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Why Nuclear War Can Be Ethical

On a discussion board I frequent, one poster presented the following hypothetical question;

"If you were President of the U.S. and were just informed that we were definitely under a full nuclear attack by a country that'll destroy most or all our people, would you order a full nuclear counter-attack?"

The poster received the predictable "correct" answers from many people, condemning any sort of violent response, to the point that the consensus became clear that the group, as a whole, thought that any use of nuclear weapons, even in retaliation to a massive unprovoked attack, was not only immoral but an atrocity. I was the sole respondent to observe that the only moral course was to retaliate in full force. For today's column, I want to expand on why this is so.

I must begin with the acknowledgement that nuclear weapons are horrific weapons, which no sane person wants to see used. Yet it must be understood that nuclear weapons exist, and therefore we must address that fact. We can try to prevent proliferation, but in truth we cannot hope to do so forever. It follows therefore, that the only control we can hope to hold is to influence the behavior of nations in such a way that they will be disinclined to build or use nuclear weapons.

When we look at the question posed at the beginning, there are a lot of missing pieces. What we do know, is that a massive nuclear attack is underway against the United States, and therefore the United States is not the trigger of these events, but rather someone else has done this. Since we are dealing with a hypothetical, it is completely fair to answer by saying we would plan and act ahead of time in a way to dissuade that massive attack from happening. Deterrence, in a word. And historically, for all the talk and blather, the only proven deterrent from such an attack is the sure destruction of the aggressor through retaliation.


continued

A good example of this can be found by examining the world condition in 1975. While it is popular to pretend that the Soviet Union was largely misunderstood and never truly a threat to the West, in reality the USSR certainly hoped to win a war of conquest against the Free World, and planned it military ambitions accordingly. The Soviets boasted a much larger army, with better experience and organization, higher morale (especially as Vietnam fell), support from regional governments and logistics. The Soviets made inroads into Africa, Asia, and South America and many leading "intellectuals", both Republican and Democrat, were counseling American leaders to push for the best deal possible, before it was "too late". In the dark days before Reagan and Thatcher, it seemed all too plausible that the Iron Curtain would soon extend its reach to at least all of Europe and North Africa.

Yet it did not happen. One thing bothered the Soviets, one thorn in their plans which stymied Moscow's ambitions. The United States refused to rule out a nuclear retaliation, even in response to a conventional invasion by the Warsaw Pact. The United States possessed the means, and it seemed the will, to use nuclear weapons to prevent Soviet hegemony in Europe. The Soviets erroneously believed that the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 reinforced that view, since Carter had served as an officer in the United States Navy. Perhaps that view was not erroneous, as even in his most obliging discussions with Moscow, President Carter never ruled out a U.S. First Strike, an option he understood was vital, perhaps literally vital to the very survival of the United States.

It is difficult for some people to understand the unique role of the United States. Even as they demand the U.S. serve as a global policeman, liberals and simplists fail to understand that the United States serves a truly unique role, one which no other nation is able, much less inclined, to take up. The nuclear umbrella is held by Uncle Sam, and so there is a very great difference between American nuclear might and nuclear weapons in anyone else's arsenal. It should also be understood that such an umbrella has already restrained the American hand in the use of nuclear weapons.

It is now known that in the last weeks of 1963, President Johnson was seriously concerned that the assassination of President Kennedy might have been planned and supported by either Cuba or the Soviet Union. If this was true, President Johnson would be faced with a truly ghastly decision in how to respond. One consideration was the possibility of full-scale war with the Soviet Union, which would inevitably include nuclear strikes. In 1964, there was little doubt that the United States could devastate the Soviet Union to a degree that the Soviets could not hope to match. However, even if American losses would comparatively light, Johnson understood that even "complete victory" as it was then defined would include the deaths of millions of Americans, and severe damage to the infrastructure of the United States in all respects. But even if this could be avoided, the annihilation of the Soviet Union would mean that the United States would forever after be linked to an act of incalculable barbarism, and any influence the United States could claim would be solely through the threat of force; it would impossible to reconcile any claim of moral leadership with the devastation of so much of the earth and the deaths of so many people.

It is in this light that I return to the hypothetical question. If we accept for discussion the claim of a massive nuclear attack on the United States, then we are by definition discussing an aggressor who is unconcerned with the morality of their attack, but who is pursuing the destruction of America as an integral step in a plan of conquest - no other possibility exists. If such a power were to succeed in surviving the assault on the United States, the remaining nations of the earth would fall under control of an unquestionably evil despot, having proved a bloodthirstiness on unprecedented scale and malicious forethought. The responsibility of the United States is such, that even were it facing its own imminent destruction that the United States must use its forces to remove that threat from the rest of the world. The attack must be deterred through the certainty of total retaliation, but even if that should be insufficient to prevent the attack, the attacker must be totally destroyed to end its threat and evil.

Certainly all of this sounds grim and cold-blooded, and that is true. However, the audience should take note of the great difference between a hypothetical massacre and a real one. If the knowledge of the first can dissuade a power from causing a second, then that course must be pursued as the most moral choice. Nuclear weapons cannot be unmade, nor knowledge of them undone. Therefore the resolve of the United States to respond in full force must be established beyond question, in order to diminish desire to build, much less use, such weapons.


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Comments (44)

Nuclear weapons ca... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:
Nuclear weapons cannot be unmade, nor knowledge of them undone.

