In the Cold War the adversaries had huge amounts of nukes, a readiness to deploy these nukes and a second strike capability that assured that in a nuclear war both sides would be destroyed (mutually assured destruction, a.k.a. MAD). The question is to come up with a different system that doesn't involve this huge amount of proliferation-prone dangerous weapons.

E.g. the US could change the course of a few large ten km diameter asteroids so that these are guaranteed to hit Earth in a few years time. The US would change the course of these asteroids periodically, so that doomsday is always a few years into the future. The existence of such a system will be made public.

So, after a nuclear war in which the US is destroyed, the enemy must then also be be to change the orbits of the doomsday asteroids within a short amount of time. The requirements of winning are thus made a lot tougher than just having escaped the worst consequences and having survived as a nation state.

But this is just one example of a probably not so perfect solution to the problem of having a MAD system that doesn't involve a huge investment in dangerous weapon systems.

What is a system that would allow MAD but that the enemy cannot easily combat or reproduce?

  • $\begingroup$ I added the bolded question at the bottom to try to clarify what you're asking, is that what you intend? (I included "easily combat" because that seems reasonable to "assure destruction" and "reproduce" because you asked for a system that is not proliferation-prone.) $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 3:35
  • $\begingroup$ The asteroid plan doesn't work because, once US capitulates, it can be compelled to use its asteroid deflecting technology. The conquerors even have a few years to twist the thumbscrews to make it happen. $\endgroup$
    – user2781
    Commented Dec 24, 2016 at 0:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Zxyrra Yes your addition is ok. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 24, 2016 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl Yes, but then if there is a huge amount of destruction it may well be too difficult to implement the changes of the orbits on time. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 24, 2016 at 1:52

9 Answers 9


MAD existed because of a combination of two factors:

  1. The weapons of annihilation can be deployed with little chance for your enemy to stop you once you have committed your weapons.

  2. There is a delay between the time you commit your weapons and the time when those weapons have actually taken effect. And this delay is long enough for the enemy to commit to their own capabilities against you.

The example you suggest doesn't qualify, since there are many ways to neutralize the system you propose. Sending missiles to destroy the machinery on the asteroids, sending robots there to just directly take control of that machinery, figuring out how to fake the signal used to control them, etc. Note that this would be done preemptively, before you engage in a nuclear war (and likely with the backing of literally the entire rest of the world).

Stopping a thousand ICBMs is much harder. As is stopping sub-launched nukes.

You want something which has property #1, but without something that could proliferate. That is, it can't win through force of numbers, but through force of force.

That's difficult. The smaller the number of anything is, the easier it is to attack them. Your asteroid example falls prey to precisely this: there are only a few of them, so they can be attacked and defeated. Or the signal can be hacked. Etc. Indeed, if so much as one person leaks the secret of the signal, your weapon is rendered impotent.

The most effective way to guarantee #1 is having a lot of something. But they don't all have to be the real something.

Let's say you engineer a super-virus, which will be deployed by ICBMs. Instead of having thousands of viral warheads you have thousands of potential viral warheads. Only 5 of them will have the actual virus. And you can make sure that nobody knows which 5 are the real virus. You can even make the fact that only 5 are the virus a closely guarded secret.

That keeps proliferation under control, but still ensures that you have second strike capability.

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    $\begingroup$ Isn't using a self-replicating vector like a virus pretty much the definition of 'proliferating'? ;D $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs The proliferation in the answer refers to nuclear proliferation. The common term used to describe the spread of nuclear weapons to nations that previously didn't possess them. The more nations with nuclear weapons the more unstable geopolitics becomes & nuclear war becomes more probable. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ @a4android The comment was meant in a light hearted vein. What can I say. I'm a punny kind of guy. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs I'm all in favour of the light hearted. I'm a pun person too. It did cross my mind that it was a reference to virus proliferation, hence a joke, but I went the literal minded boofhead route. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Dec 24, 2016 at 0:42

Build a good old-fashioned doomsday machine. Admittedly this means accumulating more nuclear explosive devices in one place. The detonation of the doomsday machine is designed to exterminate all life on planet Earth. Therefore, no nuclear adversary will launch an attack against your nation for fear of mutual annihilation.

A doomsday device is a hypothetical construction—usually a weapon, or collection of weapons—which could destroy all life on a planet, particularly Earth, or destroy the planet itself, bringing "doomsday", a term used for the end of planet Earth. Most hypothetical constructions rely on the fact that hydrogen bombs can be made arbitrarily large assuming there are no concerns about delivering them to a target (see Teller–Ulam design) or that they can be "salted" with materials designed to create long-lasting and hazardous fallout (e.g., a cobalt bomb).

