Slamming Into Propaganda

Have you ever had the experience of realizing, in a moment of clarity, that something you accepted as a fact was, in fact, a  “framing” propaganda that you had seamlessly adopted into your world-view?

That probably sounds a bit heavy, but let me just say it’s a shocking thing when it happens.

So, I had the idea a bit ago to write a letter to my various unelected representatives in Washington, suggesting a few things regarding nuclear policy. [I have been pondering posting a draft for your comments and input – is that something interesting?] In the course of one of my thinking sessions, I realized all of a sudden that I had completely fallen for a piece of framing that is, rather obviously once you see it, a lie. That rocked me right to my socks.

dall-e 2 “chimera of cthulhu and a ballistic missile submarine rises from the depths”

I don’t want to go into the whole argument comprising the letter, but I’ll drop a term that I am going to be trying to promote. That term is “rational deterrent.” You know, the good kind, the sensible kind, the cost-conscious and perhaps moral kind. I can’t get into that whole argument here and now because I just can’t handle it, but that’s the point – the US needs to recognize what Putin is inadvertently demonstrating, namely that nuclear blackmail isn’t even particularly good as far as blackmail goes.

I have accepted the “mutual assured destruction”[MAD] framing of nuclear war, insufficiently questioningly. The flaw in the framing is subtle and I can’t tell if it’s deliberate. I assume it is deliberate, because the monsters at Rand Corp and Sandia who cooked up the doctrine of MAD, were pretty smart sociopaths and could not – would not – overlook something obvious. Would they? When I started questioning parts of MAD, the whole idea of MAD appears to make some horribly wrong assumptions.

Let’s start with the basic MAD framing: You have the US and Russia, both with nuclear arsenals. As soon as one opponent launches a credible strike that will destroy the other, the target also launches a destroying strike and both sides lose. The premise of MAD is that both sides lose, and so long as the loss is assured then the deterrent is effective. We’re actually seeing a bit of MAD-esque posturing, right now, with Russia over Ukraine. I’m pretty sure that Putin has been informed that Russia barely has a credible nuclear strike force and that the US has been developing first-strike capabilities and may believe that it can “win” a pre-emptive war. I don’t know if Putin believes that, but I do. The US has developed pinpoint nukes that are extremely accurate (nuclear “bunker busters” if you will) and that are a direct threat against the Russian nuclear arsenal and command/control system. The US has begun to lean heavily on mid-range stealthy cruise missiles that are basically unstoppable and can put a pinpoint nuke an the Kremlin without having to do a 1950s-style carpet bombing of all of Moscow. For decades, people who thought about nuclear strategy – myself included – accepted the MAD doctrine and saw either side developing a first-strike capability as destabilizing: after all, if someone really thinks they can “win” a nuclear war, the power of their nuclear blackmail just went off the chart.

So the accepted scenario is launch, counter-launch on verification, everybody dies. The president’s escorts carry “the football” with its launch codes and all that rigamarole. First off: I realized that that is all rigamarole! Most Americans are not aware of this but not all of our nuclear arsenal is controlled by the football. Briefly: there’s this thing called a “permissive action link” [PAL] which supposedly makes the ignition controller of an H-bomb into a cryptographic device by very carefully sequencing the nanosecond-accurate timing of the explosive lenses that compress the primary. The theory of a PAL is that some bunch of Qanoners, if they got access to a bomb, couldn’t just patch their own controller in and set the thing off: you’d have to fool the PAL, and, uh, PALs are magic, apparently. I’m unconvinced of that, by the way but that’s not relevant right now. According to a friend who commanded an MLRS battery in Gulf War I, the “special payloads” for MLRS are small enough that they can’t haul a PAL. He was a major and had been briefed on all this stuff, supposedly. His comment to me, a decade or so ago, was “There is no ‘release authority’ – there’s just the commanding officer of the battery. I could have told the guys to load and launch and there would have maybe been a lot of yelling and waving of hands but there would be a good chance of a launch.” [not his exact words, my memory] So maybe if a Qanonner was an army major and they were deployed in the right situation, they could launch a nuclear warhead. The reason the “special payloads” were there was because if Saddam Hussein did have nuclear weapons and used them on US troops, they were going to experience MAD.

Think about that for a second: the US knew perfectly well that Saddam Hussein did not have nuclear weapons, so who was MADding whom? And, as the nuclear war thinkers say: this stuff makes a nuclear launch much more likely.