One thing that could unmake nuclear weapons and remove the knowledge to build them would be the massive use of nuclear weapons.

A factor that doesn't seem to be taken into account by the piece is the global effects of exploding a large number of nuclear weapons in a short amount of time. If the attack on the U.S. were massive, there may be no real need to respond as the secondary effects of the attack would doom the aggressor and every other nation. Some individuals may survive, but likely not those who relay on modern infrastructure. Such survivors are unlikely to know much about modern technology in general and nuclear weapons in particular.

Development of an effective anti-ballistic missile system gives the U.S. one more ace to play. The possibility that the vast majority of an aggressor's ICBMs would be destroyed in flight. Obviously, even one getting through would be a devastating disaster and the President would have little option but to retaliate in a devastating way. The interesting question is, what if the anti-ballistic missile system is so effective that none of the aggressor's ICBM made it through, but were destroyed harmlessly in space. Would the U.S. launch a nuclear retaliatory strike? If so, could we claim it was self defense?

"One thing that could unmak... (Below threshold)
MyPetGloat:

"One thing that could unmake nuclear weapons and remove the knowledge to build them would be the massive use of nuclear weapons."

Thats just a little harder to do these days with much thanks to the Wingnut Blogswamps' little oopsie.

A weapon (bomb) must become... (Below threshold)
Tim:

A weapon (bomb) must become itself or else it is useless.

Follow UP Questions:<... (Below threshold)
robert:

Follow UP Questions:

What should we do if another nuclear power, e.g. China, Russia, UK, Israel or France, launched a massive nuclear strike against a nation not aligned with the U.S. or perhaps even aligned against us, as a part of a war of conquest?

Do we go flat out nuke against the above country? Do we launch a massive conventional war against a country that has shown that it's not afraid to use its nukes? Do we simply condemn their actions? Is there a scenario where we would join with the conquerors?

Mac Lorry's first point is ... (Below threshold)
Brian:

Mac Lorry's first point is right. A massive counterstrike by the US would likely not simply rid the surviving world of the aggressor. It would more likely rid the world of the whole human race (except for the Eloi and Morlocks). Of course, if the initial attack on the US wasn't going to wipe us out completely (ala Jericho), then yeah, we'd have to respond.

Anyone here NOT think Ameri... (Below threshold)
the other Robert:

Anyone here NOT think America would rather nuke the globe if things don't look like its going their way?

Me neither.

"If I can't have you nobody will" ought to be a national slogan.

MPG, you DO realize, I'm su... (Below threshold)

MPG, you DO realize, I'm sure, that the story you cited rather definitively PROVES that the war to remove Saddam was absolutely necessary, and therefore a wise decision?

Robert, under what conceivable circumstances would you believe that any of the nations you listed would engage in a "war of conquest", using nuclear weapons? It's difficult to answer a hypothetical question so loose as you phrased it.

And Brian, I would be fascinated as to just how the first warning of a nuclear attack would be so accurate that we would be able to nuance whether or not we "should" be shooting back or just let them kill us all and move on unchecked to their next target?

TOR, either you are a compl... (Below threshold)

TOR, either you are a complete moron, or a poor bitter provocateur. I am not interested in examining your claims farther in order to determine whether you are aware of History and ignoring it, or whether you are simply a spite-motivated boor.

MPG, you DO realize, I'm... (Below threshold)
MyPetGloat:

MPG, you DO realize, I'm sure, that the story you cited rather definitively PROVES that the war to remove Saddam was absolutely necessary, and therefore a wise decision?

It does not. "Potential intent" (without facility to produce any such WMD device) just dosent carry quite the same weight as "Imminent threat".

Wise? Far from it. You've already run out of straws to grasp. So spare the rhetoric.

Mr Drummond:In answe... (Below threshold)
robert:

Mr Drummond:
In answer to your question, China is constantly making eyes at Taiwan and has an excess of service age males. Russia and its satellite states are still somewhat unstable and are unsure of each other. What if Russia got sick of "playing nice" with the Chechens; or simply decided it wanted its empire back? The UK and Israel were mentioned just because I wanted some countries on the list with whom the US had treaty obligations. France just made the list because I knew they had nukes and they tested them within my memory. Most of these scenarios are at least as plausible as a massive nuclear strike against the US by a foreign power.

If you want a more plausible example, suppose India just upped and nuked Pakistan to settle the Kashmir dispute once and for all. Do we nuke India?

MacLorry et al:

You have somewhat overstated the global dangers of nuclear weapons being deployed on a limited scale. Nuclear winter was almost made up out of whole cloth, using equations with too many unknown variables.

Oddly enough, the preface of my Fallout video game manual contains a fairly interesting and accessible article on the effects of a nuclear attack.

Just so I don't look like a... (Below threshold)
robert:

Just so I don't look like a complete idiot.
Found the sourcing that the Fallout manual used:
http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/

The manual cited the nuclear weapons FAQ by Carey Sublette. (Scroll down a bit)

And Brian, I would be fa... (Below threshold)
Brian:

And Brian, I would be fascinated as to just how the first warning of a nuclear attack would be so accurate that we would be able to nuance whether or not we "should" be shooting back or just let them kill us all and move on unchecked to their next target?

It was the premise of the original question. From Jay:

"If you were President of the U.S. and were just informed that we were definitely under a full nuclear attack by a country that'll destroy most or all our people, would you order a full nuclear counter-attack?"

