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.