Things We Need To Know About The Mutual 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.

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

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.

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.

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.


Atlas B ICBM (flight 4B)

The Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) is a ballistic missile that is guided to the target. It can travel at least 3,400 miles and was built primarily for transporting nuclear weapons.

ICBMs have the capability of being launched from airplanes, submarines, missile silos, and vehicles. They became an integral part of the MAD doctrine because these weapons allowed the flexibility that enabled the country to strike back and destroy the enemy.

It basically guaranteed a second strike.

With the advancing of technology, it came to fruition that an ICBM could be used to launch several nuclear warheads at once because of the MIRV.


A time exposure of eight intercontinental ballistic missile reentry vehicles passing through clouds while approaching an open-ocean impact zone during a flight test.

The MIRV, which is a Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle, is a payload for ballistic missiles that contains multiple warheads.

Each warhead has the capability of being aimed to hit one of many targets. The old fashioned warheads could only transport a single nuclear bomb on a single missile and aim for a single target.

The next step was the multiple reentry vehicle (MRV) missile that could carry numerous warheads that were all dispersed but not individually aimed which resulted in a blast similar to a shotgun.

The MIRV solved that problem, all warheads were now targetable.

8. Anti-Ballistic Missiles

The launch of a US Army Nike-Zeus missile, the first ABM system to enter widespread testing.

Anti-ballistic missiles arrived with the launch of the Nike-Zeus missile by the U.S. Army. It entered widespread testing.

The thought that a nuclear strike could wipe out the U.S. didn’t fare well with politicians and the military. The plan was to create a weapon that could be used to destroy incoming nuclear warheads before they could strike.

While this undermined the MAD doctrine because there could indeed be a winner of a nuclear war, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union created anti-ballistic missile systems during the 1960s.

Unfortunately, they never resulted in an usable weapon.

9. Star Wars / SDI

An artist's concept of a Space Laser Satellite Defense System.
1984 artist’s concept of a generic laser-equipped satellite firing on another

After anti-ballistic missiles had come into play, President Ronald Reagan advocated the next step in the military preparations. On March 23, 1983 he Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was proposed.

This was a missile defense system designed to protect the country from attack from strategic nuclear weapons. It combined orbital deployment platforms with ground-based units with the initiative emphasizing strategic defense instead of the MAD doctrine.

The initiative suffered great criticism and was considered unrealistic while it threatened to destabilize MAD and fire an offensive arms manufacturing race. Mainstream media called SDI “Star Wars.”

It was determined in 1987 that SDI wasn’t just impossible with the current technologies, but it would take at least ten more years of research to determine feasibility.

10. How Close We Came To The Real MAD

Stanislav Petrov receiving the Dresden Prize, 2013.

Russian Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was the officer on duty at the Oko nuclear warning system on Sept. 26, 1983. The system reported that a missile, which was followed by at least one and as many as five more, were being launched from the U.S.

Petrov decided it was a false alarm and decided not to retaliate with a nuclear attack on the U.S. and its allies. Because of MAD, it could have been a full-scale nuclear war.

After an investigation, it was determined that the satellite warning system had malfunctioned and Petrov was deemed a hero.

Joris Nieuwint

Joris Nieuwint is a battlefield guide for the Operation Market Garden area. His primary focus is on the Allied operations from September 17th, 1944 onwards. Having lived in the Market Garden area for 25 years, he has been studying the events for nearly as long. He has a deep understanding of the history and a passion for sharing the stories of the men who are no longer with us.