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Game Theory and Nuclear War

While most of the 65,000 active nuclear weapons from 1985 are gone, there still remain over 4,000 active nuclear warheads.  Yet, since WWII, not a single nuclear weapon has been used against another nation.  While many generals and political figures have considered their use in tactical strikes, game theorists, luckily, have convinced them otherwise.

In particular, the entire scare during the Cold War was built around the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD).  The idea was that as soon as one side launched a nuclear strike, the other would respond with a nuclear strike of its own.  Hence, as long as either side chose to launch a nuclear strike, both sides would see enormous losses.  This produced a Nash Equilibrium in which neither side would ever initiate a nuclear strike.

In order to maintain this equilibrium, however, conflicting sides must maintain their nuclear weapons capability.  Moreover, both sides must be able to recognize a nuclear strike in order to counter it.  However, what would happen if one side is unable to detect a nuclear strike?  This is currently a possibility as it has been discovered that China currently mixes its nuclear missiles with its conventional ones at the same military bases (  Since an outsider cannot tell if a ballistic missile is carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead, the outsider may perceive a launch of a conventional ballistic missile as a nuclear strike.  This in turn would trigger a nuclear retaliation.

However, the author of the article cites that most experts believe “China’s missile ambiguity is unlikely to result in a nuclear exchange” and that the Chinese missile move is “merely stupid, not suicidal.”  Even if China launches a ballistic missile, the U.S. is not crazy enough to “go nuclear over a confusing missile launch.”  While this is probably true as game theory tells us that both sides will lose everything if either chooses to go into full nuclear war, the ambiguity created by the missile mixing still allows for other possibilities.

For example, for the very reason why the U.S. will not initiate a nuclear retaliation over the launch of a single ballistic missile, China might be able to get away with the launch of a nuclear missile in a tactical nuclear strike.  While the U.S. does have the capability of downing ballistic missiles, if China launches several of them, it would be impossible to tell which, if any, are the nuclear ones.  This missile ambiguity may actually make the idea of launching a small nuclear strike seem more favorable than previously – the missiles will probably not be intercepted, and there will be no full nuclear retaliation.  Nonetheless, while tactical nuclear strikes may provide an initial military advantage, the political consequences will be extremely severe, even without a nuclear retaliation.  Hence, even the U.S. has backed away from the idea of a tactical nuclear strike on Iran.  Hopefully, people will continue to acknowledge that the use of nuclear weapons is simply not worth it.


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September 2012