March 27, 2014

"One cannot credibly deter a first strike with a second strike whose raison d’etre dissolves the moment the first strike arrives."

Wrote Jonathan Schell in "The Fate of the Earth," which caught everyone's attention when it was published in The New Yorker in 1982.

Schell died 2 days ago, at the age of 70.

130 comments:

BDNYC said...

Never heard of him, but he was wrong.

Henry said...

And we're lucky he was wrong.

Henry said...

"credibly" does not mean the same thing as "logically".

Brian said...

Tough crowd. What, you expected him to have actually examined this theory in light of the experience of the preceding 30 years?

Scott M said...

As nuts as mutual assured destruction might seem, it kinda seem'ta have worked awful good, Wally.

Larry J said...

Here's a thought experiment to test his statement. Go into to the most hardcore biker bar you can find, walk up to the biggest, baddest dude in there and punch him in the face. When he goes to respond in kind, point out to him that there's no point in striking back. See what happens. Oh, you don't want to risk that? Could it be that the swift and certain retaliation serves as a deterrent? Imagine that.

Quaestor said...

Jonathan Schell, non-chess player.

rhhardin said...

That's why you want doomsday machines. It becomes a conditional first strike.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Actually he is correct. That is why they must believe that you have a secondary reason of revenge or retaliation.

A belief that you will retaliate even if deterrence fails can deter a first strike.

rhhardin said...

Gaming out an al Qaeda nuke is more interesting.

Lessee...

See conjecture 2 Belmont Club

see the others too.

mccullough said...

So this was a big article in Manhattan 30 years ago. Liberals being liberals.

mccullough said...

Obama's worried about a nuke going off in Manhattan. So maybe this article was a big influence on him when he was in college in Manhattan. No wonder Putin keeps rolling him.

cubanbob said...

Jonathan Schel could have saved himself a lot time and foolishness if only he had read a book published twenty years earlier by Herman Khan-Thinking About The Unthinkable.

If revenge attacks are pointless then why would countries like France, Brittain and Israel among others waste the time, money and effort to have nukes? And why would the North Koreans and the Iranians seek to have them and seek long range delivery systems?

it's one thing to be proven wrong after the fact and quit another to be obviously wrong from the jump. Schel was wrong from the jump.

Scott M said...

Actually he is correct. That is why they must believe that you have a secondary reason of revenge or retaliation.

Hmm. But think about that. The need for survival, in whatever form results from the first strike, is reason enough and will ALWAYS be present. Sure, the US/CONUS might cease to be as we now know it, but it's predictable that the survivors (and of course, there will be survivors) will want the first-striker knocked down to what has become the survivors' level.

I don't know how that can ever be taken out of the equation except in some sci-fi form of societal ennui or outright nihilism.

Christopher said...

His book Fate of the Earth was all the rage at the time. I still have it in my collection. He was wrong, of course.

Mike and Sue said...

I was tortured with this lightwieght book in both high school and college. Thank goodness there wer adults in charge during the cold war. We would lose it (perhaps are losing it) now.

rhhardin said...

The Japanese are still going on about banning all nuclear weapons.

Once bitten twice shy.

mccullough said...

How did this guy avoid the draft? His obit doesn't say. He was healthy enough to travel to Vietnam and report and write stories about the war. Another prep school draft dodger with the right connections and family money.

EDH said...

So Schell didn't see the point of charging people with crimes they commit?

richard mcenroe said...

So deterrence outlived its critic.

Scott M said...

The Japanese are still going on about banning all nuclear weapons.

Once bitten twice shy.


What happens when the nuke bug bites you twice?

Drago said...

1982.

By that time the lefties (including sitting Senator Ted Kennedy) were already in deep conversations with their commie pals as to how to constrain that horrible Ronald Reagan.

And that is not hyperbole.

Western lefties teaming up with totalitarian communist leaders.

What could be more natural?

SGT Ted said...

All Schell was doing was shilling for the unilateral nuclear disarmament crowd.

And, like most leftwing notions, it has to ignore history and reality to arrive at it's conclusions.

Bill, Republic of Texas said...

rhhardin said...
The Japanese are still going on about banning all nuclear weapons.

Once bitten twice shy.

3/27/14, 10:57 AM

They may be going on about banning nuclear weapons but they are not stupid. They have nuclear material and knowledge how to build a bomb. They may or may not have an assembled bomb but they could have one in a very short amount of time.

SGT Ted said...

IOW, Schell was a typical leftwing simpleton when it comes to foreign policy. Reagan was President. His argument was one of convenience to oppose Reagans policies.

Ignorance is Bliss said...


What happens when the nuke bug bites you twice?

You live to the ripe old age of 93?

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Scott M said...

...The need for survival, in whatever form results from the first strike, is reason enough and will ALWAYS be present.

I haven't read Schell's article, but I suspect that his position is that using nukes is always immoral, therefore we can't do it in retaliation, therefore our nukes are not a credible deterrent, therefore we should unilaterally disarm.

I don't know how that can ever be taken out of the equation except in some sci-fi form of societal ennui or outright nihilism.

This was one year into the Reagan administration. He was pining for the days of societal ennui or outright nihilism.

tim maguire said...

“No doubt people have a natural tendency to try to forget about wars the minute they are over,” he commented wryly of the Vietnam War in 1971, “but we may be the first country to try to forget about a war while it is still going on.”

Did Schell say anything in his life that wasn't utter bullshit?

Drago said...

SGT Ted said...
All Schell was doing was shilling for the unilateral nuclear disarmament crowd.

Which, by the way, was being heavily funded by the Soviets.

Many of the articles appearing in Western papers (particularly in France) were actually being written in Moscow.

The funding was channeled through the usual suspect groups on the left and really achieved critical mass in the huge protests against the deployment of American medium range tactical nukes in Western Europe.

Of course, our buildup of tactical nukes was in response to the Soviets moving medium and short range tactical missiles into the nations of the Warsaw Pact to marry up with their already overwhelming conventional force superiority in that theater of operations.

Once again, AGAIN, the lefties lined up, almost to a person, with the commies.

