“The Stability of MAD” Habakkuk


A central issue here is the stability of MAD. This is something in which I used to believe, but do not any more.

A major influence has been the writings of Bruce Blair, who before becoming a leading expert on nuclear command and control, served as a Minuteman launch control officer, back in the early Seventies. What he noticed then was that while the declared policy of the United States was deterrence based upon second-strike retaliation, almost all the drills he was called on to carry out involved weapons being fired when no Soviet attack had yet occurred. A wicked conspiracy to hide preparations for a first-strike behind rhetoric about 'deterrence' perhaps?

This is certainly what the Soviets thought, but the actual truth as revealed by the work of Blair and others is far less sinister, but extremely disturbing.For a second-strike retaliatory capability to be possible, it was necessary to have a command-and-control system which will survive all-out enemy attack. The academic theorists — and following them many policymakers — simply took for granted that this was possible.

The military planners — quite realistically — doubted that it was.What then happened is described by the former commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command, General Lee Butler, in a 1998 interview a key section of which is reproduced on Blair's website:'Part of the insidiousness of the evolution of this system … is the unfortunate fact that, whatever might have been intended by the policymakers (who, incidentally, had very little insight into the mechanisms that underpinned the simple words that floated onto a blank page[my emphasis — DH] at the level of the White House), in reality, at the operational level, the requirements of deterrence proved impracticable…. The consequence was a move in practice to a system structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack…. Launch under attack means that you believe you have incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way…..

Our policy was premised on being able to accept the first wave of attacks. We never said publicly that we were committed to launch on warning or launch under attack. Yet at the operational level it was never accepted that if the presidential decisions went to a certain tick of the clock, we would lose a major portion of our forces… Notwithstanding the intention of deterrence as it is expressed at the policy level – as it is declared and written down – at the level of operations those intentions got turned on their head, as the people who are responsible for actually devising the war plan faced the dilemmas and blind alleys of concrete practice [my emphasis, again]. Those mattered absolutely to the people who had to sit down and try to frame the detailed guidance to exact destruction of 80 percent of the adversary’s nuclear forces.

When they realized that they could not in fact assure those levels of damage if the president chose to ride out an attack, what then did they do? They built a construct that powerfully biased the president’s decision process toward launch before the arrival of the first enemy warhead.'(See http://www.cdi.org/blair/launch-on-warning.cfm.)What the nuclear war planners did not do — as Blair brings out in the same piece in which he quotes the Lee Butler interview — is be candid with the political leadership about the nature of the problem, and the solution they had adopted. On the Soviet side, similar pressures pushed planners towards a launch-on-warning posture. And as Blair's work brings out, a balance of terror involving two forces configured for launch-on-warning is liable to be highly unstable.So whatever the problems of Obama's advocacy of a nuclear-free world, before dismissing what he says as 'claptrap' one should be clear that precisely these problems are going to arise in other nuclear confrontations, if as seems eminently likely widespread proliferation takes place.

If the engineering skills of the U.S. were not adequate to provide survivable command and control, those of India, Pakistan or Iran are not going to be.Moreover, the vulnerability of command and control creates another problem with no good solutions. If one maintains effective centralised control, one is vulnerable to nuclear decapitation. If one decentralizes control — as the U.S. did, far more than the Russians — then the risks of accidental nuclear war go up. So too do the risks of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands — including those of terrorists.

David Habakkuk

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22 Responses to “The Stability of MAD” Habakkuk

  1. The problem is MAD is still US doctrine. Read the writings and speeches of retired 4-star AF General Lee Butler.
    MAD is a nihilistic doctrine that borders on insanity.
    Disclosure–former Pershing 1 launch officer.

  2. J says:

    Did you see the recent article about the former Soviet (now Russia) ‘Perimeter’ system that was for retaliation ‘after’ a nuke strike on their soil and their systems blown to smithereens? Think of the movie Wargames where ‘auto-pilot computer’ took charge and launched various bunker seated nuke toys.
    The Soviets Built a Doomsday Machine. It’s Still Working.
    ” If Soviet radar picked up an ominous but ambiguous signal, the leaders could turn on Perimeter and wait. If it turned out to be geese, they could relax and Perimeter would stand down. Confirming actual detonations on Soviet soil, after all, is far easier than confirming distant launches. “That is why we have the system,” says Valery Yarynich, one of the system’s designers. “To avoid a tragic mistake. “”

  3. ed_finnerty says:

    Ted Postal nailed the ‘Policy’ of MAD – I quote
    “Right, it is an existential condition. The idea that mutual assured destruction is a policy choice shows a complete misunderstanding of the basic facts of existence. Mutual assured destruction is a consequence of the existential condition created by the incredible destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons. If it were possible to avoid this kind of vulnerability, anybody in their right mind would choose to avoid it. But this was not a decision that someone made. This is life. This is an existential condition. We basically have to depend on the rationality, sanity, and desire to live on the part of other people who could potentially do damage to us.”

