Michael KreponCan Nuclear Deterrence Last?

Fred Charles Iklé did not leave lasting impressions during long stints in government as President Nixon and Ford’s Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and as President Reagan’s Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. In both jobs, he served alongside higher fliers, and he shied away from media attention. Iklé was a thoughtful skeptic of arms control who wrote books on deep subjects in dense prose, such as Every War Must End (1971) and How Nations Negotiate (1964). His most recent book, Annihilation from Within: The Ultimate Threat to Nations (2006) is his most jarring. In it, Iklé argues that “Anarchists and doomsday cults are likely to attack their own country from within, not abroad,” and that nothing is likely “to prevent such an event from happening – save, perhaps, an unending continuance of good luck.”

Iklé felt the same way about nuclear deterrence. His intensely analytical mind could find no satisfactory explanation for the complete absence of a bomb-related nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War.

When I was teaching at the University of Virginia, I used to have my students read his essay, “Can Nuclear Deterrence Last Out the Century?” which appeared in the January 1973 issue of Foreign Affairs. Here are the key passages:

It was Winston Churchill who in 1955 first expounded the essential ideas of mutual deterrence to the world at large. In that celebrated ‘balance of terror’ speech, he made a ‘formidable admission,’ as he himself called it: ‘The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics or dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dugout. This is a blank.’ The most disturbing defect, today, in the prevalent thinking on nuclear strategy is the cavalier disregard for this blank…

Nobody can predict that the fatal accident or unauthorized act will never happen. The hazard is too elusive….

Our arms control experts and military planners insulate themselves from the potential implications of their labors by layers of dehumanizing abstractions and bland metaphors. Thus, ‘assured destruction’ fails to indicate what is to be destroyed; but then ‘assured genocide’ would reveal the truth too starkly….

The jargon of American strategic analysis works like a narcotic. It dulls our sense of moral outrage about the tragic confrontation of nuclear arsenals, primed and constantly perfected to unleash widespread genocide. It fosters the current smug complacence regarding the soundness and stability of nuclear deterrence. It blinds us to the fact that our method for preventing war rests on a form of warfare universally condemned since the Dark Ages – the mass killing of hostages.

Abolitionists and arms controllers have no quarrel with this analysis, but they usually take issue with one of Iklé’s essential remedies – the deployment of missile defenses. Iklé concluded this essay with the thought that, “Mercifully, no human power condemns us to live perpetually in the grim jail of our own ideas.” To replace the genocidal use of nuclear weapons, he proposed, in addition to BMD, “smart” bombs and missiles, and discarding prompt nuclear retaliatory options. “Time is the best healer of mistakes, whether technical or human,” he wrote. “The insistence on speed leaves insufficient time for double-checking; it denies opportunities for correction.”

Iklé believed that the absence of mushroom clouds since World War II ended (other than for atmospheric testing before the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty) could be explained in large measure by luck, and he was unsure that our luck would hold during the remainder of the twentieth century. Will we be as lucky in the twenty-first century?


  1. 3.1415 (History)

    Luck has nothing to do with it. When something that has every reason to go wrong has not gone wrong for 66 years, the chance of it to wrong is very low, even if we know nothing about the mechanism. There could be lots of hypotheses about the mechanism, but should we care? There is no way to prove which hypothesis is correct.

    • Eve (History)

      3.1415 (Pi), Tau is technically better, since you can do away with the “2” in many more equations.

      The “plant” is that MAD keeps us a distance from disaster. I don’t believe this it is at all the case – more likely we are much much closer to an accident (think bomber overflights in Spain).

      “The insistence on speed leaves insufficient time for double-checking; it denies opportunities for correction.” So true.

      If everyone errs on building it in the first place, it’s all for the better.

    • Proliferator (History)

      “When something that has every reason to go wrong has not gone wrong for 66 years, the chance of it to wrong is very low, even if we know nothing about the mechanism.”

