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.
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.
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]