Friday, June 8, 2007

It's No Longer A Mad, Mad, Mad World

This past weekend, there was a medieval festival in the small village where I live in the South of France. And boys being boys, one of the demonstrations that the Lil' Feller and I spent the most time at was the catapult and cannon exhibit. Lined up side by side, the weapons really brought to life the way in which slow advances in technology expanded the range of our ability to project deadly force. (Or in this case, water balloons. But you get the idea.)

These were simple machines, at first disposable, later more sturdy, that became steadily more accurate and deadly. But it was a process -- of practical needs and technical progress driving design advances -- that lasted centuries. As a result, strategy and tactics had plenty of time to adapt to the new conditions on the battlefield.

Contrast that to the introduction of the atomic bomb in 1945, and the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology. Within a matter of years, our collective destructive capacity accelerated exponentially until it achieved exit velocity. For the first time in history, humanity could not afford to learn the uses of its new arsenal through trial and error.

In retrospect, the greatest achievement of the generation that introduced the Bomb was the strategy it developed immediately afterwards to contain the consequences of its newfound technological capabilities: Mutually Assured Destruction. The counter-intuitive genius of M.A.D. lay in the notion that the surest way to prevent a nuclear launch was to guarantee that the risks always outweighed the potential benefits.

Which explains why anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems were considered so dangerous. By introducing the possibility of surviving a nuclear launch, they undermined the logic of MAD.

As I've mentioned before, the entire dust-up between the Bush administration and Vladimir Putin over the proposed American ABM system based in Poland and Czechoslovakia is a bit mysterious. On the one hand, it's an untested system to counter a non-existent threat. On the other, the idea that ten missile interceptors could seriously inhibit a Russian launch is farfetched.

Putin's opposition may be more posturing than real concern. But in its rush to dismiss it out of hand, the Bush administration has ignored the ways in which, by its very nature, the proposed system violates the logic of MAD. If the only way for Russia to overwhelm the system is to adopt a massive launch strategy, it creates a situation that amplifies the consequences of error and misunderstandings.

By the way, the proposed American system isn't the only example of MAD's recent decline as a guiding principle of nuclear deterrance. According to a recent analysis, the Chinese have begun to deploy nuclear and conventional warheads on the same class of missiles, greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear conflict.

The Cold War might be over, but the doctrine that helped us survive it still serves an important purpose. There's no question that rogue states and global terrorism have created new challenges for nuclear deterrance. But those challenges demand a strategic response that enhances our security. Not an impulsive one that diminishes it.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   Russia   

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