May 23, 2024
WAR ROOM welcomes back Lou Beres to examine how Clausewitz's concept of friction can help U.S. policy makers and strategists develop effective plans in the face of Russia's nuclear threats. As more evidence of potential war crimes emerges, decision makers are faced with increasing uncertainty as to how the "war on paper" will differ from "war as it actually is." Keeping the friction based approach in mind may be the best way to avoid missteps in what will surely be complicated times.

Although he wrote in the early nineteenth century, Carl von Clausewitz’s well-recognized idea of friction helps us understand risk in both conventional and nuclear war.

Russian Crimes Against Ukraine and Superpower Nuclear War

Russia’s ongoing crimes against Ukraine – crimes involving aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity – raise the likelihood of superpower nuclear war. Because any such outcome would be literally unprecedented, nothing more precise can be said about pertinent probabilities. It stands to reason that any U.S. – Russian faceoff over this unpredictable conflict would be fraught with considerable dangers of each belligerent seeking escalation dominance, that is the ability to maintain military superiority over an adversary, such that the opponent views further escalation as not worth the cost.

Although he wrote in the early nineteenth century, Carl von Clausewitz’s well-recognized idea of friction helps us understand risk in both conventional and nuclear war. “Friction,” we learn from On War, “is the difference between war on paper and war as it actually is.” Complexity increases friction as, by definition, force-multiplying interactions involve certain intersecting issues in which the whole of imaginable harms would be greater than the sum of identifiable parts.

Today, when such risks are growing vis-à-vis Russian military intentions and actions, the concept of friction illuminates certain determinable prospects, which could assist U.S. decision makers in avoiding too-risky strategic options. In the current environment, for example, U.S. leaders must balance the risks and benefits of enhancing nuclear deterrence with those of achieving escalation dominance. In this regard, conspicuous preparations for nuclear war fighting could be conceived not as distinct alternatives to nuclear deterrence, but as essential and even integral components of nuclear deterrence. Some years ago, Colin Gray, reasoning about U.S.-Soviet nuclear relations, argued that a vital connection exists between “likely net prowess in war and the quality of pre-war deterrent effect.” This classic concept could help analysts clarify America’s still-available strategic options.

In the contemporary environment, friction would be compounded in any future nuclear crisis between the United States and Russia (over Ukraine or any other issue) because decisions would necessarily include judgments of enemy rationality. Deterrence and escalation theory both rely on unitary, rational actors to work. But if there is irrationality at play, in which decisions are unmoored from a clear cost-benefit calculation, the dangers of nuclear war only increase. In the current Ukraine crisis, such irrationality could take expressly different and overlapping forms, including a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculating enemy intentions; incapacities to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of specific policy decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making.

The crisis in Ukraine, and the expectedly corrosive interactive effects involving Ukraine-related threats from Russia, should compel the United States update and refine its theories of nuclear deterrence. Ultimately, this process will prove to be a fundamentally intellectual or reasoning task, not just a narrowly political exercise. Considerations of friction should be assigned a prominent place in this delicate process. With such informed considerations, U.S. policymakers could become more suitably wary of taking escalation dominance too far. Always, in crisis or quasi-crisis circumstances, these policy makers would have to take certain strategic risks to gain time-urgent bargaining advantages, but without considering apt issues of “friction” they could err on the side of excessive risk-taking. Such error could sometime prove catastrophic and irremediable.

The Importance of Strategic Theory         

            In matters of national nuclear strategy, operational truth may sometimes emerge through paradox. U.S. strategic planners may soon have to acknowledge that the efficacy and credibility of America’s nuclear deterrence posture could vary inversely with enemy perceptions of U.S. nuclear destructiveness. However ironic, enemy views of a too-large or too-destructive American nuclear deterrent force and/or a U.S. force that is not sufficiently invulnerable to first-strike attacks could undermine this posture.

To counter such views (and their correspondingly heightened prospect of friction-related harms) American military planners and policy makers will need to better ensure adversarial perceptions of a “flexible” U.S. nuclear deterrent force. This flexibility would signify a force that remains visibly secure from enemy first strike attacks and capable of penetrating Russia’s ballistic missile defenses. Apropos of this second requirement, the United States would then likely need to revisit certain earlier ideas concerning a “limited nuclear war.”

