Nuclear blackmail is nothing I ever thought I’d have to worry about as an adult.
I came of age politically during some of the hottest days of the Cold War, when President Ronald Reagan was speaking justly of an “evil empire” bent on domination, and both superpowers bristled with nuclear arsenals several times larger than the ones we possess today.
But I slept soundly back then, knowing that MAD would likely prevent a civilization-ending nuclear war.
Our policy of MAD — Mutual Assured Destruction — was based on a brutal truth: even a massive Soviet nuclear first strike wouldn’t be enough to take out our second-strike ability to wipe them out, too.
MAD turned global thermonuclear war into an unwanted suicide pact, and it helped keep the uneasy peace between the US and the USSR.
Then we won the Cold War, and the US and Russia began a strategic builddown of nuclear weapons that continues to this day.
Well, it continues for us. For Russia and now China — both building up their nuclear forces in ways we simply aren’t — nuclear war against the US is starting to look mighty tempting.
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China is engaging in what the Pentagon calls a “strategic breakout.” Over the last few months, it’s been revealed that Beijing is constructing silos for an additional 230 nuclear-tipped ICBMs.
As I reported to you back in July:
Assuming Beijing stuffs those new silos with their latest DF-41 ICBM, the country would easily double its current count of nuclear warheads — and radically increase its ability to hit targets across the entire continental United States.
That’s just if China sticks a measly single warhead in each DF-41. However, the missile is believed to be able to deliver between three and 10 multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles [MIRVs] — AKA, nuclear warheads.
The United States Air Force has an active duty roster of 450 Minuteman III (LGM-30G) missiles that first entered service in 1970, the year after the Apollo 11 moon landing.
While the Minuteman III was designed to carry multiple warheads, they’re limited by the US-Russia New START agreement to a single warhead each.
Meanwhile, Russia has just ordered two more nuclear ballistic missile subs, and is busy working on novel nuclear delivery systems that are not covered by the same New START limitations as our Minuteman III missiles.
Russia is also expected to start fielding the RS-28 Sarmat “super-heavy” ICBM next year, each one capable of delivering 10-15 MIRV warheads.
I know I mentioned that our 400 Minutemen missiles carry but one warhead apiece, but I’d like to reiterate that point before we get to the real nightmare stuff.
In a new piece headlined “The Math Is Bad for MAD,” defense specialists Norman Haller and Peter Pry paint a scary picture of what could happen in the near future:
MAD proponents would argue that, even with a surprise attack, the ballistic-missile submarines at sea would survive the initial assault—assuming that emerging Russian or Chinese technologies have not enabled knowledge of the submarine positions and a way to attack them. Those submarines would retaliate with 100s of nuclear warheads, confirming the efficacy of MAD.
Whoa! If MAD worked as advertised, there would have been no disarming first strike!
Look at the math. Adversaries who could destroy two-thirds of America’s nuclear Triad (land-based missiles and bombers plus sea-based missiles) with only a portion of their nuclear arsenal and still have 1,000s more nuclear warheads to threaten America with its surviving 100s might very well conclude a disarming attack to be completely rational.
The authors concluded that “Except for collateral damage, U.S. cities, key industrial capabilities, many important military and government facilities, major elements of national infrastructure, and most of America’s population would have survived the disarming attack.” However, “Those survivors would be the next-threatened targets of 1,000s of remaining Russian or Chinese nuclear warheads.”
In the immediate aftermath of a disarming strike on our Minuteman missile silos, an American president would be faced with an unpleasant choice.
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He could launch our sub-based missiles at nuclear bases in China and Russia, but the fact is that we don’t have enough sea-launched warheads to disarm either China or Russia. Both countries would maintain enough warheads and delivery systems to strike back at the only targets left to them: America’s population and industrial centers.
Or the president could accept the new status quo: Several ruined states — an economic and environmental disaster unequaled in history — and a prostrate America subject to the whims of Beijing and Moscow.
MAD is dying, strangled by Chinese and Russian arms, and we invite our own destruction when we can no longer make it mutual.
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