Sharp Blue: Mutually assured destruction on the high frontier


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On paper, the strategy of mutually assured destruction isn’t such a bad idea. As long as both parties behave rationally and as long as either is capable of a massive retaliation after an attack by the other, then they will both choose not to attack. In practice, however, there are several problems with MAD. Firstly, it doesn’t work reliably if the parties aren’t rational, and no governments or other groups always behave rationally. Secondly, it has tended to cause an arms race, because each side must have enough weapons to enable some to survive in the event of a massive first strike by the other. Thirdly, both parties tend to have their nuclear forces on standby for launch while incoming ICBMs are still in the air. The flight time of an intercontinental missile is around 45 minutes, which doesn’t give much time to detect an enemy launch, decide it’s a real threat and then decide to retaliate. In the case of the US-USSR confrontation, the leaders of an attacked country would have around ten minutes to decide to incinerate the other in the case of such a first strike. (Things would be much, much worse on the Indian subcontinent.) The risk of an accidental nuclear holocaust during the Cold War was pretty high. Even now, it hasn’t totally disappeared: we almost had an accidental nuclear war as recently as 1995.

One approach to making MAD a little safer is to put your nukes on submarines. This makes them much harder to destroy as part of an enemy first strike and gives you the capacity to retaliate at your leisure. Not only are you then less likely to wipe out civilisation by accident (which is always embarrassing), but you need fewer warheads and so your deterrent is much cheaper. It’s possible to do much better than submarines though: the US Strategic Air Command studied the idea of putting a substantial force of warheads on Orion battleships out beyond the orbit of the Moon. Such a force would slow down any nuclear war so that it lasted for weeks before cities started turning into radioactive craters: it’s not plausible to hit an Orion vessel with a beam weapon from Earth and the flight times for missiles out there or back would be measured in days. If the USSR had wanted to get out of MAD by wiping out the USA’s ability to retaliate, it would have no choice but to give the US ample notice of this intention by launching missiles at the Orions. Sneak attacks would become essentially impossible. Orion would also circumvent many ballistic missile defence systems, because it would be possible for an Orion to accelerate to hyperbolic velocity in deep space and eject a swarm of warheads and decoys on the way in: there wouldn’t be a vulnerable boost phase.

Some might say that militarising space is a bad idea, but I think that moving the locus of a nuclear war to the vast translunar wastelands would be much preferable to having one in, say, Los Angeles. What’s more, if the United States had chosen this option, one of the spinoffs would’ve been the opening up of the high frontier. Not to mention that after the Cold War ended, those Orion swords could’ve been beaten into interplanetary spaceship ploughshares. Instead, we got lots of useless ballistic missile submarines and ICBM silos and some strategic bombers we can now use to blow stuff up with high explosives. Sometimes the strategy that looks craziest is really the most sane.

lets hoe it never comes to this

Are there any weapons in Germany like tis.

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