Nuclear Friday: Assured Destruction

Back home in Scotland

One of the most important concepts in nuclear war planning is deterrence. A nuclear armed power must convince the opposing side that any nuclear attack will be met with a response on a sufficient scale that any advantage an opponent might gain by attacking first will be counterbalanced by an unacceptable level of destruction. This level of destruction is usually considered sufficient when the power being attacked can respond in a way that threatens the survival of the attacking power as an intact political entity. When two powers have this ability with respect to each other, the result is mutual assured destruction, or MAD for short.

The biggest problem with deterrence through assured destruction is that a nuclear armed power might be able to destroy enough of an opposing power’s capacity to cause destruction that they might be tempted to launch a first strike. This is obviously very bad  for whoever is getting attacked. It’s also an unstable negotiating position. So let’s take a look at some of the ways that a power can maintain its capacity for assured destruction:

  • Fortification and Dispersal: Every power that has ever had land-based missiles has put them in hardened underground silos. You also need to protect communications and key personnel even more. Missiles can’t be launched (usually) if no one is there to give the orders or communications are lost. The Internet developed from an ARPA project to build a communications network that could survive nuclear attack. NORAD’s command center was buried under Cheyenne Mountain. Soviet control centers were similarly fortified. The  Soviets built a few types of mobile missile launchers and moved them around in Siberia making targeting difficult. And of course, the ultimate way to disperse and hide is to put missiles in submarines. But submarines are actually a mix of more than one item on this list, so I will discuss them separately. Fortification and dispersal reduce tension for the most part, and are thus “ethical” policies.
  • Delegation: Destruction can be assured by delegating authority to use nuclear weapons to commanders who are located away from the most important command and control targets. If civilian commanders and high level military officials are killed, lower level commanders can launch an attack. This has obvious risks. In the film Dr Strangelove. a general launches an attack using a War Plan R, a plan that was intended to be used only when the US had been attacked first. In spite of these risks, there have been times when the US has delegated a great deal of authority to the Looking Glass backup command center. And in the US and UK, there are conditions under which some commanders can launch nuclear weapons with no orders from the government. This is still the case even today, and I’ll write more about that later on in this post.
  • Launch on Warning: The “use it or lose it” policy. All weapons systems vulnerable to a first strike are to be readied and used at the first warning of a nuclear strike. It’s why the president carries the Nuclear Football. This is a very obviously risky policy. Yet launch on warning was official policy of the US and Soviet Union for decades and might still be US policy today. 99 Luftballoons is based on two real incidents when the US went on full alert and came close to launching. It was based on a false warning in 1979 that almost sent the missiles flying. The idea that children’s balloons might lead to nuclear war was based on a much earlier incident when migrating birds visible on radar were interpreted as a Soviet attack on the middle east.
  • Automation: Yes, very much like the Doomsday Device from Dr Strangelove. They were first discussed in the 1950’s, but to the concept was abandoned for reasons that were “all too obvious” as the movie says. But in 1983 the Soviets implemented a system called Dead Hand, a system that would automatically launch weapons when a specific set of conditions was met . This sounds completely insane, but they seem to have been pretty careful about making sure it would fire only after a very heavy attack. The system was put into place in response to the recently deployed MX missile.

And finally Submarines: I want to discuss them separately because they are a mix of the dispersal and delegation strategies discussed above. The ocean is big and submarines are hard to find. Submarines are generally considered to be a stabilizing influence. Because they can survive a first strike and carry sufficient weapons to wreak assured destruction, they make a nuclear armed power less reliant on dangerous launch on warning policies. However, if a power may still lose communications during a first strike and would thus be unable to send launch orders for a retaliatory strike, thus rendering the submarines  no deterrent at all. This is why since the earliest days of the Polaris missile submarines there have been conditions under which the crew of the submarine can launch its missiles with no orders or authorization codes. I knew that in the case of US Trident submarines such a launch involved accessing special codes locked in a vault, and four officers in two different parts of the submarine essentially voting to launch in unison with any “don’t launch” overriding any votes from the other officers.

The UK seems to follow a similar policy. I found this out only recently when I came across this little video. I highly recommend watching it.


