Saturday, March 22, 2008

What is MAD?

From Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice:
Because the doctrine of MAD played a large role in the Cold War (much more on the American than on the Soviet side), it is useful to repeat a succinct definition of it: 1. Don’t attack weapons, aim at people; and, 2. Don’t defend against the adversary’s weapons. Each of these rules had a voluntary and an existential aspect. Justification for the first proposition might be, don’t attack weapons because that would be destabilizing and lead to an arms race; or, don’t attack weapons because it can’t be done successfully. Justification for the second might be, don’t defend because it’s a bad idea; or, don’t defend because, although it might be desirable, it isn’t feasible. These different justifications produced some confusion.
And the impact of MAD?
Through the 1960s, the Defense Department and successive presidential administrations allowed mutually assured destruction (MAD) to be perceived as strategic doctrine. And, indeed, MAD did have significant subsequent influence over plans and technology, blunting calls for greater weapons accuracy. However, MAD never became, in practice, America’s strategic doctrine.
And what did those crazy Soviets make of it?
Soviet strategists recognized that deterrence was, to some extent, mutual because each side was capable of launching a retaliatory strike and of inflicting unacceptable damage on the other. They nevertheless considered their nuclear power the only guarantee of security from war, and they never examined the question of mutually assured destruction as a condition that they should accept, much less pursue. The Soviet Union never embraced vulnerability as desirable. The Soviets also believed that, given the military uncertainties, mutually assured destruction was only a theoretical conclusion. This is because there was no guarantee in practice that a retaliatory strike would be launched or inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy.


DV8 2XL said...

It is naive to assert that the Soviets would have initiated a third major European war this century absent the threat to retaliate with nuclear weapons. Wars do not go off at scheduled intervals. There is always a political objective at issue, and it has yet to be defined what vital Soviet interest could have existed to cause the Soviets to bear the burden of even a conventionally fought World War III.

During the heyday of Communism’s expansion in the 1950s, Adm Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognized that "Communism, when seeking a means to a political end is reluctant to use organized armed forces in an overt aggression except as a last resort," and then only if "there is a reasonable chance of quick victory without— in the opinion of its leaders—appreciable world reaction."

Towards the end of the cold war, Michael Howard, Regis Professor of History at Oxford, pointed out, "It is a basic principle of Marxism-Leninism that the revolution cannot be carried abroad on the points of foreign bayonets. . . . It would be quite unrealistic to assume the Russians have been deterred from attacking us solely by their perception of the military costs involved or by fear of nuclear retaliation."

Henry Kissinger put it more bluntly in his 1994 treatise Diplomacy: "The much advertised Soviet invasion of Western Europe was a fantasy . . . a fear widely recognized by posterity as chimerical."

The Soviets never had the intention of attacking the West, particularly the U.S. They were always more concerned being attacked. First because they had endured two such attacks in living memory and suffered horribly for it; second because it was a useful political tool to have a bogyman to keep the population's attention away from their own pathetic state.

Sovietologist said...

It's definitely true that the overall Soviet military posture was defensive. With the exception of Stalin, who was opaque even to his inner circle, it's clear that no Soviet leader thought that actually launching a general war would be in their interest. But the way this worked in practice was quite complicated- they were willing to attempt preemption if they believed a US nuclear strike was imminent, and Khrushchev especially was willing to engage in brinksmanship despite the very real possibility that the US would overreact. Their thinking on limited nuclear or conventional war in Europe underwent a number of serious revisions, and there was apparently a divide between the General Staff and the Kremlin on the issue.

Chapter five of the linked book contains the best discussion of the development of Soviet nuclear strategy that I have ever seen. Even though it's not terribly well-written, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

One of the things that surprised me once I began studying the way in which the arms race was presented to the Soviet populace was that the regime did not exploit it for its full propaganda value. Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s ordinary Soviets received little information about the full extent of US-Soviet tensions. I find this really strange, but unfortunately there are no easy answers to this question- and the Russians seem hesitant to release archival records about it. It's an important part of my ongoing dissertation research.

Stephen said...

The whole issue with "don't defend against it" has a few sides. Part of it being that it's damn difficult to defend against an ICBM. Not impossible but difficult. Personally, I think the safeguard system was great. Yes, it was a brute force approach. Blow them up with such a big weapon that you will likely destroy them even if you miss by quite a bit. However, I'd gladly take a little fallout, some destroyed satellites and a major geomagnetic storm over being vaporized.

The problem with defense from missiles is the theory that the other side will then think that you could destroy them and their counter-attack will not get through. There are two answers to this: Build more missiles so you are assured to overwhelm the system or consider attacking before the system is completely online.

Both are undesirable to have the other guys even contemplating. Thus, the whole issue with that becomes destabilization.