Professor: “Hello, class. Welcome to Combat Community College, and to Modern Warfare 101. In this course, we’ll be exploring various military strategies in light of recent technological advances that have rapidly changed the face of modern warfare. I would also like to extend my appreciation to those of you who, in keeping with the tradition of this august institution, have dressed up for our annual ‘costume day’ to begin the new academic year. (brief pause) Our topic today is ‘mutually assured destruction’, frequently abbreviated as M.A.D., or simply MAD. The concept of MAD is premised on the notion that no rational government would ever launch a nuclear attack on another nuclear-armed country that has the capability to respond in kind.”
Annoying Student: “Professor, when you say ‘respond in kind’, do you mean by turning the attacking country into radioactive mush?”
Prof: “Well, we try not to employ such graphic terms, but that is essentially the concept. A great deal of hand wringing has been spent evaluating whether this premise is a valid one. Many worry that miscalculations, accidents, or other unforeseen events might trigger a nuclear war, and that M.A.D. is a dangerous assumption that rests on a knife’s edge.”
Student: “And professor, what do you mean by a ‘rational government’? After all, a government isn’t just one single person. It’s a complex organization full of competing parties with conflicting interests. Couldn’t maybe only a small part of the government decide to launch an attack, even if the vast majority of the people didn’t want to?”
Prof: “Yes, we’ll discuss that topic in a different part of the course, where we’ll explore the concept of ‘command and control’ which addresses the issue of who has the authority to control the nuclear arsenal, and under what circumstances it might be deployed.”
Student: “But, Professor, isn’t MAD completely irrelevant these days?”
Prof: “Could you please raise your hand before commenting? And why do you say that M.A.D. is irrelevant?”
Student: “Well, due to recent technological advances, M.A.D. has become irrelevant. Why worry about retaliation if your adversary can’t be sure that you committed the crime in the first place? Even if they suspect you did, what exactly would they do to retaliate if the attacking nation can convincingly deny intent, or at least arouse sufficient doubt that they are the ones who are really culpable?”
Prof: “Indeed. You are referring to what we call ‘plausible deniability’. The essence of the theory is that the perpetrators can plausibly deny having knowledge of their actions.”
Student: “Haha. Who, me? Surely you jest!”
Prof: “This concern has given rise to an important field in modern warfare called nuclear forensics. This is the science of investigating nuclear material to determine its source of origin.”
Student: “Does that mean using lots of fancy science to figure out who the heck did it?”
Prof: “Exactly. It’s a growing field of interest due to recent advances in nuclear weapons technology that have resulted in the miniaturization of nuclear bombs. This has raised the threat of an armed terrorist group acquiring a weapon of mass destruction. As unlikely as this scenario may be, scientists have developed sophisticated techniques using spectrographic analysis, radiochemical separation, and other methods to determine the source of the nuclear material used in an explosion.”
Student: “Professor, didn’t you mean to say a ‘likely’ scenario? I think you mistakenly said ‘unlikely’.”
Prof: “No, no. Experts assure us that the possibility of terrorists acquring a minituare nuclear bomb is extremely unlikely due to the sophisticated command and control structures employed by nuclear-armed nations.”
Student: “Gee, I wonder who does the commanding and controlling anyway? There are so many countries that have nuclear weapons these days, with a lot more coming down the road. Something to look forward to! Haha!”
Prof: “Could you please stop interrupting our lecture? Besides, I am a professor, not a spy. Rest assured that these matters are under careful observation. Now, class, I am hoping that everyone brought their essay with them. As I stated in the course syllabus that I sent you prior to this first lecture, each of you was supposed to prepare a brief scenario of a potential conflict involving modern warfare technology…”
Student: “Ooh, ooh, professor. Me, me! Pleeze!”
Prof: “Me what?”
Student: “Pick me first please.”
Prof: “It seems that I’ve picked you far too often already! What exactly are you asking now?”
Student: “Can I read my essay to the class? Pretty please?”
Prof: “If I grant your request, will you promise to sit quietly for the remainder of the class?”
Student: “Absolutely! I’ll sit on my hands. One of my other professors suggested that.”
Prof: “I can’t imagine why. Very well, you may read your essay to us, but please keep it brief so that we can move on to more important matters.”
