Cold War dogma asserts that mutually assured destruction, however troubling, has worked in averting a nuclear war between the United States and Russia.
Lending superficial credence to this idea is the fact the world has not yet been incinerated in a nuclear conflagration. This fact has been cited as vindication of the U.S. government’s decision to amass a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and it is still used today to justify retention of that arsenal.
Mutually assured destruction, or MAD, is a military doctrine based on the strategy of deterrence. This doctrine states that a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two opposing sides would effectively result in the complete destruction of both the attacker and the defender. The theory here is that neither side, once armed, has any incentive either to initiate a conflict or disarm.
This doctrine assumes that each side has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other side — and that either side, if attacked for any reason by the other, would retaliate without hesitation and with equal or greater force. Should one side launch a first strike, a rapid escalation of hostilities would commence, resulting in the “mutually assured destruction” of both combatants. The stated objective of MAD theorists is a “nuclear standoff” that maintains a tense but stable global peace.
MAD was first developed in the 1960s as the Soviet Union developed delivery systems capable of striking the continental United States. Proponents of MAD claimed it helped prevent a direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union — thus limiting the conflict to proxy wars in the Third World.
MAD required both sides to have a “credible deterrent,” which directed U.S. and Soviet war planners to invest heavily in their respective nuclear arsenals. It also required that neither side could develop adequate defenses from a nuclear attack lest the delicate balance of terror that lay at the core of the MAD doctrine be upset. This was recognized formally by the United States and the Soviet Union in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.
Now, all of this was theory, of course. And as long as the ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) remain in their silos, it may appear to have some validity. But we now know that there have been many false alarms that have brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. Such incidents undermine the “rationality” of MAD and remind us that no matter how many precautions are taken to avoid mishaps, errors can still occur.
One such incident occurred on September 26, 1983, when Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet ballistics officer commanding a bunker outside Moscow, violated standard operating procedure by ignoring what his early warning satellite system was telling him: that the United States had launched five ICBMs at his country.
Had Petrov followed orders and alerted his superiors of an impending attack, given the heightened tensions between the superpowers at the time — and the fact that those with authority to order a retaliatory strike would have had only minutes to decide — it is possible the crisis would have escalated into a full-scale nuclear exchange.
Luckily for humanity, Petrov kept his cool and reasoned that the United States was not likely to launch such a limited attack (five missiles). He decided to report the incident as a false alarm. As it turned out, the “attack” was an anomaly created by the sun’s reflection off cloud tops, which the early warning satellite system reported erroneously as a fusillade of incoming missiles.
Another incident occurred on January 25, 1995, when Russia’s early warning radar detected a missile launch from Norway. The early warning and the control and command center switched to combat mode. Officials brought President Boris Yeltsin the briefcase to authorize nuclear launch.
But in a few minutes, the Russian radar determined that the missile’s impact would be outside their borders.
In fact, the Norwegian missile had been launched for the purposes of scientific research. While Norway had notified 35 countries, including Russia, that the launch was planned, the information failed to reach the on-duty personnel of Russia’s early warning system.
The United States has also had its share of false-alarm incidents.
On the morning of November 9, 1979, duty officers at four NORAD command centers saw patterns on their display screens showing a full-scale Soviet missile attack underway. During the next few minutes, preparations for a retaliatory strike were implemented. Bombers were scrambled, and the president’s National Emergency Airborne Command Post was ordered into the air, though without the president on board.
The crisis soon passed when NORAD was able to ascertain that there were no incoming missiles and that the false alarm had been caused by someone inadvertently leaving an exercise tape running in the command center’s computer.
Another false alarm occurred in the early morning hours of June 3, 1980, when displays in the NORAD command center started showing large numbers of incoming missiles. Preparations for retaliation were instituted, but were canceled because duty officers determined that the numbers being reported were too anomalous to be an actual missile attack. A similar incident occurred only three days later, and retaliatory measures were once again implemented before being canceled.
An investigation determined that the false alarms were caused by a faulty computer chip producing random data, resulting in deceptive displays at several NORAD command posts.
Now, some would argue that ultimately the “fail-safe” systems worked. After all, no missiles were launched, and the world was not incinerated. But a nuclear holocaust was only averted because the individuals who happened to be on duty did not panic and took the initiative to do nothing despite what their instruments were telling them.
Sure, the probability of a nuclear war resulting from one of the several incidents listed above may have been small. However, small probabilities add up. It only has to go wrong once.
The point here is that while proponents of MAD cite the avoidance of a nuclear war as evidence of the doctrine’s validity, the possibility of an inadvertent nuclear war due to an unforeseen sequence of events remains a threat to all of humanity.
Apparently, only once the missiles leave their silos and zero hour arrives will MAD have been proven to be a false doctrine. That is a tough way to prove an idea wrong.
Indeed, the avoidance of a nuclear war these many decades may be attributed more to luck than to the rationality of MAD.
This counsels humility rather than prideful vindication and suggests that, rather than continuing with MAD, the United States and the other nuclear powers should chart a different course; one that leads to the total abolition of nuclear weapons.