The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by William Perry & Tom Collina. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guests are Bill Perry, Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, and he’s also had a distinguished career in business, academia, and the civil service. Mr. Perry is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.
Jim: His co-author and co-guest today is Tom Collina, policy director at the Plow Shares Fund. And the Plow Shares Fund, something I didn’t know about, but I’m glad I know about it now, states its mission as, “Help make the world more safe and secure by funding organizations and people who promote the elimination of nuclear weapons, prevent the emergence of new nuclear states, and build regional peace.” Together, they’ve written a new book, The Button, about the risks of nuclear war and nuclear weapons that many of us have almost forgotten are still out there. Welcome, Bill and Tom.
William: Thanks, Jim.
Tom: Great to be here.
Jim: Yeah. It’s great to talk about this topic. This amnesia about the bomb is real. I’m going to give a little example about myself. I grew up in a close-in suburb of D.C. We figured we were seven miles as a crow flies from the White House. I was in fourth grade during the Cuban missile crisis and still recall the duck and cover grills. That’s something those of us who were around at that time and that place will likely never forget.
Jim: And I was quite interested in the topic of nuclear war. I think part of it coming from my hobby of playing war games. The old Avalon Hill war games that me and my friends played from the time I was 10 years old. By the age of 12, I have read Herman Cannes two books, Thinking About the Unthinkable and even that fat old tomb on Thermonuclear War. I was one of those nuclear nerds that could tell you that our ICBM force consisted of a thousand minute men and 50 Ford titans. How about that?
Jim: I could even tell you that the titans had 20 megaton city buster warheads. And I even visited a decommissioned titan launch silo and command center outside of Tuscan, which by the way, I’d strongly recommend as a interesting tourist attraction, should you be in the area. I even knew we had 41 Poseidon subs, later traded in for, what was it, 18 or 20 tridents. So I was a nuclear war nerd. But even I, more or less, had forgotten that these things were out there until I read your book. Isn’t that interesting?
Tom: It’s fascinating and not surprising, Jim. I think we kind of came at this for exactly that reason, that we perceive, as you do, that people have largely forgotten about nuclear weapons and the nuclear threat. And so, really, our effort here is to just try to remind people that all though the cold war went away 30 years ago and the weapons have declined in number, they’re still there. The policies that make them dangerous are still in place. And so, we need to bring some new attention to these issues to try to make them safer yet.
William: Jim, not only are the nuclear weapons still there, but in my judgment and Tom’s judgment, the danger of a nuclear catastrophe today is actually higher than it was during the Cold War. Higher than during the time you would duck under the desk. And that is added… We all know the dangers in that situation. That’s really motivated Tom and me on an education program, which this book is a part.
Jim: Yeah. And actually, it makes sense. As a former corporate executive, I know that what you pay attention to, your organizations tend to do pretty well. But I suspect if nuclear weapons are not in anybody’s front and center of attention, well, obviously they are of the people who run the programs, it’s quite possible that the operations aren’t nearly as first class as they were during the Cold War, which by itself raises risks. And we’ll talk later about, shall we say, personnel risks associated with the current epoch.
Jim: Before we get into those risks, though, let’s maybe inform our audience a little bit about where we stand today. I talked about a thousand minute men, and the 54 titans, and the 51 Poseidons, and all that stuff. What do our strategic nuclear forces look like today?
Tom: Well, just to give a brief overview, both the United States and Russia are abiding by something called the New Start Treaty. This was negotiated between United States and Russia during the Obama administration. And it limits both sides to about 1,550 strategic deployed nuclear weapons. And by that, I mean the ones that are out in service on a day-to-day basis. So that’s 1,550, but there are other ones.
Tom: There are other ones that are not counted by that treaty that are in storage and held in reserve. So we would say there’s about, on each side, about 4,000 nuclear weapons still today, with another 2,000 or so in reserve or in queue for retirement. And that’s a long way from the Cold War, where both sides had an excess of 30,000 nuclear weapons.
Tom: So we’ve come a long way, but from our perspective, it only takes a few hundred to destroy the world and we have real dangers of accidental launch that could result in nuclear use. So, we have some distance yet to go.
Jim: Yeah. And then we should also note that there are a lot more nuclear powers these days than there were during the height of the Cold War, at least. We had U.K. and France back in those days, and China. But now, we have Israel, and India, and Pakistan, and a source of mine swears that Switzerland has had nuclear weapons since 1962. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but he swears it. And unless they’re crazy, the Japanese and Taiwanese likely have quickly assembled nuclear kits.
Jim: So, we live in a multi-polar nuclear world where the game theory in a crisis could get pretty damn complicated. Now, the other thing that you brought up in your book, which I think I suppose I knew this, but again, I had allowed it to slip into the background, is that the President of the United States remains the sole command authority for our nuclear weapons. Could y’all comment on that a little bit?
William: Yeah. This is one of the most dangerous aspects of our current situation. The President and the President alone can order a nuclear strike. He can do it for any reason or with no reason. He can consult with others, but he does not need to. He can consider it for two hours, he can consider it for two minutes. In any event, if he decides to launch, it’s gone. There’s no legal way of stopping him from doing that.
William: This is, I think, a very dangerous situation, particularly since our forces are deployed so that it can be quickly launched. In other words, the President decides to launch a nuclear weapon, they can be off in the air in a matter of a few minutes. And then, if he changes his mind or if he decided the information he had was wrong, there is no way of calling it back. They’re on the way. You can not call it back, you can not destroy it in flight. You have started a nuclear war.
Jim: Yeah. And I think that’s really important for people to realize. Again, as a somewhat of, at least a hobbyist level student, I knew there was no call back button for the obvious reason, right? That would be an awful valuable target for somebody to try to capture. But we should realize that if the balloon ever goes up, there’s no calling it back, which means that we have to think through these policies because the risks are really high.
Jim: You also point out in your book that the culture of the air force, and presumably the navy as well, kind of reinforce this. You talk about an Officer Herring, who during his training in the air force as a nuclear missile launch officer, asked his instructors, “How can I be certain that any launch order I receive comes from a sane president?” Rather than provide an answer to his questions, the air force simply fired him.
Tom: That’s right, Jim. I mean, I think in the air force, there’s an assumption that rules and orders shall be followed. So I know that some people think that if a President, say President Trump, were to make an order of nuclear launch that seemed unreasonable, that there might be someone in the military chain of command that would choose not to follow that order. To me, that is not reassuring at all. One, because the military culture is to follow orders, but two, that shouldn’t be the insurance policy that we have for ourselves.
