When you look at the popular culture, the duck and cover era of civil defense (CD) in the 1950s and early 1960s is often mercilessly mocked. The reason is likely because it seemed insane to take shelter under a desk when nuclear weapons are landing nearby.
However, in those days, the miss distances of the weapons were quite significant, far greater than they are today. As such, they were inclined to be used against soft targets like cities and industrial areas, and less so against hardened military targets. Duck and cover was actually a reasonable bit of preventive guidance for these inaccurate city killers.
However, modern nuclear weapon delivery systems have far greater accuracy. For example, the Claremont Institute’s MissileThreat.com says a Trident D-5 has 90 meter accuracy. Duck and cover might make a real difference when a weapon misses its target by two miles; not so much when that miss distance is down to 300 feet.
But here we are, fifty years later after the duck and cover era and it would appear much of the world (the parts of the world that make good targets for those who would disrupt our security) is stuck with… duck and cover. What’s up with that?!
First, there is the general weakening and unilateral disarmament of the U.S. nuclear umbrella associated with New START but also with the administration’s decision to depend more on conventional forces (which by the way are likely headed in one direction; down) for U.S./allied security needs. Next, there’s nuclear proliferation (North Korea and Pakistan; Iran’s apparently imminent nuclear breakout; likely growth in Chinese nuclear weapons and certain growth in delivery systems) and even greater missile proliferation. Finally, we’re certain to have less-capable-than-hoped for missile defenses as a result of expected defense cuts.
What’s left? Duck and cover, folks, duck and cover.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with taking shelter, and it’s certainly prudent. In fact, given the high-return/low-risk and cost of civil defense, it seems our CD capabilities should be our first step without ignoring the other aspects of deterrence (missile defense; reliable, capable, and available nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and warning methods; conventional capabilities; diplomacy; etc.) which are all part of the deterrence recipe.
When your options are only limited to duck and cover, your approach becomes one of hope (“I sure hope those nuclear weapons miss us!”) and it’s generally well-known within military circles that hope is not a substitute for strategy.
Finally, hope-is-not-a-strategy also explains why the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Japan have vital interests (and investments) in missile defense.