Dall-e “Ballistic missile submarine launches a boquet of flowers”

And then there’s the elephant in the room, the ballistic missile subs. The boomers are the ultimate MAD: they are stealthy, they are moving around all the time, and they carry a complement of enough missiles to carpet a reasonable-sized country like, say, Germany. Or, all the cities that matter in Russia. Or, really wallop the everlasting shit out of Monaco. That’s what we think, right? The president punches the codes into the football, as the enemy missiles bear down on Washington, and the boomers, as one of their unit patches supposedly reads: bring “sunshine from the depths.”

That has to be bullshit. Because if the football (“national command authority”) and everyone who could authorize a strike are all burned meat, the ballistic sub commanders can still perform a launch. All that stuff with the two keys and all that is cinematic crap. There are keys, but there are a lot of things surrounding a launch that are go/no-go factors – the sub has to be at correct depth and level, the missile tubes have to be prepared, the targets selected, etc.

See the razor blade in the apple?

That is going to take time. A ballistic missile sub is a credible deterrent not because it can kill a nation quickly, but because it can kill a nation inevitably. Assuredly. It is the suns that will rise over your cities. In good time.

That’s the point: a deterrent does not have to be immediate, it has to be assured. Imagine if Putin ordered a US base to be nuked. It’s not as though Biden would immediately react. There might be days before there was a reaction. It might not even be nuclear. But there would be a reaction. The scenario model in which both sides hammer their fists on the button is complete bullshit. I have to assume that the wizards of armageddon [like Liberal Icon Daniel Ellsberg] who designed all this stuff have figured that out. The public, apparently, hasn’t. The public thinks that a high level of launch preparedness makes sense, so that missiles can cross paths in the air, etc. They have mistaken Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Doctor Strangelove for a documentary. The suddenness of mutual destruction is the piece of propaganda that we all absorbed and accepted.

Does this all make sense? Rational deterrent would say not, “we will launch when you do.” Rational deterrent would say, “if you use nuclear weapons on us, we will still have strike capability that you will not be able to destroy and you’re going to have to deal with what they decide to do to you if you kill us.” I believe that’s actually the situation. A ballistic sub would survive if Washington, Boston, New York, etc., were obliterated and its captain would spend some time verifying that that was, indeed, the case, while they drew up a target plan. The cold war MAD scenario had to depend on a complex strike plan so that a massive strike with overkill was possible but… that’s actually not the “deterrent” scenario at all! The massive strike was a plan for an offensive attempt to “win” a nuclear war. In a rational deterrent scenario, the ballistic missile sub could launch a single missile every day if it wanted to, just to inflict maximum psychological pressure as it takes revenge. In fact, rational deterrent might make that the policy: “our sub captains are highly trained professionals and their weapons officers are able to make and execute extremely detailed strike plans using stealthy cruise missiles that will avenge the rest of us no matter what you do.”

If you read The Wizards of Armageddon there are some amazing descriptions in there of how the Air Force and Navy developed massive over-kill capabilities because they were presuming that any strike they launched had to be nearly instantaneous and therefore command and control had to be on a hair trigger. [Fred M. Kaplan The Wizards of Armageddon worldcat, Daniel Ellsberg The Doomsday Machine, Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner worldcat] There was a lot of really dangerous stuff done in the name of having a strike plan and a rapid strike. Rapid strikes were only a problem because the air force bases with the B-52s were easy targets and nearly impossible to harden – the Air Force needed rapid response and in order to get it, it engaged in the ludicrously dangerous practice of keeping B-52s with nuclear weapons in the air at all times so they could change course and fly to Moscow on a moment’s notice. It was not possible, given that technology, to build a rational deterrent.

It seems to me that we’ve all uncritically accepted the cold war logic, which was almost certainly a convenient lie. I’ve mentioned this before, elsewhere, but I don’t believe the US is interested in deterrent at all – it’s oriented toward winning a full-up nuclear war. That’s what all the fuss is about. If what we wanted was a rational deterrent, we wouldn’t need 3,000 warheads (against China’s approximately 200 and Russia’s questionable stock of old cold war missiles and a few modern things that might not work so well) China actually has a rational deterrent, I believe: the place is huge, they have mobile cruise missiles that can hide in deep holes, and other launchers that can hide in shipping containers or are sea-launchable. China has deterred the US from nuclear blackmailing it. So, for that matter, has North Korea – which has a semi-rational deterrent of holding the US base at Guam, and bases in Japan, Japan itself, and South Korea hostage. Again: the missiles do not need to cross paths in the air – all that matters is that they arrive inevitably.

We could save a gigantic amount of money, on the order of a trillion dollars, if we established a rational deterrent and stopped pursuing the ability to launch first strikes.

