War Powers, War Lies: Part 23: MADness


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War Powers, War Lies: A Series

 Part 23: MADness


Published in the Maryland Daily Record June 25, 2007


“Hell of a weapon, really, when you come to think of it.  Imagine these damned things shooting up out of the sea anywhere in the world and blowing some capital city to smithereens.  We’ve got six of them already and were going to have more.  Good deterrent when you come to think of it.  You don’t know where they are or when.  Not like bomber bases and firing pads and so on you can track down and put out of action with your first rocket wave.” 


            With these words of the character Felix Leiter describing George Washington-class nuclear submarines armed with Polaris missiles, from the 1961 James Bond thriller Thunderball, Ian Fleming aptly summarized the evolving status of nuclear deterrence at that moment.


            Last time, we discussed how incendiary weapons (including nuclear bombs) actually had little battlefield use.  And, as we shall see, this rapidly made the world a very dangerous place.  Leiter’s quoted monologue represents about the halfway point in paradoxical efforts to make the world safer by making it more dangerous.


            There were three problems with the initial nuclear weapons that left them really only suitable for use against civilians. 


            First was survivability.  A bomb had to survive  to be deployed, and then had to survive until it reached its target.  Bombers could be destroyed on the ground by incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and in the air by anti-aircraft fire and fighters.  ICBMs were at least vulnerable to the former. 


            Second was precision.  The history of WWII bombing made clear that aircraft, at the mercy of wind conditions, anti-aircraft fire, visibility problems, etc., could not be counted on to deliver bombs to small, precise targets like military installations and units.


            Third was intelligence.  Even if U.S. bombs could have been delivered with pinpoint accuracy, it would not have been easy to target them.  Many military targets (e.g. units, ships, or missiles mounted on railcars or trucks) move.  And in the early Cold War days, mobile targets were hard to track.  Spy planes could only provide snapshots.  And at the outset the same was true of satellites.  The latter might take photos from space, but they would then need to be brought down and retrieved, and the film inside developed.  Consequently, the freshest available satellite intelligence might be a month old.


            The first problem dictated that nuclear weapons deliverable from a stealthy source, like a nuclear (and therefore untraceable) submarine, were at a high premium, because they were invulnerable to a first strike.  This necessitated heavy reliance on Polaris missiles, which U.S. submarines initially delivered.  But Polaris was notoriously imprecise (the second problem).  Coupling that deficit with perennial intelligence problems (the third), the bottom line was that, just as Felix Leiter said, U.S. nuclear strategy pointed most strongly toward “blow[ing] some capital city to smithereens.”  Soviet cities were large (and so harder to miss) and immobile (meaning no real time intelligence was required to locate them).  They – and their populations – therefore became prominent targets.


            And so, for similar reasons, did U.S. cities and their populations.  And after a certain early point, each side, we and the Soviets both, had submarine launch pads that assured that, no matter who struck first (perhaps destroying the other side’s aircraft and land-based missiles), the other side would still be capable of laying the first striker’s cities to waste.  This reality was known as MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction.  MAD was understood to assure that neither side would strike the other first. 


            Actually, there was never much risk that either would strike the other first.  But the U.S. continued to plan against the contingency that the Soviets would roll their armor through Germany into Western Europe, a thrust assumed to require us to respond with nuclear weapons.  And the Soviets continued to expect us to strike first, as much because of their wartime experience with Hitler’s surprise attack while there was a nonaggression treaty in place, as because of the fact that the U.S. refused to take a no-first-use pledge. 


            The madness (never mind inserting an acronym) of this course of action did not stop with contemplation of the effective loss of all of our cities.  There was a substantial risk of ecological catastrophe as well.  Carl Sagan and colleagues published an influential 1983 paper which popularized the phrase “nuclear winter.”   It appeared to them that if a substantial portion of the world’s nuclear arsenal were detonated, the result would be a flooding of the upper atmosphere with fine particles that would becloud the sun’s rays for long enough to kill off most of the agriculture in at least the northern hemisphere.  While subsequent research has moderated the direness of these predictions slightly,  the science seems basically to sound to this layman.


            In short, planning for nuclear contingencies required national leaders to contemplate the instantaneous destruction of vast portions of their own citizenry – and that of all the other nations too.  Madness indeed.


            It was not that presidents sought out national self-immolation and world eco-catastrophe as war powers; it was that they could not avoid getting to that point once the logic of nuclear weapons was first embarked upon.  There is a fascinating memoir by William Odom, a member of the Carter administration’s National Security Council, on the state of the planning they found when Carter came to power in 1977.   Assuming the arrival of a nuclear crisis, the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP), effectively left the President with a 10-12-minute window in which to initiate a nuclear war; he had no viable alternatives about how to do it, despite lip service having been paid by a generation of planners to limited nuclear options, and the SIOP did not meaningfully address what would happen more than 12 hours out.  Hence even if the President survived, he would have had no guidance how to navigate the country or the world through recovery from unimaginable destruction.


            Fortunately, things have improved in certain ways.  First, the technical hurdles that kept military units from replacing cities as the main targets of nuclear weapons have been largely cleared.  For instance, the Trident, which replaced Polaris, is much more precise.  We now have telemetry, so that our satellites can give us real-time intelligence on the activity and location of military units and assets, diverting nukes from cities to more strategic targets.  The number of nuclear weapons has decreased because of arms limitation treaties.  Most important, the Cold War has ended, and the world’s two chief nuclear antagonists are much less committed to destroying each other.


            What remains, however, (in addition to the legacies of nuclear proliferation and the diffusion of fissile material and knowhow in a world full of rogue states and terrorists) are bad mental habits that take us ever further from the Founders’ notion of war as something initiated by the nation’s elected representatives.  Only the Executive could exercise war powers that must be wielded in under 12 minutes.  Owing to the logic of nuclear arms embodied in SIOP, then, Congress had ceased to exist for planning purposes, even though nuclear war would determine the fate of millions and the planetary ecology – obvious policy decisions, especially appropriate for legislative discretion.  Once you take the Legislature out of the decision-making on such matters, you gravely alter the checks and balances system.


            Next time we shall see that even in a somewhat post-nuclear world, the damage to checks and balances goes on.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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