But you seem to have missed Mac Lorry's and my points. A nuclear attack massive enough to "kill us all" would leave the world in such a state that no aggressor would be in a condition to "move on unchecked to their next target".

A past president was confro... (Below threshold)
BradE:

A past president was confronted with unmistakably aggressive actions by a European country against a South American country. No one could be sure what the intensions of that European country truly were; and a case could be made that its actions against the South American country were justified.

The American president sent a significant military presence into the arena. The European despot asked a member of his government (a gentleman known to be a friend of the American President) if the President would use military force. The friend assured him that this particular president would surely use military force and the European despot backed down.

The American president was Theodore Roosevelt, the European despot was the Kaiser of Germany, the South American country was Venezuela and the year was 1902. The only thing that stood between us and war was the certainty in the minds of the aggressor that we would fight.

BTW:We are not ask... (Below threshold)
BradE:

BTW:

We are not asked to be the policeman of the world; we are asked to be the policeman for the UN.

Robert, Y... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

Robert,

You have somewhat overstated the global dangers of nuclear weapons being deployed on a limited scale. Nuclear winter was almost made up out of whole cloth, using equations with too many unknown variables.

I'm not sure what you consider a limited scale. A credible first strike against the U.S. sufficient to prevent retaliation would involve hundreds if not thousands of warheads. The case for nuclear winter may be overstated, but being based on "equations with too many unknown variables" works both ways. That is, it could be worse than expected. Apart from that, I wasn't specifically talking about nuclear winter, but rather the total breakdown of the infrastructure that supports modern life. That destruction could lead to the death of billions of people not directly effected by blast or radiation from the initial attack.

Nothing I can think of woul... (Below threshold)
Zelsdorf Ragshaft III:

Nothing I can think of would invite a nuclear strike upon the United States more than the belief that we would not respond in kind. The left has done what no other exterior influence has been able to do, so far, and that is to divide America. The Godless elites have, as their aim, world domination. Danger comes not from the right, but from the left. Why else would they wish for defeat in war?

DJ begins with the welcome ... (Below threshold)

DJ begins with the welcome acknowledgement

"... that nuclear weapons are horrific weapons, which no sane person wants to see used"

then goes on to prove hisself insane ;{)}

But maybe not - because the proof is predicated on numerous falacies and inaccuracies.

in particular, let me address the claim :

"Nuclear weapons cannot be unmade".

They can : they have been : they must be! this is our challenge and responsibility.

as to the repeated insinuiation that the world needs the U.S.[a.] to play global cop : here's someone on the other side of the world who wants no such thing. I note that many citizens of the globe would prefer to see the rule of international law, as embodied in the U.N. General Assembly, rather than the rule of a self-appointed, self-interested 'sheriff'.

DJ admits that his warped view of global responsibility "sounds grim and cold-blooded", but worse than that, it's decidedly unhelpful. I take no comfort in any guarnatee to perpetuate the ray-gun legacy of mutually assured nuclear destruction. Rather than focussing this sense of 'responsibility' on planning the end-game of global war, I hope that the U.S.[a.] can soon begin to recognise a share in our global responsibility for building peace. Clearly, if it comes to the scenarios described in this article, we have all failed in this most fundamental responsibility.

"They can : they have been ... (Below threshold)
Michael:

"They can : they have been : they must be! this is our challenge and responsibility." Right?...trying reasoning with the madmen in Tehren. Tutty you are so naive. Grow up.

Not protecting your own cou... (Below threshold)
Mitchell:

Not protecting your own countrymen is immoral.

Jeez, you people need to tu... (Below threshold)
Brian:

Jeez, you people need to turn down the froth a little bit. This is not a debate about whether the US needs to continue to make clear that it will respond in kind to any nuclear attack. I don't think anyone disagrees with that (not anyone here, anyway).

This is a hypothetical situation with an interesting question. If the attack were already in progress and you were told that the US would not survive it, would you still order a counter-attack? You'd already be long past the point where MAD posturing mattered anymore. The question is what effect (good or bad) retaliation would have.

The answer is simple: if yo... (Below threshold)

The answer is simple: if you don't retaliate, it removes any reason for any survivors to avoid using nuclear weapons aggressively in future. If this were to happen, and there were no retaliation, why would anybody NOT use strategic nuclear weapons aggressively afterwards? After all, there would be very little danger in doing so...

The problem with this scena... (Below threshold)
blackcat77:

The problem with this scenario is that once **anybody** starts a nuclear attack, everybody loses. Nobody wins a nuclear war -- and that's not political correctness, it's just a fact. If either the US or Russia unleashed their arsenal, the world would be decimated whether there was a retaliation or not. So the real bottom line is that it doesn't matter whether the US would strike back or not if we were attacked. The winds would carry destruction to the attacking nation just as surely as one of our own missiles would. Sort of like saying that we should make them "more dead" by counterattacking.

I don't think it's that sim... (Below threshold)
Brian:

I don't think it's that simple. As previously suggested, the first strike would likely have a devastating effect on the planet. The answer to "why would anybody NOT use strategic nuclear weapons aggressively afterwards" is that their own society would probably be decimated by the aftermath of their own attack. They would lose the ability to attack anyone else. So in that case, a retaliation might accomplish nothing more than taking a planet that's injured but possibly recoverable, and killing it for sure.

