It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World

This post isn’t about the movie of that name, which is overrated by users of the Internet Movie Database (average rating, 7.6; my rating, 6). This post is about mutually assured destruction (MAD), which

is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons 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, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons.

The main lesson of the Cold War and its sequel in the US-Russia[1] relationship is that MAD works among major powers.[2]

MAD works mainly because of ASSF – assuredly survivable strategic forces, or enough of them to retaliate (perhaps more than once). It was and is impossible, even with first strikes against all three legs of Russia’s strategic-nuclear triad, to nullify Russia’s strategic retaliatory capability. The same goes for the U.S. triad and retaliatory capability.

These truths have been and are understood by U.S. and Russian leaders. Were they not understood, MAD might have failed at any of the several stress points that arose in the past 70 years.

MAD works best if the major powers have strong and versatile conventional forces to go with their strategic-nuclear forces. Call it MAD-plus. The existence of large conventional forces is a kind of psychological safety valve. It allows the major powers to say to themselves “We can fight each other without having to destroy each other” (though the fight would entail a lot of destruction). But the major powers don’t fight each other (or haven’t yet) because MAD looms over them.

The possession of conventional forces also enables the major powers to manage their spheres of interest. Conventional forces also allow the major powers to skirmish where their interests clash, but without having to push the nuclear button. It’s the possession of the nuclear button that deters the escalation of skirmishes to more destructive levels of conflict.

In sum, the leaders of the U.S. and Russia knew and know that more than a skirmish between the powers was and is a remote possibility. (Never say never.) Yes, there have been some tense moments in the past 70 years. But the absence of a shooting war between the powers is evidence of the effectiveness of MAD (as between the two powers, at least).

Against this backdrop, the powers engage in ritual statements and actions. These rituals are meant to explain, justify, and explore the nuances of what is, at bottom, just a simple balance-of power relationship. The statements include strategic doctrines and elaborate scenarios for major wars, some involving nuclear exchanges. The actions include exercises that are advertised as practice for what might happen in a real war, including direct attacks on the other side’s strategic-nuclear forces.

In the end, however, the leaders know very well that what really matters is the fact of MAD. What would actually happen were MAD to fail and a shooting war ensue is unpredictable.

Yes, the forces engaged in such an implausible war might actually some of the things written about and practiced in peacetime. But which ones and in what circumstances, if ever? For example, the use or non-use of tactical nuclear weapons in a local or regional battle space – in the air, on land, or underwater – is unknowable in advance. Declarations or demonstrations by one side or the other about the use of various weapons are just that: declarations (words) and demonstrations (practice). And the leaders of both sides know it.

The essential purpose of these ritual statements and actions is to justify the possession of large and varied strategic and conventional forces, and to “prove” the worth of those forces. The justifications vary with time, as do the forces. And sometimes the forces are increased or reduced significantly, but never enough to undo MAD and MAD-plus.[3]

To repeat: MAD and MAD-plus rest on rough comparisons of the balance of forces between the powers, not on strategic doctrines, elaborate scenarios, or war-fighting capabilities “demonstrated” by peacetime exercises.

Here is a leading case in point: In the early 1970s, Russian Admiral-in-Chief Sergey Gorshkov issued a series of articles under the general title of “Navies in War and Peace”. The articles seem to have been aimed at preserving or enhancing his Navy’s standing with Russia’s leaders. Gorshkov did so by emphasizing the importance of Russian ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) to ASSF, and the role of the Russian Navy (especially its attack submarines, SSNs) in the protection of the SSBNs. (The Ns in the acronyms mean that the submarines are nuclear-powered.)

Before the defensive mission of the Russian Navy had dawned on most U.S. leaders, including leaders of the U.S. Navy, one of the Navy’s time-honored rituals had been to invoke the Battles of the Atlantic in the two World Wars. In those battles, the Navy had to cope with enemy submarines wreaking havoc on the sea line of communication (SLOC), along which arms, munitions, supplies, and troops were ferried to the European theater. Thus the Navy concocted scenarios revolving around a third Battle of the Atlantic, waged mainly against Russian SSNs attacking the Atlantic SLOC during a war in Europe (started by Russia, of course).

