MAD and McNamara

With the anti-Kavanaugh anti-Constitution circus almost over (temporarily), it is time to revisit the weighty matter of defense strategy. In particular, there are some loose threads hanging from my earlier posts (here and here) about mutually assured destruction (MAD).

I have been using this definition of MAD:

[It] 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.

Implicit in that definition is the sensible view that mutually assured deterrence obtains even where there is a significant disparity in the strengths of opposing forces, as long as the weaker of the forces is strong enough to wreak vast devastation on an enemy. This view is consistent with the concept of overkill: a destructive nuclear capacity exceeding the amount needed to destroy an enemy.

At any rate, I recently discovered something about MAD that I should have learned long ago. The lesson came from Roger Barnett — a professional strategist and esteemed correspondent — who sent me a copy of a chapter that he contributed to American National Security Policy: Essays in Honor of William R. Van Cleave.

Armed with what Dr. Barnett says about MAD (in the course of a deservedly scathing critique of Robert S. McNamara), I went further into the Wikipedia article quoted above, and found this:

The doctrine [MAD] requires that neither side construct shelters on a massive scale. If one side constructed a similar system of shelters, it would violate the MAD doctrine and destabilize the situation, because it would not have to fear the consequences of a second strike. The same principle is invoked against missile defense.

In other words, there is a strict (and improbable) version of MAD that implies a fine balance of strategic-nuclear offenses and defenses. The purpose of this fine balance isn’t mutually assured deterrence; it is mutually assured destruction. Anything that changes the balance is thought to be dangerously destabilizing, thus inviting a preemptive strategic-nuclear attack by the party against which the fine balance has tipped.

This flies in the face of experience and logic. There was no such fine balance throughout the years of the Cold War. The U.S. and USSR had quantitatively and qualitatively different offensive and defensive strategic-nuclear forces. Despite that state of affairs, MAD (in my loose sense of the term) held together for decades. Nothing that the U.S. or USSR did during those decades upset the rough balance of forces. Not the construction of air-raid shelters. Not efforts to develop missile defenses, Not pronouncements about a U.S. strategy of attacking Soviet ballistic-missile submarines in their bastion. Not exercises aimed at demonstrating the ability to undertake such attacks. And so on, into the night.

None of the those things — predictably decried by hand-wringers (mainly appeasing leftists who begrudge defense spending) — was, and is, enough to upset the rough balance of forces that held, and holds, MAD in place. U.S. leaders, for example, could not know with enough certainty that an anti-missile defense system would thwart a retaliatory strike by the USSR, and thus enable the U.S. to launch an devastating first strike. (Nor have U.S. leaders ever been blood-thirsty enough to contemplate such a thing.)  The same kinds of uncertainties (if not lack of blood-thirstiness) have held Soviet and Russian leaders in check.

As I say here (using Russia to stand for the USSR, as well):

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

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.

Mr. McNamara nevertheless hewed to the strict version of MAD. Why, and to what end? I call upon Dr. Barnett for the why:

What underlay McNamara’s thinking about assured destruction was complex. It was a combination of a myopic trust in systems analysis and cost-effectiveness based on an overweening belief in the primacy of technology in the conduct of warfare; a deficiency of knowledge about, a thoroughgoing disinterest in, and a total want of respect for Soviet strategic thought; and, most importantly, an absence of faith and confidence in the rightness of America’s cause and the ability of U.S. leaders to make correct, humane, moral judgments. This combination set the United States on a course for humiliation and political failure in Vietnam, and imposed on the world a false and deeply immoral understanding of strategic interactions among states….

… Mr. McNamara rationalized [assured destruction] initially by arguing publicly that the Soviet Leaders‘ have decided they have lost the quantitative race, and they are not seeking to engage us in that contest…. There is no indication that the Soviets are seeking to develop a strategic nuclear force as large as ours.” Earlier, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara claimed that parity in strategic weapons had already been attained by the Soviet Union, even though the actual balance of strategic weapons disproportionately favored the United States…..

… Later, assured destruction was said to be the controlling factor to prevent a spiraling out-of-control action-reaction strategic arms race. There was no need to continue to add offensive weapons to the U.S. arsenal so long as an assured assured-destruction capability was maintained.

In spite of such blatant contradiction, McNamara’s henchmen went on to argue that imbalances in the size of strategic arsenals was “destabilizing.” If Country A had appreciably more strategic weapons than Country B, then deterrence was unstable. There would be a temptation on the part of the stronger to launch a disarming strike against the weaker, especially in time of crisis. Furthermore, so long as large differences in inventories of strategic weapons existed, arms control would be impossible; for the weaker side would have no incentive to agree not to build up to equal the stronger, and the latter would have no incentive to reduce its superiority through negotiations. This led to Mr. McNamara’s welcoming the Soviet buildup in strategic weapons: as a consequence the strategic balance would be stabilized, any temptation by the United States to strike first would be scotched, and the foundation for arms control would be put in place.

To what end? I return to Dr. Barnett:

[T]o McNamara, MAD was a horrific bluff — indeed the most terrifying bluff ever issued. Given much of what McNamara said, then and since, there was no intention to carry out the threat posed by assured destruction. It was merely a device to limit the size of the U.S. offensive nuclear arsenal, promote arms control, and prevent the dedicated pursuit of strategic defenses.

As a veteran of the Pentagon during the McNamara regime, I concur wholeheartedly in Dr. Barnett’s judgment:

McNamara’s great, inexcusable moral blunder was to abandon strategic defenses and to lay MAD [mutually assured destruction] as the cornerstone of strategic stability. The damage that wrongheaded course has already caused is immeasurable, and the potential for even greater harm to the United States is truly frightening. At the time McNamara, as Secretary of Defense!, turned away from the key concept of defending U.S. citizens, the entire prospect of space-basing of defenses, for example, had hardly been conceived. Perhaps MAD was necessary as a stop-gap, temporary solution in the absence of defenses. To argue that strategic defenses can never work, can always be overcome, will fuel arms races, and will run contrary to arms control is to be absolutely wrong, and immoral on all counts.


Related posts:

The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
Transnationalism and National Defense
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Defense Spending: One More Time
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
Much Ado about Civilian Control of the Military
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty
A Rearview Look at the Invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror
Preemptive War Revisited
Bellicosity or Bargaining Strategy?
It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World
The Folly of Pacifism (III)
MAD, Again
“MAD, Again”: A Footnote


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