      Couldn’t one argue the opposite? As time passes, and the time line shrinks, the likelihood increases?

    • Aaron Tovish (History)

      “Very low.” Now that’s very reassuring! Only someone who is ignorant of the consequence of even a limited nuclear war can take any comfort from the odds of it occurring being ‘very low’.
      Who gave these mandarins of deterrence the right to gamble with literally everything — most of which does not belong to them? They have no such right. They are hostage-takers pure and simple. They are recklessly endangering you, me, and everyone else on this small planet. And now that the scientific details are known (see wwww.nucleardarkness.org) persisting in this foolhardiness is gross negligence of the highest order.
      It is past time to get serious about abolishing nuclear weapons and establishing a nuclear-weapon-free world.

  2. Steven Dolley (History)

    “When something that has every reason to go wrong has not gone wrong for 66 years, the chance of it to wrong is very low, even if we know nothing about the mechanism. There could be lots of hypotheses about the mechanism, but should we care?”

    I’ve jaywalked for 30 years but have never been hit by car. Thus, history proves jaywalking is not dangerous.

  3. John Bragg (History)

    “When something that has every reason to go wrong has not gone wrong for 66 years, the chance of it to wrong is very low, even if we know nothing about the mechanism.”

    Six months ago, we could have said the same about Fukushima. I don’t know that Ilke’s thesis is correct, but your counterargument is flawed.

    “There is no way to prove which hypothesis is correct.”
    Some hypotheses could be disproven, at least, by a nuclear attack of A on B, depending on who A and B are.

  4. Gregory Matteson (History)

    As usual, Churchill got it right, though I question his choice of the term “mutual deterrence”. How can deterrence be mutual when there are 6 or 7 players of different sizes, with differing goals and values? In this crowded world everyone is rubbing elbows, with heightened awareness thanks to the unforeseen internet and global personal communication. What we are seeing in response is the de facto fading of the concept of national sovereignty. Is global hegemony or global governance, in the long run, going to save us from Churchill’s darker words. I doubt it. Group human behavior tends to be chaotic rather than genuinely random.

  5. John Bragg (History)

    Second Thought. In hindsight, both the US and the Soviet Union, post-Stalin, were status quo powers. The Soviet elites who survived Stalin’s purges were the more risk-averse. Britain and France certainly would be classed as status quo powers. China, under Deng, adopted the “peaceful rise” policy–again, the survivors of the chaos and purges of the Great Man phase of the revolution adopted caution. Israel, after 1967, wasn’t looking to overturn the Middle East power structure either.

    We have not seen nuclear weapons in the hands of a Revisionist Power.

    North Korea, for all the Kim family’s crazy, seems to be a status quo power. The Kims rule in the north, the outside world funds the Kims. Any disruption to the flow of tribute leads to “adventures” like the sinking of the South Korean sub, or the shelling of the South Korean island.

    Is India a Revisionist Power? I don’t think so. India wants recognition as a Great Power–Security council seat, recognized nuclear arsenal–but Great Power status seems largely an end in itself.

    Pakistan certainly has ambitions–Kashmir, Afghanistan, perhaps a security role in the Gulf. Especially since the 1998 nuclear tests, Pakistan has used nuclear weapons as a shield to step up jihadist activities, in Kashmir, in Afghanistan and in India proper.

    Could Iran be a revisionist power, once they get the bomb? You could certainly sketch out a scenario where an Iranian nuclear announcement marks the end of US presence in the Gulf–if the US is not willing to fight Iran to block their nuclear program, we’re certainly not going to fight Iran to protect a client state, and if you don’t protect clients, pretty soon you don’t have any. The US presence in Iraq, Qatar and Bahrain quickly becomes untenable for our Arab allies, perhaps after an Iranian show of force–seizure or sinking of a ship, missile attack on a base or on some empty foreign sand, etc.

