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Mutual assured destruction, or mutually assured destruction (MAD), is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. It is based on the theory of deterrence where the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy's use of those same weapons. The strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium in which neither side, once armed, has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.
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The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) assumes that each side has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the other side; and that either side, if attacked for any reason by the other, would retaliate without fail with equal or greater force. The expected result is an immediate irreversible escalation of hostilities resulting in both combatants' mutual, total and assured destruction.
The doctrine further assumes that neither side will dare to launch a first strike because the other side will launch on warning (also called fail-deadly) or with secondary forces (a second strike), resulting in unacceptable losses for both parties. The payoff of the MAD doctrine is expected to be a tense but stable global peace.
The primary application of this doctrine started during the Cold War (1940s to 1991) in which MAD was seen as helping to prevent any direct full-scale conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union while they engaged in smaller proxy wars around the world. It was also responsible for the arms race, as both nations struggled to keep nuclear parity, or at least retain second-strike capability. Although the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction continues to be applied.
Proponents of MAD as part of U.S. and USSR strategic doctrine believed that nuclear war could best be prevented if neither side could expect to survive a full-scale nuclear exchange as a functioning state. Since the credibility of the threat is critical to such assurance, each side had to invest substantial capital in their nuclear arsenals even if they were not intended for use. In addition, neither side could be expected or allowed to adequately defend itself against the other's nuclear missiles. This led both to the hardening and diversification of nuclear delivery systems (such as nuclear missile silos, ballistic missile submarines and nuclear bombers kept at fail safe points) and to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Perhaps the earliest reference to the concept comes from the English author Wilkie Collins, writing at the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870: "I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence—the discovery one of these days of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation and men's fears will force them to keep the peace".
Alfred Nobel is also quoted as when talking about his invention of dynamite that "My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace."
Echoes of the doctrine can be found in the first document which outlined how the atomic bomb was a practical proposition. In March 1940, the Frisch-Peierls memorandum anticipated deterrence as the principal means of combating an enemy with nuclear weapons.
In August 1945, the United States accepted the surrender of Japan after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Four years later, on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its own nuclear device. At the time, both sides lacked the means to effectively use nuclear devices against each other. However, with the development of aircraft like the American Convair B-36 and the Russian Tupolev Tu-95, both sides were gaining a greater ability to deliver nuclear weapons into the interior of the opposing country. The official nuclear policy of the United States became one of "massive retaliation", as coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, which called for massive attack against the Soviet Union if they were to invade Europe, regardless of whether it was a conventional or a nuclear attack.
By the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, both the United States and the Soviet Union had developed the capability of launching a nuclear-tipped missile from a submerged submarine, which completed the third leg of the nuclear triad weapons strategy necessary to fully implement the MAD doctrine. Having a three-branched nuclear capability eliminated the possibility that an enemy could destroy all of a nation's nuclear forces in a first-strike attack; this, in turn, ensured the credible threat of a devastating retaliatory strike against the aggressor, increasing a nation's nuclear deterrence.
The strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction and the acronym MAD are due to John von Neumann (1903–1957), who had a taste for humorous acronyms, another example being his MANIAC computer. He was, among other things, an inventor of game theory, a cold war strategist, and chairman of the ICBM Committee until his death in 1957.
The RAND corporation futurist and cold war strategist Herman Kahn (1922–1982) believed that although MAD was useful as a metaphor, when pushed to its logical conclusion it became absurd. In his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War he advocated a more reasoned approach to nuclear warfare and was misunderstood by some of his critics to be a nuclear war hawk in his writings( He did however hold a profound belief in the possibility of success in the event of a nuclear war). He invented the concept of the Doomsday Machine as an "idealized (almost caricaturized) device" to illustrate the danger of taking MAD to its extreme. He writes, "I used to be wary of discussing the concept for fear that some colonel would get out a General Operating Requirement or Development Planning Objective for the device".
The 1964 film Dr. Strangelove parodies some of Kahn's work, and the titular character makes parodic references to Kahn's research, as in this quote from the film: "Under the authority granted me as director of weapons research and development, I commissioned last year a study of this project [of a doomsday machine] by the Bland Corporation. Based on the findings of the report, my conclusion was that this idea was not a practical deterrent, for reasons which, at this moment, must be all too obvious."
Sometime in the 1980s, a second doomsday device, called The Dead Hand, entered the picture. Unlike Kahn's device, it was not based on radioactive cobalt, but it was self-activated and could not be stopped. It is unknown whether it is still armed. One possibility is that it is switched on but is no longer completely autonomous.
Beginning in 1955, the United States Strategic Air Command (SAC) kept one-third of its bombers on alert, with crews ready to take off within fifteen minutes and fly to designated targets inside the Soviet Union and destroy them with nuclear bombs in the event of a Soviet first strike attack on the United States. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy increased funding for this program and raised the commitment to 50 percent of SAC aircraft.
