MAD Is Bad U.S. Policy for Iran and North Korea

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Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is the deterrence concept developed in the 1960s by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in response to the Soviet nuclear threat. For the 2020s and beyond, America should not acquiesce to entering this mutual suicide pact with Iran or North Korea.

Various formulations of MAD were based on having enough surviving weapons after a Soviet first strike to kill 1/5 to 1/3 of the Soviet population and destroy half its industry. Henry Kissinger’s response to MAD was prescient: “The doctrine of ‘assured destruction’ led to the extraordinary conclusion that the vulnerability of our civilian population was an asset reassuring the Soviet Union and guaranteeing its restraint in a crisis. For the first time, a major country saw an advantage in enhancing its own vulnerability.” [1]

MAD proponents still believe the U.S. population should remain vulnerable against large Russian and Chinese nuclear missile attacks. The proponents argue that defending against such attacks would be destabilizing, even as both adversaries continue to deploy more deadly nuclear armaments in the absence of significant U.S. defenses, and the U.S. contemplates spending hundreds of billions to modernize its own nuclear arsenal.

MAD also appears to be the only U.S. deterrent to even very small nuclear attacks from space by emerging nuclear powers Iran and North Korea. With one or at most a few space-based nuclear explosions, both adversaries could mount electromagnetic-pulse (EMP) attacks that could disable America’s electricity supply for very long times, possibly resulting in the deaths of 2/3 or more, up to 90%, of the U.S. population (well over 200 million fatalities) after a year and collapse of American society. [2]

Incredibly, nuclear weapons like the Soviet's Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), which in theory could complete multiple orbits before attacking a target, are deemed acceptable in space [3a]. In contrast, non-nuclear space-based defense systems are vilified [3b].

Both Iran and North Korea have demonstrated the ability to orbit nuclear-weapon-carrying satellites. Iran may also have an initial nuclear capability (on its own or from a partner). [2] One FOBS-type orbiting nuclear weapon could be used against a U.S. city with tragic results. However, a nuclear EMP attack from space could be much worse, a catastrophic number of eventual U.S. deaths, and the end of most U.S. industrial activity.

With EMP, a nuclear Iran and already-nuclear North Korea would possess abundant assured destruction capability against America. To deter them, does it make sense for the U.S. to rely on a retaliatory threat of immediately killing perhaps 1/3 of their much smaller populations (Iran: ~84 million; North Korea: ~26 million), destroying much of their relatively meager industries? The answer is NO! Kill 2/3 instead? Still NO!

To illustrate, Iran’s mullahs could decide it is worth accepting the favorable MAD death ratio (possibly as high as 10 U.S. deaths for 1 Iranian death, or 10:1) of an EMP attack to destroy the Great Satan. On the world stage, Iran could deny the attack by shifting blame, such as to a secret U.S. space-defense weapon that went awry or to terrorism. A U.S. response would likely not be immediate as various leaders argue in Washington, D.C., and nations debate in the United Nations, where Russia and China would support Iran.

Stressful or disastrous outcomes could follow. For example, Russia, China, or both could offer Iran protection by threatening massive nuclear attacks on an already suffering America. Suppose the U.S. did eventually retaliate against Iran. In that case, Russia, China, or both could decide to finish off a much weakened America, possibly by starting with more EMP attacks to destroy feeble recovery efforts. With EMP-damaged electronics, prolonged national power outages, and already having expended part of its arsenal on Iran, a U.S. response to Russian-Chinese attacks could be fragmented and much less effective than before Iran’s EMP attack.

Similar discussions would apply to North Korea, except that North Korea’s MAD death ratio relative to America could be on the order of 30:1 for an EMP attack. With one or a few nuclear weapons and delivery mechanisms, small nations and tiny terrorist organizations can gain tremendous leverage over MAD-obsessed large nations!

If not MAD, what? The EMP Commission and President Trump’s Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses call for protecting America’s electric grids by hardening transformers and control systems and protecting other life-sustaining critical infrastructures from the catastrophic consequences of EMP. [4a] [4b] Glacial-paced responses to the Executive Order and to related needs for implementing protection measures must be accelerated.  

In parallel with hardening the national grid, U.S. military systems and bases worldwide should no longer remain vulnerable to extended offsite power outages and associated fuel shortages stemming from EMP attacks. The U.S. should ensure that (a) its key military bases and federal emergency centers have their own off-grid protected power supplies, like very small nuclear power plants (including mobile nuclear-powered generators), to provide grid-independent backup for military operations and recovery assistance; and (b) adequate fuel storage for extended periods. Also, the electronics in all essential military systems and federal civilian-assistance systems should be certified to withstand anticipated severe EMP-generated effects.

Finally, the Space Force should immediately deploy capabilities to examine space-based systems suspected of carrying nuclear weapons. An example would be a fleet of X-37Cs (modified X-37Bs [5]), which could also assist in deploying advanced missile-tracking satellites and space-based interceptors, adding a space layer of defenses against hostile global launches of ballistic missiles, new Russian and Chinese hypersonic missiles, and suspect satellites.

Diplomatic and economic steps to curtail Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear and missile developments should continue, but it is probably too late for non-military measures to nullify their EMP-delivery capability. More U.S. offensive weapons won’t work either. However, adding non-threatening space-based defenses to protect America would strengthen deterrence against nuclear attacks by balancing and complementing the current offense-dominated posture preferred by MAD proponents. The result would be SANE (Strategic Assured National Existence).

The costs of all of these steps would be far less than the many trillions America has already lost and spent while battling the Chinese virus. The costs would be trivial compared to America's ultimate losses experiencing an Iranian or North Korean EMP attack!

Norm Haller has led and assisted analyses, planning, and preparing reports for DoD and Congress on nuclear and non-nuclear forces for deterrence and defense against missile attacks. Now a consultant, he served in the Air Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission as the Chairman’s Executive Assistant.  Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is Executive Director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, served as Chief of Staff of the Congressional EMP Commission, and on the staffs of the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA.







4b. EMP Commission, Assessing the Threat from EMP Attack (July 2017) and


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