how does MAD work?


I know MAD is the doctrine that no one in their right mind would first strike with nuclear weapons, because they know the retaliation would be unbearable and no one could possibly win. What I don’t understand is how it works in practice.

The reason I am confused is as follows: it seems like a very aggressive country could initiate a limited first strike against a small target, knowing/hoping that their opponent wouldn’t want to escalate for fear of ending the world, essentially allowing them to strike small targets with impunity.

In: 278

This is essentially what Russia is doing, nibble nibble nibble. Crimea first and then more of Ukraine. Prob Georgia next, etc. The West is set on economically punishing them for this and we’ll see if that is effective in stopping this. If not, prob military intervention is next. Even then, both parties are apt to not strike w nuclear weapons as it’s game over. Nukes essentially will stop nations from taking over the other, not engaging in war either directly or through proxies.

“Hoping” is the key word you use. It’s the uncertainty that would/should hold people back. If Putin used low yield tactical nukes in the Ukraine, would NATO launch a strategic strike at Moscow? Probably not, but it would almost certainly cause an escalation that would spiral out of control very quickly.

The fact remains that it would literally be suicide to launch a large scale strategic nuclear strike, and even a limited tactical strike would likely still escalate to the same results. MAD also makes it difficult for the chain of command to work to launch a strike. If Putin was that deranged, a nuke order would most likely be disobeyed in theory. Hopefully anyway.

We don’t like eachother and we both have a pile of grenades. I could grab one, pull the pin, and throw it at you but you’d have the time to grab one, pull the pin, and throw one at me so I decide not to.

Could I grab a smaller grenade, pull the pin, and throw it at your friend (who has no grenades) or at your house under the assumption that you wouldn’t retaliate with a full sized grenade thrown at me? Sure, however that’s a heck of an assumption. Even if you didn’t maybe then you throw a smaller grenade or a full sized grenade at my friend or house, making it that much easier for both of us to use grenades in the future.

Neither of us wants to die so we decide not to use our grenades.

MAD is used in various ways. After WW1, Hitler used Europe’s fear of another all out global war to systematically cut through the Treaty of Versailles.

If you work for a company that does some sketchy stuff that if known could damage it’s reputation irreparably, but you enjoy working there and want to stay…you can place them into a situation that as long as they don’t fire you, you won’t destroy them…. everything will be okay.

MAD is a heavy handed way to maintain the status quo. Sometimes can be interchangeable with “Mexican standoff”. Where we have guns pointed at each other….who’s shoots first? Can I shoot faster than you? But neither wants to be the first to shoot in case you survive and be seen as the bad guy. This has been the American/Russian stance since the end of WW2. There have been many examples of “Ukraines”. Korea, Cuban Missile Crisis, Russians invade Afghanistan (we supplied and trained the mujahideen, including Bin Laden), Syria (proxy war), etc…

> What I don’t understand is how it works in practice.

We don’t know if it works in practice.

The theory, as you say, is that no one will use nuclear weapons against a target with nuclear weapons, because they will receive them back and everyone will die.

And while it is true that no country has used nuclear weapons against any other country with nuclear weapons, no country (other than the US in 1945) has *ever* used nuclear weapons, so this isn’t proof either way. It may be that MAD works, or it may be that no one wants to be the first (other than the US in 1945) to use nuclear weapons at all.

Countries have invaded nuclear powers, nuclear powers have invaded non-nuclear countries, and nuclear powers have even had wars with other nuclear powers.

MAD is all about the risk and the uncertainty. If one country does a particular thing, will the other country respond with nuclear weapons? Is the benefit of the thing worth the risk of nuclear retaliation? Even if there is a low chance of nuclear retaliation, is the likely devastation so much to outweigh the low risk?