The BBC’s online magazine has recently run a features called “How did we forget about mutually assured destruction?” The Beeb generally does a good job of fact checking and rarely do I have much serious complaint. The problem with How did we forget about mutually assured destruction? is that it repeats many of the same fallacies around Mutually Assured Destruction that have been around for years.
For decades its never been imagined that any nuclear war would be an all-or-nothing offensive over in a few hours (to quote John Pilger in his “The Truth Game” documentary from 1983). Since the 1960s there has been ongoing development of sub-strategic, tactical and battlefield nuclear weapons that in one sense lowered the possibility of a nuclear strike being strategic but also had the perilous side-effect of lowering the bar at which nuclear weapons might be used.
Medium and intermediate range nuclear weapons were part of the main sign that mutual assured destruction was less the objective and that political and military bodies believed that could engage in nuclear war-fighting on a limited scale. Whether this was ever a safe or sensible policy is unlikely as once the nuclear threshold was crossed it seems pretty unlikely a nuclear conflict would stay limited. However as Pilger noted in his documentary, the British Army Land Battle Tactics Manual from the early 1960s noted that “nuclear weapons would be used in large but not unlimited numbers.”
In other words, almost no sooner had Robert McNamara suggested assured destruction following the Cuban Missile Crisis than we already were planning for nuclear war-fighting on a smaller scale. The theory was that assured destruction would work because no victory was possible and thus deterrence would be achieved. This policy was ultimately undermined by newer and and more surgical weapons.
Assured destruction was first dealt a serious blow with advent of MIRV‘ed nuclear missiles, which the US began to deploy in the 1960s in the form of the Minuteman missiles. Missiles with multiple warheads, all independently targetable ultimately upset the very notion of assured destruction. The reason for this is they could be used in a decapitation strike upsetting the nuclear balance as it became tempting to believe you could destroy your adversaries political and military leadership as well as their missile silos weakening or destroying their ability to strike back.
From their on more modernised weapons also lowered the possibility of assured destruction leading to a climax with the USSRs SS-20 and the United States’ cruise (Tomahawk) missiles. Both missiles were highly mobile, very difficult to target and almost impossible to intercept in flight. They were only intermediate missiles that fundamentally were to fight a European nuclear war without nuclear weapons falling on either Russian or American soil.
The combination of MIRVed missiles and highly accurate, intermediate ranged nuclear missiles had effectively ended the era of assured destruction. Both sides of the Cold War had, by no later than the 1970s, had decided that you could fight and win a nuclear war, possibly a development more dangerous than the era of assured destruction had ever been.
Postscript (19 Feb 2012)
I have recently found a John Pilger documentary called “Mr. Nixon’s Secret Legacy” in which John Pilger looks at the abandonment of assured destruction in favour of “Counterforce” i.e. nuclear war fighting. This documentary is nearly 40 years old.