10 Chilling Facts About The MAD Doctrine – Mutually Assured Destruction


As a doctrine of national security and military strategy, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) involves the full-scale usage of weapons of mass destruction by at least two opposing sides.

This would lead to the total destruction of the defender as well as the attacker. MAD is based on the deterrence theory where any threat of using strong weapons toward the enemy is designed to keep the enemy from using similar or the same weapons.

MAD is similar to the misconception of preventing World War I by forming strong military alliances that others wouldn’t want to start a war that they had no chance of winning. We are all aware that strategy did not work at all.

The strategy of MAD is credited to John von Neumann who had a fondness for humorous acronyms. He also came up with the term MANIAC computer.


1. The Ideas Behind MAD

The doctrine uses the assumption that each side in the war has enough nuclear weapons available to destroy the other completely. If one side is attacked by the other for any reason, there would be immediate retaliation without fail involving equal or greater force.

The result that is expected occurs immediately, causing the hostilities to be unable to be reversed, the result will be total destruction on both sides. This doctrine requires that neither of those involved construct massive scale shelters as Switzerland has done.

The MAD doctrine would be violated by the U.S. if the country were to create a system of shelters. This would destabilize the situation because the nation wouldn’t need to be afraid of the results of a second Soviet strike.

Missile defense invokes the same principle.

2. Decapitation Strike

Luckily this was only a test! – Nuclear weapon test Apache (yield 1.85 Mt) on Enewetak Atoll. / Public Domain

The first strike, known as the decapitation strike, is designed to remove the enemy’s control and command mechanisms with the intent that it will destroy or negatively impact its capacity to lead to nuclear retaliation.

This strike is designed to keep an enemy from using its weapons against your nation. These decapitation strikes were not the chosen nuclear strategy because it was believed that preserving the enemy’s control and command structures were more beneficial in the negotiation of a cease-fire or surrender.

New strategies had to evolve, and that was known as Countervalue and Counterforce. The intentions of the counterforce strategy are to disarm your enemy by destroying all of its nuclear weapons before they can be launched.

By doing so, you are significantly reducing the impact of a retaliatory second strike. There are differences between Counterforce and Countervalue targets, as they include the adversary’s political and economic resources in addition to their population.

A Counterforce strike targets the enemy’s military forces while Countervalue strikes target the adversary’s cities.

3. Counterforce or Countervalue, that is the question

Possible radioactive fallout pattern from a nuclear counterforce strike against US missile silos / Public Domain

While a perfectly executed counterforce attack shouldn’t kill any civilians, we are aware that attacks are known to cause collateral damage, particularly with the employment of nuclear weapons.

Many military targets are located close to civilian centers so a counterforce attack that involves even small nuclear warheads will cause numerous casualties on the civilian level as well.

Because involving ground burst strikes to destroy targets results in much more fallout from nuclear warfare than the countervalue target airbursts, there is the slight chance that a counterforce strike would cause even more casualties to civilians than experienced from a countervalue strike.

4. Second Strike

ICBM Launched from a missile submarine, the perfect Second Strike vehicle but these were a long way off at first. / Public Domain

A very real danger was perceived in America that the Soviet Union would be able to attempt a devastating first strike using either of the 3 strategies described above, thereby eliminating the ability to strike back.

The US would only be able to count on a  second-strike capability when they had guaranteed ability to strike back after being hit by a Soviet  first-strike attack.

5. Always Airborne

Boeing B-47B rocket-assisted take off on April 15, 1954. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Boeing B-47B rocket-assisted take off on April 15, 1954. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The U.S. had continuous patrols of strategic nuclear bombers which achieved their second strike capabilities.

By keeping a larger number of nuclear bombers in the air either on their way from or going to the fail-safe points that were near the borders of the Soviet Union, they could retaliate, even if they suffered the blow of a devastating first strike.

This was an expensive and problematic approach because of the high costs of keeping the planes in the air at all times. On top of that came the risks of them being shot down by the anti-aircraft missiles of the Soviet Union before reaching their targets.

This strategy ceased to exist when the ICBMs came into play.

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