M.A.D. for the 21st Century – Updated

By lex, on August 12th, 2004

A modest, not entirely serious proposal for consequence management and meant to engender debate.

Fairly long, topically heavy. You’ve been warned.

I grew up in the Cold War. As a child I did civil defense drills in the school hallways. During my early service years, I was trained for and prepared to fight the epic battle against the Soviet Menace. I joined on the Bear bombers that overflew our battle groups, jovially returned obscene gestures with their aircrews. My entire LSO team once “shined the moon” at a Soviet intel gathering ship in close formation with our carrier in the seas off Southern California – their ship turned away to muster all hands topside, and rejoined again to repay the compliment many-fold.

It wasn’t personal – it was just business. And that was the world we lived in, the only world we’d ever known – we never knew it would be any different.

After the Wall came down, we all took a vacation from history – it was wonderful, and for many who grew to maturity in that time frame, it was the world they lived in, the only world they ever knew, and they never knew it would be any different.

Well, as I’ve said before, history has found us again – with a vengeance.

During the Cold War the nuclear armed superpowers settled into a policy known as “Mutually Assured Destruction,” or MAD. This doctrine developed during the Kennedy administration, after the Soviet Union reached rough parity with the US on nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Essentially it boiled down to the ability of either power, each having a super-abundance of warheads, to destroy the other many times over. The excess warheads were needed to enable a punishing riposte even in the case of an attempted “decapitation,” or preemptive attack. The Soviets might take Washington and New York in a surprise attack, but were expected to yield Moscow and Stalingrad in inevitable return. Our strategic “triad” of land-based, air launched and submarine launched ballistic missiles was designed to ensure that a sufficiency of warheads remained even under the worst possible, civilization destroying attack.

In an exchange of WMD, the opposition’s centers of gravity were their very populations, rather than their armed forces – a stunning evolution in the philosophy of western warfare (in which category I include the former Soviet Union). This, of course, is why they were called strategic weapons. Our “tactical” nukes, Pershing II’s for the most part, were designed to offset to the Soviet deployment of SS-20′s along the Warsaw Pact periphery. The deployment of these SS-20′s, the Western Alliance concluded, was an attempt by the Soviets to detach Europe from NATO by asking of their populations whether the US would really trade New York for Paris, just for one example. Our counter-deployment made the question moot, or at least strategically ambiguous – Moscow could pay for Paris, rather than New York – at least in the initial exchange.

Interestingly, the US, which in the 1970′s abandoned its pursuit of chemical and biological weapons, the other two “legs” of the WMD stool, chose to label a nuclear reply to a chemical attack as “symmetrical.” This meant that all attacks with WMD’s of whatever sort would be treated as though they were nuclear in effect, and subject to a proportionate, nuclear response.

Also of interest was the fact that the US never renounced (as did the Soviets) a “first use” option. The Warsaw Pact’s conventional superiority (at least on paper) in the Fulda Gap required a nuclear response for a chance of victory. Nukes were even thought of as “cheap” compared to conventional forces, since the sunken costs were paid up front, and non-recurring.

An entire field of study (see: Rice, Condoleeza ) grew up around managing our mutual ability to destroy ourselves. Hideously complex formulas were developed to measure such arcana as “throw weights,” and various schemes were crafted to ensure the continuity of governments (if not their peoples), and their ability to deliver a credible retaliatory response.

As a philosophy, MAD was so morally repugnant as to almost remove itself from the sphere of moral debate- tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens with no politics in both countries would have been incinerated in a nuclear exchange, and people everywhere were rightly concerned about the poisonous effects that such an exchange would have on the environment, on civilization itself.

But it worked.

As a policy of preventing direct armed conflict between the two poles in that bipolar world, it actually worked quite nicely. Proxy battles continued in Eastern Europe and all around Asia, but with the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US and the Soviet Union never came close to exchanging direct blows – all for fear of where it might lead, for fear of a miscalculation by the other side. As the musician Sting pointed out, “the Russians love their children too.”

By the way, one of the key tenets to MAD was the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. As long as the nuclear club could be restricted to a few, well-known state actors, tracking back the source of an attack would be a relatively straightforward affair.