During periods of increased tensions in the early 1960s, SAC kept part of its B-52 fleet airborne at all times, to allow an extremely fast retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union in the event of a surprise attack on the United States. This program continued until 1990 when the bomber wings were placed on quick reaction ground alert and were able to take off within a few minutes. SAC also maintained the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP), also known as “Looking Glass,” which consisted of several EC-135′s, one of which was airborne at all times from 1961 through 1990.
During the height of the tensions between the US and the USSR in the 1960s two popular films were made dealing with what could go terribly wrong with the policy of keeping nuclear-bomb carrying airplanes continuously aloft: Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Fail Safe (1964).
The strategy of mutually assured destruction was fully declared in the early 1960s, primarily by United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In McNamara's formulation there was the very real danger that a nation with nuclear weapons could attempt to eliminate another nation's retaliatory forces with a surprise, devastating first strike and theoretically "win" a nuclear war relatively unharmed. True second strike capability could only be achieved when a nation had a guaranteed ability to fully retaliate after a first strike attack.
The United States had achieved an early form of second strike capability by fielding continual patrols of strategic nuclear bombers, with a large number of planes always in the air, on their way to or from fail safe points close to the borders of the Soviet Union. This meant the United States could still retaliate, even after a devastating first strike attack. The tactic was expensive and problematic because of the high cost of keeping enough planes in the air at all times and the possibility they would be shot down by Soviet anti-aircraft missiles before reaching their targets. In addition, as the idea of a missile gap existing between the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed, there was increasing priority being given to ICBMs over bombers.
It was only with the advent of ballistic missile submarines, starting with the George Washington class in 1959, that a genuine survivable nuclear force became possible and a retaliatory second strike capability guaranteed.
The deployment of fleets of ballistic missile submarines established a guaranteed second strike capability because of their stealth and by the number fielded by each Cold War adversary—it was highly unlikely that all of them could be targeted and preemptively destroyed (in contrast to, for example, a missile silo with a fixed location that could be targeted during a first strike). Given their long range, high survivability and ability to carry many medium- and long-range nuclear missiles, submarines were credible and effective means for full-scale retaliation even after a massive first strike.
This deterrence strategy and program has continued into the 21st Century, with the Trident II ballistic missile nuclear submarine fleet continuing operations as one of the United States remaining strategic nuclear deterrent. The other being Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) on alert in the continental United States.
The U.S. Department of Defense anticipates a continued need for a sea-based strategic nuclear force. The first of the current Ohio Class SSBNs are expected to be retired by 2029, meaning that a platform must already be seaworthy by that time. A replacement may cost over $4 billion per unit compared to the USS Ohio's $2 billion. The U.S. Navy is exploring two options. The first is a variant of the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines. The second is a dedicated SSBN, either with a new hull or based on an overhaul of the current Ohio.
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The multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) was another weapons system designed specifically to aid with the MAD nuclear deterrence doctrine. With a MIRV payload, one ICBM could hold many separate warheads. MIRVs were first created by the United States in order to counterbalance Soviet anti-ballistic missile systems around Moscow. Since each defensive missile could only be counted on to destroy one offensive missile, making each offensive missile have, for example, three warheads (as with early MIRV systems) meant that three times as many defensive missiles were needed for each offensive missile. This made defending against missile attacks more costly and difficult. One of the largest U.S. MIRVed missiles, the LGM-118A Peacekeeper, could hold up to 10 warheads, each with a yield of around 300 kilotons of TNT (1.3 PJ)—all together, an explosive payload equivalent to 230 Hiroshima-type bombs. The multiple warheads made defense untenable with the technology available, leaving only the threat of retaliatory attack as a viable defensive option. MIRVed land-based ICBMs tend to put a premium on striking first. Therefore, the START II agreement banned this type of weapon.
In the event of a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe, NATO planned to use tactical nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union countered this threat by issuing a statement that any use of nuclear weapons (tactical or otherwise) against Soviet forces would be grounds for a full-scale Soviet retaliatory strike. Thus it was generally assumed that any combat in Europe would end with apocalyptic conclusions.
The original doctrine of U.S. MAD was modified on July 25, 1980, with U.S. President Jimmy Carter's adoption of countervailing strategy with Presidential Directive 59. According to its architect, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, "countervailing strategy" stressed that the planned response to a Soviet attack was no longer to bomb Russian population centers and cities primarily, but first to kill the Soviet leadership, then attack military targets, in the hope of a Russian surrender before total destruction of the USSR (and the United States). This modified version of MAD was seen as a winnable nuclear war, while still maintaining the possibility of assured destruction for at least one party. This policy was further developed by the Reagan Administration with the announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, nicknamed "Star Wars"), the goal of which was to develop space-based technology to destroy Soviet missiles before they reached the U.S.
