MAD, Again

Mutually assured destruction (MAD)

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 strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium in which, once armed, neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.

MAD has for 70 years kept the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia from shooting directly at each other. There have been confrontations and skirmishes involving proxy states on the periphery of the two countries’ spheres of influence. But no shooting war between them has occurred or seems likely to occur — as long as MAD is in place.

As I argue in “It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World“, MAD remained intact during the Cold War and remains intact today despite all manner of provocative peacetime statements, doctrines, system developments, and military exercises. One such provocation is the possibility of a campaign by U.S. nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) against Russian ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs). These are harbored in sea bastions near Russia’s northern and eastern coasts, and are protected by various defensive systems and forces.

The possibility an anti-SSBN campaign has long been a staple of peacetime writings about U.S. naval strategy. And over the years there have been exercises to demonstrate the ability of SSNs to operate in extremely cold water of the kind in which Russia’s SSBNs are harbored.

Mere talk, in peacetime, of an anti-SSBN campaign is a source of worry to analysts of the hand-wringing kind who believed that Reagan’s defense buildup would bring on World War III. What it did, of course, was bring about the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

In any event, it would be taken as given by Russian leaders that the U.S. could wage an anti-SSBN campaign, even if the U.S. didn’t advertise its ability or intention to do so. If the possibility of an anti-SSBN campaign somehow threatened MAD, it would be logical for the U.S. to deprive itself of the ability to conduct it. But the continued ownership by the U.S. of a fleet of SSNs doesn’t seem to have sparked strategic instability.

By the same token, it would be logical to reduce NATO’s war-fighting capability so that a European war would end in a draw, with no need for Russia to escalate to tactical-nuclear or strategic-nuclear warfare to prevent defeat in a conventional war.

But MAD negates the kind of logic adduced above. MAD renders it most unlikely that the U.S. would undertake an anti-SSBN campaign unless the nuclear-warfare genie had already slipped out of the bottle through some horrendous mistake or work of sabotage.

Similarly, it is most unlikely that Russia would go nuclear in the event of an impending defeat in Europe – as long as the Russian homeland weren’t threatened – given the suicidal consequences of doing so.

What would it take to undermine MAD? Something like this: The U.S. launches an almost-instantaneous coordinated attack on Russia’s strategic-nuclear forces, using only ICBMs or ICBMs and strategic bombers, while holding SSBNs in reserve. The coordinated attack includes the detonation of nuclear devices above and in the bastions, as well as strikes on Russia’s ICBM and strategic-bomber bases. In the most optimistic (or pessimistic) view of this Dr. Strangelove scenario, Russia is deprived of its strategic-nuclear arsenal without having had time to launch more than a fraction of its missiles and bombers. That fraction is destroyed in flight by a combination of anti-missile and anti-aircraft defenses. MAD would have failed, and (in this far-fetched example) the U.S. would have prevailed.

The example is improbable, to say the least. But it is the improbability (and unthinkable cost) of “victory” by one side or the other that keeps the nuclear peace between the U.S. and Russia.

By contrast with an almost-instantaneous coordinated attack, an anti-SSBN campaign conducted by U.S. SSNs would unfold relatively slowly. It might well run its course having left several Russian SSBNs unscathed and ready to fire SLBMs. Peacetime talk of an anti-SSBN campaign, if it is anything, is just another form of saber-rattling – the kind of thing that U.S. and Soviet/Russian leaders have been doing for 70 years.

An anti-SSBN campaign might be destabilizing if it were actually conducted – as opposed to being talked about, simulated, or merely understood (by the Russians) as a possibility. But the actual conduct of an anti-SSBN campaign, should it come to pass, is unlikely to be undertaken, for the reasons given above. And if it were undertaken, it wouldn’t be the thing that triggered a strategic-nuclear war. It would more likely be an episode in such a war.

U.S. discussions and demonstrations of an anti-SSBN capability amount to nothing more than saber-rattling, which is a useful reminder (if any were needed) of the power and reach of U.S. forces. It may well be counter-productive saber-rattling, in that it represents the waste of a lot of time, effort, and money. That is to say, it incurs enormous opportunity costs. But it strikes me as no more destabilizing than the possibility that Russian cruise-missile subs are patrolling the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico.