IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD

Or maybe it isn’t. There’s plenty of good stuff in the latest Atlantic, for those wise enough to subscribe – Paul Elie on the papal election, Caitlin Flanagan on oral sex – but perhaps the most fascinating piece is from Ben Schwarz, writing on the potential demise of mutually assured destruction. We’ve known for a while that our nuclear supremacy has been increasing since the end of the Cold War, as our arsenal improves, Russia’s military decays, and China’s remains static. But now there’s evidence that our supremacy is so great that we could, for the first time, actually win a nuclear war outright by destroying the enemy’s entire arsenal in a first strike. Or at least that’s the conclusion of a forthcoming RAND study, cited by Schwarz. Here’s what it found:

In a feat of technical sophistication and strategic insight, [the authors] have modeled a U.S. first strike against Russia. (Although China is Washington’s most probable great-power rival, the authors argue, Russia presents a “hard case” for their contention that America has achieved nuclear ascendancy.) That model, which they presented at the Council on Foreign Relations in October, has been vetted by most of the top civilian defense analysts. To be conservative, it assumes that U.S. nuclear weapons will perform with much less accuracy and reliability than should be expected. Even so, the authors conclude, a U.S. attack today would destroy the entire Russian nuclear arsenal. To grossly oversimplify: the erosion of Russian capabilities, combined with new, overwhelming warhead yields and the “accuracy revolution” in U.S. nuclear forces, has largely obviated the problems of “fratricide” (the prospect that U.S. missiles on the attack would destroy each other, leaving their targets safe) that once helped make a disarming strike impossible to achieve.

Schwarz’s piece is primarily about the dangers associated with this imbalance. Since “Moscow and Beijing will surely buy deterrence by spreading out their nuclear forces, decentralizing their command-and-control systems, and implementing ‘launch on warning’ policies,” he argues, there’s a greater chance that a future crisis will spiral out of control, leading to “the unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons.”

This is a serious concern, and I hope that I don’t minimize it when I say that my initial, gut-level, Cold-War-geek reaction to this news can be summed up in just one word: cool.

– posted by Ross

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