Source: Wikipedia entry on Doomsday device

The only the major super-powers will capable of constructing such megadeath machines, on second thoughts, that should be gigadeath gizmos, so the building of doomsday machines will be effectively confined to the USA and the USSR during the Cold War era. This will effectively inhibit the proliferation of other nations building their doomsday machines. This is one arms race nobody wins.

Since the 1954 Castle Bravo thermonuclear weapon test demonstrated the feasibility of making arbitrarily large nuclear devices which could cover vast areas with radioactive fallout by rendering anything around them intensely radioactive, nuclear weapons theorists such as Leo Szilard conceived of a doomsday machine, a massive thermonuclear device surrounded by hundreds of tons of cobalt which, when detonated, would create massive amounts of Cobalt-60, rendering most of the Earth too radioactive to support life. RAND strategist Herman Kahn postulated that Soviet or US nuclear decision makers might choose to build a doomsday machine that would consist of a computer linked to a stockpile of hydrogen bombs, programmed to detonate them all and bathe the planet in nuclear fallout at the signal of an impending nuclear attack from another nation.

Doomsday machines are not perfect deterrents. They represent MAD on steroids. Waging nuclear war with doomsday devices would be war by suicide.

The doomsday device's theoretical ability to deter nuclear attack is that it would go off automatically without human aid and despite human intervention. Kahn conceded that some planners might see "doomsday machines" as providing a highly credible threat that would dissuade attackers and avoid the dangerous game of brinkmanship caused by the massive retaliation concept which governed US/Soviet nuclear relations in the mid-1950s. However, in his discussion of doomsday machines, Kahn raises the problem of a nuclear-armed nth country triggering a doomsday machine, and states that he didn't advocate that the US acquire a doomsday machine.

This was a strategic road the Cold War super-powers didn't go down. But if planners were attracted to its possibility, then it would be reasonably easy to maintain a massive array of nuclear weapons, that constitute a doomsday machine, in a single location. There would be no concerns about launch readiness. It could be deployed immediately once the go-codes were properly authorized.


We actually have such a system these days: Distributed Denial of Service

As more and more of our world becomes dependent on the Internet functioning at high speeds, the ability to disrupt this communication can be catastrophic. Imagine a world shortly in the future where cars are navigating and talking with each other over the Internet; where airplanes fly pilotless remote controlled by command and control systems over the Internet. Bitcoin is the main currency of the world.

The reason DDOS can act as a MAD device is because there are MILLIONS of machines just waiting to fire their payloads, on every network, in every ISP. Most houses in America probably have at least one compromised device on their network. Antivirus and firewalls don't help, because any machine can become a cannon spewing forth network noise.

You don't know which machines will cause trouble until the "fire" command is sent, at which point your entire Internet is being flooded with nonsense garbage.

I had a rack of web servers on a 10GB link go down because it was receiving 10GB of packets containing nothing but the string "SO I HERD U LEIK MUDKIPZ". Seriously. We did what we could, but basically we just had to weather the storm.

What are you going to do? Filter the packets out? You'll spend more CPU power trying to filter the packets than you possibly could have. Firewalls are useless, because they have to know who to block, and you're getting traffic from a million addresses. You can't blackhole blocks of addresses, because they're randomly distributed over the entire address space. You can't whack specific addresses because new addresses will just pop up to take their place (and now you're spending MORE CPU trying to filter out addresses). Literally the only thing you can do is SHUT DOWN THE NETWORK and wait for the DDOS to stop.

The attacker, on the other hand, has no such problems. They have command and control over the botnet, so they can instruct the botnet to avoid their specific address space. Routers will handle intra-country traffic, and just ignore the rest of the world. It's a MAD situation, so I'm not talking firewalls, I'm talking literally unplugging the country's network from the rest of the world. Even if the rest of the world retaliates, there's no route back to your country.

Won't the enemy just cut off their network? Sure, but it's too late: you've sent the command to DDOS and infect. They'll have to play whack-a-mole, tracking down individual machines and disconnecting them from the source. Every IP camera, every cell phone, every car WIFI access point can be an potential DDOS transmitter. The Internet is dead, everywhere, except the specific places you took offline beforehand. Self-replicating self-healing botnets reinforce themselves, scramble addresses, go dormant when anyone gets too close to finding them.