What a surprise.

Not.

MattL said...

What happens when the nuke bug bites you twice?

New Godzilla movie?

traditionalguy said...

The philosophers of elite culture have never forgiven FDR for his secret Manhattan Project, nor especially not forgiven Truman for ending WWII with it.

But a reality view of WWII says the entire mess was a race to be the first to government build Leo Szilard's nuclear fission device.

Scott M said...

Which, by the way, was being heavily funded by the Soviets.

Which, when you think about it, given the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two sides involved in the Cold War, was utterly rational on their part.

Scott M said...

New Godzilla movie?

I prefer to think of it as the actual final episode of Breaking Bad.

(snark aside...the kid in me can't wait for this new Gahrdzirrah movie)

Brian said...

Yeah, it was typical Year Zero lefty bullshit. MAD had been in place and working since the early 50s, and Carter had played the game of one-upping mid-range missile deployments in Europe as recently as 1979. But by 1982 Reagan was President, so of course he invented a Cold War nuclear stalemate where there had never been one before.

Crimso said...

"What happens when the nuke bug bites you twice?"

The Supreme Council for the Direction of the War splits 3-3 on what direction to next take the war.

(Shouldn't you be writing instead of surfing the web?)

Scott M said...

(Shouldn't you be writing instead of surfing the web?)

Hell yes, I should. Creation is an act of sheer will, though, and my cup runneth low today.

Robert Cook said...

"If revenge attacks are pointless then why would countries like France, Brittain and Israel among others waste the time, money and effort to have nukes? And why would the North Koreans and the Iranians seek to have them and seek long range delivery systems?"

Because humans are, to the end, short-sighted and irrational.

Robert Cook said...

"I haven't read Schell's article, but I suspect that his position is that using nukes is always immoral, therefore we can't do it in retaliation, therefore our nukes are not a credible deterrent, therefore we should unilaterally disarm."

I haven't read it either, so I can't know whether I would find his argument convincing or not, but my first guess as to his meaning on reading the quote from the article may have been that, once the first strike has been launched, the destruction that will be suffered by those on the receiving end will be so great that there will be nothing left to defend, or defenders to do so, or point.

Scott M said...

Because humans are, to the end, short-sighted and irrational.

As far as we know, all sapient beings are short-sighted and irrational.

Robert Cook said...

"'All Schell was doing was shilling for the unilateral nuclear disarmament crowd.'

"Which, by the way, was being heavily funded by the Soviets."


Yeah, yeah...everything was always "heavily funded by the soviets."

Robert Cook said...

"As far as we know, all sapient beings are short-sighted and irrational."

That's entirely possible.

MattL said...

Yeah, yeah...everything was always "heavily funded by the soviets."

Except their own economy, of course. Try the veal.

Scott M said...

once the first strike has been launched, the destruction that will be suffered by those on the receiving end will be so great that there will be nothing left to defend, or defenders to do so, or point.

This is only true after the first strike hits, which is a certain amount of time after launches are detected.

Robert Cook said...

"...by 1982 Reagan was President, so of course he invented a Cold War nuclear stalemate where there had never been one before."

What does that even mean?

Scott M said...

That's entirely possible.

Currently, it's 100% accurate.

Robert Cook said...

"So Schell didn't see the point of charging people with crimes they commit?"

If the crime and the responding punishment are of such magnitude that they destroy the world, who is to left to charge the criminal with the crime or to enact punishment, or to be charged with the crime or to be punished?

Robert Cook said...

"This is only true after the first strike hits, which is a certain amount of time after launches are detected."

But, if the first strike has been launched and cannot be averted, what is to be gained by responding? I'm sure everyone here thinks "revenge" is enough of a rationale...but is it?

cubanbob said...

Because humans are, to the end, short-sighted and irrational."

There you go again talking about leftists.
By the way since none of the countries that I mentioned having nukes has yet to have been nuked so far in the near term there is no evidence of them being short-sided to date.

Scott M said...

But, if the first strike has been launched and cannot be averted, what is to be gained by responding? I'm sure everyone here thinks "revenge" is enough of a rationale...but is it?

I answered this upthread already. The outcome of the attack/response cannot be known, it can only be theorized. No idea what the disposition of forces is going to be afterward. Even if the attacker reduces the attackee to sticks and stones, the attackee has a vested interest in making sure that the attacker is left in the same state.

There will be survivors on both sides. If you're the attackee, why would give the attacker all the power in a post-nuclear-war world? You're basically committing your survivors' necks to the attacker's boot.

Robert Cook said...

I can understand the rationale that the risk of MAD will constrain the impulse of either side to use WMD, so, in that sense Schell, insofar as his one quote may reflect the whole of his argument, is wrong. However, in the end, once a first strike has been launched, is there really anything to be gained by responding with the second strike?

cubanbob said...

But, if the first strike has been launched and cannot be averted, what is to be gained by responding? I'm sure everyone here thinks "revenge" is enough of a rationale...but is it?"

You sure love beating strawman arguments to death.

Scott M said...

However, in the end, once a first strike has been launched, is there really anything to be gained by responding with the second strike?

Yes. See above.

You're also conflating "second strike" with some sort of revenge. This is misguided thinking. In all likelihood, the attackee's missiles will be in the air before the attacker's start to hit.

It's all about the disposition afterward.

Robert Cook said...

"If you're the attackee, why would give the attacker all the power in a post-nuclear-war world? You're basically committing your survivors' necks to the attacker's boot."

I think if you're the attackee and your society is essentially destroyed, I doubt you will be much concerned with fears of the followup by the attacker's boot. Of course all such discussion is speculative, and the extent of destruction and loss of life is contingent on many things, not least being the number of missles launched in the first strike, but...responding tit for tat with nuclear armada is sure to make the consequences worse for everyone.

Scott M said...

I think if you're the attackee and your society is essentially destroyed, I doubt you will be much concerned with fears of the followup by the attacker's boot.

Why do you doubt this? If the attacker is left virtually untouched, why do you doubt this would be a concern?

Scott M said...