  4. Thomas says:

    The stability of MAD worked in the Cold War because all the major powers had a reliable second strike: Submarines. Though for the current land and air based only nuclear powers Command and Control issues are a major problem, especially those entities with precarious domestic politics. This should cause other powers to want to emphasize non-proliferation so that they are not dragged into a nuclear nightmare of anothers making. The question is how and with what enforcement mechanism?

  5. Sven Ortmann says:

    I wouldn’t read much into the alleged first strike training and I disagree on the awareness in regard to the survival of C3. ICBM silos were quite vulnerable in comparison to SSBNs and I have old literature that clearly recognized the C3 survival challenge.
    MAD is a despicable theory. minimal deterrence is much preferable.
    I doubt that nuclear deterrence is as effective as assumed in mainstream – and I do so for very different reasons.
    Nuclear deterrence depends on circumstances, “it depends”. We may experience into future conflicts where the circumstances are wrong and nuclear deterrence fails.

  6. 1. There was MAD, launch on warning, and a number of concepts floating around in times past. Opponents of MAD argued for “war fighting” capabilities and either 1) survivable second strike or 2) launch on warning capability.
    Some of the old “bolt out of the blue” and “first strike” scenarios called for “riding out” the initial attack, then launching your second strike from an “invulnerable” system. We had the nuclear “triad” — land, air, sea based systems — to pose a credible “second strike” capability. “Hardening” land-based systems provided more credibiilty for second strike.
    Targeting cities so as to hold them “hostage”? — MAD. (Is this moral?) Or target military-industrial sites? (Is this more moral as less civilians would be killed?) etc….and what about “fractional kiloton” nukes for “battlefield” use? And for that matter what about the neutron family of weapons for battlefield use?
    That the US should hit to Soviets with a first strike was advocated by some of the JCS types in the 1950s I think.
    The Soviet SS-19s, as I recall caused fear and loathing as they could defeat hardened US land based systems. Also Soviet mobile systems and covert storage capabilities complicated matters.
    All manner of calculations about blast overpressures and CEPs (circular error potential) entered into the debate. And then there was the MIRV issue etc.
    Forward deployed Pershings were excellent systems from the standpoint of “prompt” “hard taget” “kill capability” as I recall from the theological strategic debates of yore.
    2. Well in India over the past several weeks a new and very public debate has come forward about their nuclear weapons posture.
    One former official scientist put forward his analysis that the last 1998 test of the Indians was a “fizzle”. Thus, the argument would be that India needs to conduct further tests to make sure that its deterrent is credible.
    But then others — scientists and politicians — have reacted against this saying that the tests were just fine and the needed data was obtained and thus India has the capability for a credible deterrent.
    At the scientific level, the debate is very arcane and actually it seems that it has been in the public press in the past some time back.
    But notwithstanding the scientific and technical arcana being debated there is the matter of Indian nuclear policy, the NPT, and also the CTBT and Obama’s push on non-proliferation. On top of this is the disintegrating situation in Pakistan and the perceived growing Chinese threat to include tensions on the border just now.

  7. To see one projection of domestic impact results of MAD go to http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/napb-90/index.html
    This was the final version of key planning document for the federal civil defense program established in 1951 by Public Law 81-920 and repealed by Public Law 103-337 in 1994! Draw you own conclusions from this once highly classifed document.

  8. Bill Wade, NH says:

    thanks Mr. Cumming, I might actually have a chance at survival – I’d have to hurry though. I imagine the targets would be the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant and the Portsmouth Naval Yard in Kittery Maine.

  9. Fred says:

    BW, not to worry, just ‘duck and cover’ like they taught me in grade school in the ’60s.
    This tidbit from the NAPB WRC links to would be funny if not so patently useless: “Low Fallout Risk Counties were defined as those which have the potential to receive a one-week unprotected radiation dose of less than 3,000 roentgens.”
    3,000 reoentgens is a fatal dose. Idiots.
    On a similar note I recall a playing a board game called ‘ultimatum’ on the mid-watch while on an Unitas deployment. One of the visiting officers watched us for an hour, until my room-mate decided to launch his ‘first strike’. He walked away shaking his head. I see now how easy it is to kill 150,000,000 people with impunity when all they are to you is a counter on a board. I’m no longer 19 but there are plenty of ‘advocates’ who have as little grasp on the implications of using nuclear weapons as I did at 19.
    Just how many does Israel need? What would the impact to our country be if they used them on someone during a first strike?

