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Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Nuclear Theory

By Taylor Marvin

[This post contains spoilers for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol]

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a very entertaining movie. Particularly interesting is the film’s depiction of nuclear conflict, which unfortunately doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The film’s villain — renegade Russian nuclear strategist Kurt Hendricks —  is motivated by the idea that stagnent world civilization can be revitalized by the disaster of a nuclear conflict, as long as the damage is distributed “evenly”. To trick the US and Russia into nuclear war, Hendricks clandestinely destroys the Kremlin with conventional explosives, and then uses stolen Russian nuclear launch codes to order a Russian ballistic missile submarine to launch a single nuclear missile at San Francisco in hopes of provoking a US retaliatory nuclear attack on Russia.

For this plan to work, senior American officials have to believe that the initial Russian missile launch was ordered by the Russian government. On the surface, this is credible; the missile is delivered by a submarine-launched ICBM after all, which are only possessed by a handful of nuclear states. However, Hendricks’ actions don’t make sense in the framework of nuclear theory.

Hendricks intends American officials to view the initial Russian missile launch a retaliatory strike by Moscow, under the assumption that the Russian government mistakenly believes that the destruction of the Kremlin was ordered by Washington. Limited retaliatory punishment strikes are an accepted part of nuclear war. For example, one state could, purposefully or accidentally, launch a limited nuclear attack on another. To prevent their opponent from retaliating with a civilization-destroying unlimited response, the original aggressor could consent to “sacrificing” assets of comparable value to their opponent’s losses. This limited retaliation would inflict enough destruction to satiate the original victim, while avoiding a wider nuclear exchange.

Hendricks’ plot’s efficacy rests on two deceptions: that the American leadership believes the strike on San Francisco to be an authorized Russian attack — rather than a loss of Russian control over their weapons — and responds with a multiple nuclear strikes of their own (of course, Ethan Hunt could have attempted to warn the US government that the immanent nuclear strike was not authorized by Moscow; the film never suggests this possibility). However, the missile launch isn’t a credible Russian response because its target — a nuclear strike on an American city — is not comparable to the conventional destruction of the Kremlin in a terrorist attack.

Is their any reason to believe that Russia would respond to a perceived American conventional attack on a symbolic target with a nuclear strike on an American civilian target? In short: probably not; the escalation risks of such a hugely unproporitonal retaliatory strike are clearly not worth the signaling value of such a strike. There is the faint possibility that Moscow would authorize a nuclear response if it felt that a ICBM strike was the only retaliatory action available to a unprecedented American aggression. However, land-attack cruise missiles launched from air or submarine platforms likely do give Russian forces the ability to hit continental US targets on short notice — most likely a 3M-14E missile launched from a submarine offshore. This conventional strike capability gives Moscow the ability to responde in kind to an American attack on a high-profile symbolic target; Moscow would have nearly zero incentive to escalate to a nuclear response.

Of course, this disproportion is the entire point; Hendricks wants the American president to not accept the Russian strike as a valid retaliatory action, and respond with a unlimited strike against Russian targets. However, the problem with Hendricks scheme is that it’s so unproportional as to be an unbelievable Russian action. Rather than launch a retaliatory strike, it’s entirely possible that US leaders would judge the strike on San Francisco as evidence that Russia had lost control of at least a portion of it’s nuclear forces, especially considering that the Kremlin had been destroyed by an unknown actor the day before. If this judgement was made US leaders would not initiate their own launch. Whether in the heat of the moment American leaders are this discerning is an open question, but it is a major flaw in Hendricks’ plan.

The success of Hendricks’ plot depends on giving the Russians believable reason to launch a retaliatory limited nuclear attack on the US, but simultaneously prompt the US government to respond with a broad nuclear attack on Russia. But the film fails of both counts: the (perceived) terror attack on the Kremlin is not severe enough to suggest that the Russian strike on San Francisco was ordered by a rational actor in Moscow, and the Americans are unlikely to respond to a single missile launched on a US city with broad retaliation. If Hendricks was actually interested in starting a nuclear war, it would make more sense to dupe the Russian submarine commander into launching general strike on the US rather than one intended to be construed as a retaliatory strike, which is inherently deescalatory. 

However, it is possible to argue that Hendricks wants a nuclear war, but not a countervalue exchange that would decimate civilization; after all, he talks about humanity emerging from the rubble stronger. In this case, framing the manufactured conflict as an escalating series of retaliatory strikes makes sense. A series of counterforce strikes on Russian and American nuclear infrastructure and military targets would kill huge numbers of people — both through the exchange itself and the ensuing environmental damage — but might not be fatal to human civilization. But again, the film’s nuclear logic fails: if Hendricks is seeking a counterforce exchange, the Russian retaliatory strike shouldn’t hit a US civilian target.

Of course, none of this makes sense. The film dwells on the fact that Hendricks wants a nuclear exchange whose damage is distributed “evenly” across the globe; but an American-Russian nuclear exchange would inherently focus its damage on the northern hemisphere. A counterforce exchange would be even more discriminating in its devastation. Ultimately, these flaws don’t matter: if your plan rests on defeating the Impossible Missions Force, you’re already out of luck.

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