Where to put your nuclear arsenal

I’ve been thinking about the article on MAD you linked to: Haller & Fry’s “The Math is Bad”.  Their point — that you have to run the game theory for the case where a surprise first launch has already occurred — is interesting.

I agree MAD looks bad in that scenario.  But I think the authors misunderstand why.  And therefore their proposed solution — harden & build more capability — won’t work.

From a MAD point of view it’s incredibly stupid to put all your Minuteman missiles in a vast empty area no one cares about.  Obviously the better placement would be to intermix the missiles with major urban centers.

There’s a reason the Minutemen aren’t scattered about New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, et all, and it’s not because our 1950’s leaders were stupid.  It’s because we’re the good guys (or at least we were), and the good guys are inherently at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting.

It is at least possible to imagine a US president, facing either confirmed missiles in the air or the immediate aftermath of a successful first strike on the minutemen, might ask themself, at least for a moment, “what would be best for (my grandchildren) humanity?” rather than resignedly push the red button whilst saying “even though this won’t help anything, MAD requires I now launch more missiles.”

From that perspective, it really doesn’t matter how formidable our second-strike capacity is.  Our enemies will *always* question our willingness to launch a return strike (on no doubt much messier targets).  Indeed, during the cold war, even the allegedly inhuman Soviets worried about the human element, creating and possibly even implementing the famous Doomsday machine referenced in Dr. Strangelove in an attempt to prevent some wishy-washy comrade from choosing, in the heat of the moment, to avoid exterminating all life on the planet.

That doesn’t mean MAD is invalid, however.

There is another important component to the deterrent that Haller and Fry don’t consider: it may be that use of nuclear weapons even with no return strike is still not a survivable event.  Even if fallout/nuclear winter effects prove mild, a first strike on even the smallest scale would upend the world.  There is no leadership in any nation (save possibly North Korea) that could reasonably expect to survive the consequent metaphorical fallout.

This was put a little more pithily in the 1995 film “Crimson Tide,” when Denzel Washington says to Gene Hackman, “In the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.”

That is from Andy Lewicky.

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