Brian, I'm flattered you th... (Below threshold)

Brian, I'm flattered you think this piece was my work, but exercise a little reading comprehension, will ya? This one was DJ Drummond's, all the way, and I doubt he'd appreciate your attributing it to me.

J.

Jay, do you have to make <b... (Below threshold)
Brian:

Jay, do you have to make everything a personal attack?! I apologize for the incorrect attribution. You commonly post these kinds of philosophical discussions, so I just didn't bother to double-check the name. I guess it's people like me who give support to the terrorists, huh?

Though it does make DJ's question to me more odd, since he was therefore challenging me to support a premise that he himself cited as the basis for his post.

Your problem, Brian, is tha... (Below threshold)

Your problem, Brian, is that you stopped paying attention to anything which did not support your opinion. I explained that even the destruction of the United States would not remove our responsibility to make such aggression unprofitable, as Nicholas observed. Even after the decision has been made, it remains essential to deter such attacks. A bit like Shrodinger's cat; the possbility of the attack on the US must be deterred, and the ONLY way to do that is to insure the destruction of the aggressor, no matter what.

Also, assumption that "Nuclear Winter" would occur if we retaliated, or that we would "make things worse" by returning fire, is supported neither by evidence nor reason.

The problem made by people like Justin and Brian, is that they are unable to even consider the errors in their assumptions, much less the fact that the United States' unique position means that we act never on just our own polucy, but must consider the total and permanent effects of our actions. Thus, the same people who naively assume terrorists will leave us alone if we run away from Iraq, also believe that we must never use the weapons which stand between us and annihilation, even hypothetically, never realizing that the level of our resolve will ultimately determine whether we have to use the things.

DJ,only p... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

DJ,

only proven deterrent from such an attack is the sure destruction of the aggressor through retaliation

As we all know, the U.S. has never actually retaliated after a nuclear strike on the U.S., so the deterrent must be the threat of retaliation, not an actual retaliation, and that's a significant difference.

What we do know, is that a massive nuclear attack is underway against the United States, and therefore the United States is not the trigger of these events, but rather someone else has done this.

Where we go from here depends on how you define a massive nuclear attack. Are you talking about a few dozen atomic bombs from a country like Iran or N. Korea, or are you talking about thousands of thermonuclear bombs from Russia? If it's the first case, then I agree that we should retaliate in some way. If it's the second case then I'm not so sure Russia would survive the results of their own attack, at least in a form capable of mounting any further nuclear attack for generations to come. If there's no need to retaliate, then it would be barbaric to do so.

Remember, this is a hypothetical case. In reality, the U.S. should maintain a strong nuclear deterrent and be fully prepared to use it. If the deterrent fails and we suffer a massive Russian magnitude attack, then if there's anyone left capable of launching a counter attack, I hope they consider the whole picture and the billions of people who don't have a dog in the fight.

A) The "the attack would pr... (Below threshold)

A) The "the attack would probably damage the attackers so badly that the US would be wrong to retaliate" is surreal. Yes, maybe the attacker would be wiped out along with everyone else everywhere else. But maybe not, and we wouldn't have the luxury of waiting to see. If ANYONE is going to survive, we would want to make damn sure it wasn't the nuclear aggressor, wouldn't we?

B) The "They can : they have been : they must be! this is our challenge and responsibility." regarding the unmaking of nuclear weapons is very intriguing. Please explain, in a logical manner if at all possible, how to put that genie back into the bottle. If it's possible we still might get to the "apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves".

C) Even if we could shoot down all the incoming missiles far enough ahead of time to know, it would still be our responsibility to retaliate massively. Maybe not on a scale of global destruction, but still somewhere in the neighborhood of "sheet of glass". But we almost certainly will never be able to shoot them all down and we almost certainly will never be able to get even most of them with enough lead time to be able to make go/no-go decisions. Besides, shooting down all missiles in a massive attack would leave our defenses drained and would require our deterrence to be taken to an even higher level. Which would require destruction of the aggressor.

Only a fool would wait until after he was shot ten times to see how many rounds his body armor stopped. Then, even if all ten shots were stopped, only a damn fool would dust himself off, say "no harm, no foul", and go about his business.

Only a fool would ... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:
Only a fool would wait until after he was shot ten times to see how many rounds his body armor stopped. Then, even if all ten shots were stopped, only a damn fool would dust himself off, say "no harm, no foul", and go about his business.

The United States is a fool then because during the height of the cold war, and I believe still to this day, it's the policy of the United States not to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike until AFTER the first wave of nuclear weapons reaches their targets. That's why our weapons needed to be in hardened silos, on aircraft already in the air, and on submarines in unknowable locations. If it were the policy to launch on warning there would be little need to harden the silos and we wouldn't have needed to keep nuclear armed bombers in the air for over 40 years (Bush Sr. put an end to that), or built multi billion dollar subs. However, that policy would likely have already lead to nuclear Armageddon. Nuclear war is a strange game in which what seems wise is foolish and what seems foolish is wise.

If ANYONE is going to survive, we would want to make damn sure it wasn't the nuclear aggressor, wouldn't we?

What about the billions of other people on the planet? Does their lives mean so little to you. If the U.S. is already destroyed and the survival of even the aggressor is in doubt, what's to be gained that's worth so much?

regarding the unmaking of nuclear weapons is very intriguing. Please explain, in a logical manner if at all possible, how to put that genie back into the bottle.