For this to make maximum sense, you need to understand the SIOP. Fortunately, I did a few postings on the topic of nuclear strategy.
– The Use of Nuclear Weapons [stderr]
– Dangerous and Incompetent [stderr]
– The Use of Nuclear Weapons – 2 [stderr]


  1. dashdsrdash says

    I was under the impression that the immediate launch on verification policy was there because, given a day or a week to think about the situation, many or most launch commanders would choose not to destroy the rest of the world after learning that their own countries had been destroyed.

  2. says

    I do know there was a lot of concern to select launch operators who did not have a problem executing the order. I don’t think, though, that that was the reason.
    In the early cold war, the missile bases were exposed stands (atlas, thor, etc.) that would not survive a near miss. Ditto the air force bombers sitting on the ground. So there was a point in time when it was conceivable that all of a nation’s forces could be hit at once and the answer to that was to get everything launched before it could be destroyed. That, by the way, contradicts the idea of “launch on confirmation” (only when at least one weapon has gone off within your borders) which was the stated policy instead of “launch on warning” (as soon as you think your enemy has launched) so that reveals another lie.
    I’m going to say that after around 1960 or so the notion of killing the bombers on the runways was mostly gone and replaced with “can they hit our silos?” And “are the silos robust enough?” E.g. Titan missile bases. When the sub-launched ballistic missiles like Polaris and cruise missiles came along then I think a rational deterrent was possible. The US has also (and still does!) stationed bombs at air bases around the world – to take out the US counter-strike you’d need to hit Germany and Japan, Guam, probably South Korea, England and now Australia(?). Again that would allow us to have a rational deterrent if we wanted one, but I think the US is still pursuing a first-strike win scenario.
    The Air Force selects particularly baggy christian fundamentalist nutsacks as missile operators, following the tradition set by Curtis LeMay, who was a straight up fundamentalist fascist monster.
    I should have clarified that a rational deterrent might have been harder to achieve until the 70s, but our habit of sneakily stationing nukes all over the world probably addresses that.
    The posting titled “Dangerous and Incompetent” that I linked in the notes section describes a bit about how Curtis LeMay’s strategic air command never took deterrence seriously and was just oriented toward killing as many foreigners as possible.

  3. Oggie: Mathom says

    I agree that the idea of MAD is passe.

    I suspect that, were Russia to drop a nuke on Ukraine, and it actually exploded rather than fizzling, The US would work within the NATO command structure to initiate a conventional layered response. Layer one would be air defense and aircraft suppression. Layer two would target C3I (Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence) facilities. Layer three would be aimed at the actual non-conventional weapons themselves. Interleaved into this response would be digital warfare to remove as much communication abilities as possible. The plans for this, I am sure, already exists and, once it started, would happen quickly and massively. There are daily updates to reflect current intelligence.

    I also accepted the MAD concept. MAD was a rational (defense rational, not human rational) strategy for the ability of forces to respond, the ability of weapons to actually hit what they were aimed at, and the ability of weapons to survive.

    Good essay. Thank you.

  4. crivitz says

    Your mentioning that the USAF selects fundamentalists for the nuclear forces and that LeMay was a straight up fundamentalist monster reminded me of something similar that I recently heard on the Scene On Radio podcast, which actually came out last year. That series was about climate change and one episode on the development of the oil industry in the US describes most of the big players as having fundamentalist christian beliefs and how they considered it their christian mission to exploit that resource as much as they could. And of course being religious they split into two different sects of xtian oilmen that mainly broke down into 1). JD Rockefeller, who saw it as his xtian duty to bring order to the early oil business and 2). Those who JD had bought or cheated out of PA who had a more libertarian strain of “wildcat christianity” and so moved out to the western oil regions.
    Also wonder if the USAF Academy is still pushing christian “values” on the cadets which was a somewhat newsworthy item about 10 years or so ago.

  5. says

    Over at Daily Kos Mikey Weinstein posted last week about an incident of evangelicals evangelizing at the academy, with some bonus anti-semitism thrown in. So, yeah, theocratic infiltrators are still running the place.

  6. JM says

    I doubt this is an intentional deception. Rather it is outdated thinking getting backed into long term planning. At the start of the cold war the quality and accuracy of missiles on both side was questionable so an attack was probably going to overload to insure that a reasonable number of warheads made it through. The defending side would have little information, probably nothing more then multiple ICBMs incoming. No accurate count of how many or where they are targeted. In such a blind situation the best that could be done is assume that any ICBM is a first strike for a major war and counter in kind.
    This thinking was ingrained in the military planning of the USA, Russia and other nuclear powers. This was further amplified in the USA where at the tail end of the cold war and the period right after military estimates of hostile forces was intentionally inflated to justify high military budgets.

