Mr. Counterintuition

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

Michael Spence, who studied under Thomas Schelling, calls the Nobel-winning game theorist Mr. Counterintuition:

He pointed out that it took the U.S. 15 years after World War II to learn to think seriously about the security of its weapons. Before that, weapons did not have combination locks, let alone complex electronic security codes. Now, most weapons will not detonate even if given the codes unless they are at their designated targets. He recalled that a friend who had a role in developing the weapons told him that one day in the late 1950s, he got off a plane at an air base in Germany and saw a military aircraft on the tarmac with a bomb beside it guarded by a single soldier. In those days there were not locks and codes. The man strolled over and asked the soldier what this was. The answer: “I believe it is a nuclear bomb, sir.” When asked what he would do if someone started to roll the weapon away, the soldier replied that he would call his superiors for instructions. A further enquiry established that the phone was some 300 meters away.

That was the level of thinking the US had given the problem, and it spent years bringing other nuclear powers around to the idea that nuclear weapons are good for deterrence and not much else:

Terrorists, Tom insists, “also need to understand that nuclear devices are really only useful for deterrence. They would be unlikely to have the capacity to deliver them on planes or missiles, and would be more likely to smuggle them into a hostile country and hide them in cities, and then threaten to detonate them if attacked — or unless their aims and conditions are met. The object should be not to blow up a city but to deter attacks on their country, region or organization.” One is struck, once again, by the counterintuitive nature of the strategic issues related to these weapons — one has, to a large extent, a powerful strategic interest in the sophistication of one’s enemies.

We spoke, also, about bioweapons. “Three years ago,” Tom explains, “there was a lot of interest in, and concern about, the use of smallpox as a weapon. I was involved in a meeting that included a number of bioweapons experts, and after considerable discussion, I asked how long it would take for a smallpox epidemic deliberately started in the U.S. to spread around the world. The answer was ‘Not long.’ Then how practical are infectious diseases as bioweapons? Is it really likely that terrorists in the Middle East would use smallpox against a neighbor? Because of these considerations the interest in infectious diseases as weapons (as opposed to anthrax for example, which does not spread infectiously from person to person) has declined. But I was struck by the fact experts in bioweapons are not strategists, and by the thought that if our experts hadn’t thought of this, could we be sure that others, including terrorist organizations, had?” Smallpox, in a nutshell, cannot rationally be used as a weapon because it would spread too quickly, a kind of self-inflicted wound and mutually assured destruction.

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