It's real easy, just use the damn things on a large scale. If there are any survivors it will likely be those who don't depend on the infrastructure of the modern world. These would be people who live off the land in remote areas, probably in the southern hemisphere. Such people know nothing about making nuclear weapons. Given most of the easy to find natural resource have been used, it could be a long time before humanity crawls back to a civilization as technologically advanced as the early 20th century, if ever.

Even if we could shoot down all the incoming missiles far enough ahead of time to know, it would still be our responsibility to retaliate massively.

We would want to retaliate in a manner that removed the threat, but that doesn't automatically mean nuclear weapons.

But we almost certainly will never be able to shoot them all down and we almost certainly will never be able to get even most of them with enough lead time to be able to make go/no-go decisions.

Your statement is based on two faulty premises. One, if we perfect directed energy weapons ICBM's will be obsolete. An enemy could launch 10,000 of them and have none survive long enough to reenter the atmosphere. Seconed, like I explained above, U.S. policy (unless it changed recently) is to wait until after the first missiles reach their targets. The nuclear subs make it almost impossible for an attacker to destroy our ability to retaliate, an that knowledge keeps the peace and also lets us wait to be absolutely sure we have in fact been attacked before launching a counter attack.

Your problem, Brian, is ... (Below threshold)
Brian:

Your problem, Brian, is that

My "problem"? What "problem"? You posed a hypothetical situation, mentioned some other responses you'd seen, and then wrote up your own response. I had thought that your intent was to invite discussion. In that vein, I and several others on here gave our own thoughts. I apologize if we violated some unposted rule that our answer to your hypothetical was not allowed to differ from yours.

you stopped paying attention to anything which did not support your opinion.

Huh? This is not a matter of "support". There's nothing to "support" my contention that the world would be screwed enough after a one-sided attack, any more than there's "support" for the contention that it wouldn't be. There was nothing on here that "did not support my opinion". There were other opinions, sure, which is fine with me. But nothing was said here to counter the idea that the Earth would be in bad shape after even a one-sided nuclear attack of the scale you posited, other than other equally reasonable opinions that it wouldn't be that bad.

I explained that...

No, you "opined". The failure to understand the difference might be your problem.

Also, assumption that "Nuclear Winter" would occur if we retaliated, or that we would "make things worse" by returning fire, is supported neither by evidence nor reason.

Not that I mentioned "nuclear winter", but are you really attacking my "reason" for thinking that the Earth would be totally f'd up in the aftermath of a full-on nuclear exchange between the US and Russia/China? And do you really think that a full-on US nuclear counterstrike upon Russia would NOT make things worse, even after the initial attack? If you do, I'd love to hear the "evidence or reason" for that idea.

The problem made by people like Justin and Brian, is that they are unable to even consider the errors in their assumptions

(I noticed you chose not to include Mac Lorry in your insult, even though he described the same opinion, even better than I did.)

But no, the problem with people like you is that you won't allow someone to even state an opinion on a hypothetical that differs from yours. I did not "consider the errors in my assumptions" because none were offered. Yes, I believe that any throw-everything-we-got-at-em nuclear attack on the US would do serious damage upon the aggressor. The only "assumption" I made is that the Earth would be screwed afterwards, to the point that it would disable the aggressor. I haven't seen anyone point out the "errors in my assumption", other than a couple saying that they didn't think it would be that bad, and the aggressor would still be in decent shape. OK, that's fine. After all, this is just a opinion on a hypothetical.

the possbility of the attack on the US must be deterred, and the ONLY way to do that is to insure the destruction of the aggressor, no matter what.

Now, back to discussing the hypothetical at hand... I agree that BEFORE AN ATTACK, the only way to deter it is to make the aggressor believe that they will be destroyed also. If you're asking should we continue a policy of MAD, I say yes.

But that's not the question that you asked here. (If you're going to change the question just so you can berate me, then I'll just go home. But if you're really interested in the original question you posed, then here's my response.)

In your question, you stated that you "were just informed that we were definitely under a full nuclear attack". That means the attack was ALREADY in progress. Missiles in the air. In that situation, deterrence is no longer an issue. The game changes completely, and the answers change also.

Now, you suggested that we would need to respond to protect others from the same aggressor. That assumes the aggressor would survive their own attack, or at least would survive it with the ability to initiate other attacks. But it's not unreasonable to believe that the aggressor would also suffer great injury. I never mentioned nuclear winter. I'm just using my "reason" that a nuclear attack great enough to destroy THE ENTIRE US would have a very damaging effect on Russia or China. (I previously said that a lesser attack would require retailiation, so that's not at issue here.)

There's also another aspect that hasn't been mentioned. Let's say you're right, and that Russia would survive an attack on the US in pretty good shape. What option do you think Europe would prefer? That the US releases its full nuclear arsenal right next door to them? Those you claim to "protect" with a counterstrike might prefer the alternative to that "protection".

C'mon, now. Your post is about how one might respond to a hypothetical war game scenario. I thought this was going to be an interesting philosophical discussion. I don't see why your default response is to turn it into insults, make it partisan by attacking those on the left who disagree while ignoring those on the right who disagree in the same way, and somehow even bring terrorists into it!