Farewell to all that. Oh, and lest I forget.

Is there a point to all this history, Lex? I think so, maybe. Perhaps.

Because I’m a bit worried about “the big one.” Not another, 9/11 – something altogether more terrible.

I’m worried about New York.

Recall that one of the main arguments for going into Iraq was that Saddam had a richly detailed history of craving, even of using WMDs. But it also turned out to our surprise (and perhaps to his) that he apparently didn’t have any stockpiles (whatever that means today). In a post-9/11 security environment, our government was unwilling to take the risk that he might secretly be developing WMD and then passing them along to Islamist terrorists, men who had recently shown no particular compunctions about engineering the mass murder of our compatriots. Along the way, planting a democratic seed in the region was a notable benny, and forms a part of the long-term solution, the strategic solution if you’d like, to Islamist terror.

But that long term is out there in the middle-distance a fair piece, and it has been truly said that in the long run, we’re all dead. What to do in the next five years?

My gut feel is that it will be a while before Americans are willing to contemplate another armed adventure in democracy building and WMD discovery, no matter how well the intel is vetted. Absent some truly unambiguous warning from Iran or North Korea, that pretty much rules out another invasion anywhere or anytime real soon. We’re busy.

But it also seems pretty obvious to me that the way counter-proliferation diplomacy is going right now, we’re going to have to face the awful prospect of not knowing whether we’ve got all the world’s nuclear weapons accurately accounted for, leading to the more comprehensively terrible possibility that one will be planted somewhere over here where it would hurt. Badly.

And while I believe in the inherent strength of western democracy, by which I mean I am not one of those who believes we are eternally perched on the razor’s edge of anarchy, or even of civilizational decline, needing only a sharp shove from the forces of mindless destruction to send us over the brink. But I don’t know what would become of a US that no longer had a New York City, and frankly I’m not inclined to find out.

And of course, one of the prime characteristics of the GWOT is that we’re up against a faceless, almost amorphous enemy. Al-Qaida and its affiliates no longer have a state sponsor in Afghanistan, they live in the shadows – simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. With no state actor to punish for a WMD attack, we no longer have the symmetrical response options that were available to us during the Cold War. We could very probably hunt down Bin Laden, bring him to justice or kill him (much the same thing) and have no notable impact on this struggle we are engaged in. Terror, alas, doesn’t seem to have a center of gravity to target.

Or does it? (stand by for Captain Strangelex)

A center of gravity is defined at the strategic level as something so important that it must be protected, something without which, the opponent’s will and means to resist are comprehensively destroyed.

And what would be the centers of gravity for Islamist terror? What things would true Islamists feel so strongly that they have to protect, that they would turn away from the use of WMD in the pursuit of their goals?

A few things come to mind: The Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina. The Iranian city of Qom. The Iraqi city of Najaf. Just for starters.

We could announce a new policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, keyed only to the terrorist’s first use of weapons of mass destruction against US cities. Blow a nuke up in New York, and we’ll take one or more of your sacred cities. We can leave the actual target(s) strategically ambiguous, perhaps pending forensic analysis of the weapon used against us, to determine its likely provenance.

Announcing this in advance would be critical. We want to deter against the first use of WMD in the US, not the second one.

Oh sure, there are problems with this proposal. It would probably be a little off-putting to our Saudi “allies” for one thing. For another, it would go against our fundamental sense of fairness to target the innocent population of Mecca in retaliation for New York.

But the Muscovites were largely innocent too, yet they were under the cross-hairs, as were the populations of eastern and western Europe during the Cold War. And perhaps people who don’t particularly support the terrorists at home, but wouldn’t cross the street to put the fire out on an American flag might feel a little more personally invested in the war on terror, a little more willing to share what they know, to debate the consequences. And it would demonstrate unequivocally just how very serious we are about defending ourselves, about declining to die quietly.

Perhaps we could offer the targeted populace five days to pack up and leave, before making it impossible to return.

It would be a proportionate response, and a plausible deterrent. It probably wouldn’t stop the tactical level killing – the TNT bombs in the subway, for example.

Would it be legal? I don’t know.

Does that question even make sense any more?

