Wednesday, March 23, 2022

'People, ideas, machines' II: catastrophic thinking on nuclear weapons - by Dominic Cummings

Western theories re Soviet 'rationality' and nuclear strategy/ deterrence were revealed post-91 to be overconfident & wrong... Few realise... The rot of the UK nuclear enterprise...

‘Would it not be wondrous for this whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?’ General Anami trying to persuade the Japanese leadership not to surrender after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

‘[Payne’s book is an] extended reminder of just how fortunate we probably were to survive the Cold War. He rubs our noses in the unarguable fact that nuclear deterrence is all theory, and much of it is not very convincing theory at that… When we consider the Soviet/Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear postures as complex somewhat interdependent systems, especially in their full political, military, human, social, and technological contexts, it is hard to resist the judgment that we are fortunate to be here today. Complex systems have ‘normal accident’ rates.’ Colin Gray, leading scholar of nuclear strategy.

‘There was no defense against our own preconceptions.’ Kissinger, re US blunder over Egypt in 1973.

‘The combination of physics and politics could render the surface of the earth uninhabitable… [Technological progress] gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we have known them, cannot continue.’ John von Neumann, one of the 20th Century’s most important mathematicians.

‘Politics is always like visiting a country one does not know with people whom one does not know and whose reactions one cannot predict. When one person puts a hand in his pocket, the other person is already drawing his gun, and when he pulls the trigger the first one fires and it is too late then to ask whether the requirements of common law with regard to self-defence apply, and since common law is not effective in politics people are very, very quick to adopt an aggressive defence.’ Bismarck, 1879.

‘People, ideas, machines — in that order!’ What Colonel Boyd shouted in the Pentagon for years…

Los Alamos: Von Neumann, Feynman, Ulam; below, the first picture of a nuclear explosion


This blog is about ideas on nuclear weapons. With NATO helping Ukraine kill Russians and ideas like ‘no fly zones’ bandied about, the most important thing for those with influence on events is to understand crucial issues about deterrence, escalation, and WMD including all-out nuclear war. Regardless of what happens in Ukraine, these issues will be critical over Taiwan too. Pundit warriors and politicians are already banging the war drums for the next one.

In the Cold War America based its nuclear strategy on an intellectual framework that was false.

It defined standards of ‘rationality’ then concluded the Soviets would not use nuclear weapons in many scenarios. There was a governing tautology: rational leaders would be deterred otherwise they would be irrational. Given this tautology, more vulnerability improves ‘stability’ (e.g submarine launched weapons), while better defence is ‘destabilising’ (e.g missile defence).

The Cold War was won. The West concluded ‘we were right’. Many in the world of policy concluded: there is a reliable theory of nuclear strategy that allows us to send carefully calibrated signals, like ‘escalate to de-escalate’. You can see this false confidence in many politicians, journalists and academics over the past month. E.g Professor Elliot Cohen’s calls for America to attack Russian forces because he’s confident Putin is bluffing.

After the 1991 collapse some scholars went to talk to those actually in charge in Russia. They read documents. They discovered that we’d been wrong in crucial ways all along.

Actually the Soviets planned early and heavy use of nuclear weapons in many scenarios including outbreak of conventional war in Europe.

The theoretical basis of some of the west’s analysis, such as game theory from the likes of the economist Schelling, had been disastrously misleading. More important (I think) was the development of a theory that encouraged leaders/strategists to ignore an eternal lesson of history: one story after another of people risking death in ways opponents or observers thought ‘irrational’, ‘crazy’. (Remember the Jews’ response to Pilate’s severe and credible threats to kill them — they lay down and turned their necks to him and said do it! And it worked!) The actual motives and thinking of specific leaders was discouraged in favour of calculating balances of weapons. Bureaucracies focused on what can be counted and calculated rather than imponderable questions with no clear and comforting answers. The former was comforting. The latter seemed paralysing and/or nightmarish. Bureaucracies naturally gravitate toward the former unless very strong counter-pressures apply.

Not only were we wrong about that, but, because of how incentives work in the policy world, after 1991 nuclear weapons retreated to being a very niche subject. Very few senior politicians and officials now have studied these issues. Many of them, and influential journalists, believe we have reliable theories of ‘nuclear strategy’ and ‘nuclear escalation’.

After 1991 we also discovered that at various points we had come much closer to the brink than had been realised at the time because of accident and confusion, the famous ‘fog of war’ applied to nuclear.

For example, after the Cuban missile crisis JFK and RFK span many myths to journalists about JFK going ‘eyeball to eyeball’ and prevailing. These myths were powerful. You see them echoed in many screams over the past few weeks for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The myths were false. (A former Russian foreign minister repeated some of these myths days ago, clearly not having read about what actually happened in Cuba.)

We now know that below the sea a Soviet commander ordered nuclear weapons to be fired. Because of a fluke (to do with rank), he needed the agreement of Vasily Arkhipov. Arkhipov did not consent. The nukes were not fired. The crisis was, barely, resolved peacefully. People read the news and the Kennedy spin. The world moved on. We did not learn about this extraordinary moment under the sea for years.