I think if you're the attackee and your society is essentially destroyed, I doubt you will be much concerned with fears of the followup by the attacker's boot.

The more I think about this, RC, the more I can't understand your thinking. If what you say is true, and you were put in charge of these things, you would be encouraging someone to launch first strikes. You would make the world a MORE dangerous place than what we had under mutual assured destruction.

Robert Cook said...

Scott,

Once your own society is essentially destroyed,with tens of millions (or more) dead and many more grievously wounded, what more and worse would you expect to happen?

cubanbob said...

I think if you're the attackee and your society is essentially destroyed, I doubt you will be much concerned with fears of the followup by the attacker's boot. Of course all such discussion is speculative, and the extent of destruction and loss of life is contingent on many things, not least being the number of missles launched in the first strike, but...responding tit for tat with nuclear armada is sure to make the consequences worse for everyone.

3/27/14, 12:35 PM"

Worse for whom? The first launcher? Thats a feature, not a bug. Using your logic no nation ever attacked should fight back as it surely would things worse for someone else. And yes the attackee would wouldn't mind destroying the attacker since at that point they nothing to lose.


Now back to world of reality of the cold war, smaller nuclear powers like France and the UK had their retaliatory forces for a simple reason: they could not trust the US to sacrifice Chicago and Los Angeles for Paris and London. However the were very confident that the Soviets would never risk losing Moscow and Leningrad to just to destroy France and the UK and still have to deal with an intact US. De Gaulle was quite open about that especially after Ike cut the nuts of France and the UK over Suez when the Soviets made some threats about using nuclear arms. So far deterrence has worked.

Scott M said...

Once your own society is essentially destroyed,with tens of millions (or more) dead and many more grievously wounded, what more and worse would you expect to happen?

Answering a question with a question can mean you don't have a good answer in the first place.

You would rather, I suppose, see attackers emboldened. You give no thought to the millions of survivors and what they're going to have to deal with.

Drago said...

Cook: "Yeah, yeah...everything was always "heavily funded by the soviets."

Cookie takes time out from making stuff up about Reagan to defend his Soviet pals.

Again, nothing new under the sun.

Robert Cook said...

Scott,

I acknowledge the logical sense of MAD, but I simply wonder whether, a first strike having been launched, a response would serve a constructive--rather than purely destructive--purpose. I have no doubt that a response strike would be launched...but could it save us from annihilation? If anything, a rapid escalation of strikes back and forth would simply ensure mutual destruction.

Drago said...

Cook: "Once your own society is essentially destroyed,with tens of millions (or more) dead and many more grievously wounded, what more and worse would you expect to happen?"

Define "essentially destroyed"

Feel free to show your work.

tim maguire said...

Robert, the point Schell seems to miss is that the threat of retaliation is not intended to even the score, tit for tat, but to prevent the first strike in the first place. Which it apparently did.

Schell, for all his pretense of moral superiority, is one of the most evil forms of person god has ever created. The sort of man who would destroy everyone to prove a point about decency. Much like Che Guevara, who he probably admired.

Robert Cook said...

"So far deterrence has worked."

Yes...so far....

Drago said...

Tim: "Much like Che Guevara, who he probably admired."

Well, Che certainly hated farmers and dreamed of killing them all.

With every act of growing something and then offering it for sale Che got a little more angry and longed to put a bullet in their brains.

Naturally, Che is beloved on the left.

Scott M said...

Yes...so far....

Policy based on decades of success too conservative for you?

Drago said...

2+2=4.

Yeah, so far....

Scott M said...

"Well, officer, they broke in, trashed the place and killed my kids."

"But, sir, you have a shotgun. Why didn't you stop them before they killed your wife?"

"I thought enough people had died already and didn't think the intruders' families should suffer as well."

Larry J said...

Robert Cook said...
I can understand the rationale that the risk of MAD will constrain the impulse of either side to use WMD, so, in that sense Schell, insofar as his one quote may reflect the whole of his argument, is wrong. However, in the end, once a first strike has been launched, is there really anything to be gained by responding with the second strike?


By maintaining the certainty of retaliation, you reduce the likelihood of an attack. If it's known that you won't respond to an attack, then there is an incentive to go ahead and attack. By default, whomever shoots first wins. With MAD, the only way to win is not to play.

Todd said...

Robert Cook said...
Scott,

I acknowledge the logical sense of MAD, but I simply wonder whether, a first strike having been launched, a response would serve a constructive--rather than purely destructive--purpose. I have no doubt that a response strike would be launched...but could it save us from annihilation? If anything, a rapid escalation of strikes back and forth would simply ensure mutual destruction.
3/27/14, 1:07 PM


In part, as others have noted, when (for example) the USA notices a large Russian missile launch, the USA launches their missiles too. This puts the missiles of both sides in the air at the same time. In addition, the bombers are launched, for a second strike wave. The first wave missiles take time to arrive. Seeing the USA launch gives the Russians time to scuttle their missiles before they strike. If they strike, ours strike. There is then a "cool off period" between the missiles going off and the bombers getting over target. This allows both sides to arrange a truce before the second wave of nukes are delivered.

A key to this is the USA launching their missiles and bombers when the Russian launch is detected. If there is no creditable threat of retaliation, there is no MAD.

Robert Cook said...

"Policy based on decades of success too conservative for you?"

"Success" over these few brief decades being as much pure dumb luck as rational consideration, one cannot assume such success will be maintained over the longer term. And with the consequences of even one failure being so grave, can the policy be considered tenable at all?

The only rational policy is for all nukes that exist to be destroyed, but that is not going to happen. So...we live under threat of apocalypse.

MattL said...

Robert Cook,

He's already spelled it out for you, and Drago gave you a key hint. "Essentially destroyed." What does that mean? Do you want to leave the survivors to be exploited/killed/whatever by the enemy?

Maybe you do. But even then, are you really too dense to comprehend that not everyone would?

Revenant said...

The reason for the second strike is to punish the first. This is not a difficult concept to understand.

The stable state for human relations is the golden rule mixed with "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth": be nice, but if someone hurts you, hurt him back. This basic framework is universal to human society and much of *animal* society. It works.

