How Risky is a Nuclear Doomsday Machine?

How risky is it to build a nuclear arsenal that has the ability to destroy civilization? That is the fundamental question raised in my paper “How risky is nuclear optimism?” in the current issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. While nuclear deterrence is not usually referred to as a Doomsday Machine, its other name, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), brings out its similarity to the Doomsday Machine in Stanley Kubrik’s 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove. As seen in the following excerpt from the script, the Soviets are portrayed as having created such a device to make their nuclear deterrent totally credible:

Alexiy DeSadeski (the Soviet Ambassador): If you take, say, fifty H-bombs in the hundred megaton range and jacket them with cobalt thorium G, when they are exploded they will produce a doomsday shroud. A lethal cloud of radioactivity which will encircle the earth for ninety three years! …

Muffley (the US President, played by Peter Sellers, and supposedly modeled on two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson): I’m afraid I don’t understand something, Alexiy. Is the Premier threatening to explode this if our planes carry out their attack? [American General Jack D. Ripper, reasoning that “war is too important to be left to politicians,” has gone rogue and ordered his planes to attack the Soviet Union.]

DeSadeski: No sir. It is not a thing a sane man would do. The doomsday machine is designed to trigger itself automatically.

Muffley: But surely you can disarm it somehow.

DeSadeski: No. It is designed to explode if any attempt is ever made to untrigger it. …

Muffley: But this is absolute madness, ambassador. Why should you build such a thing?

DeSadeski: There are those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. … But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.

Muffley: This is preposterous. I’ve never approved of anything like that.

DeSadeski: Our source was the New York Times.

Muffley: Dr. Strangelove, do we have anything like that in the works?

Strangelove (a former Nazi scientist now working for the United States, also played by Sellers): A moment please, Mr. President. Under the authority granted me as director of weapons research and development, I commissioned last year a study of this project by the Bland Corporation. Based on the findings of the report, my conclusion was that this idea was not a practical deterrent, for reasons which, at this moment, must be all too obvious.

Muffley: Then you mean it is possible for them to have built such a thing?

Strangelove : Mr. President, the technology required is easily within the means of even the smallest nuclear power. It requires only the will to do so.

Muffley: But, how is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically, and at the same time impossible to untrigger?

Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing. …

Muffley: But this is fantastic, Strangelove. How can it be triggered automatically?

Strangelove: Well, it’s remarkably simple to do that. When you merely wish to bury bombs, there is no limit to the size. After that they are connected to a gigantic complex of computers. Now then, a specific and clearly defined set of circumstances, under which the bombs are to be exploded, is programmed into a tape memory bank.

A book review of “Nuclear Deterrence Theory: The Search for Credibility” summarizes the dilemma of nuclear deterrence in more academic terms, but suggests strategies close to that of the Doomsday Machine [emphasis added]:

To be effective in influencing the expectations of the opponent (and thereby help secure a good outcome), threats and promises … have to be credible. If they are no[t] believable, then the opponent will not revise its expectations. [Nuclear strategist and Economics Nobel Laureate Thomas] Schelling then proposed several ways of how credible commitments can be established. A very famous one is the strategy of constraining one’s own options [as in the Doomsday Machine]: by deliberately weakening oneself in this way, one can emerge in a stronger bargaining position because a commitment that one is unable to escape from has the ultimate credibility.

Another strategy that Schelling proposed involved the deliberate creation of risk of shared disaster. If the outcome one wants to threaten with is so bad even for the threatener, then the opponent will not believe it. Instead of threatening this outcome, one can instead create a risk of it occurring. The pressure of this risk can be the threat. Schelling called this the “strategy that leaves something to chance” and it essentially involves the deliberate manipulation of risk.

While Kubrick’s Doomsday Machine was a literary invention, it turns out that fact followed fiction more closely than we’d have liked. Nuclear strategy expert and former Minuteman Launch Control Officer Dr. Bruce Blair determined that the Soviets had implemented a similar system known as the “dead hand” because it allowed the Soviet leadership to reach from the grave and retaliate should America launch a sneak attack that “decapitated” the Soviet nuclear deterrent. Speaking of Dr. Blair, a 1993 New York Times article reported:

Russia has a computerized system that can automatically fire its nuclear arsenal in wartime if military commanders are dead or unable to direct the battle, a leading American expert on the Russian military says.

Isn’t it time to Defuse the Nuclear Threat by dismantling our Doomsday Machine?

Martin Hellman

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION

My related web site has a story about this drawing that makes a similar argument for nuclear sanity.

The above scene from Strangelove is accessible on YouTube.

For more information on the real Soviet Doomsday Machine, see David Hoffman’s book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. It won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

My post from last November has other examples of illogical nuclear logic.

My post from last September treats “The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence.”

About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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One Response to How Risky is a Nuclear Doomsday Machine?

  1. It’s irrational to expect rational behavior.

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