B.B.C. M.A.D. W.T.F?

18 Feb

It is always gratifying to see items on your chosen specialism being offered by one of the major news media outlets. In this case, the BBC website offers an article looking at the history and influence of the concept of Mutual (or mutually, no one can seem to agree on which is best) Assured Destruction (MAD.)

For me, the article highlights the problem with writing in a popular medium for a diverse audience. The main issue is the need to find a schtick to hang things on, in this case the “50th anniversary of MAD.” But, that’s nonsense. John von Neumann came up with the MAD concept in the 1950s and it was further refined by Herman Kahn in On Thermonuclear War in 1960. Even a cursory browse of Wikipedia will bring that up!

What the article does not really make clear is that the early 1960s saw MAD go from theory to reality. The advent of functional Interconinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) made the destruction of both sides in a nuclear war far more likely. Prior to this, the massed bomber fleets of the USA and USSR would have to fight their way through layer upon layer of destructive anti-aircraft defences, many equipped with nuclear warheads of their own. Indeed, nuclear air defenses were – recent research has shown – extremely widespread.

And nestled away in the text is this line: “”Today the risk is not so much armageddon but a “slippery slope” of proliferation, he [Professor Paul Rogers of Bradford University] says.” It is interesting that proliferation is always presented in these terms: the idea of the “slippery slope” or “proliferation cascade” has been around for a long, long time. But it has never happened. Then again, that’s a discussion for another entry.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very pleased to see a major media outlet like the BBC taking time to discuss this important aspect of a subject close to my heart. Hopefully such things provoke an inquisitive interest on the part of non-academics and – even if only in small numbers – encourage people to look in more detail at the nuance of the subject.

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