    An agreement with a nuclear-armed revisionist power is always subject to a Vader Amendment–“I’m changing the deal. Pray that I do not alter it further.”

    • John Schilling (History)

      The United States conspicuously neglected to fight Russia in 1948 or China in 1963, yet US security guarantees to our “client states” were generally considered credible and we did retain a substantial role in European and East Asian geopolitics. It isn’t absolutely certain that we would have fought to protect Germany or Taiwan, but it is far from certain that we would not.

      So I do not think that an Iranian nuclear announcement would mark the end of the US presence in the Gulf. Certainly our allies in the region would prefer we take decisive action to prevent a nuclear Iran, but if the US policy is “we’re OK with Iran having nuclear weapons unless they attack someone, in which case we fight”, what choice does e.g. the Qatari government have but to go along with it? I suppose they could preemptively surrender and negotiate a role as provincial governors in the New Persian Empire, but that seems unlikely…

      This does not, I should add, guarantee the success of deterrence. Quite the opposite, due to the enhanced uncertainty.

      As for “revisionist powers”, I would argue that both Pakistan and Iran are opportunistically revisionist powers – Pakistan w/re Kashmir, and Iran w/re the majority Shiite regions presently under Sunni rule. Given a tempting enough opportunity, deterrence might well fail.

      The desire to revise Israel out of existence, that’s mostly propaganda at the government level – but in part thanks to that propaganda, it’s a sincere populist sentiment in some parts, and governments do sometimes have to make nigh-suicidal concessions to populist sentiment.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      “if the US is not willing to fight Iran to block their nuclear program, we’re certainly not going to fight Iran to protect a client state”

      How many examples are there, really, of a country starting a war to prevent a technological advance? Iraq was supposed to be an example, of course, and many people seemed to find the argument convincing at the time. I have trouble at the moment thinking of another one.

      Gregory Matteson touched on one big difference between the Cold War and the world of today (or, more so, the potential worlds of tomorrow). In the Cold War, there were only two nuclear powers that counted. Bipolarity focused the attention and the arsenals of each toward the other. Secondary nuclear powers existed but barely appeared in the calculations. A world of “6 or 7” nuclear powers, especially if their arsenals were anyhow comparable in size, would add complications. Sudden shifts of alignment (renversements des alliances, as they used to say) could create an overnight imbalance that could drastically change strategic calculations in unexpected ways. And nothing shakes things up like being unexpected. MK, should this be a consideration in moves to reduce the large nuclear arsenals closer to the size of the smaller ones?

  6. John Bragg (History)

    “The United States conspicuously neglected to fight Russia in 1948 or China in 1963, yet US security guarantees to our “client states” were generally considered credible”

    We hadn’t made an issue of Russia (or China) getting nuclear weapons–their nuclear test was a surprise to the US. We didn’t face a choice of A) war against Russia and B) Russia with nukes and chose B. On the contrary, we nearly went to war over the much smaller issue of West Berlin.

    With Iran, we have declared an Iranian nuclear weapon “unacceptable” in the strongest possible terms, under Presidents of both parties. At the same time, we have ruled a military strike against Iran to be unthinkable–the costs that Iran and its clients can impose in Hormuz, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Tel Aviv and at the gas pump are too much for us to bear.

    If we are not/were not willing to face the costs of war with Iran in 2005 or 2007 or today, how will we face the costs of war with a nuclear Iran in 2012? We won’t.

    • John Bragg (History)

      We will follow the C-3PO Doctrine: “Let the Wookie win.”

    • John Schilling (History)

      We will face the costs of war with a nuclear Iran in 2012 in a manner that is presently unknowable, based on (among other things) the costs of not-war with nuclear Iran in 2012. The costs of not-war with Iran in 2005/2007 did not include, e.g., allowing the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to occupy Bahrain in the name of protecting oppressed Shiites. In 2012, it might. And in 2013, those costs may be evaluated by a President other than Obama.

