January 6, 1998
For 16 years the U.S. has designed its nuclear strategy to survive a protracted nuclear war. Now, President Clinton has embraced the attitude that a nuclear war is unwinable, and the Pentagon has shifted to a deterrence doctrine. Two experts debate the pros and cons of strategic arms reduction.
JIM LEHRER: The new nuclear weapons doctrine recently issued by President Clinton. Charles Krause has some background and a discussion.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
Margaret Warner takes a closer look at the pros and cons in the nuclear arms debate.
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CHARLES KRAUSE: Since 1981, U.S. nuclear doctrine has been based on the assumption that if there were ever a nuclear war, it could be a protracted conflict--probably with Russia--and that the United States would have enough nuclear weapons in its arsenal to assure the destruction of its enemies. Based on that doctrine and those assumptions, the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars since 1981 to research and develop sophisticated command, control, and communications equipment to be used to win a prolonged nuclear war.
SPOKESPERSON: We have lift-off of the Titan 4--carrying the first Milstar satellite.
CHARLES KRAUSE: The Milstar communications satellite system, for example, was designed specifically to withstand a first strike by Russian nuclear weapons, thus allowing the U.S. to continue to fight a protracted nuclear conflict. But in 1985, four years after the protracted war doctrine was adopted, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Geneva. There, the two men acknowledged that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." That statement seemed to reflect a change in doctrine. Still, the notion that the United States should plan to fight and win a protracted nuclear conflict remained official U.S. policy.
The end of the Cold War calls for policy reconsiderations.
In 1989, four years after the meeting in Geneva, the Cold War came to an end when the wall in Berlin came down. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself dissolved and eventually split into 15 republics--Russia being the largest and most powerful.
The break-up of the Old Soviet Union and improved relations between Russia and the United States provided new opportunities to reduce the number of nuclear warheads on both sides. The Start I Treaty, signed in 1991, cut the number of strategic nuclear warheads from more than 12,000 to about 6,000 each for the U.S. and Russia. Two years later, the Start II Treaty reduced the number of warheads further to about 3500 for each side; however, while the U.S. Senate has ratified the Start II Treaty, the Russian Duma has not.
Still, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin and their arms control negotiators continue to discuss a Start III Treaty, which would further reduce the number of warheads in each country's arsenal to about 2,000. Reductions of that scale, according to many experts, would mean that the U.S. could no longer fight a protracted nuclear war.
So, last February, President Clinton gave the go-ahead for a formal review of the 1981 policy. And last month, just before Thanksgiving, the President signed a new directive. The details are classified, but the new policy, reportedly, drops a requirement that the U.S. plan to fight and win a protracted nuclear war. Instead, the emphasis now is on deterrence.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Joining us now are Robert Bell, senior director of the National Security Council staff at the White House for defense and arms control. He's one of the drafters of the new presidential directive; and Bruce Blair, a senior fellow and nuclear weapons analyst at the Brookings Institution. He was a nuclear missile launch officer in the U.S. Air Force in the 1970's. Gentlemen, welcome. Mr. Bell, from your perspective and from the President's perspective, why was it time to change the protracted war doctrine?
Continuing the legacy of Start II...
ROBERT BELL, National Security Council: Well, starting about a year ago, we realized that our chances of getting the Russian parliament, the Duma, to approve the Start II Treaty, was going to depend on whether or not they were persuaded that there was another treaty to follow, in other words, that Start II would not be the end of the road. And so for the first time we as a government really began to wrestle with the question of what the next step down this ladder should be and brought actual numbers to play in terms of our own discussions about what Start III would be. And as we looked at those numbers and consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and our strategic command, it was our sense that the 1981 directive was wildly out of date and not consistent not only with the environment seven years after the end of the Cold War but consistent with the course we were trying to follow in terms of strategic reductions with Russia.
CHARLES KRAUSE: So this, in a sense, was a way of signaling to Russians that we were serious about reducing our arsenals and our plans for the use of nuclear weapons.
ROBERT BELL: It wasn't meant so much as a signal because the real signal in terms of the next step came when the President met with Yeltsin at Helsinki in March. And in that summit they agreed that Start III would set levels at the 2000 to 2500 range in terms of strategic nuclear warheads. But in order to take that step, in order for the President to have the competence to reach that agreement with Yeltsin, we had to be far enough along in our thinking to be assured by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and our strategic command that we could maintain strategic deterrence of any kind of nuclear strike at those levels. That part of the doctrine that has been longstanding in our government has been sustained. What is different, as you said in the setup piece we just saw, is that we have not carried over what we think was an unrealistic--from the beginning--directive from President Reagan that we have a force capable of fighting and winning a protracted nuclear war.
CHARLES KRAUSE: In that case, in the new doctrine what is the principal--what does it say about the mission and deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons? What's different?
ROBERT BELL: Well, it's different in that we make no pretext that there's going to be some effort to acquire forces in numbers or with survivability through round after round after round of general nuclear exchanges that could presumably go on for weeks or month but rather just focus on forces that are capable of deterring that attack in the first place. Now, that doesn't mean you have a very fragile deterrent. You still need a robust force that can absorb a first strike, rather than have to launch on warning of an incoming missile, and have that force spread across enough of types of weapons systems, what we call the triad, of bombers and submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles, so that the other side--and this is all, of course, assuming some turn in the world situation in which other countries with nuclear weapons would be hostile towards us, but that another side in that deterrence situation would realize that any attack would be futile because, in response, there would be an overwhelming devastating retaliation.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Mr. Blair, do you think that the administration has gone far enough in changing the doctrine?