  7. says

    I mostly agree, though it seems amazingly unlikely that alternate deterrent was not discussed. Wizards of Armageddon portrays a pretty intellectually dysfunctional system design process – largely driven by porkbarrelling and interservice rivalry.

    Agreed with you that the system seems to be running a bit on inertia. I doubt I can change that but maybe getting the idea out there can save a few trillion dollars.

  8. lanir says

    My understanding of this stuff is all pretty simplistic. I always thought that spending the money was the main point. And more than a bit of nuclear dick measuring between the US and the USSR.

    The deterrence factor has always been a bit weird but I suppose there was a point when having way too many meant having way too many to effectively target. I suspect that was less practical strategy and more sales bullet point to justify the dick measuring. I really doubt the scale of US nuclear armament can be reasonably justified by that at any point in time.

    The problem I see with a nuclear first strike by anyone is what happens afterward. If the US decided to execute one we’d have international issues with the whole world. At best we’d just find trade to be far more costly and difficult. At worst we’d get dragged into a lot of carefully smaller wars, lose allies, and deal with considerably more terrorism. There would also be some very unhappy chunks of the populace that are unhappy with the idea we’d just nuked another country. I could see that mess escalating and going very, very badly. I don’t know about Trump but I honestly can’t see any other presidency wanting to trigger all of that.

    I suppose I could be wrong about large chunks of that but I find it hard to imagine a nuclear first strike could ever end up sounding like a good idea.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    I’d hate to be a US citizen anywhere outside the US the day after the US made a first nuclear strike. Sorry, made a first nuclear strike AGAIN.

    I’d worry that no matter how ostensibly friendly or even allied the country I was in might have been the day before, there’d be a significant number of people who know where I live and would be motivated to literally crucify me, my family and every other Yank they could find. And post the photos and videos on Twitter.

  10. says

    I suspect the US military budget, nuclear arsenal included, is at this point largely a matter of spending money for the sake of spending money. Trying to inject any semblance of rationality into it is like spitting into a hurricane. You can say ‘if we spend less money, more sensibly, we can improve our capabilities while simultaneously cutting our budget.’ but all people will hear is ‘reduced defense spending’. Which on the one hand means less money going into the coffers at Raytheon and on the other, a weaker military in the minds of most of the voting population.

  11. macallan says

    So you’re telling me that reality is actually worse than the anti US propaganda fed to us in the eastern block back in the day…

  12. says

    So you’re telling me that reality is actually worse than the anti US propaganda fed to us in the eastern block back in the day…


    The DoD has consistently lied to the American people about nuclear bomber gaps, missile gaps, and deterrent. Basically, they are pursuing their own agenda. So you can think of the US as a defense department and its supporting economy.

  13. says

    I mostly agree [w/ JM @6], though it seems amazingly unlikely that alternate deterrent was not discussed.

    I’m sure there was plenty of discussion, but (in hindsight at least) it seems impossible to flesh out and implement any particular strategy while the technology was changing as fast as it was doing then (and now). As soon as one party organizes a capability to carry out one particular strategy, the other party figures out a way to prevent or destroy it…repeat until one party just runs out of money or will to keep up the race. So it’s just a matter of inventing new weapons and delivery systems, then haphazardly incorporating each one into our “system” and THEN tweaking whatever plans or strategy we had to include the new gizmos.

    I suppose I could be wrong about large chunks of that but I find it hard to imagine a nuclear first strike could ever end up sounding like a good idea.

    It probably sounded like a good idea to offset both Soviet and Chinese superiority in numbers of ground troops. And if you think all those nukes were expensive, try comparing that to the cost of matching Soviet conventional forces instead. That wasn’t something we were willing to do, so a nuclear first-strike capability seemed a cheaper, possibly faster and more flexible high-tech response to a Soviet or Chinese ground invasion. (It should be noted here that Khrushchev tried to reduce military spending on his side, and said that since the USSR had nukes, that meant they had less need for a huge land army to deter US-NATO aggression. The Red Army didn’t want their budgets or power diminished in any way, and that’s one reason Khrushchev was tossed out by a coup in 1964.)

  14. says

    I suspect that, were Russia to drop a nuke on Ukraine, and it actually exploded rather than fizzling, The US would work within the NATO command structure to initiate a conventional layered response…

    That certainly makes sense from a war-winning standpoint, and it makes even more sense from a political/PR standpoint: If Russia, and ONLY Russia, uses any nukes in Ukraine, then whoever suffers from the effects of those nuclear blasts will have one and only one country to blame for it, and it won’t be America.

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