      Your certainty that the United States will never wage war against a nuclear Iran is, I rather suspect, not shared by anyone in the Gulf region. Neither is there any certainty regarding what circumstances might lead to the United States waging such a war.

      Also: We are the Wookie. Seriously, from the point of the rest of the world, that’s us. There’s a suspicion that we might just be a big softhearted walking carpet that makes a lot of ineffectual noise, but we’ve also been known to tear nations apart, there’s no doubt that we still can do so if we feel like it, and most of what we say is incomprehensible to outsiders. Heck, half of us are barely comprehensible to the other half.

    • Stephen Young (History)

      That’s it, I’m getting a t-shirt: “We are the Wookie.”

      Love it, live it!

    • Justus (History)

      DKOECY IMHO you’ve got the right asnewr!

  7. anon (History)

    “…- more likely we are much much closer to an accident (think bomber overflights in Spain).”

    Weapon safety has come along way in 45 yrs. Not infallible, but IHE is a great improvement over Cyclotol/Comp B-3.

  8. Gregory Matteson (History)

    To drive John Bragg’s point further, how many times have US Presidents and Secretaries of State declared a North Korean nuclear weapon unacceptable?

  9. bradley laing (History)

    —Here is one scenario. An extremist group obtains a nuclear device, and makes demands that cannot be met. They detonate the device. Thirty years later, most people assume that nuclear terrorism, like earthquakes and tsunamis, are simply unavoidable.

    —And a hard-cover coffee table book is published called “nuclear tragedy monuments of the world.” It includes the A-Bomb Dome of Hiroshima, the Chernobyl monument, and the monument to the victims of the extremist groups device.

  10. bradley laing (History)

    —A photograph of the Runit Island dome will be in the coffee table book.


    Beneath this concrete dome on Runit Island (part of Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands), built between 1977 and 1980 at a cost of about $239 million, lie 111,000 cubic yards (84,927 cubic meters) of radioactive soil and debris from from 43 atomic and thermonuclear explosions on Bikini and Rongelap atolls between 1948 and 1958. The dome covers the 30-foot (9 meter) deep, 350-foot (107 meter) wide crater created by the May 5, 1958, Cactus test.

    • krepon (History)

      Thanks, Bradley.
      Stunning photos. Never knew about this.

  11. yousaf (History)

    Martin Hellman looked into this: nuclear deterrence is not risk-free.


    • Anon (History)

      Thanks, excellent work! — finally someone who can put numbers on the risk of holding tight to deterrence (or at least risk limits), instead of more words and rhetoric on the topic.

      I hope the study is widely read.

  12. Lugo (History)

    “Fred Charles Iklé did not leave lasting impressions during long stints in government as President Nixon and Ford’s Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and as President Reagan’s Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.”

    Heh, this is no surprise, as very few people who have occupied these positions have made any lasting impressions. It takes a real wonk to name ANY Director of ACDA or USD(P) from the past 60 years. I doubt most Americans could name the *current* USD(P).

  13. Lugo (History)

    “A world of “6 or 7″ nuclear powers, especially if their arsenals were anyhow comparable in size, would add complications. Sudden shifts of alignment (renversements des alliances, as they used to say) could create an overnight imbalance that could drastically change strategic calculations in unexpected ways. And nothing shakes things up like being unexpected. MK, should this be a consideration in moves to reduce the large nuclear arsenals closer to the size of the smaller ones?”

    Exactly right. The US and Russian draw-down has only given other powers an incentive to build, because doing so makes them players — which they could not be when US and Russian force levels were so high that others had no prospect of catching up to them.

    • John Bragg (History)

      With nuclear arsenals, size doesn’t matter. As DeGaulle said, “I truly believe that one does not light-heartedly attack people who are able to kill 80 million Russians, even if one can kill 800 million French, that is if there were 800 million French.” The US is just as deterred by China’s 20 ICBM warheads as by Russia’s thousand.

