If your doomsday machine is broken, keep it a secret

| Comments (4) | Misc
Re-watched Wargames last night and noticed something funny. I don't think it's a spoiler to note that the motivating factor for putting the computer in charge of missile launch is that NORAD runs a simulation and determines that 22% of missile commanders won't turn the key. A few notes about this. First, 78% launch success rate is pretty good. Given the amount of missile overcapacity had in the 80s—and still have, I suppose—it doesn't seem to me that this presents much of a problem.

Also, the point of deterrence is to make the enemy believe you'll destroy them if they attack. Once they have actually launched their missiles and they can't be recalled, launching your own missiles is just revenge—pretty questionable behavior if you're a consequentialist. Of course, maintaining a posture of deterrence requires a credible commitment to a strategic posture of retaliation (recall Hermann Kahn's advice about how to play chicken), or rather having your opponent think you have such a commitment. If that commitment is a bit rickety, there are two alternatives: shore it up or just don't let anyone find out.


Revenge is not necessarily petty or questionable in this instance. Presuming a non-total annihilation, you'll have some amount of population left alive on both sides, and you'll need to make sure your "credible deterrent" is more credible for the next time around. The only option is to actually retaliate.

I don't recall Hermann Kahn's advice about how to play chicken. Reference?


I'm assuming a more or less total first strike. I agree that some sort of retaliation makes sense in a limited first strike case.

Perry: the advice was to throw your steering wheel out the window, thus demonstrating that you were committed.

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