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September 1, 2009 |  Print  Your Opinion  

Topic Rethinking Nuclear Deterrence Doctrine

Lyle Brecht: For more than fifty years the US has engaged a Deterrence Doctrine based on the strategic game of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) developed in the early 1950’s. It is apparent that this game strategy is unwinnable. Only a failure of leadership and lack of vision propels us to continue.

Deterrence Doctrine, despite its overt military focus, touches practically everything and everyone. It provides a platform for cultural stability and human development that enables technical innovation and economic prosperity and the means to improve general welfare around the world. Thus, the success of US Deterrence Doctrine is not only important nationally, but has global ramifications.

US Deterrence Doctrine is still based on the maintenance of large stockpiles of hydrogen-nuclear weapons and launchers capable of delivering a devastating counterattack against any power foolish enough to launch an attack. This foundational assumption of Deterrence Doctrine is based on MAD (mutual assured destruction), a strategy developed from game theory introduced in the early 1950‘s that proposes a Nash Equilibrium can be achieved between two players. The working assumption of this game is that it will be in neither player’s interest to engage in a First Use attack, if the result is a counterattack that completely destroys the attacking side.

By as early as the mid-1960‘s, instead of a Nash Equilibrium, MAD devolved into a Prisoner’s Dilemma game. Instead of rational players, the two sides became infused with fear of the other side where brinksmanship defined the decision-space. Instead of an equilibrium, both sides engaged in an arms race to obtain a First Use advantage. Most importantly, the game evolved from a two-party game to a multiparty game of as many as eight players possessing nuclear weapons. Today, the game has potentially as many as 40 players who posses the capacity to develop nuclear weapons at any time.

With the advent of multiple parties possessing nuclear weapons, MAD morphed into a new game of weak-MAD. A growing number of nations now believe it is beneficial to possess nuclear weapons to deter a ‘preventive’ war against them by adversaries with superior forces. The counterattack, although not as decisive as in the original MAD game, would still be potentially catastrophic to the attacker. Thus, weak-MAD provides an impetus for nuclear proliferation, potentially a more volatile brinksmanship defined decision-space, and the ever increasing possibility that nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists who may have nothing to lose by First Use, as no credible counterattack could be launched against them. Additionally, it is unlikely that nonproliferation accords and objectives can be achieved as long as weak-MAD is a viable strategic initiative. Present US Deterrence Doctrine provides the engine for the proliferation of nuclear weapons by other nations under the aegis of weak-MAD strategy.

The economic consequences of the failure of deterrence and the ongoing costs of maintaining a faulty (and potentially counter-useful) Deterrence Doctrine based on existing Nuclear Posture are prohibitive in the present economic environment and may prevent improvement and long term sustainable growth.

The US needs to invent a new game to play and stop playing the unwinnable game of deterrence based on weak-MAD. This deserves a Bletchley Park effort, a Manhattan Project to move beyond a game that must only end in Apocalypse. We propose a three-year, multi-million dollar immediate effort to rethink U.S. Deterrence Doctrine.

Lyle Brecht is business development adviser, social entrepreneur and President of the Blue Heron Group. You can read the full article here.

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