Scott M said...

And with the consequences of even one failure being so grave, can the policy be considered tenable at all?

You go with the best policy that has the greatest track record of success. I realize this is diametrically opposed to progressive thinking, but it's how most real problems are dealt with.

I'm glad that you realize that removing all nuclear warheads/weapons is the stuff of pixie dust and unicorns.

Robert Cook said...

"I'm glad that you realize that removing all nuclear warheads/weapons is the stuff of pixie dust and unicorns."

Of course...I have never thought it possible for this to be achieved.

Drago said...

Todd: "A key to this is the USA launching their missiles and bombers when the Russian launch is detected. If there is no creditable threat of retaliation, there is no MAD."

How dare you neglect to mention our submarine forces!

Not all plans/doctrine call for all Subs to launch during an initial exchange.

Scott M said...

Of course...I have never thought it possible for this to be achieved.

Well, that's progress of a sort, I suppose, as far as this conversation is concerned.

Drago said...

Cook: "Of course...I have never thought it possible for this to be achieved."

Well, okay.

At least there is the basis for a potential rational discussion from this baseline on.

MattL said...

To be fair, I read that as the subs being part of the missile launches.

Scott M said...

Not all plans/doctrine call for all Subs to launch during an initial exchange.

Hence Witley Strieber's "sub poppers" from his novel "Warday", which looks at a post-war America after a VERY limited exchange.

Dated, but I re-read it recently and it remains an excellent book by somewhat of a twit.

Drago said...

Cook: ""Success" over these few brief decades being as much pure dumb luck as rational consideration,.."

Well, I can see why since your philosophical forebears denigrated this policy you would feel the urge to mock the policy despite it's undeniable success in achieving precisely what was hoped to be achieved.

Rusty said...

But, if the first strike has been launched and cannot be averted, what is to be gained by responding?

It will prevent them from sending any more over.

Never assume that the gun aimed at your head is unloaded.

Revenant said...

The only rational policy is for all nukes that exist to be destroyed, but that is not going to happen. So...we live under threat of apocalypse.

That's a nonsensical statement, akin to "the only rational policy is to not die". A policy which is impossible to adopt is "a wish", not "a policy".

However, governments DO have to come up with actual policies regarding use of nuclear weapons. A policy of "use of nukes will be responded to in kind" is the most rational policy to follow, because no rational actor wants to get nuked.

That this worked against all nuclear-armed nations -- including the United States itself, it should be noted -- is not "luck", any more than it is "luck" when a person who abstains from smoke and asbestos inhalation goes through life without developing lung cancer. In the absence of this policy you can be your ass parts of Afghanistan would have gotten nuked post-9/11. The policy is not perfect, but it is better than the possible alternatives.

cubanbob said...

Robert Cook said...
Scott,

I acknowledge the logical sense of MAD, but I simply wonder whether, a first strike having been launched, a response would serve a constructive--rather than purely destructive--purpose. I have no doubt that a response strike would be launched...but could it save us from annihilation? If anything, a rapid escalation of strikes back and forth would simply ensure mutual destruction.

3/27/14, 1:07 PM"

Cook obviously can't fathom why a country wouldn't be so embolden as to launch so massive an attack if there was no fear of retaliation and what would deter them from doing if there was no retaliation so and of course it doesn't occur to him that even if the attacker were crazy enough to launch such an attack for no good reason the fact it would be pretty much destroyed in return would keep the attacker from being a threat to anyone else. Cook argues just because deter has worked so far means it will work indefinitely but the disarmament which he proposes which historically has failed to work is the better course of action.

Todd said...

To be honest, I forgot about the subs.

Land missile payloads and the bomber payloads outnumbered the sub payload impact by quite a bit. The subs were more scalpel than sledgehammer as they could get in real close, pop up, launch and get down. Much smaller flight time. Not enough payload (at least early on) for a creditable first strike on their own and so (if I recall) they were coordinated with the bomber strike as part of the second wave.

Drago said...

Todd: "To be honest, I forgot about the subs."

Excellent.....

Drago said...

Lets be honest here.

Cookie has a hard time understanding why anyone would even want to stand up to the Soviets.

I mean, weren't they the only ones protecting the world from Ronald Reagan?



Robert Cook said...

"'The only rational policy is for all nukes that exist to be destroyed, but that is not going to happen. So...we live under threat of apocalypse.'

"That's a nonsensical statement, akin to 'the only rational policy is to not die.' A policy which is impossible to adopt is 'a wish,' not 'a policy.'"


Well, I don't believe all the world's nukes will ever be destroyed, but there are people in the world who do believe such an achievement is possible. If one is hopeful (or naive) enough to have this view, MAD will seem to be an inevitable suicide pact.

Civilis said...

The reason for the second strike is to punish the first. This is not a difficult concept to understand.

I agree, with the caveat that I don't think the words justice and revenge have much concrete meaning when talking about the actions of nations. It's not about punishment for the sake of justice, but more making sure that a country can't launch an apocalyptic first strike more than once.

The problem for the 'we're already dead; no reason to make someone else suffer' line of argument is that while you may have limited the casualties in this war, you've guaranteed that there will be another nuclear war down the road next time Chairman First Strike wants something, or someone will first strike Chairman First Strike next time it looks like Chairman First Strike is gearing up for a strike...

Before the advent of nuclear weapons, wars were won by who could put the most troops backed by the most industry onto the battlefield. Similarly-sized economies needed to turn their entire economy over to the war effort to get the highest chance for victory, and smaller powers had no hope of standing up against larger ones. Nuclear weapons changed all that. Now, it doesn't matter if I have more troops backed by a bigger military industry, I can still lose a war COMPLETELY in a matter of minutes. So if I don't need to worry about a total war economy, I can begin taking more and more of my economy over to things the public actually wants.

Civilis said...