Why do you people love war ... (Below threshold)
Publicus:

Why do you people love war and nuclear weapons and violence? I could understand thinking that sometimes it is a grim necessity...but you people practically have an orgasm whenever there's a war. You never want it to stop.

Why?

Brian, the defensive, and P... (Below threshold)
Mitchell:

Brian, the defensive, and Publicus, the mistaken.

U.S. policy (unless it ... (Below threshold)

U.S. policy (unless it changed recently) is to wait until after the first missiles reach their targets. The nuclear subs make it almost impossible for an attacker to destroy our ability to retaliate, an that knowledge keeps the peace and also lets us wait to be absolutely sure we have in fact been attacked before launching a counter attack.

The premise of this discussion is that we're "definitely under a full nuclear attack by a country that'll destroy most or all our people". If you think the decision-makers would be sitting around while ten thousand warheads bear in and just say "well, we'll still have subs after they hit", I think you need to re-think things. (And I'm not talking about public policy or even official plans. I'm talking about what we would really do.)

Also, the faith in ballistic missile defense is touching. I thought that it was A) illegal, B) an unwise threat to the balance of power, and C) never going to work anyway no matter how much money we spend on it. Then suddenly someone bases an argument on "if we perfect directed energy weapons ICBM's will be obsolete". (One note: offense is always ahead of defense.)

Finally, unless I totally misunderstood, Tutty meant unmake nuclear weapons BEFORE they're used. Peace in our time, so to speak. How is this to be done? Anyone?

The premise of thi... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:
The premise of this discussion is that we're "definitely under a full nuclear attack by a country that'll destroy most or all our people". If you think the decision-makers would be sitting around while ten thousand warheads bear in and just say "well, we'll still have subs after they hit", I think you need to re-think things. (And I'm not talking about public policy or even official plans. I'm talking about what we would really do.)

What we would really do is follow the policy that has been in place for decades and which has on at least one occasion I know of, prevented the U.S. from launching a counter strike based on phantom missile tracks. In that case it was radar reflections off the moon, which the engineers didn't expect and which the computers were not programmed to ignore. That's been fixed, but the wise policy of waiting out the first wave is still in effect to the best of my knowledge. The hypothetical case as it was originally laid out does not assume we would change our longstanding policies, but rather seems to be ignorant of them..

I thought that it was A) illegal, B) an unwise threat to the balance of power, and C) never going to work anyway no matter how much money we spend on it.

A) President Bush abrogated the treaty with Russia several years ago, so it's now legal. B) it might be unwise as far as Russia is concerned, but wise given threats from countries like Iran and N. Korea. C) Never is a short time in the technological world. The current limited system uses interceptor missiles to impact ICBM's, but we also are close to deploying a theater scale airborne ABM system based on high powered lasers. This system fits in a 747 and can burn through the skin of missiles still in their boost phase from a distance of over 100 kilometers. It's hard to say what technological advances will be made in the next 10 or 20 years, but it's wise for the U.S. to be at the cutting edge.

Finally, unless I totally misunderstood, Tutty meant unmake nuclear weapons BEFORE they're used. Peace in our time, so to speak. How is this to be done? Anyone?

Given the continuance of modern society as condition of the hypothetical case and knowing the nature of humans, I don't see a realistic way nuclear weapons can be unmade, as in none exist. Given the threat from space rocks, I'm not sure that would be a wise choice anyway. What we can do is make ICBM's obsolete and without a reliable and militarily effective delivery platform, nuclear weapons lose a lot of their "threat" factor.

Brian, the defensive... (Below threshold)
Brian:

Brian, the defensive

Yep. When you have a position worth defending, you defend it. Try it sometime.

Mac Lorry: The premise stat... (Below threshold)

Mac Lorry: The premise states "definitely under a full nuclear attack by a country that'll destroy most or all our people". In the case you mention and some others, there was conflicting evidence because one system said that an attack was underway and the others said there wasn't an attack under way. "Definitely" implies that it's definitely an attack, no?

In any case we could argue all day long about whether the government would follow the "get hit first" policy in the case of a definite nation-destroying attack. You'd say they would, I'd say you're wrong.

Points A, B, and C regarding missile defense are not my views at all. They are the views constantly spouted off by anti-military and anti-NMD loonies. I was just pointing out that I find it ironic to hear about a "perfect" NMD system which will mean we don't have to shoot back. That's one of the most surreal things I think I've ever heard.

Also, thanks for the rundown on ABM tech. I think you've overstated things a bit when you say we're "close" on the Airborne Laser, though I sure hope they get it working some day. No doubt the US will be "at the cutting edge", just as it's no doubt that offense is always ahead of defense.

The premise states... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:
The premise states "definitely under a full nuclear attack by a country that'll destroy most or all our people".

The problems is that the hypothetical case seems ignorant of the fact that the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars insuring our ability to retaliate cannot be destroyed by any credible surprise attack, and thus, there's no need to launch a counter-attack before the first ICBM's reach their targets. Thus, as the President I would head to safety (it's my duty) and make sure all our systems were in fact in place. Those systems include at least one command and control aircraft in the air 24/7. An airborne aircraft simply cannot be targeted by an ICBM particularly when that aircraft is getting tracking data and knows where all the ICBMs are headed. The General on that aircraft is fully authorized to launch a counter-attack in the unlikely event that the Presidential chain of command has been destroyed. By the time the first ICBM's reached their targets our nuclear armed B2 bombers would be in the air as well as other bombers from bases in Europe and Japan. Besides that, there are the nuclear powered and armed subs.