SDI was criticized by both the Soviets and many of America's allies (including Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher) because, were it ever operational and effective, it would have undermined the "assured destruction" required for MAD. If America had a guarantee against Soviet nuclear attacks, its critics argued, it would have first strike capability which would have been a politically and militarily destabilizing position. Critics further argued that it could trigger a new arms race, this time to develop countermeasures for SDI. Despite its promise of nuclear safety, SDI was described by many of its critics (including Soviet nuclear physicist and later peace activist Andrei Sakharov) as being even more dangerous than MAD because of these political implications. Supporters also argued that SDI could trigger a new arms race, forcing the USSR to spend an increasing proportion of GDP on defense—something which has been claimed to have been an indirect cause of the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
Proponents of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) argue that MAD is exceptionally dangerous in that it essentially offers a single course of action in the event of nuclear attack: full retaliatory response. The fact that nuclear proliferation has led to an increase in the number of nations in the "nuclear club", including nations of questionable stability (e.g., Pakistan and North Korea), and that a nuclear nation might be hijacked by a despot or other person or persons who might use nuclear weapons without sane regard for the consequences, presents a strong case for proponents of BMD who seek a policy which both protects against attack, but also does not require an escalation into what might become global nuclear war. Russia continues to have a strong public distaste for Western BMD initiatives, presumably because proprietary operative BMD systems could exceed their technical and financial resources, and therefore degrade their larger military standing and sense of security in a post-MAD environment. Russian refusal to accept invitations to participate in NATO BMD may be indicative of the lack of an alternative to MAD in current Russian war fighting strategy due to dilapidation of conventional forces after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation emerged as a sovereign entity encompassing most of the territory of the former USSR. Relations between the U.S. and this new power have been less tense than they had been with its predecessor. Tensions also decreased between the U.S and China.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June 2002, claiming that the limited national missile defense system which they propose to build is designed only to prevent nuclear blackmail by a state with limited nuclear capability and is not planned to alter the nuclear posture between Russia and the United States.
While relations have improved and an intentional nuclear exchange is more unlikely, the decay in Russian nuclear capability in the post Cold War era may have had an effect on the continued viability of the MAD doctrine. An article by Keir Lieber and Daryl Press stated that the United States could carry out a nuclear first strike on Russia and would "have a good chance of destroying every Russian bomber base, submarine, and ICBM." This was attributed to reductions in Russian nuclear stockpiles and the increasing inefficiency and age of that which remains. Lieber and Press argued that the MAD era is coming to an end and that U.S. is on the cusp of global nuclear primacy.
However, in a follow up article in the same publication, others criticized the analysis, including Peter Flory, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, who began by writing "The essay by Keir Lieber and Daryl Press contains so many errors, on a topic of such gravity, that a Department of Defense response is required to correct the record." Regarding reductions in Russian stockpiles, another response stated that "a similarly one-sided examination of [reductions in] U.S. forces would have painted a similarly dire portrait".
A situation in which the United States might actually be expected to carry out a "successful" attack is perceived as a disadvantage for both countries. The strategic balance between the United States and Russia is becoming less stable, and the objective, technical possibility of a first strike by the United States is increasing. At a time of crisis, this instability could lead to an accidental nuclear war. For example, if Russia feared a U.S. nuclear attack, Moscow might make rash moves (such as putting its forces on alert) that would provoke a U.S. preemptive strike. An outline of current United States nuclear strategy toward both Russia and other nations was published as the document "Essentials of Post–Cold War Deterrence" in 1995.
Whether MAD was the officially accepted doctrine of the United States military during the Cold War is largely a matter of interpretation. The United States Air Force, for example, has retrospectively contended that it never advocated MAD as a sole strategy, and that this form of deterrence was seen as one of numerous options in U.S. nuclear policy. Former officers have emphasized that they never felt as limited by the logic of MAD (and were prepared to use nuclear weapons in smaller scale situations than "Assured Destruction" allowed), and did not deliberately target civilian cities (though they acknowledge that the result of a "purely military" attack would certainly devastate the cities as well). MAD was implied in several U.S. policies and used in the political rhetoric of leaders in both the U.S. and the USSR during many periods of the Cold War.
To continue to deter in an era of strategic nuclear equivalence, it is necessary to have nuclear (as well as conventional) forces such that in considering aggression against our interests any adversary would recognize that no plausible outcome would represent a victory or any plausible definition of victory. To this end and so as to preserve the possibility of bargaining effectively to terminate the war on acceptable terms that are as favorable as practical, if deterrence fails initially, we must be capable of fighting successfully so that the adversary would not achieve his war aims and would suffer costs that are unacceptable, or in any event greater than his gains, from having initiated an attack.
— President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Presidential Directive 59, Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy
The doctrine of MAD was officially at odds with that of the USSR, which had, contrary to MAD, insisted survival was possible. The Soviets believed they could win, not only a strategic nuclear war, which they planned to absorb with their extensive Civil Defense planning, but also win the conventional war that they predicted would follow after their strategic nuclear arsenal had been depleted. Official Soviet policy though may have had internal critics towards the end of the Cold War, including some in the USSR's own leadership.
"Nuclear use would be catastrophic."
— 1981, the Soviet General Staff
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The doctrine of nuclear deterrence depends on several challengeable assumptions:
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