Student: “Great! It’s called ‘The Floating Birthday Present’! I hope everyone enjoys it! I wrote it while I was on this wonderful ocean cruise on the R.M.S. Titanic. Haha, just kidding!” (student clears throat)
“The Floating Birthday Present
by Aggravating Alien
Ha ha, that’s me!”
“On July 4, 2026 the United States of America will celebrate its 250th birthday with much fanfare and glorious festivities. On that day, at the exact moment everywhere, nuclear devices will explode in the following cities that are accessible by waterways: Boston, New York, Washington D.C., Miami, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
“These devices will be delivered by ships, but will not be unloaded, thus avoiding any possible screening efforts to detect them. They’ll be detonated onboard in very close proximity to the land. We won’t get into the particulars of yield, blast radius, or other morbid stuff. There’s plenty of literature on those subjects, which you’re all welcome to read. With increasing miniaturization of nuclear weapons, larger yields now come in smaller packages, thus dramatically increasing their destructive power. Just one more miracle of modern technology! Haha.
“With the potential for millions of deaths occurring simultaneously, things could get a bit chaotic. Being a holiday, it is questionable how fast and effective the emergency response would be. In addition, nuclear forensics is a tricky subject. Experts disagree on how accurate the conclusions can be, and it may take weeks to arrive at a consensus, assuming there even is a consensus.
“For our purposes, let’s say it takes two weeks to figure out the details of the explosion, and have maybe a 70% confidence level that the weapons originated from Pakistan. Now, we don’t mean to pick on Pakistan, but they have over 150 nuclear weapons, and are in the process of building more as they compete with India and China, who are also rapidly expanding their nuclear arsenals.
“Nuclear weapon technology continues to rapidly proliferate around the world, and it’s just a matter of time before there are many other countries with nuclear weapons. Some countries, like Japan and South Korea, already have the technology to quickly and easily manufacture nuclear weapons should they choose to. Many others will soon be in the same position.
“Nuclear weapons are often preceded by the development of nuclear power reactors that are used for peaceful purposes such as clean energy, or as research reactors to develop medical isotopes. Existing nuclear powers have been integral in helping other countries obtain this so-called ‘peaceful’ nuclear technology. This assistance continues today. Did you know there are almost 50 nations with nuclear power plants already built or under construction?
“Countries such as Argentina, Armenia, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, …”
Professor: “Excuse me, but I distinctly asked you to keep your essay brief!”
Student: “Oh, sorry. I was just reading down the list in alphabetical order. It’s a long list! Looks like we can expect to see many more, as nuclear technology continues to rapidly proliferate around the world.
“Now back to our story! What does the United States do in retaliation? Remember, the U.S. is only 70% sure. And of course Pakistan is furiously denying any knowledge of these horrific events, and is expressing outrage that they would even be accused of such a dastardly deed. They’re also assuring the world that their arsenal is fully secured and is being carefully inventoried to make sure that no terrorist group has obtained access to any of their weapons.
“So, now what? Does the U.S. attack Pakistan with nuclear weapons and kill over 200 million people, the vast majority of whom are innocent civilians? What about the radioactive fallout that would travel many miles into other countries? Will the United States react with anger that China was complicit in helping Pakistan obtain nuclear weapons in the first place? At this point, does it even matter?
“Imagine you’re the President of the United States. What would you do?
“Happy Birthday! The End!”
Prof: “Well, that is certainly a morbid essay. What prompted you to write it?”
Student: “Well, it seems to me that my story is a far more likely scenario than some country overtly launching nuclear missiles, when they can covertly deliver them with plausible deniability. And thanks to so-called ‘improvements’ in technology, a 10 kiloton weapon could easily fit inside a small van. While it might be a bit tricky to unload the cargo and place it on the van, it’s not implausible. Then, you could drive the van anywhere. Maybe detonate a few when Congress is in session, the President is in the White House, and the Supreme Court is meeting? How about during the State of the Union address? A few well-placed nuclear weapons in vans could decapitate the government of any country. Bye, bye civilization! The federal government is gone: Congress, President, Supreme Court, and many federal agencies destroyed. And thanks to the floating weapons, major city centers have also been destroyed. The federal government has ceased to exist, the financial infrastructure is gone, the banking system is in tatters, millions of innocent people are dead, and the United States is unsure how to respond. Happy Birthday!”
Prof: “Ugh. In addition to your gloomy outcome, that was hardly a brief essay. And that silly Alien costume you’re wearing definitely detracts from the gravity of your subject matter.”
Student: “Huh? Costume?”