THAT America could launch a limited nuclear strike against Russia was a fashionable belief in US strategic theory of the 1970s. Policymakers thought that if Cold War tensions boiled over, they could hit selected Soviet targets in a way that controlled further escalation and forced Moscow to back down.
It took the iconoclastic Australian security scholar Des Ball to point out that the theory was bunkum. In his influential essays of the early 1980s, Ball argued that reasoned strategic theory was likely to go out the window once the missiles started flying.
Among the first targets would be the other side's command and control centres - its eyes and ears. Once blinded, a superpower - consisting of real people responding with human instincts - would not distinguish a "controlled" strike from a full-scale attack and would retaliate with everything it had.
A controlled exchange would quickly become all-out nuclear war.
Today, none other than former US president Jimmy Carter says that Ball's work helped save the world from potential holocaust. In a new book of essays honouring Ball's four decades helping to keep Australia and the world a safer place, Carter says Ball's "counsel and cautionary advice, based on deep research, made a great difference to our collective goal of avoiding nuclear war".
Released last week, the book, Insurgent Intellectual: Essays in Honour of Professor Desmond Ball, is an extraordinary outpouring of praise for a colossus of strategic thinking in Australia - albeit one who stands out as an odd fit among his generation of largely conservative colleagues.
Ball, who is marking his 25th year as a special professor at the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, cuts an unusual figure with his beard, rumpled clothing and rat's tail hair. Ron Huisken, a senior fellow at the SDSC, jokes in his essay Avoiding Armageddon that Ball "lured me into my one and only experiment with a 'prohibited substance"'.
In the '80s, authorities repeatedly considered pursuing criminal charges against Ball after his book, A Suitable Piece of Real Estate, revealed more than the government would have wished about US installations in Australia. Former RAAF officer turned security scholar Gary Waters writes that Ball was "renowned for climbing on a statue of George V to demonstrate against the Vietnam War".
He opposed not only Vietnam but both Iraq wars, as well as continued involvement in Afghanistan, but Huisken writes that Ball is "not by any stretch of the imagination a pacifist". Former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans, launching the book at ANU last week, pondered whether Ball was a dove with hawkish characteristics or a hawk with dovish characteristics.
Yet the raised eyebrows are colourful asides next to the catalogue of acclaim from senior figures. Former Labor leader, now ambassador to Washington, Kim Beazley, writes that during the '80s Ball was "at the core of intellectual influence on government decision-making" and helped sustain the US alliance by reassuring a suspicious Labor that Pine Gap, North West Cape and Nurrungar made nuclear war less likely.
On the other side of politics, former foreign minister Alexander Downer calls Ball "an academic gem" whose work helped make our intelligence services more transparent and accountable.
The essays in Insurgent Intellectual also credit Ball with, among other accomplishments, raising awareness of the cyber warfare threat and setting up regional bodies such as the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, which paved the way for the ASEAN regional forum.
This towering reputation makes it all the more sobering when, in his office at the SDSC in Canberra, Ball, 65, outlines his three direst concerns: the rising tensions and arms build-up in north-east Asia, Australia's neglect of our immediate neighbours, and our shambolic defence policy.
"You're going to see outbreaks of conflict all over the place in the years to come . . . but where it could really go wrong is north-east Asia," he said this week.
Mostly due to territorial disputes, relations between Japan and its neighbours China, Russia and South Korea are deteriorating. North Korea is needling South Korea and Japan. And there is the perennial problem of China and Taiwan.
These enmities have sparked an arms race. The proportion of world defence spending for which Asia accounts has at least doubled from between 10 and 15 per cent in the 1980s to more than 30 per cent today. Most of the world's growth in nuclear weapons is also happening in Asia.
"At some point, it's going to become difficult for Japan not to get involved [in nuclear arms]," Ball said.
He also laments that "successive Australian governments have neglected our south-east Asian neighbours" and that we have no coherent policy for the region, the latest Asian Century white paper notwithstanding.
But his most immediate concern is with Australia's confused and scatter-gun defence policy which, amid swingeing budget cuts, is in danger of doing everything badly.
"Australian defence is in a shambles at the moment . . . trying to do too many things, paying off the legacy of some silly purchases back in the 1990s," he said.
To defend independently its own soil, which is still an essential goal, Australia needs to be able to stop any substantial force crossing the sea-air gap to our north. This is quite possible with a relatively modest fleet of submarines, frigates and fighter-bombers, provided it is done smartly and judiciously.
That isn't happening, and it's a deep worry to Ball. A government's first duty, he says, is to ensure the defence of the nation.
Australians, he says, would be much more confident as a nation if they knew they could defend themselves without help. He's talking, among other things, about our response to issues such as asylum seekers.
"There is a residual fear in Australia that we can't defend this huge territory and only the Americans can really save us. We always have been a very fearful country. We've always needed great and powerful friends."
Having a strong military, being able to rely on our own mettle in extremis, he says, gives us strength of confidence that will make us a more influential player in our region.
"In this anarchic system of states we have, you have to have your requisite defence capabilities but that does not mean that every time you have a problem, you use your defence forces to solve it - which the Americans are too prone to do," he says. "They reach for their .45. They launch a cruise missile - or these days a predator UAV."