One of this blog’s readers specifically asked for my views on the controversy surrounding the Trident II missile system operated by the Royal Navy. From my vantage point as a “nuke geek” teenager in the 1980’s US I remember strong resistance to Trident both from   peace activists and in Parliament. What I did not know was that this controversy started within the US Navy itself in the mid 1970’s a few years before Britain joined the Trident II development program in 1983. I thought UK opposition was just general peace activism from nuclear freeze groups, opposition to whatever Thatcher wanted, concerns about cost and deployment schedule, and nationalist fears about the US and UK defense industries becoming too intertwined.

Yes, these were all concerns in the UK, but there was also dissent within the ranks of the Royal Navy that Trident II was not a proper weapons system for the mission of deterrence through assured destruction.

These were the same concerns the US Navy had when what would become Trident II was first assigned a Navy department in the 70’s. The US Navy had developed the Polaris and Poseidon missile systems solely as a deterrent, not as a first strike system. Many in the Navy had ethical objections to a first-use policy. None of this really mattered because launching a missile from a submarine and getting to the target accurately was so difficult that no submarine based system would be accurate enough to dig out hardened missile silos and command centers. But a 1974 study by the US Department of Defense recommended that the the development of a new highly accurate submarine launched missile. For the next couple of years this was just a research program, but the Carter administration decided to build Trident and  Congress fully funded the program in 1977. One of the lead designers resigned in protest because he saw Trident as getting the Navy into the first strike business.

As it turned out, Carter and Sec Def. Harold Brown were in a hurry to upgrade the Poseidon system and fund some new submarines. They backed Trident I, an extended range and somewhat more accurate version of Poseidon that was not controversial. Trident I came along in 1979 and was deployed in existing submarines. The Ohio Class subs funded at this time didn’t set sail until 1981. They carried Trident I, but were capable of carrying the proposed Trident II which was still in the research stage.

Trident II was so controversial within the US Navy that even Reagan wouldn’t back it fully until 1983, and then only after getting assurances that Thatcher would back it too.

So I learned something new for this Nuclear Friday.

This entire post is very incomplete. I welcome any questions and comments.





5 thoughts on “Nuclear Friday: Assured Destruction

  1. Thanks for this! Fascinating stuff. I know only the political objections to Trident (and my personal one, that as you bring out here I fail to see the point of it in a world where asymmetric warfare is far more likely than the conventional Cold War military conflicts it is designed for).

    The US objections to it, I had no clue about. I have mates and comrades who have been involved in varying degrees with the Faslane peace camp and anti-Trident protests, including a few who’ve been arrested for it. It is very much a hot topic in Scotland -our governing party in the Scottish Parliament is opposed to the siting of Trident in Scottish waters and this has led to conflict with the UK Parliament. It is really fascinating to get an outside take on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Trident II never got deployed until 1991-1993, when the Cold War was coming to an end. I actually think a counterforce weapon makes more sense these days. Suppose North Korea really could make an effective nuclear weapon and mount it on an unhardened missile in a remote area. Suppose they threatened to launch that weapon into a populated area of Japan. Don’t you think it’s ethical to splash the launch with a 100-300 kT nuke from a Trident if that’s all you got and we’re dealing with tens of thousands of deaths in Korea compared to near a million deaths in Japan?


      1. I lived in Japan with regular panics about where NK could reach with nukes (near enough to Fukuoka for it to be a serious worry for a lot of people). NK have neither the infrastructure nor the technological capacity for me to feel concerned. What they want people in Japan to believe is that they have this shit and that they will use it if provoked, because the idea of NK being an unstable actor on the world stage gets them appeased.

        (Incidentally, have you seen NK’s subs? Museum pieces).

        I’d be more concerned about an unstable NK attacking Seoul (incredibly unlikely) than I would be about them launching nukes at any time. Most of what NK does is posturing, with enough real danger to get them concessions. They are not a serious threat.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. NK is a hedgehog. They are dug in and have one good trick, attacking Seoul with lots of artillery, including chemical weapons.

    If NK could ever get a nuclear launch system off the ground I think Japan or the US wold attack it with conventional weapons

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s