The problem with naïve wishes to roll back MAD is, what do you end up with? Arsenals of chemical weapons? Weaponized smallpox? Neither are as effective a deterrent, but both are cheaper. I also think most people that dislike MAD also dislike the idea of a worldwide smallpox epidemic, so we'll magically ban biochemical weapons as well. So, what was war like before the horrible advent of nuclear weapons? Was the world of 1944 a magical place of peace? No, virtually the entire economy of the world was devoted to one side or the other gaining a slight upper hand in a world-wide fight, one in which we saw good chunks of the entire continent of Europe laid to waste with purely conventional arms. Once you've taken the threat of WMD off the table, war goes back to being a matter of who can put the most troops and the most military industry on the table.

pst314 said...

"Jonathan Schel could have saved himself a lot time and foolishness if only he had read a book published twenty years earlier by Herman Khan-Thinking About The Unthinkable."

Jonathan Schell was not interested in the actual facts regarding what sorts of deterrence work, and would not have read Kahn in order to learn something.

Schell merely wanted the West to disarm and put itself totally at the mercy of the Soviets.

Larry J said...

Todd said

A key to this is the USA launching their missiles and bombers when the Russian launch is detected. If there is no creditable threat of retaliation, there is no MAD.


That's not exactly correct. The key is to launch when a Russian launch is confirmed. We use a policy of dual phenomenology to confirm launches. The first launch detection is by satellites (DSP and SBIRS). Some minutes later, ground-based radars (BMEWS, PAVE PAWS, Cobra Dane) detect the incoming missiles confirming the launch. The idea is that there are things that can cause false alarms with the IR satellites and other things that can give false readings with the RF radars, but none that could cause false readings of both at the same time. The average flight time for an ICBM between Russia and the US is about 30-35 minutes. Sub launches (or the Scud-in-a-tub scenario) off the coast are a whole different matter - if they fly a depressed trajectory their flight time can be as short as a few minutes.

David said...

The Fate of the Earthling.

madAsHell said...

In the 80's I worked on a study to examine underground nuclear missiles under mountains in Colorado. When an attack was detected, boring machines would start deep within the ground, and tunnel to the surface. The tunnel boring process might take several days, and everyone was convinced the missiles were targeted for CONUS.

A scorched earth policy if there ever was one.

Smilin' Jack said...

""One cannot credibly deter a first strike with a second strike whose raison d’etre dissolves the moment the first strike arrives.""


Well, duh. MAD only came about because Kennedy was too pussified to implement a real deterrent:

"RAND strategist Herman Kahn proposed a "Doomsday Machine" in 1960 that would consist of a computer linked to a stockpile of hydrogen bombs, programmed to detonate them all and bathe the planet in nuclear fallout at the signal of an impending nuclear attack from another nation. The key aspect of the doomsday device's deterrent factor is that it would go off automatically without human aid and despite human intervention, providing a highly credible threat that would dissuade attackers and avoid the dangerous game of brinkmanship that brought the United States and the Soviet Union closer to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. With a doomsday device on the planet, neither side would suspect the other of launching a sneak attack in attempt to destroy the opposing country's infrastructure before they could retaliate."

Fen said...

Yet another fucking "expert" that was completely wrong.

Fen said...


Jonathan Schell was not interested in the actual facts regarding what sorts of deterrence work, and would not have read Kahn in order to learn something.

Schell merely wanted the West to disarm and put itself totally at the mercy of the Soviets.


ie, Fen's Law: the Left doesn't really believe in the things they lecture us about.

JPS said...

Todd,

"Seeing the USA launch gives the Russians time to scuttle their missiles before they strike. If they strike, ours strike."

As far as I know, this possibility never entered into the calculations. Test missiles can be destroyed on command, the capability being added in case they go astray in flight. An operational missile, barring malfunction or successful enemy defenses, will proceed to its target. A strike can't be cancelled after launch, and there are reasons both grim and sensible to have the turn of the launch keys be the very last chance not to go through with it.

Todd said...

JPS, you are correct! There does not appear to have been anyway to abort a fired nuke. So, when the US confirmed a USSR first strike and retaliated, the deal was done. Theirs hit and ours hit. The time lull between the missiles striking and the bomber flight times gave a "break" in the action to allow both sides to call a truce and call off the bombers, if they wished to. Otherwise, the second wave of bomber dropped and (lets not forget) sub launched nukes would fly.

Not sure which period of time was scarier. The actual "cold war" or the early post-USSR period when no one was sure who had USSR missile control...

Scott M said...

Theirs hit and ours hit.

Minus a certain percentage of software and hardware issues and any still-classified anti-ICBM systems that either side had.

William said...

Nowadays I believe that the liberal position is that containment and MAD are the proper response to N. Korean and Iranian nukes. But the proper response to Soviet nukes was unilateral disarmenent......So far so good with nuclear weapons. However, so long as men as crazy as the mullahs and the Kims we're not home free.....Chekhov said that if you see a gun on the wall in the first act, then you will see the trigger of that gun pulled by the third act.......The Manhattan Project was the last great scheme of the New Deal. I blame all of this on Roosevelt.

dbp said...

It is fortunate that Jonathan Schell was unable to convince either side: The same logic would indicate that you ought to attack the other side immediately!

If the other side cannot retaliate (logically) then you save your own side by attacking first--before they come to the same conclusion.

It is only the belief that retaliation will come that keeps the first strike from being launched. Had Schell been believed, he would have caused Armageddon.

Drago said...

Arnaud de Borchgrave penned an interesting tome where he carried the "robert cook" scenario forward a few years. US decline and the USSR consolidating its new "only super power" standing.

Easy cookie and garage, it was only a novel!

The citizens of the US come to their senses a bit and elect an conservative. The storyline follows his maneuverings from a position of weakness with a subplot focused on a lefty journalist turned realist.

The hills of summer was the name i think.

Maybe de Borchgrave saw himself as the journalist.

It sure the hell wasnt based on phil donahue!

virgil xenophon said...