This is a recent book if interested in details:

In 1983, the Soviet early warning system thought it had detected a US nuclear first strike. Fortunately the commander on duty, Petrov, had a hunch it was a false alarm and kept quiet instead of escalating. (He was punished for not filling in the forms properly — cf. my blogs on incentives in bureaucracies!) There were other similar incidents where early warning systems went wrong and nearly caused disaster. (After leaving No10 I was asked what I’d like people to study and chose this subject.)


  1. We operated with bad theories (e.g Schelling) and bad specific information about Soviet plans (e.g they won’t use nukes in scenario X).

  2. Many wrongly think these theories were good and provide a rational, effective approach to managing deterrence and escalation.

  3. Systems for early warning nearly failed disastrously many times, are inherently prone to error, and physical security of nuclear bases is repeatedly exposed by Red Teams to be compromised (sometimes laughably, such that planes are parked unguarded overnight because nobody realises they have nukes on board). We have not taken all this nearly as seriously as we should have either.

  4. Combining 1-3 together clearly has potential for the sort of misunderstandings that are normal in history and have often caused wars but could now cause nuclear war. 1-3 ought to be core knowledge for senior politicians who ought to spend considerable time learning about such things. They do not.

Further, the more you think ‘Putin made a terrible blunder in invading Ukraine, he’s lost the plot, isolated by covid fear, the institutions around him don’t work, he’s fed lies by sycophants’ — which is the standard view in London and DC today — the more sceptical you should be that simplistic ideas from the Cold War about ‘rationality’ and deterrence would work as planned.

It’s easy to imagine how in the next few weeks 1-3 above combine disastrously. For example…

  • NATO sends in supplies via Poland.

  • Russian forces strike the convoy, intending to strike on UKR soil but an error happens and it’s a mile inside Poland. Some Poles are killed. In the fog of war there are claims and counterclaims about what happened. (Maybe Putin truly believes it was in UKR not Poland and western governments/media are lying. Maybe it happens bang on the border and there’s genuine room for doubt about what happened. Or a drone whacks something and its location is disputed because it wondered off course, which happens all the time.)

  • The media goes crazy: Russian war crime, Putin worse than Hitler, NATO must act NOW. Remember, the media is totally and utterly unreliable on Russia. It has both ignored many awful aspects of the Putin mafia state for 20 years and invented nonsense about it. While individual journalists can be honest, you cannot rely on any serious corporate and generally enforced journalistic standards. Now MSM largely parrots Ukraine claims and bigshots retweet ‘Ghost of Kiev’ and video game footage as if it’s real. (E.g in order to suppress the Hunter Biden email story (in order to avoid helping Trump), practically the entire US mainstream media spread the fiction that the emails were ‘Russian disinformation’. They had former CIA people purporting to stand this up. Now everyone quietly, not on CNN, has to admit they were authentic and not ‘Russian disinformation’. This sort of disinformation from our own media is routine. You only know about it if you actively search for such things which few do. Graduates are the biggest suckers.)

  • Emergency summits are called.

  • Nuclear forces step up in readiness on both sides, or at least seem to (such signals have been misinterpreted before, e.g 1983 when a classified wargame was misinterpreted).

  • And in this atmosphere you have the sort of thing that happened with Petrov, say an apparent nuclear launch from a submarine giving only minutes to decide response.

  • What do they do? What does the UK PM, desperate to change the news from his lawbreaking now playing across the BBC again, do?

Below are some notes from Payne’s The fallacies of Cold War deterrence. All bold is added by me. I will also blog shortly on his followup book, The Great American Gamble, and The Kill Chain. The previous blog on defence is here.

The largely unseen rot of the UK nuclear enterprise

I’ve written about how our institutions deal with WMD-style crises many times. In 2017, I wrote about some of these issues in the context of Taiwan:

I will also post some notes on stuff connecting ideas about advanced technology and strategy (conventional and nuclear) including notes from the single best book on nuclear strategy, Payne’s The Great American Gamble: deterrence theory and practice from the Cold War to the twenty-first century. If you want to devote your life to a cause with maximum impact, then studying this book is a good start and it also connects to debates on other potential existential threats such as biological engineering and AI.

Payne’s book connects directly to Allison’s. Allison focuses a lot on the circumstances in which crises could spin out of control and end in US-China war. Payne’s book is the definitive account of nuclear strategy and its intellectual and practical problems. Payne’s book in a nutshell: 1) politicians and most senior officials operate with the belief that there is a dependable ‘rational’ basis for successful deterrence in which ‘rational’ US opponents will respond prudently and cautiously to US nuclear deterrence threats; 2) the re-evaluation of nuclear strategy in expert circles since the Cold War exposes the deep flaws of Cold War thinking in general and the concept of ‘rational’ deterrence in particular (partly because strategy was dangerously influenced by ideas about rationality from economics). Expert debate has not permeated to most of those responsible or the media. Trump’s language over North Korea and the media debate about it are stuck in the language of Cold War deterrence.

