“MAD, Again”: A Footnote

MAD, Again“draws on my correspondence with a colleague of yore who had asked me to review a couple of papers he has written about U.S. naval strategy. My reviews were hard-nosed but kind. I did not tell him that he is one of the

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.

That’s from “Mad, Again”, and it describes my colleague to a T. “MAD, Again” addresses his fear that the mere peacetime expression of a threat to Russia’s ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) would prove destabilizing. I say, for example, that

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….

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.

His response to my argument was to defend his hand-wringing with some beside the point hand-waving:

[Y]our assessment of the likely (small, “saber-rattling”) weight of strategic ASW seems persuasive – except from a Soviet point of view. Their SSBN strategic reserve was of the utmost importance in their plans for World War III. Being able to threaten it was thus potentially a genuine source of strategic leverage for the US.

In any event,  and despite my rash characterization of U.S. saber-rattling as possibly counter-productive because it uses resources that might be put to better military use, I am whole-heartedly in favor of aggressive displays of U.S. military prowess to remind the world that America is no longer the patsy that it was under Obama. Daniel Greenfield puts it this way:

On October 1962, destroyers from the Second Fleet streamed out to intercept Russian vessels suspected of delivering missiles to Cuba. Under the shadow of DEFCON 2, Vice Admiral Alfred Ward, commander of the Second Fleet, watched over a blockade of Cuba. The Navy men putting Russian ships under their guns knew that they were the tip of the spear in what might at any moment become the next world war.

The Russians had ordered their ships to keep going. It was up to the Second Fleet to hold the line….

On September 2011, under the leftist politico whose admirers tried to sell him as another JFK, the flag of the Second Fleet was taken down. The fleet that had taken point against the Russians was no more….

These days, Obama’s party is mired in a haze of Russian paranoia. But it was their leader who dismantled our first lines of defense and Trump who is restoring our military deterrence.

Seven years after Obama shuttered the Second Fleet, its flag is flying again…. And it will watch over the East Coast and the Atlantic to checkmate Russian subs.

The shutdown of the Second Fleet was part of Obama’s failed pivot to Asia which ended with a humiliating apology to China for flying a plane too close to one of the Communist dictatorship’s fake South China Sea islands. (Trump has since dispatched B-52s, outraging China, with no apology.)

That was December 2015.

On January 2016, the complete collapse of naval credibility led Iran to seize two United States Navy boats, steal classified information, hold their crews hostage and humiliate them on television.

Obama had forced the Navy to grovel to China. Why not Iran?

Instead of taking decisive action against this second Iran hostage crisis, the appeasement administration instead used it to spin the success of the Iran Deal. The humiliation of the Navy was complete.

But the humiliation of the United States Navy and the United States of America ended on Jan 20, 2017.

The restoration of the Second Fleet is an important step in the revival of America’s Navy. But the full scope of the harm Obama inflicted on our readiness will take generations of hard work to repair….

The great dismantling of our military fueled Chinese, Russian and Islamic aggressive expansionism. But now the Second Fleet will be headquartered in Norfolk along with NATO’s Joint Force Command for the Atlantic. While media pundits wailed about Trump’s commitment to NATO, Norfolk sends a clear and direct message to the Russians and to NATO about American capabilities and determination.

Under Obama, Russian attack subs and spy ships showed up on our coastlines, approaching naval bases, coming close to our waters, occasionally passing undetected, testing our capabilities and our nerve. While Obama did nothing about the threat to our naval forces, Trump shut down the Russian consulate in Seattle to stop its spying on Naval Base Kitsap, one of the homes of our underwater nuclear arsenal.

Our capabilities have room to regrow, but no matter how much the media lies, our nerve is not lacking….

“American ships will sail the seas, American planes will soar the skies, American workers will build our fleets,” President Trump had declared at the dedication of the USS Gerald R. Ford.

Ford brings the Navy up to 11 carriers. Obama took the Navy below its mandated minimum strength. Now for the first time since those terrible years of appeasement, American naval power is recovering.

By the time Trump is ready to leave office, the Navy should be back up to twelve carriers again. A few years later, the People’s Republic of China expects to have four carriers. Its advanced new vessels will likely rely on stolen technology ripped off by Chinese hackers in the weak and feckless Obama years.

These include the Littoral Combat Ship and Aegis system designs.

The Democrats and the media howling about the national security threat from Russian hackers remain uninterested in the Chinese hacks that stole some of our most vital and advanced national security secrets. They expect us to believe that hacking John Podesta and Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s emails, and posting spam on Facebook, was a bigger threat than China making off with the F-35 plans.

China’s ambitious new supercarrier designs take advantage of our failures during the Obama era. These carriers show that the People’s Republic is thinking of projecting force beyond its territories and islands.

And China has worked closely together with Russia. Its first carrier is an unfinished Russian model. Russian and Chinese vessels are also participating in joint naval maneuvers because they know that seapower hasn’t, despite Obama’s assertions, gone the way of the era of horses and bayonets.

Not a day goes by without Democrat politicians and media ranting that President Trump is failing to protect us from Russian attacks. The return of the Second Fleet is an example of how Trump is doing just that. It doesn’t take the military to protect Democrat email accounts from hackers….

While Obama cut the US Navy, the Russians added warships with cruise missiles. They’re adding an amphibious assault ship capable of carrying 13 tanks. Their missile patrol boats are being hailed for their innovative designs. Putin has announced 26 new ships will be added to the Russian Navy this year.

Where are all the Democrats who shout about how we need to challenge Russia? Nowhere.

In 2016, a Russian warship made it to within 300 yards of the USS Gravely. The Gravely was protecting the USS Harry S. Truman. The warship pointed at the Truman. As usual, Obama did nothing.

These days, the Harry S. Truman Carrier Group is already sending a message to Russian subs in the Atlantic. If the Democrats want to see Trump standing up to Russia, they can look to the waves. [“Trump Confronts Russia with the Fleet Obama Sank“, Frontpage Mag, August 2, 2018]


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It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World
MAD, Again

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.

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.


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