Several points not yet mentioned:

The Soviets NEVER bought into the "game theory" of MAD-style deterrence. MAD assumed that each society would be irrevocably destroyed, so war would be avoided. But the level of destruction in order to achieve deterrence contemplated by MAD's designer, Robert MacNamera was a level that he MacNamera thought would logically deter himself., i.e., 20% of everything both military and civil. Unfortunately MacNamera wasn't much of a historian. During WW I, in order to save the Communist revolution, Russia gave up 94% of its steel mills, 89% of its working coal mines and 20% of its most educated and technically trained populace in the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917. So what makes anyone think they be fazed by the prospect of the loss of only 20% of ANYTHING if they could achieve their objectives? No, what kept the Soviets at bay was the fact we had a big-ass military and roughly equal numbers of nuclear warheads and that they just might "lose" any war they started. You see, as all Soviet documents viewed after the Berlin Wall came down and all conversations with key Soviet military personnel showed, they REALLY DID believe that it was possible to "win" a nuclear war and survive and rebuild to dominate the Earth. The MAD crowd and its adherents were dreamers. Thank God our nuclear force posture was largely developed before MacNamera.

dbp said...

A retaliatory strike has some advantages over a first strike:

In a first strike, you want to knock-out the enemy's ability to retaliate, so you target missile sites, bomber bases, etc. These tend to be in remote, unpopulated areas. In a retaliation, why aim for empty missile silos and empty air bases? You aim for population centers.

Cedarford said...

richard mcenroe said...
So deterrence outlived its critic.

===============
Quite droll.
Quite true.

Robert Cook said...

"Nowadays I believe that the liberal position is that containment and MAD are the proper response to N. Korean and Iranian nukes. But the proper response to Soviet nukes was unilateral disarmenent......So far so good with nuclear weapons. However, so long as men as crazy as the mullahs and the Kims we're not home free.....Chekhov said that if you see a gun on the wall in the first act, then you will see the trigger of that gun pulled by the third act.......The Manhattan Project was the last great scheme of the New Deal. I blame all of this on Roosevelt."

Iran does not have nukes and has never had nukes. Also, much as we may disagree with their government, the Mullahs are not crazy. One cannot deal rationally with other nations if one characterizes their governments as "crazy."

Robert Cook said...

"You see...(the Soviests)REALLY DID believe that it was possible to "win" a nuclear war and survive and rebuild to dominate the Earth."

The same can be said for our side.

JPS said...

Virgil Xenophon:

"as all Soviet documents viewed after the Berlin Wall came down and all conversations with key Soviet military personnel showed, they REALLY DID believe that it was possible to "win" a nuclear war and survive and rebuild to dominate the Earth."

I especially enjoyed the war plan document from the Czechoslovak SSR, released by the post-communist Czech government.

I had naively imagined WWIII going something like this: Tensions are high, things erupt at some flashpoint, the USSR invades some part of western Europe - defensively, of course - we try to stop them, it starts to fail, we use tactical nukes to avoid being completely overrun (or they use them to facilitate the overrunning), exchanges escalate, sooner or later one side starts hitting fixed strategic targets, and God help us all.

No: Turns out that if the balloon went up, the Soviets were pretty much going to nuke the ever-loving shit out of western Europe, and roll through the smoking radioactive rubble. They planned on nine days to reach the Atlantic coast of France.

Robert Cook (and I) might wonder what possible use that real estate was going to be to them at that point, but that was one of their plans.

Marshal said...

Robert Cook said...
One cannot deal rationally with other nations if one characterizes their governments as "crazy."


A good example of Cook's Blame America First policy. The limiting factor is whether or not the other government is in fact crazy, not whether we characterize them as such. But he inverts the process so America can be blamed.

Typical.

Much like his subsequent claim America thought it could win a nuclear exchange. No basis in fact, but apparently he believes literally no opportunity to disparage America should pass untaken.

Robert Cook said...

"A good example of Cook's Blame America First policy. The limiting factor is whether or not the other government is in fact crazy, not whether we characterize them as such."

And yet, Iran's Mullahs are not crazy. How are they so?

William said...

I think their name was the Youthful Martyrs' Brigade. During the war with Iraq, children between the ages of 12-14 were recruited to march across minefields and thus clear them. The Mullahs were willing to use their own children to clear minefields. Don't tell me that they're not crazy......Essentially I'm supporting your point. The mullahs are crazy enough to acquire a nuclear weapon and crazy enough to use it. .....Do you agree with Schell. Our best countermove is to immediately disarm. That will cause the mullahs to stand down. And Kim Jong Un will probably rethink his position because he only has nukes because we do.

Marshal said...

Robert Cook said...
And yet, Iran's Mullahs are not crazy. How are they so?


Is it possible you can be unaware this is irrelevant to my statement? I did not say they are crazy, nor does their being crazy or not have any effect on my statement.

Cedarford said...

Tradguy - "But a reality view of WWII says the entire mess was a race to be the first to government build Leo Szilard's nuclear fission device."

Several countries knew the potential, but didn't bother. They thought it would take too long, insufficient warheads could be made in the projected time to victory or defeat, chose to put their war economy to work building conventional forces that would achieve strategic conquest.

The Germans lost because they could not match the Soviets in land forces. Having 3 bombs would not have made a difference in 1945. They could wipe out 3 Divisions out of 174, or bomb 3 cities and kill another 1/2 million to add to the 22 million Soviets already dead. All "The Bomb" would do would be to escalate Soviet vengence.

In the Pacific, same deal. Would not have helped the Japs achieve victory over the US Navy that had throttled Japan into pending defeat...3 bombs...3 aircraft carriers??? Not a hill of beans given the size of US forces then. And the A-Bomb was more an exclaimation point than the Source of Victory - it saved lives by allowing the Japanese to save face. Otherwise, the war would have been finished by Operation Olympic ground forces taking 0.5-1 million casualties and by LeMay's bombers burning everything that was left.

Peter said...


Of course, it is true that deterrence weapons have failed if the weapons are actually used. In a sense, everyone agrees that they should never be used. The dispute is over how to achieve that

Schell apparently believes the best way is to discard one's nuclear weapons. Or if that's politically impossible then perhaps to threaten their use yet provide ways to make their use less certain if deterrence does fail.

Yet the first leaves one open to nuclear blackmail, and the second is insanely dangerous- for the most dangerous situation of all must be one in which retaliation is threatened, yet perceived by potential enemies as uncertain.