  10. A. Allen says:

    Be that as it may, the MAD doctine does appear to have worked for all these years, predicated on the existence of Boomers cruising the deep, and aided by lingering images of horrors rained down on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Stalin was a psychopath, and surely we did not welcome his arrival on the post-war scene armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons — we had no choice but to suck it up, and show him we meant business if ever he should think to use them. Existential threats all around.
    The Israelis are known to have a couple of Boomers of their own, so their power of deterrence is credible. The Iranians will one day have their bomb — as is their sovereign right– and there is precious little that we can do about short of launching a war that will bring about the very debacles we seek to avoid.
    I for one say we owe much to MAD, especially in these times when infantile hysteria reigns, and the rationality and good faith of some of the players is open to question.

  11. Agree with Fred’s post comment! Roentgens long ago replaced with REMS and now that superseded largely. EPA and FDA in their regulatory PAG (Protective Action Guidance) even for Emergency Workers still use REMS. The Health Physicists have new terminology which is more accurate. This is the profession expert on effects of radiation on the human body. Strangely only 6 or 8 colleges have curriculum and most of those are former Navy trained to run the nuclear navy safety program. That source is now much less productive. As I understand it a nationwide shortage in trained health physicists and a B.S. in Health Physics ususally starts at $100K but you have to be quant! Maybe some of the wall street quants could be retrained.

  12. WILL says:

    how that 2% has this great country wrapped up? how much of our discourse winds up being on the topic of Israel, Israel-Palestine, Iran-Nukes?
    And it is not just us. It was this way in Germany & the Soviet Union. And the Russian oligarchs. Just one of the facts of life. Accept it, Strange but true.

  13. Babak Makkinejad says:

    MAD, in my opinion, was the old Balance of Power doctrine but on steroids.
    The Balance of Power doctrine is fundamentally unworkable unless it is firmly predicated on the existence of a Peace Interest. That is, conditions under which states prefer the peaceful status quo that preparing for their opportunity to wage war.
    I think you are under-estimating the importance of the general peace interest that prevailed after WWII. The Peace of Yalta was the under-pinning of the MAD doctrine.
    The Peace of Yalta ended in 1991 but the inertai of that peace has continued to this day.
    A new Peace has to be negogiated to avoid more devastating, and by necessity, global wars.

  14. Andy says:

    A very good and important post. Like you, I used to believe in MAD and the virtual infallibility of deterrence. No more.
    There is an argument that’s become popular recently that essentially says that Iranian nukes are no big deal because “deterrence works.” They argue that the Iranian’s aren’t “crazy” and it would be inconceivable they would ever use nukes. Presumably, the Israeli’s, US, Pakistan, etc aren’t crazy either. The problem with this argument is that it completely ignores the vast human capacity for miscalculation.

  15. LeaNder says:

    WILL, it’s wrong for many reasons to construct a continuity in the –as it was framed here in Germany –“Jewish question”.
    The only continuity I see is that solutions create new problems. In our larger scenario two: the Nazi’s attempt at a “final solution” and the Zionists desire to create a secure harbor always taking in “the Jews”.
    It surely would have helped had the place indeed been a land without people, for a people without land, or had more moderate voices won the fight about what the country should look like. Or if Europe had been less antisemitic, and Hitler didn’t give Zionism a new meaning. Or people wouldn’t be so easy to manipulate. Or it all had happened in an earlier time. Or hadn’t America discovered Israel as a strategic “bastion” in the ME? And last but not least, had we all paid closer attention at an earlier time of the conflict.

  16. Thomas says:

    Agree. The Colonel’s Concert of the Middle East needs to be expanded to a worldwide Concert of Peace with a 100yr review for the new generations to come. The problems are enforcement mechanisms and a delirium of bloodlust in the current polities to make it work.

  17. Babak Makkinejad says:

    The “so-called “Jewish Question” only existed among the Christains of Europe.
    It is incomprehensible to any one outside of that millieu.

  18. Babak Makkinejad says:

    The best minds of the 20-th century were never devoted to working out the problems of peace or the short-comings of the market economy.
    Those who could have, in principle, worked on a workable form of socialism perished in WWI.
    Closer to our own time, the best minds went after studying war, or making lots and lots of money – or dissipated themselves in violence and drugs.