Tom: If we don’t feel that a president is capable or qualified to make a launch decision all by himself, then we need to change the policy. And we’re certainly using President Trump here to highlight the dangers of sole authority, but we don’t want to single him out. He’s not the only one. There have been other presidents, for example, President Nixon, who was known to be drinking very heavily at the end of his term, as well as President Reagan, who was known to have dementia at the end of his term. And even President Kennedy, who was known to be taking heavy pain medications at certain times.
Tom: So, certain presidents at certain times have shown behaviors that we would think would give us cause for concern about giving this much authority to one person. And this is a great example of a policy that should’ve changed at the end of the Cold War. That is 30 years ago. But we we’ve never really taken the time to sit down and say… We had all these policies, like sole presidential authority in the Cold War, which may or may not have made sense then, but they certainly don’t make sense now.
Tom: We’re in a very different day. The risks are very different, the dangers are very different. Why do we still have these policies? Well, primarily because we’ve never taken the time to go back and look at them and it’s high time that we did. Because the risks are just to great.
Jim: Yeah, and I would also add, as people who listen to this show know, I often describe myself as a [Madisonian 00:10:10], as in James Madison, the chief architect of our constitution. And what I loved about him was despite being a revolutionary, like most revolutionaries, he was a very cynical guy. He know that human nature was weak, and variable, and inevitably, we would elect somebody not suitable for the job.
Jim: In fact, in your book, you quote General Maxwell Taylor as, “To those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one.” Well, James Madison would say, “It’s inevitable that we will elect one.” So it seems to me amazingly irresponsible that we still have a command and control system based on the hypothesis that we won’t elect one. Again, just from an American history of constitutional theory perspective.
Tom: And Jim, since you’ve raised the constitution, let me just say that the constitution says that congress shall declare war, not the president. And clearly, if the president uses nuclear weapons first on his own authority without consulting congress, we would say that is the ultimate declaration of war. So we see presidential sole authority as unconstitutional, as well as extremely dangerous. And for both reasons, we’d like to see it fixed.
Jim: Yeah. And you mentioned in passing something that I noticed in your book. And again, vaguely recall this, but again, it’s not front and center, this nuclear amnesia is a real thing that I hope your book wakes people up from, and that is the United States has not yet renounced first use of nuclear weapons. Obama considered doing so, but he never did. Why is that and should we renounce first use?
William: The answer to the second question is yes. The first question, every administration when signed into office prepares what’s called a nuclear posture review, in which it thinks through, reconsiders, and delivers it’s nuclear policy. And one of those, that means a new administration has considered no first use.
William: Now, when I was the Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, we made a very serious consideration of it and we were close to deciding it. In our case, the tipping factor against doing it was that two of our allies, two of the people to whom we provided what’s called extended deterrence, objected. They felt that that would weaken the guarantee we made to them that we would come to their aid if they were attacked.
William: So, for whatever reason, it has been considered by each administration and each time, it has been rejected. In the case of the Clinton administration and the Obama administration, it was a very close call. Now, there’ll be a new opportunity, perhaps in January, for the president then to reconsider. He’ll have to go through their nuclear policy with you. In a very appropriate time, this time make the right decision and decide in favor of having a no first use.
William: I might say, it’s not just a matter of the clearing no first use. For it to have any meaning, you have to change your policies and your procedures to make that evident that you’re not going to use your weapons first. Now, for one thing, having our forces deployed so they can be launched in a few minutes is not consistent with the no first use.
Jim: Yes, and also having a single command authority weakens the belief and the credibility of that claim as well. If it had to be the president and two congressional leaders, that would make the statement more credible, it would seem to me.
Tom: Jim, can I just have a word here?
Tom: On no first use. I mean, it’s a real paradox of history that we still have the U.S. possibility of the first use of nuclear weapons. Because it’s hard to imagine a president ever exercising that authority. The only time the United States used nuclear weapons first, of course, was World War II in Japan, and Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. No president has used nuclear weapons since, and there’s a good reason for this.
Tom: It’s that presidents really sort of just are repelled by the notion of nuclear use, and particularly, first use. Any first use of nuclear weapons, particularity against another nuclear weapon state, would bring destruction upon the United States. And for the president who would unleash that, create a reputation for them in the history books that they certainly don’t want to be remembered for.
Tom: So, from our perspective, we can’t imagine a rational president using nuclear weapons first. So then the question is why do presidents not get rid of this authority? Well, part if is that presidents don’t like to give up any authority that they have. But in this case, I would say it has a lot to do with the fact that presidents haven’t been willing to split in the political capital.
Tom: Because it would be a heavy lift to make that policy announcement and then go out and seek American and international support for that. A president would have to spend some time doing it, they would have to spend some political capital getting it done. It’s one of the reasons why President Obama considered it and then turned away.
Tom: It wasn’t because he didn’t believe in no first use, it was because he wanted to spend his time doing other things and it was going to be something that it was hard to do. So this is part of the reasons why we feel we need American public support for these policies. And that presidents, even if they want to do the right thing, like I believe President Obama did, they still need the public to push them to do it because there’s always some competing need, some competing agenda that presidents have to deal with that at the last minute could convince them not to go that route.
Jim: Has it historically been Israel that has been the ally that is most concerned about us relinquishing first use?
William: Mm-hmm (affirmative). In my personal experience, the countries that protested when we were considering no first use with Japan and Germany, if Israel was doing it, they were doing it president to president. That it really was not coming through the system. But both the Japanese and the Germans sent representatives to our meetings, where we were considering the posture view and argued against it.
Tom: Just in the Obama administration, it was reported that Japan, again, was one of the main countries raising concerns when the Obama administration was considering no first use.
Jim: Yeah, I suppose that makes sort of sense. You could vaguely imagine Japan being under a massive conventional attack by China and asking the U.S. to use nukes as a final defense. But it’s a little far fetched. But at least it’s not absurd. Germany, it just seems absurd, right?
Tom: Well, I mean, again, I think it doesn’t make a lot of sense to us why allies are concerned about United States giving up the right of first use. Because what we have is an extended deterrent relationship or agreement. In other words, the United States says, “If you don’t build nuclear weapons and you’re in a major crisis situation, we will come to your defense.”
Tom: That isn’t a commitment to use nuclear weapons first in your defense, it’s a commitment to come to your air, potentially in a conventional weapons way, or potentially to use a nuclear threat of retaliation if our allies are attacked with nuclear weapons. But nowhere in there is a promise for the first use of nuclear weapons, and I frankly can’t image that our allies would consider a threat to use nuclear weapons first as even credible, or that they would want it. Because then, we would be introducing nuclear weapons into their region first and therefore escalating what could then turn out to be a broad, widespread nuclear war.
Jim: Okay. That makes good sense. Even if it didn’t become widespread, I mean, if you’re Germany, do you really want nukes landing on your territory? I don’t think so. Now, first use is certainly a bad thing, but let’s now get into the one that’s really scary. And, yeah, as a person who’s played quite a bit with game theory and simulations of prisoners dilemma and things this sort is I focused on this. My hair stood up in the back of my neck. And that is the danger of launch on warning. Could you explain to our audience what that is and to what degree does that potential still exist today?
William: It still exists today. Launch on warning means that if a command system detects a launch underway against us, then their concern is that that launch will be undoubtedly directed at our ICBMs in the silos. And their thought was, “We want to launch our ICBMs before this lands.” Now, considering the flight time of a missile coming from, say, Russia to the United States, there’s not much time to do that.
William: And from the time the missiles launch to the time they detect it, it can be five, six, seven minutes to the time that they actually get the orders through to the president. Then, that can be another couple of minutes. And so, it comes down the president would have about five, six, seven minutes to decide to launch once he gets this warning. So launch on warning means if he gets a warning, then the attack on the United States is underway, then he’s going to launch his missiles in a few minutes so that they will not be destroyed in their silos.
William: It assumes that Russia is launching a surprise attack against the United States specifically for the purpose of taking out our ICBMs. And this is what that… Now, the assumption, I think, is insane. There’s no way I can believe that Russia would see any advantage to that. If they did it, it would surely lead to their own destruction.
William: I’ve met many Russians in my time, including all of the leaders of Russia, and two things I can say with great confidence is first, that the Russian’s are not stupid, and secondly, the Russian’s are not suicidal. Therefore, they’re not going to be doing that. So we have a policy that’s based on, really, and incredible assumption. Mainly that the Russian’s are going to conduct a surprise attack on our ICBM sites.
Jim: Yeah. The argument that that’s irrational, I agree with it. And the bolt from the blue theory has never struck me as likely, at least as a true bolt from the blue. However, if we go back and look at some of our Cold War history, I think in particularly at Archer Able, 1983, in what appeared to the Russian’s, at least, to be a crisis, which actually wasn’t a crisis, but these old feeble guys thought it was a crisis, I’m not entirely sure that in 1983 if the ball bounced a little differently, they might’ve come to such a decision that sort of a preemptive strike rather than losing their capabilities. I mean, in a crisis, people can make strange decisions. I remind people of July 1914.
William: That was the argument made during the Cold War and perhaps it made some sense then. Even if it made sense then, it certainly does not make sense today. And the second point is that even if you believe there’s some remote likelihood of Russia making a surprise attack against us, and you say that’s something we have to consider, the provisions we make for dealing with that put us in a position where we are highly vulnerable to launching by mistake.
William: And so, you have to weigh which of these two dangers is more realistic, the danger that Russia’s going to make a surprise attack on us, or the dangers because the policies we set up, our launch on warning, our quick launch policy, that we’re going to blunder into a new war. We’re going to have a launch by accident.
Jim: Yeah. That’s of course the key point that you guys make later in the book, which we’ll get to. That, okay, what are the risks of some real crisis? And again, post Cold War, probably small. But all the risk of error is still there, right?
Tom: One of the thing we did with the book is we put in a preface where we tried to lay out what we saw as the doomsday scenario of things that can happen with our existing policies. And that is that there could be a cyber attack, right? And most people don’t realize that our nuclear weapons systems, command and control systems, are networked, are based on computers, and are vulnerable to cyber attack.
Tom: So, imagine for a moment that there was a cyber attack by some adversary who manipulated our early warning systems to show that there was a nuclear attack underway against the United States from Russia. And the president would be given just five minutes to decide whether to launch a nuclear response or not. And that the pressure to launch a response is increased by the fact that we have land based ballistic missiles, ICBMs, that are in the ground, vulnerable to attack.
Tom: And so, the advisors might say, “Look, Mr. President, if you don’t launch within the next three minutes, we are going to lose our land based ballistic missiles.” And this is the “use them or lose them” scenario that increases the pressure on the president to make a decision to launch. But of course, realized back to the launch on warning posture that we were discussing before, if the president decides to launch, that would be before the incoming attack, if it’s real, would’ve landed.
Tom: And so the president wouldn’t know at that point whether the attack is false or real. And one of the main things we want to get across in the book is that if there is an alarm of a possible attack, the president, because of the possibility of false alarms, which we’ve had before, or cyber attacks on our command and control system, the president really has to assume that any warning of an attack is false until proven otherwise.
Tom: And the president can not rationally launch a retaliation until he knows that the attack is real. And so, the main thing we want to do here is to give the president more decision time, and in fact, take away the options that allow for quick decisions and quick launch, because that is how we will blunder into nuclear war and start nuclear war by mistake.
William: Jim, I want to remind you and your listeners that when we first built our long range missiles, our ICBMs, we put them in silos. And there reason we put them in silos is we wanted to protect them from a surprise attack. And back when we were building those missiles and those silos, the silos did protect them from an attack because an attack would have to make a direct hit on the silo in order to take all of the missiles.
William: The silos are built lots of concrete and steel. They’re very difficult to destroy. And for many decades, our missiles were invulnerable in the silos, but technology moves on. What’s happened since then is that both first United States and then Russia developed the guidance, the technology to give them guidance systems that are so accurate that they can destroy the silos, even though they have all those concrete an steel.
William: So what was originally an invulnerable basing in the silos, now has become a highly vulnerable basing. And in fact, our ICBMs are sitting ducks waiting to be shot down.
Jim: Though I think, just to be fair, it is true that, as I recall, one of the new start provisions is we got rid of the [mervs 00:25:59], which really made the game theory of “use it or lose it” high stakes. So, with only single warheads on the missiles, they’re unlikely to be able to take all of our ICBMs out.
Tom: Well, our point here is that it doesn’t really matter. We don’t need ICBMs for deterrents, because we have weapons on invulnerable submarines based at sea. And so we don’t need ICBMs for deterrents. And all they do for us, frankly, is create this false alarm, stumble into nuclear war, danger. So one of the recommendations we make in the book is that we should get rid of our ICBMs. We should retire them. We don’t need them at all. We don’t need them for deterrents because the subs are out there and they create the false alarm danger that we’d be safer without.
Jim: Yep. Let’s talk a little bit about the history of the issue. In your book, you guys state that both Reagan and Carter remained ambiguous about whether their policy was launch on warning, hinting that it probably wasn’t, but they believed that the strategic ambiguity was useful. We then get Bush and Obama and they both talked about that it was morally wrong to be at launch on warning. And yet, once they got in office, neither of them actually took the missiles off alert. Could you say a little bit about the history, and again, the dynamics on why we’re still here, where we are, 40 years after the end of the Cold War?
Tom: I think a lot of it goes down back to this paradox that I was talking about, which is that presidents want the flexibility to threaten to use nuclear weapons first, but they don’t actually want to do it. There’s this old phrase that the United States uses all the time, which are “All options are on the table.” Right? If someone ever says, “Well, how might the United States respond militarily in this situation?” The response is, “All options are on the table.” And that is a veiled nuclear threat.
Tom: What that’s saying is, “We might use nuclear weapons without using those exact words.” And if you have a no first use policy, all of a sudden your threat to use nuclear weapons first is less credible. But the argument I would make is that a U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons first is already not credible.
Tom: We haven’t done it in 75 years. No rational president would do it. He would either invite nuclear retaliation against the United States or make the United States into a nuclear pariah, attacking a non-nuclear state. It’s just a step that no president would do. And so it’s time for a president to sort of cash in the benefits of announcing a no first use policy, which in our view, would be reducing the chances of blundering into nuclear war.
Tom: Because we think that the Russians do believe that the United States could launch a surprise attack against them, and therefore, they’re on the hair trigger in a way that makes it much more dangerous of us, because there could be a mistake in launch from Russia because of their hair trigger status. So, both sides would be safer if we moved away from first use and we certainly don’t see any realistic profit that the United States would ever benefit from a first use.
William: Jim, I want to add to that that even if a president sees some benefit to these policies, he has to consider, “What am I paying for? What’s the loss? What’s the risk in these policies?” And the point of our book is to convince him that the risk is that it increases the likelihood of an accidental war. It increases the likelihood even a blunder into a nuclear war. And we think that is the most likely considering. And that he has to have that in mind. Whatever benefits he thinks he’s getting from no first use, whatever benefit he thinks he’s getting from having missiles on a quick launch and allowing the launch on warning to proceed, there’s a cost to that. And the cost is an increased risk of blundering into a nuclear war. And that to me is the real danger we’re facing in the world today.
Jim: And that’s a perfect time, because I was about to move into your chapter titled “Blundering into nuclear war.” It was hair raising. You opened it up with a description of the Hawaiian false alarm that we recently had. Could one of you guys run that through for our audience?
William: Tom, why don’t you do the Hawaiian and then I’ll follow up with my own experience with false alarms?
Tom: Sure. Having talked to people who actually lived through this in Hawaii, it was quite terrifying. It was an otherwise beautiful day in an otherwise beautiful place on Hawaii. And then people started getting these text messages on their cell phones saying that there was an incoming missile strike. And this was right at a time when people were very concerned that North Korea might attack the United States. This was at the time of fire and fury, where President Trump was exchanging sort of escalatory words with Kim Jong Un from North Korea about who’s nuclear button was bigger.
Tom: And it was a scary time. And it was right in the middle of that that this false alarm came through in Hawaii. Where people really thought that they were about to get attacked with nuclear weapons. And so they, for a good part of an hour, scurried around trying to find their loved ones and trying to find shelter until it was finally declared that it was a false alarm.
Tom: And so, the main point here is that false alarms are real. They do happen. Luckily, that was not a false alarm situation that went to the central command or to the President of the United States, but it could have. And so the question is, if you have a false alarm that actually goes to the president, what does the president do? And it’s our deep concern that the president would respond inappropriately and blunder into nuclear war because of the quick launch capabilities that we give the president, and still do today.
William: And Jim, I think the Hawaiian incident served as a good wake up call to people. To remind people that there’s a danger in our launch on warning policies. I didn’t need that wake up call. To me, launch on warning has never been a theoretical problem. When I was, years ago, decades ago, during the Cold War, when I was the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, I was actually awoken by a phone call at three o’clock in the morning from the watch officers in the North American Air Defense Command. And the first thing the general said to me was his computers were showing two hundred ICBMs on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States.
William: You never forget a phone call like that. Now he, happily, he quickly went on that he concluded it was a false alarm and he was calling me as the technical man in the Pentagon to see if I can help him figure out what had gone wrong with his computers. So that was a very clear and delible impression on my mind the danger of launch on warning because of the possibility of false alarms.
William: We have had a total of, between ourselves and Russia, five false alarms that I’m aware of. We’re going to have other false alarms. They happen because of human error, they happen because of machine error. Humans do error and machines do error. So it’s going to happen again. And the question is, what do we do about it? And the answer in our mind is we get away from this quick launch, this launch on warning policy, which could lead us all into a nuclear disaster.
Jim: Absolutely. Though, of course, again, to be fair and honest, we would not have launched on warning in the Hawaiian case, because it was just thought to be the North Koreans and probably two or three missiles, and we know we can absorb that hit and still knock the shit out of them if we have to.
William: Jim, I just want to say the only reason we’re bringing up Hawaii is not because that was a real danger of a launch, just to remind people that false alarms can happen.
Jim: Indeed. And I understood that. I was just clarifying the point that the two issues of false alarm and launch on warning, while related, in that particular case, weren’t linked. Now, as you go into this section of your book, you basically divide the categories of errors that could lead to blundering into nuclear war into three categories. One… Actually, why don’t you guys talk about the three categories. Hell, it’s your book. You can do a better job than I can, I’m sure.
William: Well, first of all, we can have a mistaken launch, an accidental launch in response to a false alarm. We’ve already talked about that at some length. You can also have a nuclear war, so a blunder into a nuclear war, by political miscalculation. The poster child in my mind for political miscalculation is the Cuban missile crisis, when neither President Kennedy nor President Khrushchev wanted to start a war. Were doing everything they could to prevent a nuclear war. But we almost plundered into one because of bad information that the president had.
William: Lack of information, in the first case, but some of the information he had was actually bad. For example, well, after the crisis, President Kennedy said that he thought there was about one chance in three that the Cuban Missile Crisis result in a nuclear catastrophe. One chance in three where the outcome would be basically the destruction of our civilization.
William: But when he said that, he wasn’t even aware of the fact that besides the medium range missiles that the Russians had deployed in Cuba, not yet operational, they also had tactical nuclear weapons. In Cuba, they were operational and ready to go with the warheads. And so, if Kennedy had accepted the unanimous recommendation of his joint Chiefs of Staff for a conventional military attack on Cuba, our troops who met on the beach head were decimated on the beach head with the nuclear weapons and in general, nuclear war would surely have followed.
William: So this, in my mind, is an example of how you can blunder into a war through a political miscalculation, this case, mainly through bad information. And then beyond that, we’ve discussed this very briefly, there’s a possibility of a lapse of rationality on the part of the president. And Tom’s already mentioned historical cases which give us some concern about that. And the most dramatic one being the last few months of Nixon’s presidency.
William: He was very heavily drinking, sometimes to the point of being not fully competent. Now, at that time, the then Secretary of Defense, Tim Schlesinger, was so concerned about the policy or that Nixon might do something crazy, that he called the General of the Strategic Air Command and told him, “Do not take any action if you get a launch order from the president. Check with me first.
William: Well, it’s one thing for him to say that. I mean, you felt how concerned he was, but in fact, he had no legal authority for doing that, and there’s no reason to believe that the general would have followed his guidance. The general would’ve undoubtedly instead take instructions from the president.
Jim: Yep. And we have a situation like that today. At least we may well have. And it highlights these risks that we’re talking about. So, yeah, to recap for the audience, basically three categories. You have incomplete information, like in the Cuban case, you can have a unstable or even insane president, or you could have what we talked about earlier, cyber attacks, failed 46 cent chips, et cetera, that are providing false information. And all three of those are ways that if the signal were dire enough, we actually literally could stumble into a full fledged nuclear war, at least as long as we have launch on warning as our policy, at any time.
William: That’s exactly what we’re concerned about.
Tom: Jim, if I could just add to that. It doesn’t have to be that a president is not capable all of the time, it’s just that a president might not be up to the job for one five minute period out of their entire four years in office, right? Because you never know when this alarm will happen. When there could be a false alarm. The president would have five minutes to figure out what to do and it’s that five minutes that concerns us, right?
Tom: Is the president in a bad mood during that five minutes? Has the president been drinking during that five minutes? That’s at a crucial five minutes and so that’s part of what underlies our working assumption here. That no president, I don’t care which one it is from history, no matter how great they were, no president can be counted on to make that kind of decision at any moment, at any time. And it’s just too much responsibility to put on one fallible human being, and there’s certainly no reason why we still do it. We simply don’t understand it.
Tom: And just to add to the historical case, we tend to think that presidents have perfect information. That they always have the up-to-date information and know what’s going on. But of course, as Bill talked in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s simply not true. And another story I would just add here, which I just only discovered in the course of writing the book, was when President Truman was considering using nuclear weapons against Japan, the historical record certainly strongly implies that he didn’t fully understand that Hiroshima was a city and not just… and his mind might’ve been a military base. He didn’t understand the amount of civilians that were involved, and therefore, that actually most of the casualties of Hiroshima would be civilian and not military.
Tom: So we have a number of examples where presidents are grossly misinformed. And is that the kind of situation that we want to put a president into? To make a decision of that magnitude on such short notice.
Jim: Let that be a warning to us all, right? Before we turn to what we should do in some detail, let’s update the current state of play in things nuclear. In your book, you call out the fact that one big decision that was made in the early part of the century was us withdrawing from the ABM treaty. We say it’s for defense against North Korea or Iran, and the Russians assume the worst. What’s been the result of that with respect to the nuclear posture of the U.S. and Russia?
Tom: Well, Jim, great point. The ABM treaty, just so the listeners understand, was negotiated by the Nixon administration way back in 1972 with Russia. And it basically said that neither country would deploy a nationwide defense against nuclear attack. Now that sounds to most people to be counterintuitive, right? Why would you prohibit yourself from deploying a defense?
Tom: Well, the reason is is that at the time, and I would argue still today, we don’t have the technology to make a missile defense effective. Now you can still deploy one, and in fact United States has deployed missile defenses, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to work. And what happens is, certainly in the Russian case, the way that the Russians respond is that they will leave themselves enough margin to have enough offensive missiles to overwhelm any defenses we deploy.
Tom: And so what this has done is created a floor below which the Russians simply are much more resistant to reduce their nuclear forces. So we are in a situation now here Russia is resisting, reducing nuclear weapons that pose a real and present danger to the United States, because we have deployed missile defenses that in our view don’t work and wouldn’t be effective against that threat. And the reason we did this is politics, right?
Tom: It’s very hard to argue with the American people, “We shall remain defenseless. We shall not build missile defenses.” But the reality is that that’s what we should do because the technology doesn’t work and by deploying them, we’ve only increased the nuclear forces aimed against us, or I should say, prevented Russia from going as far as they might otherwise go with nuclear reductions.
William: Jim, I want to elaborate on one point here. Firstly, missile defense systems do work in the sense that if a missile was fired at the United States, we can have a missile defense intercepted, go after it, and have a good chance of hitting it. But that’s assuming a single warhead. But our system, or any such system, can be saturated. You have more than one, maybe five, or ten, a hundred. And we have no possibility of defending against a mass attack like that. And to further elaborate that, even a country like North Korea, which does not have that many missiles to attack us with, it can put a T course up as well. And the system we have is vulnerable to decoys.
William: So, launching… If North Korea, say, could launch five or ten missiles at us, it could look to a defense system like five hundred or a thousand. And so, any defense system can be saturated. And this system is particularly susceptible to saturation because it’s so easy and simple to build realistic looking decoys. Foreign intercepts going to occur in outer space, [inaudible 00:43:59]. Sorry about getting into a little bit of technical detail on that, but it’s important to understand it’s not just that our system wasn’t designed right, it’s that [inaudible 00:44:09] capable of being defeated by being saturated. And it’s very easy to saturate it with putting decoys along with your missiles.
Jim: Yep. And I love you make that point. I mean, I as a civilian nuclear hobbyist, in the 1980s, did a little bit of math and realized that midcourse ABM could never work for exactly that reason. In space, where there’s no air drag to separate a heavy warhead from a light Mylar balloon, they both move at the same speed, the opportunity to out decoy is always going to dominate the ability to knock down missiles in the mid course.
Jim: I mean, at launch, you have a chance to take them out and terminally you have a chance to take them out. But I’m frankly amazed that a bunch of smart folks who made the decision to proceed with midcourse interception didn’t do the simple math and realize that it was an impossible project.
William: That’s the fundamental point. And I’d elaborate on that point by saying that the tactile missile defense systems we have, which defend our troops in the theater, operate at the terminal end of the [inaudible 00:45:19], where that’s no longer too. So we do have effective missile defense systems in the tactical field, but as long as our strategic systems, the ones defending against the ICBM attack, as long as they’re designed to operate in outer space, they will be highly susceptible to decoys for the reason you describe.
Jim: Yep. And well, terminal defense is at least theoretically possible. We had the, what was it? The sprint system at one point that was a terminal defense system. I don’t know what ever became of that. My calculations in 1985 said that’s at least possible, unlike the midcourse, which is just a fools error. And yet, nonetheless, how many billions of dollars did we spend on it? A shit load, as far as I can recall.
