guest contribution to the HCSS paper series Deterrence for Small and Middle Powers
The analysis presented in this paper is the product of independent study. The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the National Defense College of the Philippines, the Department of Defense, and the Government of the Philippines.