The best way to convince potential enemies that retaliation is a sure thing will always be to set up systems that ensure (to the extent possible) that the weapons really will be used.

It's just hard to follow the logic to any conclusion other than that a world in which overwhelming deterrence is certain is safer than one in which it is not.

Scott M said...

Otherwise, the war would have been finished by Operation Olympic ground forces taking 0.5-1 million casualties and by LeMay's bombers burning everything that was left.

After one gets into a non-101 level of studying the end of the war in the Pacific, it becomes clear that, in sheer numbers of casualties, dropping the a-bombs caused less overall death and injury. Simply look at Olympic and Ketsu Go (the Japanese final plan to defend the home islands) and its obvious.

Aside from the starvation and disease our strategic bombing of their rail lines etc would have caused, Japan would have most likely fractured into localized control, giving the Allies multiple entities to deal with rather than one government allowed to surrender, as said above, saving face.

Those that claim we should never have used the bombs don't understand everything that was in play.

virgil xenophon said...

People here should really worry about Obama's determination to eliminate our ground-based ICBMs in the US and depend entirely upon our submarine force as a deterrent. This act has to be the most singularly stupid things ANY Administration has EVER contemplated. Land-based ICBMs are our most secure part of the triad from attack or sabatoge and must be taken out in any first strike because of they have the heaviest "throw-weight in terms of number/size of warheads. The result, of course, of doing that would guarantee the deaths of tens of millions of American civilians which in turn would automatically guarantee that ANY American President would be forced to retaliate, thus serving as a deterrent to a first strike in the first place.

Moving the ICBM force totally offshore exposes the US to nuclear blackmail. Imagine the following scenario: Our enemies find a way to detect the movement of our submarine fleet and manage to destroy the bulk of our deterrent force in International waters by conventional means, then inform the President that "resistance is futile" as the remaining retaliatory force left would do little more than guarantee the deaths of hundreds of millions of Americans if used while harming Russia and/or little at all.

Can you not hear the Presidents advisers? Especially the squishy ones. The United States proper was not attacked, the argument will go, "all of this took place in International waters and besides, the men were all volunteers, so they knew the risks." "And no nuclear weapons were used, so the "nuclear fire-wall was not breached." they will argue. "So should WE be the first to use nuclear weapons to retaliate to a conventional attack and cause the deaths of hundreds of millions of American citizens?"

Can your lips mouth the phrase "Better Red Than Dead?"

virgil xenophon said...

*** "...and/or China..."

Revenant said...

Well, I don't believe all the world's nukes will ever be destroyed, but there are people in the world who do believe such an achievement is possible.

There are people who believe it is possible Flight 370 was sucked into a black hole.

If one is hopeful (or naive) enough to have this view, MAD will seem to be an inevitable suicide pact.

"Reality is that which, what you stop believing in it, doesn't go away" -- Phillip K Dick

What people believe about universal disarmament has no bearing on what is or isn't true.

A suicide pact is an agreement between two or more people who want to die. Two or more people who DON'T want to die to respond to wrongdoing in kind is a basic strategy called "tit for tat", enormously successful in human and non-human life.

Revenant said...

But the level of destruction in order to achieve deterrence contemplated by MAD's designer, Robert MacNamera was a level that he MacNamera thought would logically deter himself., i.e., 20% of everything both military and civil.

I've seen you claim this several times, and I'm not really sure where you're getting it from.

First of all, MAD was developed by John Von Neumann, not Robert McNamara.

Secondly, even if McNamara thought it was only necessary to destroy 20% of the USSR's capacity (and I can find no source for that claim), what we actually *possessed* was the capacity to destroy in excess of 90% of the USSR's industrial capacity and urban population, including the leaders of the USSR itself. There us no evidence whatsoever that the USSR found this acceptable.

Thirdly, you're confusing the USSR's official tough talk with the actual way the country was run. No Soviet leader would admit that the USSR was in danger of destruction by the USA -- that would be like an American President going to TV to accuse Jesus of raping little boys. But what they would explicitly admit to and what they *implicitly* admitted to are very different. Officially, they weren't worried about the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. In reality, their behavior was exactly like that of a nation that worried about nuclear apocalypse and entirely unlike a nation who expected to come out ahead in a nuclear exchange.

Carl Pham said...

Ironically enough, it was probably Reagan who actually embodied Schell's point. Reagan certainly gave the public impression that he would be instantly willing to execute MAD. Heck, plenty of people -- including Schell and other useful idiots -- believed Reagan would consider a first strike.

But I believe Mike Deaver (I cannot find the reference, since it's hard to cut through Google's natural bias towards lefty sources) said long afterward he doubted very much if Reagan would have actually launched the return strike, and he would probably have known. (Nor was this Deaver trying to burnish Reagan's credentials -- he was horrified at this internal 'weakness'.)

Schell may very well be correct. But if so it's the kind of conclusion you must, to be an effective President, keep so close a secret that nobody knows it. Just like it is possible to hold off a criminal with an unloaded gun -- if he believes you believe it is loaded and will not hesitate to pull the trigger.

Interesting that Ronald Reagan may have been intellectually ahead of New York Times scribblers and perusers, indeed so far ahead they even now can't quite wrap their heads around what he knew and they didn't, and still don't.

cubanbob said...

Robert Cook said...
And yet, Iran's Mullahs are not crazy. How are they so?"

Hate to break it to you Cook but the former president of Iran publicly declared the Iranian nuclear aim was to anhilate Israel simply because it's existance is an abomination. To normal ordinary people that's definite proof of crazy.

Carl Pham said...

I read Schell's book when it came out, and it was long on horrible description of what might happen and rather short on cold calculation on what probably would happen, in the event of nuclear war.

I think you have to put it in context. There is a periodic resurgence in lefty arguments of what I might call the Apocalypse Sermon, which fits naturally in with them because they're all itinerant preacher-hucksters of a snake-charming cult anyway. There was at least one wave in the late 50s, e.g. Pat Frank's "Alas, Babylon," in an effort to make sure Richard Nixon did not succeed the immensely popular Ike in 1960. The other took root in the early 1980s to oppose the equally popular Reagan, who was threatening to erase the useful (to Democrats) memory of Watergate with eight years of prosperity, declining inflation and gas prices, and was the genesis of the nuclear winter scenario and other such interesting speculation.