Jim: Let’s see, moving on to other current events before we turn to what to do about it. The Russians seem to be rather blatantly violating the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty, the INF treaty, so called. And they’ve also, oddly, I don’t know what this is about, have been violating the Open Skies treaty, and has basically pushed the U.S. to withdraw from Open Skies. What are the Russians up to? Why are they doing this and what does it mean for our strategic posture?
William: The Russians been bad actors in many respects. I think even more importantly is their bad actions in Ukraine. But on the other hand, the Russians also have 4,000 nuclear weapons, which 1,550 are deployed, and presumably, most of them are deployed against us. So we have… They are the only country in the world, as one of their commentators once said on Russian television, they can turn the United States into radioactive ash. So that’s the reality.
William: We have to deal with the Russians. The reason it’s so hard to deal with them is because their actions are so bad in other fields. So the only solution I can see to that problem is we have to be able to separate out those two variables. We have to separate out the bad actions in one field, on the strategic nuclear field where we have common interest not to have a nuclear war, not to have nuclear proliferation, not to have nuclear terrorism. So we have many reasons that we can deal with them, and should be dealing with them, in the nuclear field, if we can only get that decoupled from the bad behavior in other fields, which we rightly abhor.
Jim: Well, of course the INF violations are coupled to the nuclear posture in that they threaten our core allies in Europe. And at least as I understand it, these are not marginal violations. These are hundreds of weapons that are clearly in violation. What’s that all about? Why’s he doing this?
William: I don’t know why he’s doing it, but I can tell you that our response to that was we’re going to build the same weapons. It’s not a good response either for Russia or for the United States. We need to find a way of getting back to the Russians on this narrow issue and get it resolved before we make the world worse off by the absence of the INF treaty.
William: The INF treaty was probably the best nuclear treaty we, and Russia, and in those cases [inaudible 00:48:16] originally, have agreed to. And giving that up was a big mistake. So, whatever they’re doing in that field, whatever their motivation of doing that, we need to find a way of getting back, and discussing, and debating this with them, and see if we can find a way to getting this situated. Because it’s a bad result, both for Russia and the United States, and therefore, that gives us a basis, I think, for negotiating it away.
Jim: Yeah. I would hope so. Because at least it seems to me, unless we can get past this INF issue, doesn’t seem to be any hope for renegotiating the New Start treaty, which, what, expires next year, I believe? And that’s been a cornerstone of our strategic nuclear arms control. Could you talk a little bit about where New Start is and what do you thinks going to happen?
Tom: Well, on New Start, the good news is that the INF fallout has not infected the New Start situation quite so much. There’s been no evidence of Russian cheating, or U.S. cheating, for that matter on New Start. So, that’s all to the good. But the New Start treaty expires next February. And it can be extended unconditionally for about up to five years. And so we strongly support that the Trump administration should work with Russia to extend New Start for up to five years unconditionally.
Tom: And that could be done right now because Russia has been very clear that they support the unconditional extension of the treaty. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has been dragging it’s heels and has been not willing to support a unconditional extension, and in fact has been putting conditions, I would say unrealistic conditions, on the extension.
Tom: First, they wanted China to be part of any follow on treaty or extension. China has basically said no to that because they have so much fewer nuclear weapons than the United States and Russia. About one tenth or fewer nuclear weapons than we do. But they made the argument that it’s just not realistic for China to be involved in this point. And the Trump administration seems to have accepted that point, but the Trump administration is still asking for changes to the New Start treaty, in terms of the weapons it covers or the inspection procedures.
Tom: Now you still can’t extend New Start and change it at the same time. If you change the treaty, then you have to go back to the senate and get a new ratification, which we don’t want to have to do. So the simple thing to do here is to extend New Start without any changes, a clean extension, as they say, for up to five years, and then, once you have that, go try to negotiate, which we fully support, a follow on treaty that could have better verification, it could go after a wider range of nuclear weapons.
Tom: For example, shorter range nuclear weapons that both the United States and Russia have that are not captured by the current treaty. We support that, too. And eventually, to talk with China. Although, again, their numbers are so much smaller that it’s not clear that they have an incentive to get involved at this point. But the key thing is that if the Trump administration, or if Vice President Biden wins the election in November, the Biden administration, move very quickly to extent New Start so we maintain limitations on long range nuclear weapons, and then move to negotiate a new follow on agreement.
William: If we move forward the way Tom describes, there is a way of dealing with the China issue, which is we could invite China to sit in as observer to the New Start follow on treaty talks. And then at such a time as we get closer to them in the number of nuclear weapon, then they can ease in to become regular part of the negotiation. But them being part of the negotiation today makes no sense. It makes no sense even for the next few years. But we should be able to have them sitting in as observers. So if we reach a stage where their missiles get large enough, where our missiles get small enough, that makes sense, then they’d be able to move right into the talks with us.
Jim: Okay, well I think we have set the stage of where we are today and you guys have hinted at some of the solutions. Let’s get down to it. What should we do as a country to address these various risks that are lurking out there, which frankly, most of us aren’t even aware that we’re at risk about? What should we do?
Tom: Well, Jim, I’ll kick it off and Bill will follow on. I think our highest recommendation is that we should increase the amount of time that a president has to make a launch decision. That we’re in real danger of rushing the president into a decision that could be in response to a false alarm, that will lead us to blunder into a nuclear war. That is the highest potential danger that we see to the United States right now.
Tom: We don’t see a great danger of an intentional nuclear wear, because that would be suicidal for both the United States and Russia, but we do see a great danger in stumbling, bumbling into nuclear war by mistake. So, there’s three key things that we would like to see happen to increase the amount of time that a president has. One is that we should prohibit sole authority.
Tom: So the president should not be able to make a decision all by himself without input from anyone else, including congress or even the Secretary of Defense. The president should not be able to make a decision on his own authority to launch nuclear weapons. Two, the president should not be able to launch first on sole authority. Right? So there should be no first use or prohibition against the first use of nuclear weapons.
Tom: That again, would slow down the process. And also, help reassure Russia that we’re not going to attack them out of the blue. And it would be nice if Russia responded to that, reciprocated in some way. But even if they don’t, we would be safer for it. And third, the way to make a no first use policy more credible is to retire the weapons that we would use in a first launch situation.
Tom: And to us, the first weapons that a president would reach to, particularly in a false alarm scenario, would be the land based ballistic missiles, because they’re vulnerable to first strike. They’re vulnerable to being destroyed quickly. And as we said before, we don’t need those weapons for deterrents.