Your turn.


Got some good comments from others, thought I might address them here in the text, as this is meant to be something of an open debate:

First from Ron:

1) If terrorists can assemble a single nuclear device in this country, is it so hard to imagine their assembling more than one? Doesn’t a WMD strategy actually place a premium on gaining first strike advantage by taking out several cities simultaneously to diminish American command and control as much as possible? (Not that OBL needs much encouragement on this front).

Sure, but the more weapons either smuggled in or assembled in situ certainly elevates the risk of discovery. And the US government always sort of assumed that decapitation would be to some degree successful. If this were an announced policy, I should think that procedures to set it in motion even in the event of a decapitating strike against Washington could be effectively (and quietly) developed. The nuclear triad still exists, albeit in a shrunken form – it would not be possible to eliminate even a small percentage of the retaliatory arsenal.

2) WMDs were effective in the Cold War because the people dropping bombs were also the ones who might be blown up in the retaliatory strike. Do you see the same deterrent effects where OBL and his colleagues are based outside the Middle East and have shown no hesitation about killing other Arabs in their insane quest for “liberation”?

A good point, and it mirrors the question Chap asked on his site. For one thing, I think we always assumed that the Soviet leadership would find a way to absent themselves from Moscow before launching a preemptive attack – no doubt a mass migration of key members of the politburo (and their families) was a key indicator on the DEFCON board. They were deterred by the knowledge that what would be left to them after they emerged from their own Cheyenne Mountain would not have been worth ruling, and no doubt by their basic humanity. Also, my “proposal” doesn’t explicitly target the populations of those cities, but rather the holy sites themselves. It’s pretty hard to make the Hajj to Mecca if it isn’t there any more. The cities could even be evacuated, as I mentioned in the previous text. A true Islamist, one who railed against the presence of foreign soldiers on Saudi’s holy ground, would have to think twice about the permanent destruction of Islam’s holiest sites, I should think.

3) What third party nations would stand to gain from exploiting such a strategy, I wonder? Who would like to play one side against the other?

That’s the key rub, and one I meant to mention in the post. Maintaining strategic ambiguity about which city would be retaliated upon would hopefully deter the usual machinations in the middle east. Of course, one could play the lottery, and hope for the best. Those most lilkely to gain from a miscalculation would probably be exporters of petroleum products – they’d stand to make a killing in the short term. But this all pre-supposes an attack and retaliation actually occurred – the point is to inject strategic uncertainty into the minds of our enemies. That could add up to deterrence. Right now we have none.

4) As you suggest, this would be the ultimate expression of the Bush doctrine’s eye for an eye approach to nations who harbor terrorists. But it inevitably means sacrificing innocents–perhaps more of those than directly culpable parties–in a retaliatory strike.

Innocents are sacrificed all the time, unfortunately. I’ve been re-reading the Illiad, which has no doubt put me in a “Shiva, destroyer of worlds” mindset – but again, the populations needn’t be our target – although some committed few would probably resist leaving the targeted city, most would go. Would it be a human catastrophe? Yes, but in this case not the first one. For argument’s sake, wouldn’t it be better through deterrence to save New York and Mecca? What kind of national mood would we be in if a WMD strike indeed killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of our citizens? Could we trust ourselves to act rationally, absent a strategic plan? Or would we lash out blindly? I’m not sure I know.

5) Are American cities the best targets for OBL just now? It seems to me that he’d want to also consider deploying a doomsday device where it would most damage U.S. military power’s ability to project force into the Middle East.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I am concerned. In a few years at best, the nuclear genie will probably be well and truly out of the bottle. What then? US military power is regenerative – although it would be painful on the human level, while a great proportion of our serving military is either deployed or preparing for deployment, only a tiny fraction of our populace is. And building hardware is what we’re best at. The Islamists feel as though they’ve been struck in their heartland and I fear they are looking for a better way to strike us in ours.

It’s probably worth pointing out at this point that the viewpoints described herein are in no way reflective of official positions of national policy, the Department of Defense or of the United States Navy. These opinions are the author’s alone, are meant only to engender debate, and they should not be assumed to be a serious proposal for national policy.


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Family, GWOT

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