Yes we could continue to argue whether or not the U.S. would launch a nuclear counter attack before the first wave of ICBM's reached their targets. However, arguing that the U.S. would abandon the plans it has spent trillions of dollars developing is just silly.

Points A, B, and C regarding missile defense are not my views at all.

Don't claim statements that are readily proven wrong are not yours after the fact. If you post them without attributing them, then they are in fact your own statements.

Also, thanks for the rundown on ABM tech. I think you've overstated things a bit when you say we're "close" on the Airborne Laser, though I sure hope they get it working some day.

The Airborne Laser (ABL) is much closer to deployment than you think. The first prototype is scheduled for it's first missile shoot-down test in 2008.

No doubt the US will be "at the cutting edge", just as it's no doubt that offense is always ahead of defense.

The difference in this case is that the laws of physics give directed energy weapons a significant advantage over ICBM's. Yes, you can design an ICBM to be resistant to the megawatt laser in the ABL prototype, but probably not to a gigawatt laser in a future space based defensive net.

Nuclear technology is 60 plus years old and we should expect more and more nations to acquire atom bombs and some may even be able to develop the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. However, all of these weapons are physical devices that must be delivered to their target and the only militarily effective means of doing that is by some sort of missile. Defend against the transport device and the weapon loses it's military significance. I'm not talking about terror weapons which can just be floated into a major harbor on a ship. Such an attack would be horrific, but in no way threatens our ability to annihilate the perpetrator.

Your logic assumes that any... (Below threshold)

Your logic assumes that anybody who wants to destroy the USA is simply "evil" and therefore their destruction is inherently "good" for the entire planet.

Not all nations would agree that the world is quite so black-and-white.

There are other issues regarding nuclear fallout, etc.; there would be a certain amount from the attack on the USA. The attack from the USA would only make it worse for the surviving nations.

Mac Lorry: ... (Below threshold)

Mac Lorry:

Points A, B, and C regarding missile defense are not my views at all.

Don't claim statements that are readily proven wrong are not yours after the fact. If you post them without attributing them, then they are in fact your own statements.

That's one of the silliest things I've ever heard. If you'd like to pretend a quick ABC rundown of dumb anti-NMD rhetoric used to point out something ironic is "my own statement", particularly when it's counter to everything you're ever likely to find I've written about NMD, go for it.

Instead of playing "gotcha" with some little trick up your sleeve catching me saying something ridiculous, how about responding to my point that it's ironic that, after all these years of hearing how NMD is wrongwrongwrong, suddenly NMD is why we don't have to shoot back.

Regarding the ABL: The program has been changed to a "technology demonstration" for the time being. Aircraft 2-5 have been put on indefinite hold. (Incidentally, first shoot-down was scheduled for 2002.) All ABL effort is now focused on that test at the end of 2008. No further effort is being funded unless that test is successful. Basically, they have two more years to make it look like it might someday work. I hope they manage it. I wouldn't bet any money on it. They haven't even got the laser into the plane yet.

Remember, this is a massive nation-destroying attack we're talking about. For the ABL to do anything, it needs to be close to the missile launch area at the time of launch. Oh, and how many shots does each ABL have? By the time they get that chemical working, solid state will have passed it.

Sure, someday (maybe) directed energy will obsolete ICBMs. By that time there will be alternative delivery methods for nuclear and other nation-killing weapons which will have been designed to make existing defenses obsolete. This discussion will be the same except we will substitute "[weapon X]" for "nuclear ICBM". Offense is always ahead of defense.

My apologies for misformatt... (Below threshold)

My apologies for misformatting my previous comment.

Don't claim statements that are readily proven wrong are not yours after the fact. If you post them without attributing them, then they are in fact your own statements.

is Mac Lorry's response to my quote in the box.

"That's one of the silliest things I've ever heard." is my response to his response.

That's one of the ... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:
That's one of the silliest things I've ever heard. If you'd like to pretend a quick ABC rundown of dumb anti-NMD rhetoric used to point out something ironic is "my own statement"....

It's a simple and widespread rule that if you post comments and don't attribute them to some other source then they are yours, like it or not.

... particularly when it's counter to everything you're ever likely to find I've written about NMD, go for it.

But if you don't attribute sources until after the fact, how can anyone know when something you write is your words and something you write is some other's words?

Instead of playing "gotcha" with some little trick up your sleeve catching me saying something ridiculous...

If you don't think taking ownership of your words is important, then I have no idea what parts of your comments are real and what parts are from some one else. Who should I address my response to?

Regarding the ABL: The program has been changed to a "technology demonstration" for the time being. Aircraft 2-5 have been put on indefinite hold. (Incidentally, first shoot-down was scheduled for 2002.) All ABL effort is now focused on that test at the end of 2008. No further effort is being funded unless that test is successful.

All that information is available on the web sites I linked to, none of which you apparently knew anything about before I provided the links. Well, hopefully you learned something.

Remember, this is a massive nation-destroying attack we're talking about. For the ABL to do anything, it needs to be close to the missile launch area at the time of launch. Oh, and how many shots does each ABL have? By the time they get that chemical working, solid state will have passed it.