Tom: We have submarine weapons that can do that. So we would seek to retire the land based ballistic missiles. And now is a great time to have that conversation because the air force, just last week, agreed to a contract with Northrop Grumman, which is a down payment on a new generation of land based ballistic missiles. These missiles will cost the taxpayer upwards of $100 billion dollars, and that is money we would much rather see spent on higher priority threats to the United States.
Tom: For example, solving the Coronavirus, or addressing climate change, or fixing racial injustice. These are the things that our nation should be worried about and we shouldn’t be spending that money on weapons that we don’t need.
Jim: All right. A good, concise statement. Now how do we do them? Let’s think about the details. How do we go from sole authority to some kind of multi key authority? Because I understand it, at least the Soviets, I don’t know if it’s still the Russian doctrine, but the Soviets had some kind of three key system, didn’t they? Something like that, Bill?
William: Yes, they did. They had it both tactically and strategically. For example, during the Cuban Missile crisis, the Soviets had submarines out patrolling the area and their submarines, unknown to us, the submarines had nuclear torpedoes. And they had a three key system before they could be launched. And it’s a damn good thing they did, because one of the submarines came under attack, or thought it was under attack, from one of our destroyers.
William: And he was getting ready to torpedo that destroyer, the Skipper was, but he could not get the other two to agree with him. That would surely have caused a general nuclear war. And so, we just missed that one by a hair. So they had this three key system then for the tactile system, maybe still today. And they also had a three key system for the strategic weapons.
William: We understand that today, although it’s hard to be certain about this, but we understand that they have abandoned that for the strategic weapons and that now President Putin has the sole authority, just as President Trump does in the United States.
Jim: Yeah, he’s nasty, but at least he’s not crazy, right? At least we don’t think so. So, it looks like we went with a three key strategic system in the United States. Who would be plausible additional signers that would be required? And of course, wonderfully today, we have lots of very advanced, multi key cryptography, where you could literally make it impossible for anybody to forge these signatures. What are the other two signatures that you think we should add to the president to launch?
William: I think for it to make any sense, Jim, it has to be from the congress. It has to be somebody representing the congress. Not somebody that works for reports to the president, but somebody in a different branch of government. And you can do it various ways. You can have the two leaders of the congress. You want it to be bi partisans, so that takes it up to four. So the minimum would be the house majority leader. The leader democrat in the house, leading in the senate, leading republican in the house, leading republican in the senate. It’d be minimally four people. And those people then could have to sign [inaudible 00:58:07]. So we would have a five key system because of our two party system, instead of a three key system.
Jim: Okay. And that by itself, of course, would slow things down quite a bit.
William: Of course it would. And that’s amazing, and [inaudible 00:58:19] them for not doing it. What, to me, that’s an advantage of it. One thing we want to do, whoever makes the decision, we want to slow it down. We do not want to a quick decision about ending the world as we know it. Let’s think about that a little bit. Let’s spend a little time, let’s do a consultation, let’s do a little analysis before we finally decide we’re going to take an action that will be the end of our civilization.
William: I want to emphasize that’s not being melodramatic. If we and Russia were to exchange only 10% of our deployed nuclear weapons, the result would be hundreds of millions of deaths and results would be destruction of our infrastructure, and quite possibly, would result because of all the smoke and soot that is generated by all these things burning, we’re going to have an obscuration of the sun for some period of time. It could be long enough to cause what’s called nuclear winter, which is the destruction of all of our crops for years on end.
William: In other words, what could happen here would be approximately what happened 66 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth. Killed many of the animals instantly, but the reason that we had a mass extinction, the reason all the dinosaurs died, for example, was because the smoke and soot took up in the air, worked it’s way into the stratosphere, circled the planet, and eventually cut out the sun long enough to kill most of the vegetation on earth.
Jim: Yep. Yeah, certainly. I always figured the number was around 300. We want to keep the total number of nukes on earth well below 300 so that we don’t stumble into those kinds of scenarios. And we’re a long way from there, unfortunately, right? So a five key system, I could see that being useful. Do we need to eliminate the ICBMs under that scenario? Because there’s no first launch capability, there’s no insane or drunk president problem, it would certainly take more than six minutes for the five people to decide. Do we still need to eliminate the ICBMs, and if so, why?
William: Because they are an attractive nuisance. They are so powerful and so vulnerable that they’d invite an attack. They’re sitting ducks. And for that reason alone, I think we ought to get rid of them. Whatever deterrents capability we think we need, however many nuclear weapons we think ought to be in our inventory, in our arsenal, ought to be deployed on submarines and on bombers, not on ICBMs.
Jim: Of course there is that so called sponge theory which says, “Oh, yeah, they’re kind of vulnerable, but they’ll suck up and basically just blow up a bunch of empty corners of Wyoming and North Dakota. Any nuclear weapons targeted at the United States are, for that reason alone, having even a very, very vulnerable ICBM force, has strategic value.
Tom: Well, Jim, I think the sponge theory as you lay out really doesn’t make any sense, right? I mean, why would we want to draw a nuclear attack to the United States? The upper mid-west has really good people and I hate to put a nuclear target on their backs. Particularly when you realize that if there were a nuclear attack against the mid-west, that would not expend all of the nuclear weapons that Russia has.
Tom: Russia could attack the mid-west as well as the coasts. They don’t have to make a choice in that regard. And so the sponge theory, I thin it doesn’t hold up to a simple analysis, which said if we didn’t have the ICBMs at all, would we be worse off? And the answer is no.
Tom: If we didn’t have the ICBMs, Russia, or another country, would still be deterred because we have invulnerable weapons deployed on submarines at sea. And they can’t attack those weapons if they’re deployed at sea. So they simply would not attack us at all, which is exactly what we want. And so having some sort of nuclear sponge or nuclear sink out in the mid-west, to me, doesn’t make any sense. It unnecessarily draws a nuclear attack to the United States, which to me is incredibly counterintuitive and justifies land based ballistic missiles, which we don’t need, and as we see now, are going to cost us $100 billion dollars to replace.
Jim: And from a game theory perspective, can we do it unless the Russian’s do it too? If we both do it, I can see how it makes sense, but if the Russians still have all their ICBMs and now they can re target those that were headed for the missile fields, and put them on our industrial centers and population centers instead, they now have a quite significant advantage.
William: I think, Jim, the idea of an advantage is misleading. The Russians have enough nuclear weapons and we have enough nuclear weapons that we don’t have to choose. In the scenario I mentioned to you a while back where each side uses 10% of the nuclear forces, that’s enough to destroy both countries. So, we have so many nuclear weapons. So many nuclear weapons that the idea of an advantage doesn’t make any sense when the overkill is more than submerged in the quantities of nuclear weapons we have and the destructive power that they have.