In part, this obligation owes to a presumptively continuing U.S.-Russian difference on nuclear firebreak theory. From the start the cold war, the United States defined any crossing of the nuclear threshold as prospectively apocalyptic. The U.S.SR, and now Russia, focused instead on moves from tactical to strategic nuclear weapons. Today, as this asymmetry of views seemingly still obtains, the friction-enhanced prospects of a nuclear miscalculation by one or both sides remain unacceptably high.

By definition, friction cannot be made to “go away,” but a constant awareness of its relevance could induce cautionary and hence cost-effective U.S. nuclear decision-making.

 To reduce nuclear war risks with Moscow over Ukraine, this author believes Washington should take immediate steps to remind the Russian president of this destabilizing asymmetry. If Putin is a rational actor, he would interpret this signal to mean that the United States could never accept Russian use of even tactical nuclear weapons, and would regard any such use as the beginning of an uncontrollable nuclear escalation. A compounding problem here is that such a critical understanding would likely be undercut by variously obfuscating elements of friction. Friction makes it more difficult to choose wisely among nuclear strategy alternatives. By definition, friction cannot be made to “go away,” but a constant awareness of its relevance could induce cautionary and hence cost-effective U.S. nuclear decision-making.

U.S. Active Defenses and Nuclear Targeting Doctrine

There is still much to be done by the United States regarding Russian aggression/genocide against Ukraine, but this effort must proceed without incurring unacceptable risks of a superpower nuclear war. As corollary, Washington should continue to strengthen America’s active defenses, but ought also to do everything possible to improve each interpenetrating component of its comprehensive deterrence posture. To manage this risk, American strategy require more incrementally explicit disclosures of nuclear targeting doctrine and/or a steadily expanding role for cyber-defense and cyber-war.

The success of American nuclear deterrence strategies will be contingent upon informed prior awareness of all relevant enemy preferences and of specific hierarchies of preferences. New and more open-minded attention will need to be focused upon the visible expansion of a potential new cold war between Russia and the United States. Ultimately, in the art and science of war, the highest achievements must always be sought in resolute triumphs of mind over mind.  This task should be recognizably fact-based and preeminently intellectual.      

 While the United States is bound to incur some risk of nuclear war in the crisis over Ukraine, the moral, legal, and ethical imperative for intervention on behalf of Ukraine is clear. Russian forces have been committing war crimes and crimes against humanity against civilian populations. These Putin-created crimes have already risen to the level of Nuremberg-category violations. In foreseeable worst cases, Russian crimes of genocide could coincide with Russian crimes of aggression. In law, these categories of egregious criminality are never mutually exclusive. But how should the United States proceed? Egregious Russian crimes cannot reasonably be minimized or disregarded, whatever the attendant dangers of a nuclear war.

What Next?

For the United States (and also for Russia), even the most meticulously-crafted war plans could succumb to Clausewitzian friction. The core task for states that would stand firm for Ukrainian human rights is not to avoid friction altogether, but rather to reduce “the difference between war on paper and war as it actually is.”

 Carl Von Clausewitz’ concept of friction should become more openly central to U.S. strategic decision-making on Ukraine, but Washington ought still to remain ready to take certain existential risks vis-à-vis Moscow. To best ensure that such risk-taking remain prudent, rational and purposeful, the U.S. and certain other allied states should immediately refine their more-or-less interrelated strategic deterrence postures along clarifying lines. To prevent a nuclear war from emerging over Russia’s already barbarous crimes against Ukraine, the American and NATO task should not be to “prevent friction.” Their task, rather, must be to make certain that friction’s consequences stay tolerable and manageable, a task that should bring American and Russian decision-makers back to resolving historic differences on nuclear “firebreak” theory.

 “Everything is very simple in war,” we may learn from Carl von Clausewitz, “but the simplest thing is still difficult.” For U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is an overriding obligation to take this friction-based observation seriously, and to bear continuously in mind that plans for “war on paper” could very quickly diverge from “war as it actually is.” The best way for an American president to support such a simple but difficult insight would be to steer clear of any needless bellicosity or false bravado. Faced with complex realities of Clausewitzian friction in Ukraine, the most dangerous and destabilizing presidential sentiment during periods of more-or-less unprecedented competitive risk-taking would be foolish pride or hubris.

Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many major books, monographs and articles on nuclear strategy, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Credit: Carl von Clausewitz (ca. 1830) by Karl Wilhelm Wach, background by


  1. If one can see the Russian war in Ukraine more from the perspective of a New/Reverse Cold War (U.S./the West now seeking expansion; China and Russia, thus threatened, now seeking “containment” and “roll back”), then such things as “escalation dominance” — this also — might be seen from this such New/Reverse Cold War perspective?

    An Old Cold War example may be useful here. In this regard, consider the use of the term “escalation dominance” in this paragraph from the 2015 War on the Rocks article “America Did Hybrid Warfare Too” by Todd Greentree:

    “Employed as part of a broader strategy (‘containment’ and/or ‘roll back?’), what hybrid warfare did was allow the United States to carry out open-ended competition and signal certain confidence that the value of protecting the U.S. sphere of interest was greater than any opponent’s interest in upsetting it. After all, it would have served little purpose to test the escalation dominance the United States enjoyed in the hemisphere, say by threatening direct action against Cuba or rattling nuclear sabers. Instead, the method was a low-fear, low-cost, economy-of-force way to manage superpower confrontation that remained well below the threshold that might have provoked a more energetic response.”

    (Item in parenthesis above is mine.)

  2. Borrowing/paraphrasing from the War on the Rocks article referenced immediately above — and attempting to concentrate on “intentions, “signaling” and “capabilities” here — consider the following New/Reverse Cold War questions:

    a. By Putin resorting to warfare (hybrid and/or other?) in places such as Syria and Ukraine today — much like Reagan resorting to warfare (hybrid and other?) in places like Central America yesterday — re: these such actions, has (in this case Putin) demonstrated that Russia has (a) revitalized its will to oppose its great power and other adversaries in this New/Reverse Cold War, (b) notified its such great power and other adversaries that Russia will henceforth carry out an open-ended competition against them and (c) signaled a certain confidence that the value of protecting (or in Putin’s case restoring?) Russia’s sphere of interest is greater than any opponents interesting in upsetting (or preventing) same?

    b. Does Russia, in its hemisphere in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, enjoy the same “escalation dominance” capabilities/criteria that the United States enjoyed in its hemisphere, in the Old Cold War of yesterday?

    1. Re: my New/Reverse Cold War question “b” immediately above, consider the following from a 2019 Rand study:

      “In our review of deterrence theory, we draw lessons from the Cold War and more-fundamental theory. We then outline implication for the Russian threat to the Baltic states. The discussion concludes by summarizing qualitative and quantitative analytic methods, including wargaming, that can be useful in assessing deterrent options. The resulting insights highlight the reality that, even if NATO makes significant efforts to modernize its nonstrategic nuclear weapons, it would have much stronger military incentives to end a future war than Russia would. That is, Russia would still enjoy escalation dominance. Thus, modernizing NSNW alone will not compensate for the lack of NATO conventional ground forces capable of blunting a Russian invasion.

      (See Page 2 of the Rand study “Exploring the Role Nuclear Weapons Could Play in Deterring Russian Threats to the Baltic States, by Paul K. Davis, et. al.)

      Follow-on Question — Based on Current Events:

      Given Russia’s poor performance in invading Ukraine, can we still say that Russia enjoys such escalation dominance capabilities/criteria as the Rand study, above, suggests?

  3. Friction is a force that opposes the relative motion or attempted motion of two surfaces in contact. The magnitude of the frictional force is proportional to the normal force and sometimes is described by F=μN, where μ (the Greek letter “mu”) is the coefficient of friction. The coefficient of friction is a number that is characteristic of the surfaces in contact.

  4. The article discusses the concept of friction in the context of war. Friction is defined as “the force that opposes the relative motion of two surfaces in contact.” The author provides several examples of friction in war, including the weather, terrain, and the enemy. The article argues that friction is an important consideration in war, and that it can have a significant impact on the outcome of a conflict. Friction is indeed an important consideration in war, but the article overlooks some important points. For example, the author does not consider the impact of technology on friction. In today’s wars, technological advances have greatly reduced the impact of friction on the battlefield. For example, precision-guided munitions and advanced communications systems have made it possible for militaries to engage the enemy with minimal friction. In addition, the author does not consider the impact of morale on friction. In many wars, the side with the higher morale will often overcome the difficulties posed by friction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend