MAD is Not Bad
Robert McNamara was US secretary of Defense under
John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, when he conceived the theory
of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). He spoke with NPQ in Washington.
NPQ | President Bill Clinton has proposed a limited missile shield
for the United States. Presidential candidate George W. Bush has called
for a broader national shield as a more ethical substitute for the Cold
War strategy of "mutually assured destruction" as well as unilateral
US nuclear reductions.
As the person who conceived the MAD theory, what is your response?
ROBERT McNAMARA | Bushs proposal for unilateral reductions
of nuclear weapons vis a vis the Russiansdisassociated from his
position on ballistic missile defenseis a major step forward because
he seems to understand that deterrence does not require an equality in
the number of missiles each side has. He is quite correct to say that
we should not let our force levels be determined by that of the Russians.
I also give him great credit for wanting to reduce the danger of accidental
launch of nuclear warheads by removing hair-trigger alert.
Bush doesnt put it this way, but he is really asking what the US
needs minimally to achieve stability of deterrence. To answer this question,
one needs to understand the basic intellectual foundations of the mutually
assured destruction concept: There is no other basis for stability of
deterrence between two nuclear-equipped opponents than the confidence
on each side that they have the capability to absorb a first strike from
the other side with sufficient weapons surviving to inflict unacceptable
damage on the opponent when launching a second strike.
When I developed this concept in 1961, I determined that the United States
needed 400 surviving warheads to deter the Russians from a first strike.
How did we end up, then, with 15,000 on each side at the height of the
Cold War? Because we didnt have enough spies, enough information,
to know their intentions. We built up according to a worst-case scenario
of Soviet production capabilities down the road (which, it turned out,
exceeded their intentions at the time). And once they saw us building
up more than they thought we would, they responded in kind. That is where
MAD gave way to an arms race.
However, the idea of supplanting MAD with a ballistic missile defense
is just dangerously wrong. It is clear from experience that any attempt
by a nuclear-equipped power to erect a defense will cause a buildup on
the other side.
In November 1966, when I met with President Lyndon Johnson in Austin,
Texas, to go over the proposed defense budget, we had photographs that
showed the Russians had begun to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system
We assumed it would be insane for them to deploy it just around Moscow
and, therefore, concluded this was a first step toward a nationwide system.
In response, the Congress wanted appropriations for the deployment of
a US ballistic missile defense system.
I opposed this, arguing that the proper response was a further buildup
of the US nuclear force to compensate for any losses caused by their defense.
When President Johnson made this case to (Soviet Premier Alexei) Kosygin
in 1967, I remember Kosygin pounding the table and making the opposite
case: "Defense is moral, offense is immoral."
But that is absurd.
In the end, we pursued a joint track of no defense and limits on offense.
Ultimately, that led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the SALT
arms reduction treaties.
My theory was then, and my belief is today, that you cannot limit offensive
weapons by treaty in the face of an unlimited defense. If one side is
limited by treaty to, say, 3000 warheads and the other side installs a
defense system with no restraints, at some point that unlimited defense
will kill so many of those 3000 warheads that "unacceptable damage"
cannot be assured and stability of deterrence is lost.
That is what underlies the linkage between the antiballistic missile (ABM)
treaty and limits on offensive weapons.
And that is why it is crazy when President Clinton, George W. Bush or
anyone else talks about a rather vague, poorly described US deployment
of defense in the face of a statement that we will introduce unilateral
reductions in offense, or in Clintons case, seek reductions with
the Russians to 2500 missiles. The other side will never go for
NPQ | What went through your mind in 1966 when the Russians deployed
a defensive system is, then, exactly what is going through the minds of
Chinese and Russian strategists today?
McNAMARA | Exactly. Why? Because the United States is not clear
what it means by a missile defense. Clinton says he is only talking about
100 missiles in Alaska to defend against North Korea, but he has also
said that might be followed with another deployment a few years later
to strengthen the system.
This is not what Bush has in mind, and it is certainly not what many Republicans
have in mind. Bush has mentioned a three-stage program: first, 100 in
Alaska; then 100 in North Dakota; and, ultimately, a space-based element.
This space-based element is the most ill-defined and carries a potential
for a "kill capability" of any enemys missiles far greater
than the first two combined.
That is what the Russians see. They think, "My God, these people
are out of their minds. The Americans are really thinking about a missile
shield that will make our offensive weapons inadequate" and destabilize
our deterrent relationship.
NPQ | From the standpoint of the national interests of Russia and
China, then, they would be justified in responding to the US plans with
a nuclear arms buildup?
McNAMARA | If we were in their shoes, I can tell you, that is exactly
what we would do. We Americans will argue among ourselves, some saying
this defense system will make us perfectly secure and others saying it
Not knowing, how will the Russians or Chinese ever accurately appraise
the "kill capability " of our defense system? How can a leader
charged with defending his own country respond? He can only do the responsible
thing in the face of uncertainty: assume a worst-case scenario. That is
not irrational, or illogical.
If you are dealing with the security of your country, with the possibility
of nuclear war, you have to look at worst cases. For them, the response
to the deployment of a US missile defense will be the expansion of their
offense. That is why this situation is so dangerous.
NPQ | If America had had a limited missile defense, maybe the Cuban
missile crisis in which you were so intimately involved would have been
McNAMARA | On the contrary. What we came to know 30 years later
was that the real threat was not from missiles based in Cuba, but nuclear-armed
bombers that could have attacked the East Coast of the US, against which
a missile defense system wouldnt have been useful.
This is illustrative of the problem with a missile defense: The threat
can come from elsewhere. That is why the best course is to foreswear defense,
and cut offensive weapons to the minimum.
NPQ | How, then, ought nuclear powers relate to one another?
McNAMARA | First, there must be transparency among all nuclear
powers so we all know each others intentions and capabilities. Second,
reduce nuclear weapons to the minimum required to maintain an appropriate
qualitative balance with ones opponent so there is deterrent stability.
Deterrent stability can only be achieved when each party believes it can
absorb a first strike with enough surviving weapons to inflict unacceptable
damage on the other.
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