BRUCE BLAIR: Well, I think they certainly have gone far enough rhetorically. There is a clear sharp discrepancy between the old doctrine of fighting a nuclear war that might last as long as half a year in prevailing at the conclusion, and the idea of improving our relations with Russia and continuing on this path of very sharp, deep reductions in strategic weapons. But none of this rhetoric really changes the operational situation on the ground. It, in fact, reaffirms and perpetuates the Cold War practice of the United States and of Russia of keeping many thousands of strategic weapons on both sides aimed at each other and ploys for immediate launch. So there's a rather large discrepancy between the rhetoric and the actual operational picture. Indeed, somewhat ironically, the United States today and for the foreseeable future under the new guidance projects a much more potent, even more fighting, more winning threat at Russian strategic forces than we did during the 1980's under the old war fighting doctrine. The current balance of strategic forces, in fact, is probably more lopsided in favor of the United States than it has been ever, at least going back into the early 1960's.
The current balance of weapons: more lopsided than ever.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Although, to be fair, that isn't entirely the fault of the United States. A lot of that has to do with the state of the Russian forces, does it not?
BRUCE BLAIR: Well, that's the result of two factors. One, as you say, Charles, is the decline, deterioration of the Russian strategic arsenal and its command system. And the other is the deployment by the United States of increasingly potent forces that do on paper, at least from the perception of the Russian general staff, pose a more fighting, even more winning threat to them.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Mr. Bell, listening to that, I mean, one of the major concerns, I believe, is that we and the Russians both continue to have our weapons on hair-trigger alert, which means they're ready to go almost instantaneously. Why is that necessary?
The U.S. and Russia: partners in disarmament.
ROBERT BELL: I don't think we're in a hair-trigger posture, Charles, but the important point is that we are not just articulating rhetoric. We are working very hard in building down the nuclear dangers of the Cold War. The best way to de-alert or deactivate a nuclear weapons system is to destroy it. And we're in the destruction business now. It's tempting, I think, when you see footage of the signing of a treaty, as we did in the setup piece, to think that you sign the treaty and then you immediately cut forces to that level.
But arms control is very hard work, and it takes a lot of money and a lot of time to come down to those levels. Now, the good news is we are ahead of schedule in attaining the requirements of that first treaty, the Start I Treaty. Just two weeks ago we had the first required milestone under that treaty on the third anniversary of its signing. And we are already down to levels under Start I that are two years ahead of the schedule that was set by Gorbachev and President Bush when they signed those treaties. In fact, two weeks ago, just over a two-day period, with Americans watching on, the Russian navy eliminated 20 submarine launch ballistic missiles in two days. Those are 20 missiles that before could have taken out 20 or 30 or 40 American cities. So we're working very hard. It's not just rhetoric.
BRUCE BLAIR: I'd like to commend Bob Bell for his hard work and President Clinton for a fine record of arms control. And we are making very good headway, but the time frame for this process is measured really in decades. We're talking about agreements that are going to be implemented from six to ten years from now or longer. And I think that this new guidance and the arms control agenda are both predicated on the wrong conception of the problem. They are oriented to the problem of deterrence, which is a very prominent theme in the new guidance. That's better than talking about fighting and winning a nuclear war, but our problem isn't deterrence, in my judgment. Russia does not oppose the threat of a cold-blooded, deliberate attack against the United States. The immediate problem that we confront is the deterioration of Russian nuclear control over its arsenal and the risks that attend that of unauthorized or accidental or inadvertent use of their strategic forces. And we need to try to get those strategic weapons in Russia out of play as soon as possible. I don't think that we really should be thinking of a five or ten year agenda but rather steps that we could take in the next months or certainly low number of years that would extend the time needed for Russia and the United States to prepare our weapons for launch. That is, we need to de-alert our forces to address an immediate problem, and that is the danger of accidental war.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Let me go to Mr. Bell. Do you agree that the state of Russian nuclear forces is as dangerous to us as their number?
ROBERT BELL: Clearly, there are concerns within our government, including within our intelligence community about the overall security of nuclear weapons and fissile material in Russia. I think that's particularly with regard to the radioactive material, the fissile material, itself, that in the Soviet Union was scattered throughout the country, including a lot of small scale research facilities. And to a degree I think we have some concerns about their consolidation of the small tactical nuclear weapons that existed in so many large numbers. But at the strategic force level, particularly with regard to intercontinental ballistic missiles, I think we have very high confidence about the Russian control and security of those systems. The commander and chief of our strategic command, Gen. Havinger, was invited to Russia in October and given unprecedented access as a western official not only to a nuclear storage facility but to an SS-24 rail mobile intercontinental ballistic missile base, and he came back and reported his high confidence in the Russian control and security over those warheads. Indeed, in many cases he found their practices and procedures to be more conservative than ours.
CHARLES KRAUSE: All right. Well, gentlemen, I'm afraid we are going to have to leave it there. Thank you both very much for joining us.