When the defensive nature of the Russian Navy finally dawned on U.S. and U.S. Navy leaders, they choreographed a new ritual: the Maritime Strategy. A stated purpose of the Maritime Strategy was to tie up Russian forces that were protecting SSBNs, so that those forces couldn’t be used against SLOCs. There was also the understood possibility of attacking Russian SSBNs in the event of a major U.S.-Russia war in Europe, though that was (and is) only a speculative stratagem (for reasons discussed above), not a central component of U.S. strategy, which (like Russia’s) boils down to MAD.

And so, despite strong evidence to the contrary, the leaders of the U.S. Navy continued to observe the SLOC-defense ritual. This had a long and successful record of attracting funds for versatile forces (e.g., aircraft carriers and SSNs) that could also be used to go after the forces defending Russian SSBNs, and even the SSBNs themselves. The SLOC-defense mission also attracted funds for forces and systems that were practically useless, but this mattered not as long as MAD and MAD-plus were in place and war between the U.S. and Russia was thereby averted.

The preceding narrative underscores my view that no one really knows how a real war (as opposed to a peripheral skirmish) might start or unfold. U.S. and Russian leaders must understand that. In the face of such uncertainty, they wisely expect the worst and factor it into their calculations. With respect to a possible U.S. anti-SSBN mission, for example, Russian leaders might reason as follows:

  1. The U.S. could try to take out our SSBNs and thereby deprive us of our ultimate bargaining chip.
  2. But it’s unlikely that the U.S. could take enough of them out, and quickly enough, to actually accomplish the deed.
  3. U.S. leaders must know that.
  4. Further, U.S. leaders must know that if they made a move toward our SSBNs in the course of a conventional war, our likely response would be to initiate limited but devastating nuclear strikes (tactical or strategic) as a warning not to proceed.
  5. U.S. leaders must know that, too. So it is very unlikely that they would mount an anti-SSBN mission — at least not in the course of a conventional war in which the U.S. homeland wasn’t at risk.
  6. U.S. leaders are rational (caveat for Trump-haters: at least those who are in a position to prevent precipitous action).
  7. Therefore, MAD remains in effect, despite U.S. exercises or policy statements which might seem to threaten it.
Similar reasoning (not about attacking U.S. SSBNs, but about parallel Russian moves) would prevail among U.S. leaders.

In summary:

It is MAD and MAD-plus that keep the peace between major powers (the U.S. and Russia, at least).

The forces that sustain MAD and MAD-plus are the result of rough balance-of-power calculations, not sophisticated strategic doctrines, complex war-fighting scenarios, or provocative demonstrations of war-fighting capabilities.

What would happen if MAD and MAD-plus fail to prevent more than skirmishes between the powers is unpredictable. Strategy statements, war-fighting scenarios, and decisions about when and where to use nuclear weapons (strategic and tactical) would be as useless as the paper they were written on. It would be a whole new ballgame. The only possible way to win it — if winning is the right word given the resulting destruction — is to be better prepared than the adversary. That means having bigger, better forces and systems, and better trained, more highly motivated warriors.

There’s a real strategy for you.

[1] I use “Russia” and its cognates throughout for the sake of expositional simplicity. But references to Russia during the Cold War should be understood as references to the USSR, a.k.a. the Soviet Union and the Soviets.

[2] MAD doesn’t work with stateless terrorist groups. And it’s unclear that it will work on the in-between case of an unstable or quasi-terrorist state leader. As the nuclear club grows through the addition of in-between cases, so do the number of opportunities for a black-swan event.

[3] These reductions are another kind of ritual: a pretense of fundamental change to mollify a nation’s “peace party” or its budget hawks.

Related posts:
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
Transnationalism and National Defense
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
Planning for the Last War
The Folly of Pacifism