I would bet that no UK Defence Secretary has read Payne’s book. (Have the MoD PermSecs? The era of Michael Quinlan has long gone as the Iraq inquiries revealed.) What emerges from UK Ministers suggests they are operating with Cold War illusions. If you think I’m probably too pessimistic, then ponder this comment by Professor Allison who has spent half a century in these circles: ‘Over the past decade, I have yet to meet a senior member of the US national security team who had so much as read the official national security strategies’ (emphasis added). NB. he is referring to reading the official strategies, not the explanations of why they are partly flawed!

This of course relates to the theme of much I have written: the dangers created by the collision of science and markets with dysfunctional individuals and political institutions, and the way the political-media system actively suppresses thinking about, and focus on, what’s important. [Bold added]

I spent a lot of time in 2020 trying to push changes across ‘national security’ issues. I also went around some of the deep state sites to talk to people engaged in operations and try to figure out what important things were being starved of money/focus because of the general MoD horrorshow (leaked by a minister at the time to cause trouble). For example, I found our special forces are deprived of tiny amounts of money for crucial things — literally often so tiny you’re talking THOUSANDS, not even millions, while the MoD blows BILLIONS.

I spent time in the no-phones room under No10 disussing nuclear wargames and the UK nuclear enterprise.

In autumn 2020, I forced the PM to carve out 3 hours to discuss the nuclear enterprise. I had wanted to have a whole weekend at Chequers, including sessions with outside specialists, but he balked at just a few hours. After sort of listening, including to an account of rotten infrastructure and the truly horrific bills amounting to many tens of billions we face in coming years because of 25 years of rot and shockingly bad procurement under both parties, we left the room.

He picked up his phone (left outside for security), turned to me angry, and spat out.

What a waste of my time.

This sums up a lot not just about him but about our political system. Their single most important job is not seen as a priority!

Below the level of ministers and Permanent Secretaries there are many extremely able and dedicated public servants who have spent years trying to protect the UK. (The No10 Private Secretaries working on these things were exceptional and they’ve been repaid for their service by the PM embroiling them in his police investigations.) They pleaded with me to try to get ministers and other senior officials to listen and focus. They have been massively and repeatedly let down by politicians of both parties (and some senior officials).

These are the people now sitting in meetings being briefed on how Putin might interpret Truss saying ‘go and fight’ or Wallace giving Poland a blank cheque to attack Russia, as he did a few days ago (slapped down by Washington).

For many years I’ve said that a Golden Rule of politics is that, given our leaders don’t take nuclear weapons seriously never assume they’re taking X seriously and there is a team deployed on X with the incentives and skills to succeed.

People think this is an overstated metaphor but I always meant it literally.

Having explored the nuclear enterprise with deep state officials 2019-20, I can only stress just how extremely literally I mean this Golden Rule.

It was good that Daniel Finkelstein recently advised people to read Payne. I hope the current crisis means more in SW1 return to taking these subjects seriously and they return to being high status in SW1. Our MPs do not realise how the ‘people, ideas, machines’ of our nuclear enterprise have been allowed to rot by both parties. There is a closed loop of failure and classification of the failures. The same closed loop suppresses learning viz Russian/Chinese espionage and penetration of critical infrastructure, which is also much worse than is known to almost the entire House of Commons.

With this No10, it is totally impossible for this country to take these issues seriously.

Last year I urged MPs not to let No10 rewrite history over covid or we would hit the next crises with the same broken crisis management system that I warned in 2019 would fail, and we all saw fail. The most interesting thing about covid is not even the collapse and disaster. That was likely, not surprising. The interesting thing is the way in which both parties have sort-of-without-openly-coordinating colluded in trying to memory-hole the institutional failure and ensure that business-as-usual continues. (Seen Starmer press on how to change COBR, or even say one interesting thing about the management of No10/Cabinet Office? No.) You see the same phenomenon in D.C.

MPs did not act in 2021.

We got the totally avoidable omicron shambles.

And here we are on nuclear escalation. Yet again we have Boris Johnson sitting around the Cabinet table or in COBR with the same unstructured meetings, jumping from actual serious issue to ‘what does the Telegraph say’, with the few who understand often not in the room or ‘against the wall’ while ministers read out scripts (literally read out scripts). And the officials who understand walk out, clutch their heads and try to minimise the mayhem.

If you care about ‘preserving western values’, I strongly advise that you focus on regime change in London and Washington, not in Moscow. Otherwise we will face these recurring problems with rotten systems and leaders like Boris and Trump.

(I’ve stopped posting on Twitter and instead post small things here including on UKR situation. If you’re a journalist wanting more details on nuclear issues, in no circumstances will I discusss anything about this. You should encourage MPs to reform the Intelligence committee in Parliament. It’s a joke and treated as a joke by Whitehall so there is no forum for classified subjects to be properly discussed. This adds to the rot. This is why I told Boris that putting Grayling in charge of it was an immediate sign of him failing in his responsibilities, one of our first rows in Jan 2020. Similarly the way some ministers disgracefully leak from NSC meetings has meant that people such as ‘C’ and the head of GCHQ are rightly very guarded in what they say. This also adds to the rot.)