Jim: Okay. Yeah. It’s probably true. Let’s go down to the next argument traditionally for keeping the ICBMs, which is the so-called triad theory. That we can’t be sure of the future. We think our subs are undetectable, maybe they are today, but suppose somebody develops an efficient neutrino detector or something, and suddenly the subs are blazing red on the screen from an orbiting satellite. Is it really prudent to put all of our eggs in basically one basket?
William: Jim, back in the 1970s when I was the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, we worried a lot about that argument. And in those days, the thing we were worried about was not neutrinos, but blue green lasers in satellites detecting them. There’s always been some theory about how we’re going to detect submarines at sea. And basically what it comes down to is major account and major approach.
William: That technology is developing new ways to attack submarines, our technology is developing new ways of defending submarines. So it comes back and forth. But over that 40 year period that I’m describing, the submarines have always had the advantage, and I believe will continue in the future.
William: We can not relax and say, “Submarines can never be attacked.” We have to continue to put a major part of our defense emphasis on protecting the invulnerability of our submarines. And I think it becomes a technological battle and I think the United States is in a pretty good position to win that technological back and forth.
Tom: Yeah. In addition to a healthy R & D program that Bill describes, we also have an insurance policy, which is nuclear armed bombers. So, if a problem did develop with the subs, we have the bombers that can be deployed. And so the ICBMs come an insurance policy on an insurance policy, and a very expensive insurance policy at that, and one that increases the danger of accidental war. So I think when you put all that together, it makes a pretty compelling case that we don’t need them.
William: Jim, I want to add to that that if we’re going to get rid of our ICBMs, putting all that weight on somebody, not only do we have to have a robust technology program in the field of antisubmarine warfare, but we probably want to put our bombers on air alert. Because if they’re sitting in the bases, they’re vulnerable, the ICBM’s are. So, there are disadvantages in the airborne alert, which is why we don’t do it, but we did it for a good many years during the Cold War, so it can be done.
Jim: Yeah, that was the old happening a couple of wings of them up in the air at all times. I remember those days.
William: They’re not good days. I hope we never have to go back to that. But they can be done.
Jim: Yeah. Okay, I think you guys have answered the objections. And so, let’s therefore so order it. Boom. All right. Let’s hope the next president is a sane and reasonable person and reads the book and decides to do these things. All right. This gets us so far, but it doesn’t really get us to where we need to be. The real answer, to me, seems to be to get rid of these damn things, or at least to build them down to a level, maybe 100 worldwide, something like that.
Jim: They’re not an existential threat to our advanced civilization. Because no matter how careful we are, think July 1914, nobody wanted to go through what they went through, and yet they stumbled into it anyway. Remember January 1861? If anybody had any idea that we were about to kill the equivalent of six million contemporary Americans, the path of history would’ve been very different. So, how do we really do what Gorbachev and Reagan talked about doing, which is to either get rid of the nukes or get them down to a level where they’re not an existential threat to advanced civilization?
William: One of the persons that were that, Reagan and Gorbachev [inaudible 01:07:23] was George Schultz, who was Secretary of State at the time. And on the 20 year anniversary of the Reykjavik, he convened a small group of us to say, “Isn’t it time to revisit the idea? Just getting rid of the damn things.” And then we agreed, and the four of us wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal proposing just that.
William: Citing the nuclear dangers and proposing that we abolish nuclear weapons. And for about four or five years, we had a pretty good run in that. Including President Obama when he was elected, stating it in his first foreign policy address he made in Prague just a few months after he took office. He was committing the United States that seeked the peace and security of the world without nuclear weapons. Well, he failed on that and he failed either because he could not get support from congress, he almost couldn’t get a New Start treaty ratified by the congress, and he just decided it wasn’t worth the effort.
William: Well, my view on that is that that is the solution of the problem. We tried very hard, Schultz and Kissinger, and myself, to try to promote that. And after a few years, finally gave that up. But I think we can not give up all together. And so, I backed off thinking we can not do that now, what can we do now? What we can do now is take reasonable, sensible steps to decrease the danger, the risks that are associated with nuclear weapons.
William: To make it less likely that we’ll blunder into a nuclear war. And that’s what we’re promoting now. I’m not giving up and do not give up the idea of eventually being able to abolish nuclear weapons, but I’m putting my efforts now on the thing where I have chance for political success that can actually be implemented, and that’s these particular proposals to take actions to reduce the danger of our nuclear weapons. Tom, what do you want to add to that?
Tom: Well, I would just add that there is a hopeful development happening internationally, which is that there is a new treaty that was approved a few years ago by the United Nations which would prohibit nuclear weapons and make them illegal under international law. And this is the same approach that the world has taken to chemical weapons, which are prohibited internationally, and biological weapons, and those are the other weapons of mass destruction.
Tom: And if we take the same approach to nuclear weapons, prohibit them internationally, and my guess is that treaty will go into force probably sometime next year, then that increases the international pressure on the states that have nuclear weapons to get rid of them. Now, this will not be a quick process. None of the states that have nuclear weapons have signed on to the nuclear weapons prohibition treaty, but it’s a start. And again, it’s how the other weapons of mass destruction were ultimately banned, and I think it’s a promising direction.
William: Jim, I entirely agree with what Tom has just said, but I will point out it’s going to be along process. I don’t know how long. 5 years, 10 years? A long process. In the meantime, we should do everything we can to lower the risk of blundering into a nuclear war, and that’s what this book is about.
Jim: Well, thank you gentleman, for an incredibly interesting and stimulating conversation. To recap for the listeners, the proposals, correct me if I’m wrong, are basically to do the following. One is to eliminate first use by the United States, presumably by legislation. Two is to go to a five key system, approximately, where it would take five key decision makers to be able to launch a weapon. It would have to be crypto logically secure so that indeed all five would actually have to do so.
Jim: Eliminate the ICBMs, because there are assymetry about risk versus power. It makes them attractors for drawing fire. Up the R & D on sub defense and antisubmarine warfare, and perhaps, put our strategic bombers, at least in part, back on air alert. Is that the proposal, gentleman?
William: The proposal on the air alert is only in the contingency that [inaudible 01:11:33] only after the ICBM took on.
Jim: Okay. Let’s make that clear. All righty. Any final thoughts? Or we can wrap her up.
Tom: Thank you very much. It’s been a great conversation.
William: Thank you, Jim. You did your homework, you had all the right questions, and we did our best to give you the right answers.
Jim: And you guys did a great job. And this is particularly meaningful for me right now. My wife and I have become first time grandparents just recently-
Jim: In the last six weeks. And damn it, wouldn’t it be nice if that beautiful little girl didn’t have to grow up with a bomb over her head.
William: It would be.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.