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Moral nuclear deterrence – the ascendancy of missile defense

Marvin Schaffer (Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, California, USA)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 1 June 2012




The strategic standoff, known as mutual assured destruction (MAD) by the USA and nuclear parity by Russia, has been overtaken by the advance of technology and the demise of the Soviet Union. Pacing technology is being exploited by an increasingly mature missile defense. If implemented comprehensively, it could have widespread and revolutionary ramifications. This paper seeks to address these issues.


The article describes the historical background of America's nuclear strategy, from Eisenhower to the Obama Administration. It then traces the history of missile defense and arms limitation and develops the context of the interaction between them. It is found that nuclear arsenals should not be reduced to zero because that would put rogue nations in a position where they could intimidate the world. Finally, the evolution of computer chip technology, as embodied by Moore's law, is traced. The recommendation is made to proceed with the reduction of nuclear stockpiles to the level of a few hundred each, and to proceed with the implementation of comprehensive missile defenses.


The most important is the practicality of reducing nuclear arsenals to a few hundred on either side. That strategy is called “moral deterrence” herein. It is moral because, as opposed to MAD, it does not hold extensive civilian populations of the world hostage. At the same time, it is a sufficiently strong deterrent to prevent rogue nations from acquiring and threatening with illicit nuclear weapons. Moral deterrence is a better strategic option than the “nuclear‐free world” advocated by the Obama administration since nuclear‐free does not preclude intimidation by rogues.

Research limitations/implications

Technology enabling reliable missile defense is based on high‐speed, large‐capacity, miniaturized computer chips. It permits fast and reliable computations that can process real‐time data from radar, infrared, and optical sensors so that a hit‐to‐kill capability can be realized. It also permits the implementation of deformable mirrors for the adaptive optics used in high‐energy lasers. Much of the technology for modern missile defense flowed from the Strategic Defense Initiative; it was not predicted by the critics of three decades ago.


The principal aspects of originality involve the analytical tradeoffs between the nuclear stockpiles of the principal powers and the viability of missile defense. The analysis indicates that if the stockpiles are reduced to a few hundred each, then even imperfect missile defense is very effective in providing protection, providing it is triply redundant. Stockpiles reduced to ten or less leave the principal powers vulnerable to intimidation by rogue nations, and should be avoided. The article also finds that missile defense has been enabled technologically by Moore's law, and that it can be expected to improve further by the year 2020.



Schaffer, M. (2012), "Moral nuclear deterrence – the ascendancy of missile defense", Foresight, Vol. 14 No. 3, pp. 260-271.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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