  14. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I don’t think anarchists or doomsday cults are a real threat. Anarchists as a movement gain influence in direct proportion to the malfunction of the state. There are always anarchists in all societies, but I don’t think they become a ‘problem’ until the state has driven it’s host organism to near failure anyway. Even the doomsday cultists act as a reflection of the state of a military standoff. In times of high tension between nuclear states, the doomsday cults tend to reflect the real chance of nuclear doomsday. In times of minimal military tension they focus on imaginary means of doom. Asteroids and UN “Black Helicopters” are historical examples. One thread a person might read into is the infiltration of the US Air Force Academy and maybe more by evangelical Christians.

    Deterrence is alive and well. We have not yet attacked North Korea, nor have we even invaded and occupied Pakistan with India even though victory in Afghanistan almost demands it. Our real danger lies in the near future as America must disengage with the world and accept instability and upheaval while the world’s balance of power readjusts itself. American strategic analysis is dead, and politics are driven by policy and not interest. As we fall, and the rest of the world rises we will re-learn deterrence at the conventional and strategic level. It’s the transition from a mono-polar world to a poly-power world where the danger lies.

    • Anon (History)

      I agree. The real danger to America is from money-laden lobbyists in DC. It is a perversion of democracy — from one man one vote we have gone to one dollar one vote.

      When rep’s in DC align their voting with the public’s will rather than with the lobbyists wallet we will begin our ascent from the depths we have currently plumbed.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Anon, is it really that simple? Your reasoning assumes two things. A) that the people of a nation are educated enough to guide rational public policy should their reps in government choose to listen. Or that B) raw emotion alone is enough of an effective guide, and that our reps in government should choose to listen. 30 years ago the body politic had a lot more of A and B. During the arms limitations talks of the 1970’s and 80’s I do remember the popular press reading a more lot like “Arms Control Wonk” than it does today, and the streets were filled with an awful lot of raw emotion. Today, I think we have an awful lot of B and very little of A.

      Representative government is in part based on the premise that the electorate can be a mob and that part of the job of a representative is to not allow base fear, greed, emotion etc drive policy. However, I think the US government really does reflect the base level of the electorate and has done nothing to try and elevate the level of discussion on any level. Look at the past 10 years of US investment in the means of force to conduct diplomacy. Compare that to the results. No matter where you stand on the issue of use of armed force, or controls over the use of armed force, one very simple fact is screaming in our collective face. It’s not working, our return on investment simply sucks. Yet no institution, Left, Right, center, no established entity even at the blog level deals with this very simple observation. The problem is systemic. I which it was a simple problem like government corruption, I think it’s much worse than that. The body politic is broken, it currently cannot function at the base level required to deal effectively with the problems presented by military force and the means of controlling it.

    • kme (History)

      It seems to me that, like entropy, the malfunction of a state tends only to increase with time.

  15. FSB (History)

    Iklé suggestion of missile defense as a prescription for reducing nuclear dangers would be sensible if it worked and if it did not lead to more nuclear weapons in the hands of adversarial states.

    Iklé thesis makes the common mistake of the fallacy of the last move.

  16. Ward Wilson (History)

    As Karl Wallenda would have said (if he hadn’t fallen to his death at the age of 73 after 67 years of walking tightropes) “Just because you walk a tightrope every day of your life for sixty-seven years, doesn’t make it safe.”

  17. Martin Claybold (History)

    Some concrete steps need to be taken to forward the idea of Nuclear Deterrence or else, human beings would be an extinct species.

  18. John Golds (History)

    With nuclear deterrence relying upon the principle of mutually assured destruction, which is itself possible because of second strike capabilities, as technology improves to counter second strike platforms, the whole principle of mutually assured destruction is undermined, thus making a first strike viable, potentially ending strategic nuclear deterrence?

    Take a look at ESA’s Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer with sensitivity comparable to measuring the weight of a feather landing on an oil tanker, and also the ESA’s magnetic field mission Swarm actually designed to monitor minute temporal magnetic fluctuations in the sea, perhaps the technology to monitor submarine movements by satellite observation of gravity and magnetism has already arrived? This could remove SLBM’s from second strike action.

    Whilst Hard and Deeply Buried Targets such as ICBM’s could be taken out of the second strike equation by the B61 Mod 11 hardened penetration bomb with a reinforced casing and delayed action fuse, or even the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.

    Ultimately second strike could become redundant, and nuclear deterrence along with it?

    • Dr. Stangelove (History)

      While the capabilities of these two satellite programs may seem promising to you and others for the goal of ‘making the ocean’s transparent’, you may not understand the difficulties in moving from a science experiment to an effective system able to find, fix, target, track, attack, and assess.

      Imagine the amount of resources (cashola) required to build a constellation of satellites able to continuously monitor the oceans to F2T2A2 SSBNs. Not just RDT&E an operational system, but launch a fleet of satellites comparable in number (at least) to the GPS constellation, and the O&M to sustain and employ such a system.

      And such as system could be defeated with signature masking and decoys at a favorable cost/benefit ratio for us.

      It would bankrupt (again) Russia and China has bigger fish to fry, such as stocking our WalMarts and building out their internal infrastructure.

    • Dr. Strangelove (History)

      The idea of the oceans becoming transparent by nature of some technological innovation received play clear back in the 1978 time frame.

      Anyone remember SeaSat?

      The conspiracy theory was that SeaSat could detect subtle patterns in ocean waves/sea heights caused by submerged SSBNs.

      See ‘Conspiracy Theory’..scroll down the page…




      So here is the deal: If these technologies bore the promised fruit, then why would the U.S. continue to plan to build and employ SSBNs (the Ohio-class-replacement/SSBN-X) to take the SSBN capability through 2080 (50-year planned hull lives)?


      Finally, if such a breakthrough had occurred and was being employed in an operationally relevant way, we would have heard about it.

      Two people can keep a secret, as long as one of them is dead.

  19. bobbymike (History)

    Deterrence works until it doesn’t.

  20. Dr. Strangelove (History)

    I invite the principals at ArmsControlWonk.com to engage in some investigative journalism about this ‘DoD-led 90-day mini-NPR’ which has supposedly been commissioned by the administration very recently.

    From the URL linked at the end of this post:

    And this is a quotation, “reviewing our strategic requirements and developing options for further reductions in our current nuclear stockpile.” And pointed out that, “to develop these options for further reductions we need to consider several factors, such as potential changes in targeting requirements and alert postures that are required for effective deterrence.” And we now have reports that the department of Defense may very soon initiate a 90-day sort of mini-NPR at the direction of the NSC.


    • Anon (History)

      says “The National Academy of Sciences has done an assessment of the technical issues associated with the ability to detect and identify underground nuclear explosions. And it’ll come out one of these days. It’s been given to the administration but, of course, it hasn’t been given to the Congress, which I think demonstrates its lack of objectivity and their lack of neutrality. Also, if you look at the study panel, with few exceptions, it is loaded with people who are known treaty proponents.”

      Horse do-do.

      Peter Huessy and Kyl and Co. love the Academies when they say anything in their favor and hate it when they don’t

      The National Academy’s reports are known to be as close to objective as one can get in DC.

  21. Gregory Matteson (History)

    Worser and worser. The bigpeace.com link above is from a guy by the name of Breitbart, a known internet hoaxer and forger.

    • Dr. Strangelove (History)

      Gregory and Anon:

      Forget the fact that this info is posted on a site hosted by Andrew Breitbart, that is a non-sequitur.

      Senator Kyl can and will say what he wants to serve his own ends…but…my curiosity is piqued by this allegation that DoD has been directed by the Administration to undertake a 90-day ‘Mini-NPR’.