This is just how lefties think, they're kind of black-and-white people. Nuclear war is not just awful, it will wipe life from the planet. Allowing ignorant schmos to buy handguns isn't just inadvisable, it's blood in the streets, and opposing the PPACA isn't just a policy difference, it's sacrilege ("racism") if not heresy punishable by ostracism or death.

virgil xenophon said...

@Revenant.

I didn't say the Soviets were sure of winning a nuclear war against the US--quite the opposite. What I did say was that a) they thought they might lose given the configuration of the US force posture, but b) they DID believe that "winning" a nuclear war was possible given the right "correlation of forces"--political, economic & military.

Actually the Soviets were much more realistic than America in this matter. America attempted to square the circle created by the existential dilemma posed by the reality that we were not going to risk the entire continent just to save London or Berlin, yet desiring to maintain our NATO commitment. We "solved" this dilemma by convincing ourselves that "limited" tactical nuclear war was possible. (Of course nuclear weapons were "tactical" only in the sense they were to be used on the "tactical" battlefield. Actually most were Hiroshima-sized bombs) The Soviets thought we were crazy if we thought a "tactical" nuclear war could be limited to the continent. What about bombs delivered on the "tactical" battlefield from US airbases in the UK, etc? Did we think the the Soviets wouldn't attack those as well, thus rapidly escalating the war. Besides, given the massive shock and surprise that nuclear weapons possess, great advantages accrue to the one being the first to use them. As such, so the Soviets reasoned, if one was going to end up climbing the escalation ladder eventually, why not leapfrog to the top rung immediately and gain the advantage? Thus the Soviets feared our "first use" doctrine (because of our NATO conventional forces weakness) because they rightly realized it could not be contained and would rapidly lead to world-wide thermonuclear war--a war they might actually "lose." (Additional pressures on first use were the fact that many of our weapons platforms {like the F-4 I flew] used to deliver our tactical nukes were dual use in the conventional role as well. Thus attrition of the force during conventional war was simultaneously attriting our nuclear capability, putting great pressure on commanders (and thus the President) to "use 'em or lose 'em" making escalation to nuclear war all that more rapid.

Further, the Soviets viewed us as just crazy enough to use tactical nukes casually. The old adage that "you fight like you train"/"play like you practice" applies here. We equipped our forces to deliver tactical nukes in Europe, positioned the warheads there and used them in our war-games. Thus the inadvertent US "crazy person" theory won the day and deterred the Soviets. They thought we really were crazy enough to think we could use tactical nukes in Europe and keep the war limited and our outward doctrinal willingness to do so even though it was a fatally flawed policy, deterred the Soviets

Fen said...

Cook: "Success" over these few brief decades being as much pure dumb luck as rational consideration, one cannot assume such success will be maintained over the longer term

Thats rich coming from a guy who insists 15 years of failed model predictions is not enough to debunk Global Warming.

Fen said...

Scott: Japan would have most likely fractured into localized control, giving the Allies multiple entities to deal with rather than one government allowed to surrender, as said above, saving face.

Good point. I'm reminded of the Japaneese vets scattered across some small islands who never got word and were still manning their posts. A Lt. Hiroo Onoda did so for 30 years.

Pettifogger said...

rhhardin says: "The Japanese are still going on about banning all nuclear weapons."

The Japanese have had the luxury of that moral posturing these many years because of the American nuclear umbrella. Now that the American umbrella is no longer credible, let's see what the future has to offer.

Robert Cook said...

"Hate to break it to you Cook but the former president of Iran publicly declared the Iranian nuclear aim was to anhilate Israel simply because it's existance is an abomination. To normal ordinary people that's definite proof of crazy."

Cubanbob:

He said no such thing.

cubanbob said...

Our dear Imam (referring to Ayatollah Khomeini) said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map and this was a very wise statement. We cannot compromise over the issue of Palestine. Is it possible to create a new front in the heart of an old front. This would be a defeat and whoever accepts the legitimacy of this regime has in fact, signed the defeat of the Islamic world. Our dear Imam targeted the heart of the world oppressor in his struggle, meaning the occupying regime. I have no doubt that the new wave that has started in Palestine, and we witness it in the Islamic world too, will eliminate this disgraceful stain from the Islamic world.[78]
The Iranian presidential website stated: "the Zionist Regime of Israel faces a deadend and will under God's grace be wiped off the map," and "the Zionist Regime that is a usurper and illegitimate regime and a cancerous tumor should be wiped off the map." [79]"

So tell me RC how that isn't a threat to annihilate another country in light of the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Robert Cook said...

The statement you quote, assuming it is a literally correct translation, expresses a wish for "the Zionist Regime of Israel" to disappear, but there is no claim that Iran intends to do it, least of all with their (non-existent) nukes, as you claim.


Here is a fuller examination of the speech, which you may take or leave as you will, which provides a different take on Ahmadinejad's statement.

None of this is to say Iran is a shining beacon of liberty in the mideast, but it points out that much of what we are presented in the media about Iran is purposefully demonizing propaganda. We cannot make rational decisions how to deal with other nations in the world, whether friendly or adversarial, without having a true (or as true as possible) picture of who they are.

(As an example in contrast, the "moral equivalent of the founding fathers" whom Reagan praised, the contras, were, in fact, terrorists, a US-backed pack of murderers, an equivalent, one might say, of Al Qaeda in Nicuragua, but without the religious zealotry. Rather, they were fascists.)

Nichevo said...

Dear Robert Cook,

You are very evil and I hope there exists a hell consonant with Dante's conception so that when you die, which the sooner the better, you can occupy the ninth circle along with Jude Wanniski. As a Jew, our concept of Gehenna is not as well defined, but suffice it to say you'll be sorry. If, however, the evil that you espouse is due to insanity, no doubt you will be forgiven.