This is mutually assured because either side can pull the trigger. The Capitalists and the Commies probably both have botnets in each other's country. The first strike involves activating the enemy network, then pulling your network cables before they can send a retalitory command to THEIR network. Or at least that's the theory. There's probably backup command servers, canary heartbeat servers which would discover that they're disconnected from NORAD and start firing... but that's the Mutually Assured part. It's each country's job to keep their botnets from unintentionally destroying the other country's Internet, while technically allowing a non-nuclear option.

EDIT: What about 'Mutually'?

There's a point to be made that script kiddies can do DDOSes. I've been DDOS'd by 4chan, and it's not cool. But modern infrastructure has terrabit pipes, you'd need to be a state-actor level in hacking and network building. 4chan machines generally come from a pool of machines used for criminal activities using command and control software based on DNS records or IRC chat rooms. This is fine if you want to swindle a few credit cards or knock a colo server off the grid. MAD level DDOSes will depend on almost-sterile computers with just the enemy state's code on it. It'd probably actively immunize the OS against other virus type activity. It must be undetectable except under the highest scrutiny.

Ironically, a MAD DDOS system would likely increase the security and stability of the enemy state's computers up until the moment the button is pressed.

EDIT: What about the "Assured"?

Neither side actually expects a nuclear strike to be the end of the war. Maybe, at the very beginning, the idea of a 10 minute war was viable, but both sides have so much redundancy and readiness built in to the Nuclear MAD that we focus now on a First Strike; the hope being to hit so hard right away we can stop a retaliation and force a surrender before the other side gets reorganized.

"We've got enough nukes to destroy the entire earth 12 times" (or whatever) isn't realistic, because we expect most of those missiles to miss, or burn out, or fail to launch, or refuse arming commands, or be jammed, or intercepted... that part of the "Assurance" for Nuclear MAD; so many missiles you can't stop them all.

The reality is, a Nuclear War would involve a first strike followed by the remnants of each country fighting for survival and victory, with hopes that enough of the other side's infrastructure is destroyed that they can't fight longer than we ca.

This is why a State Actor DDOS can be MAD. It's "Assured" that the first strike on the enemy WILL scramble their communications, crash their infrastructure, cause power outages and civilian panic, disrupt transportation channels. You hope you can scramble the enemy long enough to get conventional bombers or marines or whatever to destroy or capture the command and control of the enemy while they're disorganized and force them into defeat.

EDIT: But what about the "Destruction"?

My intention was that this shortly future future is way more reliant on Internet than we are. I'm not talking "you get to work and can't log in to email," I'm going for "nobody's cars will leave their driveways because they can't establish a link to the traffic router" and "an undetected flaw in the control systems for that nuclear power plant allowed an attack in, but nobody can log into the computer because it's too busy throwing away packets."

I agree, this disaster isn't as obvious as nuclear weapons, but if you've ever worked in a datacenter, you've seen how the phones will light up and alarms will go off when 4chan's Orbital Laser Canon turns on them. And that's for people's cat websites. Servers don't just get their network card jammed; they shut down, overheat, cause rolling failures as the stress backs up into further systems.

I'm not talking Netflix going down; I'm talking planes falling out of the sky because they ran out of fuel waiting for clearance to land because the control tower computers crashed. I'm talking hospitals backing up because none of their high-falutin' test equipment is responding to commands, MRI machines have exhausted their supplies due to crashing, and the entire medical records system is locked up nation-wide, so everyone's medical histories, allergies, everything is essentially gone. The central communication systems of the government probably still work, but they've just been thrown back to Early World War II as every computer around them is either spewing crap or being buried by crap.

If nothing else, it'll cause panic, confusion, and fear in the enemy state, as everyone suddenly finds themselves trapped in the 50s. Many in this generation have never used a rotary telephone or been without an internet connection for more than a day or two. The initial panic, confusion, and fear could be enough to destabilize the other side.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't know if this counts. MAD prevents the use of the weapons between rational nation-state actors. But DDOS can be triggered by anyone, and some of those people are Internet trolls who like lulz. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure this entirely counts as the D part of MAD. Sure, it'll play merry hell with society for a while, but it's an attack that won't affect any but the most technologically reliant nations. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ Cities might starve or freeze if the power stays out or the distribution systems don't get back on track but the government and military just get pissed that email is down. Certainly won't prevent a conventional military war. $\endgroup$
    – user25818
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion I've made some edits to respond to this criticism; I think people underestimate just how reliant our world today is on hardware and services tied to the Internet. Control systems for power plants and hospitals these days all have some weak link inside that a targeted attack could damage. Enemy state actor could throw up the DDOS after targeting specific damage they want done, or the DDOS can be designed to attack specific systems. Everyone's power plants are built with Siemens computers these days or whatever. We're more vulnerable than we think. $\endgroup$
    – Zoey Green
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ I'm willing to buy the "assured destruction" in a futuristic world... I don't think we are quite there yet, but I agree it is on the near horizon. But I think the recent DDOS attacks from the unsecured IoT devices demonstrates that the size is something achievable by lots of actors. The IoT devices can't hit everything yet, but that number keeps ramping, and the security isn't keeping pace. The further we go into the future, I think there's ever greater chance of this being triggered by individuals. I appreciate the edits, but I think it still isn't quite an answer to the question. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Commented Dec 24, 2016 at 2:49