      If this is true, the administration is likely seeking further arms reductions IMO, which is begging the ire of Senator Kyl, who is a champion of the nuclear status quo wrt numbers of WHs and launch vehicles.

      Therefore, this snippet of intelligence is very much on-topic wrt nuclear deterrence (the topic of this post) and arms control (armscontrolwonk.com)…agree?

      Info posted here as well…


      Seems as if ACW.com, Nukes of Hazard, and Union of Concerned Scientists’ external scanning mechanisms may not be detecting a potentially interesting story here….if there is a there there.

    • DR. S (History)

      Forget Breitbart and Kyl.

      Focus on the allegation that the adminsitration has directed DoD to conduct a 90-day ‘Mini-NPR’!

      If the administration is seeking more cuts in ODSNW and SDVs (advances in arms control), then that is the story that is interesting to us.

      On-topic? Yes…this is armscontrolwonk.com

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Dr. S.

      Asst Sec Rose Gottemoeller mentioned the strategic forces review and discussed future negotiation plans in remarks to the Naval Academy on April 20.


  22. Gregory Matteson (History)

    To bring a more topical point to the latest here; aren’t confidence and trust necessary for a stable deterrence? Isn’t reliable information a recognized ingredient of international stability. As Nixon said, “trust but verify”

    I think of diverse types of examples; the international agreements not to interfere in “national technical means”; the awful example of what bluff, misdirection, and bad information brought between Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush.

    It seems to me the only uncertainty we have suffered that has helped prevent nuclear war is the uncertainty we have in how our systems would perform under the pressures and circumstances of an actual war.

    For example, if you had a hypothesized working system for tracking boomers, would you seriously rely on it to start WWIII?

    • John Bragg (History)

      You probably wouldn’t use it to start World War III, but you’d be more likely to push your luck in games of “nuclear chicken.”

      Power A has the ability to detect, track and eliminate SSBNs. (Always, they think. But you can never be sure…)

      Power B does not have the ability to eliminate Power A’s SSBNs.

      Power A _probably_ (99.9% chance) won’t launch a “bolt from the blue” strike. But they are more likely to press the issue in confrontations, knowing that Power B is likely to back down.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Certainly neorealists would say that trust and confidence are not necessary for mutual deterrence, although those elements might form the basis for a more institutionalized and less nerve-wracking mutual deterrence. The basic requirements would be a fear of the other side attacking and the capacity to keep up in an arms race. But, as I noted before, they were thinking about it in a stable, bipolar context.

      By the way, it was Reagan who said, “Trust but verify.”

    • Dr. Strangelove (History)

      How confident are you that it is a ‘working system’? 100%?

      And you said it is a tracking system…does that mean it you have the capability to shoot down all the bombers and cruise missiles…with 100% confidence?

      And if these answers are magically ‘Yes’…why would Russia or the U.S. or any rational state-actor wish to ‘Start WWIII’? How would that serve the aggressor’s goals? How would razing another country feed one’s own people, cloth them, house them, etc?

      Listen up: The nuclear ‘Enterprise’ is a self-licking ice-cream cone…it exists on sheer momentum and more importantly it pays an awful lot of mortgages and car payments and college tuitions and it props up a lot of company share prices, dividends, etc. Could you even imagine the glut of foreclosed very nice houses if all the NNSA contractors and feds were unemployed? How about the folks who make and sustain the delivery systems and C4ISR support systems?

      Can you say ‘Middle-to-Upper-middle-class jobs program’?

  23. Amy (History)

    Can Nuclear Deterrence Last?

    Yes, but not very long. Is this really complicated?

  24. Gregory Matteson (History)

    Indeed, we do like to presume that, with the possible exception of the North Koreans, all the players are rational, don’t we?

    • Amy (History)

      Rational and irrational players have accidents.

      Cuba proved that Russia and US (to less extent) are irrational players anyway.