  19. David Habakkuk,
    It occurs to me that if you have not worked through the writings of the late William T. Lee, a Soviet analyst, then it could be useful to your research.
    I knew Bill and liked him and recall his broad smile, bow ties, and his bounding up staircases for exercise. Although hawkish political types latched on to his analytical perspectives, he was sincere in his views and IMO not in the “designing men and women” category.
    1. This was an WAPO obit:
    “Washington Post
    November 4, 2002
    William T. Lee Dies at 76; Intelligence Analyst, Author
    By Louie Estrada
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    William T. Lee, 76, an intelligence analyst who figured prominently in a debate over the assessment of the Soviet economy and the size, scope and cost of its military during the Cold War, died of cancer Oct. 30 at his home in Alexandria.
    The dispute within the U.S. intelligence community and among defense policymakers centered on the methodology used to calculate how much the Soviet Politburo was spending on its military and the impact of those expenditures on its economy.
    Mr. Lee and other analysts contended that the CIA, for whom he worked in the 1950s and early 1960s, consistently underestimated the military’s share of the gross national product for many years before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.
    Mr. Lee began his career as a Soviet economic and military affairs analyst at the CIA in 1951. He then was a senior analyst at the Stanford Research Institute from 1964 to 1972.
    With the latter organization, which at the time was a university-affiliated think tank with ties to Army nuclear missile programs, he helped produce intelligence reports forecasting Soviet and Chinese conventional and strategic weapons programs for the office of the secretary of defense.
    For much of the 1970s, he was an independent consultant to private research organizations on contract to government agencies. He joined the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1979 and was a member of the government’s Senior Executive Service when he retired in 1992.
    “Lee was a cantankerous yet thoroughly focused analyst,” said Derek Leebaert, a Georgetown University professor and author of “The Fifty-Year Wound: The True Price of America’s Cold War Victory.” “His objective was not to prove the essential wickedness or aggressiveness of the Soviet system, but . . . just [to report] what was happening in both the Soviet Union’s military and its economy.”
    Mr. Lee was born in Pass Christian, Miss., and was an Air Force veteran. He was a history and economics graduate of the University of Washington and did graduate work in Russian and Chinese studies at Columbia University.
    Over the course of his career, he pored over a labyrinth of information from newspapers, journals, academic texts, smuggled documents and classified materials. In the 1990s, his research included official papers from Moscow and private diaries and memoirs of former Soviet officials.
    He wrote six books, including “The ABM Treaty Charade: A Study in Elite Illusion and Delusion,” “CIA Estimates of Soviet Military Expenditures: Errors and Waste,” “Soviet Military Policy Since World War II” and “Soviet Defense Expenditures in an Era of SALT.”
    He lectured extensively, traveling throughout Europe, Asia and South America.
    His awards included the Army Distinguished Civilian Service Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal from the DIA.”
    2. Also, in this arcane realm of estimates you might also look into the writings of the late G. Warren Nutter, an economist and Soviet analyst. I was his research assistant for two years in grad school.
    “From 1956 to 1961, under the sponsorship of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Nutter undertook a massive study of the history of the economy of the Soviet Union culminating in the publication of The Growth of Industrial Production in the Soviet Union, 1962, Princeton University Press. His extensively documented study attempted to correct the widely-held view that Soviet industrial production had grown at a pace much greater than that of Western economies. The study concluded that Soviet economic growth over the first half of the 20th Century was indeed remarkable, and that there had been periods of growth spurts which, taken out of historical context, might suggest that the Soviet Union would eventually overtake the United States in economic capacity. But when the entire Soviet period was taken into consideration, Soviet growth lagged behind Western economies and Soviet economic capacity showed every sign of falling further behind rather than catching up with the West. At the time of its publication, the study’s conclusions were not highly regarded by many Sovietologists who held that Soviet growth rates were much higher than those represented by the study. In the intervening years, as the fall of the Soviet Union revealed more realistic data, Nutter’s estimates of Soviet growth rates have been vindicated; in fact, if anything Nutter overstated rather than understated Soviet economic performance.”…

  20. turcopolier says:

    I remember Bill Lee well. He was an able man and a thorn in the side of the neocons. PL
    Sent wirelessly via BlackBerry from T-Mobile.