Maybe using biological weapons. Rockets contain airborne viruses set to release in the case of an attack. The Rockets release the virus into the atmosphere while the wind currents spread this man-made plague worldwide.


A collection of doomsday devices. Any one doomsday device would be subject to being taken out. At several sites in the US very large cobalt bombs are build underground. Each bomb is connected to as many other bombs as practical via independent fiber-optic links, each bomb uses this link to keep repeating a status report. Each bomb reports "It's o'clock and I'm fine", signed with it's own private key and also a copy of the most recent report from every other bomb. It also has sensors of some kind to report that the nation is ok. (For example, it has a list of several nearby radio stations and it makes sure they're on the air. It has a tap into nearby internet cables and records the amount of traffic etc.) If this traffic drops too much it's report says "It's o'clock and the world is awfully quiet." It could also report "It's o'clock and the world is awfully radioactive."

Each bomb pays attention to the reports it hears (or fails to hear) from the other bombs. If it gets too much bad news it figures the nation has been destroyed and it's report changes to "It's o'clock and I think we have lost. Detonation in 48 hours..." If it's a mistake a human reading that can know what bomb and where it is and go fix the problem. If it's an enemy agent he doesn't have the codes, all he knows is that there's a bomb somewhere counting down to detonation.

Unfortunately, any such approach will cause the destruction of the world if the nation that builds it falls to something other than enemy action.


Make them economically dependent on you.

Pick some intermediary product which is needed by a lot of different industries and which requires raw materials you have easy access to. Basic electronic or mechanical components are a good bet.

Heavily subsidize the production of this product and export it very cheap to your "enemy". Make sure you vastly undercut the competition in the enemy's country to get them off the market. Don't worry, your enemy won't mind, because those unemployed workers will find new jobs in all the companies which benefit from being able to acquire your product for cheap.

Your goal is to obtain a monopoly trough price dumping. But even after you have achieved that goal, do not start to become greedy. Keep selling cheap, even if you are selling at a slight loss. Think of it as part of your defense spending.

After a while the enemy country will no longer have any of the infrastructure or know-how to produce that product, even though large parts of their economy depend on you as a supplier.

They can now no longer attack you, because crippling your economy means to cripple theirs as well.


It is a fairly reasonable argument that MAD doesn't require large numbers of nuclear devices - or at least large numbers of launch platforms. Outside of the US and Russia, most nations' nuclear deterrents consist primarily of a couple of submarines, with one or two on patrol at any time. A single Vanguard-class submarine for example can carry up to 192 warheads, with a combined energy of over 90 megatons - 6,000 Hiroshimas.

So a small fleet of submarines is easily capable of providing a deterrent effect for most purposes.


Society might eliminate the expensive and vulnerable delivery systems. There would be a large nuke installed in a bunker under a Russian "embassy" in a dozen major US cities and vice versa. Activation would be much the same as already exists on submarines, but the staff would be in much better communication with their home country and the world, so less easily deceived. Also they could not fool themselves that there was any chance of personal survival after they "launch".

So much the same deterrence we have with missile submarines but far less expensive and far less risk of error. Also less warheads needed, no overkill. If the superpowers ever go MAD at least they won't take all of the human race down with them! Also no risk of a destabilising arms race.


A society should marry all their women to the enemy, ensuring total annihilation by said wives should the enemy be foolish enough to attack.

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    $\begingroup$ 1. what ensures that these women stay loyal to their birth-society and not become loyal to their new husbands? 2. Even if they someone manage to do that, what stops the enemy society from detaining all the women in concentration camps before attacking? 3. How would the first society maintain a stable population when they send most of their women away? $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ @philipp 1. Family ties; the wive's new husbands would be going to war against the wive's fathers. 2. If you'd manage to do that (who says the men wouldn't get locked up in stead) you'd get an unstable population yourself as your women wouldn't want to procreate 3. The enemy society would do the same. It's a women-swap. $\endgroup$
    – durandal
    Commented Dec 24, 2016 at 23:36

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