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


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


Pacifism has several definitions, all of which are consistent with this one: an opposition to war or violence of any kind.

How does one oppose violence? Let me count the ways:

  1. Refuse to partake of it, regardless of the consequences of refusal (e.g., one’s own death).
  2. Oppose it by means of indoctrination and persuasion.
  3. Respond to the threat of violence by promising a forceful defense against it, and carrying through on that promise if aggression ensues, so as to prevent or reduce the harm that an aggressor might cause.

Option 1 is useless against aggressors, of whom there have been, are, and always will be an abundance. Given the permanence of aggression, option 1 amounts to a futile gesture. It doesn’t break the so-called cycle of violence because there is no such cycle. Aggression is something that many people just do, regardless of any provocation or lack thereof. In fact, many aggressors view supineness as an invitation to attack. Bullies are drawn to those who are obviously weak or cowardly, and they see pacifists as either or both. So option 1 really does nothing to reduce violence, and may even provoke it. The only beneficiary of option 1 is the pacifist who practices it; his family, friends, and countrymen may suffer because of it.

In option 2, indoctrination can be applied only to members of one’s own group (club, gang, nation), which means that it makes that group vulnerable to aggression by outsiders; that is, internal indoctrination may foster violence against the indoctrinated group.

Option 2 also contemplates diplomacy toward other groups (e.g., other nations), which may take form of pleading for restraint or (in effect) offering a bribe.

Pleading for restraint (e.g., by appealing to the other party’s better nature). This is unlikely to sway a determined aggressor, regardless of soothing public pronouncements that he may issue.

Offering a bribe (e.g., an economic or military concession). This may (temporarily) assuage an aggressive party, but it does so by enabling that part to acquire at least some of its aims without incurring the heavier cost of violence. And a demonstrated willingness to make concessions just invites an aggressive party to demand more of them — or else. This is the “better red than dead” strategy of appeasement preferred by leftists during the Cold War. Leftists are so wedded to the strategy that they refuse to admit that it was Reagan’s “provocative’ defense buildup that broke the back of the Soviet Union and eliminated it as a military threat to the United States. (The subsequent military build-down has, of course, encouraged the military resurgence of the Soviet Union, in the guise of Russia.)

Option 3 — deterrence — is a kind of persuasion, but it’s persuasion backed by force. When deterrence works, it works because the other person or the other side’s leaders believe (with or without justification) that violence will be met with violence of an unacceptable degree. Credibility is the key to deterrence. It requires the appearance and fact of resolve and an overt display of prowess. In international affairs, a display of prowess requires a nation to build and maintain substantial and obviously capable armed forces. (American leftists have been undermining the resolve of the nation’s leaders and the attainment of military might since the end of World War II.) Deterrence encompasses the resolve and ability to strike first when it becomes obvious that the other side is preparing to strike. The first blow can, in some cases, be the last one. When deterrence doesn’t work, it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway — because the other side is recklessly aggressive, and would have attacked in any event.

The pacifist believes that the world ought to operate in a certain way, that there ought not to be violence. And so he commits himself to nonviolence. But the pacifist’s ought disregards the is of human nature. Pacifism works only if everyone is a pacifist to begin with — a demonstrably false proposition.

A true pacifist is a person who will die for the sake of his pacifism, by refusing to defend himself. That’s quite all right with me if my group’s gene pool thereby becomes less pacifistic. But it’s not all right with me to be dragged into subjection and defeat by pacifists. Or by leftists whose policies are no better than pacifism.

*     *     *

Related posts:

Defense as the Ultimate Social Service

A Grand Strategy for the United States

The Folly of Pacifism

The Folly of Pacifism, Again