  21. TO ALL: This is a very important thread and hope it runs for a while. Agree with Babak M. comments as I usually do and thank him for educating me even though often find agreement.
    Having been part of the nuclear command and control system and studied at least a bit of the open source material have found that Professor [PhD}Paul Bracken’s writings and books quite helpful to me in understanding what still could be the system(s) that could end our political system whatever the delivery system. He focuses on the strategy and strategic attack and suggest that all who have not read his 1982 or 1983 book published by Yale U. Press I believe entitled “Command and Control.” I also highly regard his 1989 book “Fire In the East” which describes why there is such a push for proliferation of nuclear weapons in South Asia and elsewhere. Hoping this thread can be continued for a long time. Perhaps the most important subject including the use of WMD also IMO.

  22. David Habakkuk says:

    William R. Cumming,

    I very strongly agree about the importance of this subject matter — and was fascinated to learn that you had been a Pershing launch officer. Much to my regret, a deluge of other business has stopped me responding to some very interesting comments on my post more promptly.

    The Paul Bracken book on command and control I read when it came out, and it was one of two books that greatly influenced me: the other being Bruce Blair’s 1993 study The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War.

    There is a longer version of the piece on the Soviet ‘Doomsday Machine’ by Nicholas Thompson to which J linked, which contains much additional material of interest. As Thompson notes, Bruce Blair has been writing about this since 1993 — but somehow the fact that issues of nuclear command and control are crucial has not meant that they impact public consciousness: which is not a comforting thought.

    (See http://www.wired.com/print/politics/security/magazine/17-10/mf_deadhand.)

    The piece brings out a central point largely ignored in much theorising about ‘deterrence’ — which is the point which Andy stresses about the dangers of miscalculation. But what greatly increased the dangers of miscalculation was the depth of mutual misinterpretation between the two sides, at crucial points during the Cold War.

    As Thompson quite rightly brings out, leading figures in the Reagan Administration were in the grip of a view of Soviet planners are hard men, convinced they could fight and win a nuclear war, and seeing the Americans as weaklings whose lack of resolve could be exploited.

    In the Eighties, this was simply nonsense. In early 1989, when I was producing programmes for the BBC on the ‘new thinking’ introduced into Soviet strategy by Gorbachev, we interviewed the military figure most closely identified with the ‘new thinkers’, General-Mayor Valentin Larionov, then about to retire as a professor at the General Staff Academy. He was a scholarly man with steel teeth.

    According to the editor of the Svechin book, Kent D. Lee, General Larionov ‘comes to us already distinguished as perhaps the most outstanding Soviet military intellectual of the post-war period’ — having among other things won the coveted Frunze price for a 1965 book on Nuclear Strategy.

    By the mid-Eighties, not only had Soviet strategy decisively moved away from focusing on planning for a nuclear war, but Larionov and others like him were — like Bruce Blair — haunted by the danger that preparing for a nuclear war might make one would more likely.

    In his writings of that time, Larionov was noting how high combat readiness, the ‘holy of holies in the operation of the military system’ could greatly increase the risks of accidental nuclear war: stressing, just as Blair does, the catastrophic systems, and the multiple possibilities of human error. (After all, key people may just be drunk or on drugs.)

    What was also evident when we interviewed him was that he was a communist going through a process of bitter disillusion. Only later, when I came across interview transcripts for the 1999 PBS programme ‘Race for the Superbomb’, did I find out that as a teenager, having earlier been wounded at the Battle of Kursk, he had been present at the famous meeting of with American troops in Germany. And it seems from the interview that — as very many Russians did then — he blamed Stalin for the Cold War.

    (See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bomb/filmmore/reference/interview/index.html

    Today, Russians in general believe that the Cold War was largely about geopolitics — and that ideology, and indeed Stalin, were secondary. And the anxieties about accidental nuclear war have been marginalised, in favour of the belief that it is appropriate to use Western notions of ‘deterrence’ against the U.S. This obviously provides a model for other powers who may be concerned with the problem of countering the overwhelming U.S. superiority in conventional power — such as Iran.

    I do quite often find myself thinking of Larionov’s answer, when asked by the PBS interviewer what he thought when he saw politicians using the threat of nuclear weapons as a diplomatic tool:

    ‘I cannot not help citing Lenin’s words. He said that when I have to compare a politician and a military man, who just returned from the battle field, it is the latter who knows better what the consequences of war would be. That is why, he said, one should trust a military man more than a politician in this case. I think that, as a military man, I have thought over many things, I have seen a lot, and I have expressed a lot on paper. After all, I began to write articles to I evaluate the paths I had taken. And I sometimes lower my head in repentance — it was the devil’s work.’

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