Is Mutually Assured Destruction Still a Global Threat?

Today, international conflict is creating new nuclear perils. What are the chances that the biggest threat of the Cold War — Mutually Assured Destruction — could return? Jeff Nilsson looks at the tense history of nuclear proliferation.

Nuclear weapon explodes over city ruins

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The world breathed a collective sigh of relief in the 1990s when it learned the U.S. and Russia were reducing their nuclear arsenals. For two generations, the world had lived under the threat of a nuclear catastrophe that would ruin both countries — and probably other nations.

It turns out, however, that a radioactive holocaust only took a vacation. Today, international conflict is creating a greater nuclear threat than ever before. And there’s a growing chance that America or Russia could someday cause MAD — Mutually Assured Destruction.

Things were different 75 years ago. Back then, America was emerging victorious from the last conventional world war. But the nature of war changed forever on July 16 of 1945, when scientists from Los Alamos, New Mexico saw their atomic theories proved right with the detonation of the first atomic bomb. [For an account of that day in the desert, see “Behind the First A Bomb,” by Robert Cahn, in our July 16, 1960, issue.]

Our atomic bomb didn’t just drive Japan to surrender; it made us the undisputed, sole superpower among nations — for four years. Then Russia, our ideological enemy, detonated its own atomic bomb.

At first, there was little threat of an atomic attack. Neither side was capable of delivering a bomb across the ocean. But then the atomic bomb was surpassed by the smaller, lighter, more powerful hydrogen bomb. And, in 1959, both nations deployed intercontinental missiles (ICBMs) to land nuclear warheads anywhere on each other’s land.

Thankfully, no atomic war followed. Diplomats and theoreticians believed it was because reasonable people in both governments were reluctant to use such destructive weapons. Skeptics believed the real reason was more practical: launching nuclear warheads on the other nation would trigger an automatic, devastating retaliation. Mutually Assured Destruction acknowledged there could be no victor in a nuclear war. Neither nation could attack the other without suffering catastrophic loss from an unstoppable counter-attack.

Now the goal of America and Russia was to find a pre-emptive edge — a way to deliver a knockout punch that would cripple the enemy’s ability to retaliate.

An early approach by both nations was to eliminate the vulnerability of fixed missile sites. They both developed a mobile launching platform, mounting mobile missile launchers on heavy trucks that could be hidden in the landscape. And they installed missiles with nuclear warheads in submarines, which could surface and attack with little warning. The U.S. had an advantage in this phase since our European and Asian allies enabled us to put our nuclear subs close to the Russian border.

Nuclear strategy now focused on developing projectiles that would destroy incoming enemy missiles before they reached their target — anti-missile missiles. But this concept proved of little benefit against MIRV: the Multiple Independently Targetable Re-Entry Vehicle. These missiles carried multiple warheads, which could be directed at different targets, or on a single target. All the warheads would require their own interceptor missiles, which made defense systems more complicated and more expensive.

Then, in 1983, the U.S. announced it would develop the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). It would use satellite guided X-ray lasers, subatomic particle-beam weapons, or other technology to destroy intercontinental missiles while in their trajectory high above the earth.

The U.S. poured $30 billion into the project, which was ultimately scrapped. The cost was one reason for ending the program, but just as important was the opposition from allies and even members of the U.S. government. If it worked, SDI — aka “Star Wars” — would upset the balance of power. The program would violate the antiballistic missile agreement of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and might provoke Russia to take pre-emptive action.

The one real benefit of the system was that it forced Soviet Russia to realize the United States could vastly out-spend it on defense. The communist system was approaching bankruptcy in the late 1980s, and the Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev seized the moment to introduce reforms that ultimately led to the end of communist rule of Russia and, incidentally, the Cold War.

Arms-reducing treaties in 1987, 1991, and 2002 led to steadily decreasing numbers of nuclear weapons. The U.S. reduced its 7,300 nuclear weapons in Europe by 90 percent. Russia reduced its non-strategic nuclear weapons by 75 percent.

But the end of the Cold War did not end conflict between the two nations, and gradually a new arms race began.

American and Russian bombers can now deliver nuclear weapons into enemy country, but these aircraft present easy targets for missile defense. So stealth bombers have been developed to avoid detection. And conventional bombers have been armed with nuclear cruise missiles that can be fired from great distances.

Defense strategy now also includes computer-guidance systems and satellites — critical to waging war in the 21st Century — but they are vulnerable to high-tech assault. Both the U.S. and Russia wage continual cyber warfare, burrowing into each other’s top secret systems. Recently, the U.S. created the Space Force to build and protect military space defenses.

Another new development are hypersonic glide vehicles, which travel at low altitudes at speeds up to ten times the speed of sound. Being this fast, as well as maneuverable, they would be hard to shoot down. “Everybody is rushing ahead with investing in this emerging technology as well as trying to find ways to defend against them,” says John Dale Grover, a Fellow at Defense Priorities.

Russia is preparing to deploy nuclear warheads on ICBMs, submarine missiles, and bombers when the New START agreement of 2010 expires after 2021. It has developed an air-launched ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 km. Another addition to the Russian arsenal is a 100-megaton nuclear powered drone, which has been called a “tsunami apocalypse torpedo.”

As the ultimate threat, Russia has ensured the U.S. will be destroyed if we ever launch nuclear weapons against them. They have developed “Perimeter,” a doomsday device that will automatically fire all Russian ICBMs at America in the case of a nuclear attack. America does not have a similar system.

According to Grover, “America is now modernizing its own nuclear arsenal and is looking at new weapons as well. In fact, everyone from China to India and Pakistan are looking at improving their weapons as great power competition becomes more blatant.”

The cost to America, he adds, will exceed $1 trillion over 30 years, an amount he says will endanger the U.S. economy. It will also make the chances of global arms reductions even less likely. “New arms control agreements are needed that include China,” he says, “but are unlikely to happen anytime soon.

“New weapons and defenses might be scary, and somewhat destabilizing, but it is important to remember that no weapon or defense is perfect. Missile defense only works 30-50 percent of the time, and then only under not-very-realistic conditions.”

Every race to get a strategic nuclear edge, he adds, causes other countries to develop counter measures. “In other words, each attempt to overcome MAD only ends up enforcing it.”

The U.S. is not totally committed to a new arms race. The Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, within our State Department, works to reduce weapons-of-mass-destruction threats. Using diplomacy and sanctions, the Bureau tries to discourage the expansion of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

Recently, Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford, the Bureau’s assistant secretary, told the Council on Foreign Relations, “given their competitive ambitions, it is not clear that either Russia or the PRC is likely to take arms control compliance seriously if it feels it has any chance to get away with cheating.” Yet the U.S. continues “to believe that effective arms control can limit threats, and that it can provide stability and predictability, and we remain committed to pursuing a trilateral agreement with both Russia and China.”

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. $33 billion a year for 30 years is hardly destabilizing to our economy, given time value of money and the enormous defense budgets we currently have.


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