A few posts back I said "but we also are close to deploying a theater scale airborne ABM system based on high powered lasers." Obviously, if I said is was theater scale then I wasn't talking about that specific ABM system preventing a massive attack. There's more than one aspect to the hypothetical case, one of which is, can we create another option that doesn't require us to commit suicide as a species. That to me is the more interesting subject.

Sure, someday (maybe) directed energy will obsolete ICBMs. By that time there will be alternative delivery methods for nuclear and other nation-killing weapons which will have been designed to make existing defenses obsolete. This discussion will be the same except we will substitute "[weapon X]" for "nuclear ICBM". Offense is always ahead of defense.

The difference is that United States is maybe 50 years ahead in this type of technology than nations like Iran and N. Korea, so the hope is that our defensive technology will stay ahead of their offensive technology. As far as the massive attack, there's nothing we have today that would stop it once it's under way. The United States has built it's nuclear arsenal in such a way that enough will survive to launch a devastating counter-attack in the aftermath of the initial attack. Maybe we would launch an all out counter-attack immediately, but we would have the option of waiting and assessing the situation and then using the threat of an all out counter-attack to secure terms. Maybe the last act of a great nation would be to withhold it's terrible furry for the sake of all humankind. A better epitaph than in their hate and pride they destroyed all humanity.

Mac: Thanks for helping me ... (Below threshold)

Mac: Thanks for helping me understand how posting and commenting work, for helping me grasp ownership of any words I might write, and for directing me to all the good information on the ABL. (I actually didn't look at the info you linked to until after the fact since it was just a Boeing release, but since I didn't say so at the time that apparently isn't true.)

Hard to believe that Boeing says things are going well, isn't it. I mean, they're totally objective. If everything I wrote in that paragraph is in that release, I wonder how you think it's closer than I said it was.

Anyway, I certainly hope you're right about the ABL being close, despite all evidence being to the contrary. Maybe it's a smokescreen.

I like the idea of trying to secure terms after the nation has been wiped out. How it's what we'd do. All noble and everything. Right.

I'd love to continue debating details about tangents, but now I've got to go and figure out how to counteract the fact that I've gone and completely changed my position on missile defense, like it or not, to cornball talking points.

_______Murdoc:"I'd l... (Below threshold)
Edward_M:

_______Murdoc:
"I'd love to continue debating details about tangents, but now I've got to go and figure out how to counteract the fact that I've gone and completely changed my position on missile defense, like it or not, to cornball talking points."

Right on the button Mudoc: everything in this debate seems to be talking points, with the original topic fallen by the wayside. (Nice try on the witty sarcasm, but I think you missed the point....no sense of humor on the part of the recipient)


_____Mac:
"Maybe we would launch an all out counter-attack immediately, but we would have the option of waiting and assessing the situation and then using the threat of an all out counter-attack to secure terms."

You're serious here, aren't you?
You would really have to 'assess' a massive nuclear attack?
And you honestly think that the madmen who launched such an attack are going to be worried about the 'threat' of missles which we didn't launch in the first place?
And just what 'terms' would we seek from these madmen (and to launch nucs is insane, so don't change that definition)?
And why would they even listen? They've already accomplished their goal, so why would they care.

I think you need to put yourself in the place of the aggressor before you assume you can 'negotiate' after Armageddon. Or with any fanatic/madman.


______Mac:
"As far as the massive attack, there's nothing we have today that would stop it once it's under way."


Correct. That is the whole point of MAD: no one wins if you play the game. However, if the game is rigged so that the aggressor need fear no reprisal for its actions, then the brakes are off, and the incentive to use becomes irresistible.

Just why do you think N. Korea and Iran are racing to build the bomb and the delivery system? Our lack of will in supporting a conventional conflict sends an unmistakable message. The end of your post is a prime example. "Maybe the last act of a great nation would be to withhold it's terrible furry for the sake of all humankind."

As if anyone is going to be around after a massive attack. Chernobl's fallout, from a single reactor accident, not an explosion, sent measurable fallout around the globe, poisoning large areas that are still dangerous to visit to this day.
And lets not forget 'nuclear winter'. In a massive attack, the rest of the world has the choice of freezing, starving, or radiation poisoning as the lingering way to die.
(For a fine example of the latter, watch an old movie, 'On The Beach')


Ignore the ABL and ABM systems we wish we had, and seem to be a major crutch for some: they aren't here, and aren't likly to be in the near future (ie 10-25 years), while new, unstable players in the nuclear game will be dealt in long before then. Using an anti-missle system in this debate is wishful thinking at best and denial of the facts at worst.

And back on topic: If you were President of the U.S. and were just informed (today: this minute) that we were definitely (no mistake) under a full nuclear attack by a country that'll destroy most or all our people (90-100%), would you order a full nuclear counter-attack?

Yes.

God help us, because we blew every chance we had to stop the madmen of the world.

And apparently no one wants... (Below threshold)
Kristopher:

And apparently no one wants to consider the sane response:

If a dire enemy is trying to build nukes, and has made it clear that they intend to nuke your ass as soon as they get their missiles loaded, then the rational response is to annihilate them before they can even point a nuke at you.

The proper response to Iran, at this point is to issue an ultimatum ... "allow us to send in troops to remove your nuclear weapons production factories. If you do not comply, we will start using nuclear weapons to accomplish this task."

This would pretty much deal with all of the issues. If Iran does the sane thing, the threat is resolved with no loss of life. If they insist on continuing, they lose one facility/city at a time until they get a clue.




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