russian roulette

navigation, see below for text
frontline online

interview: admiral stansfield turner

He was a commander of the nuclear submarine fleet in the U.S. Navy and was also the Director of the C.I.A.under President Carter.  In 1998, he wrote a book called Caging the Nuclear Genie in which he develops a proposal for nuclear disarmament strategy which he calls strategic escrow.

How much has the end of the cold war changed the balance, the dynamic between US and Russia?

Oh, it's changed it considerably, because the Russians inherently understand that they are an inferior power today. ... They don't know how to accept the fact that they've dropped from being a "superpower" to a third rate power in terms of economic wherewithal in particular. ... The Soviet Union was not really a superpower in the full sense of the word. Certainly it was a superpower with nuclear weaponry. Its conventional military forces were substantial. I think we over-rated them, but nonetheless they were powerful. But trying to maintain both of those military establishments on a totally inadequate economic base meant they weren't truly a superpower. They could not sustain themselves as we have.

Yet they still have 30,000 nuclear weapons that are pointed our way.

Yes. We have not recognized that while the threat of a nuclear armageddon between us and what was the Soviet Union, now Russia, has certainly diminished, [it] hasn't evaporated totally. As long as they've got, I think it's 22,000 nuclear warheads, they pose a threat to our very survival. ... The existence of that huge arsenal does pose a threat to us. We have no idea where Russia will be in five years, ten years.

There is no reason that the United States  moving into the 21st century with more economic, political, military power than any nation has ever had, need rely on nuclear weapons for its security.  We have all the other ways of doing this. ... The armageddon threat has diminished. But two other threats have arisen. The first is one of accidents or miscalculation or loss of control in Russia, and we get a small nuclear attack. The second is the "loose nukes" problem, and that materials or weapons are taken out of Russia, and they end up in a Iraq, Iran, a North Korea. And we have it then where an irresponsible Saddam Hussein has these weapons, and the likelihood of their being used goes up. In short, the magnitude of the threat is down. ... And the techniques for countering the accidents in Russia or the deliberate use by a proliferator like Saddam Hussein are different than the ways we dealt with the threat of armageddon between the Soviet Union and United States.

What happens to the arms control agreements?

The arms control agreements that we're dealing with today are almost irrelevant to these two problems that I am mentioning to you. admiral stansfield turnerThe arms control agreements are irrelevant today because they're too small and too slow. We have an agreement on the table now, START II. It's been there for six years. Our Senate ratified it three years ago. A year and a half ago, President Clinton and President Yeltsin agreed at Yeltsin's request that we slide the completion date five years, to the end of 2007, because Russia couldn't meet the timetable. The Russian Duma last month said, "We are again, for about the sixth time, postponing consideration of the treaty until next April." They don't want to pass this treaty because it's not a good treaty from their point of view. So the treaty is probably dead. If they pass it, they're going to pass it with reservations, I believe, about ballistic missile defenses. And the President [in] the last few days has said, "We're going to build missile defenses." So there's a head-on [collision] coming here. And if they pass the treaty with a reservation about ballistic missile defenses, the Senate won't re-ratify it because ... it's changed. But beyond that, not only just dragging on interminably, it takes until 2007 to achieve anything.

But we'd be down to 3,500 weapons by then. Wouldn't that be preferable to each side pointing the number that we're pointing at each other now?

That's the second problem with the treaty. It's too small. 3,500 doesn't get us very far. ... And 3,500 is a phony number. ... We've got to get the American public informed that the treaty does not take us down to 3,500 weapons. It does not, as the President said in his speech to the Congress, take us down--or he said START III, the next treaty--would take us down to 80 percent of the Cold War levels. That is not true. The treaty has loopholes in it.

Number one, it only counts weapons, warheads that are mounted on delivery vehicles, on missiles. And we have said quite publicly that if we allowed 3,500 mounted on vehicles, we're going to keep 3,500 spares. Now, they can be mounted on those same vehicles with multiple warheads. The treaty does not even touch what are called tactical nuclear weapons, smaller ones that are used in artillery shells or by aircraft. ... But those weapons are not included in the treaty. And we have said quite publicly, we're going to keep 3,000 of those. You add that up: 3,500 real, 3,500 spares, 3,000 tacticals; you've got 10,000 weapons at the end of the year 2007 if the START II treaty is ever passed. And if you would do a START III and get you down to 1,000, which is very optimistic, and you have another 1,000 spares, and you have another 500 tacticals, you've still got an immense number of these weapons. ...

We cannot go to the world and say, "We're against the proliferation of these weapons, and we want you to give up commercial advantage and not sell things to Iran and Iraq and North Korea," if we sit here with a policy that, 9 years from now, we're going to have 10,000 weapons, and a policy that we'll use them first if it's in our best interest to do so. How can you look anyone in the eye and say, "We, the most powerful nation in the world, need this, but you don't need one?" ...

There was a scare about 3 years ago, when Norway launched a rocket.

No. We launched a rocket from Norway. It was an American rocket. It was an exploration of the aurora borealis. And we had notified the Russians that we were going to do this. They lost track of that notification, and it's my understanding that they got all the way to Mr. Yeltsin when they saw that rocket heading up into space, all the way with the codes, saying "What do we do?" Now, that's dangerous.

You write about the 1980 US incident where our National Security Advisor got a call that there was a launch from Russia. What happened there? Are the Russians the only one who have had problems with their early warning system?

President Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was awakened 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning with the word that 1,000 missiles were headed to the United States across the Pacific. And he thoughtăthey thoughtăthis was a genuine nuclear attack on the United States. And they began to take bombers off. They began to put alert aircraft in the air, that is, the airborne command posts, and that kind of thing. And while this was going on, Brzezinski was deciding whether to call President Carter and ask him, "Do you want to give the order to counter-launch under this attack?" when he made one more check. And they called back and said [that] of the several warning stations that should have seen this incoming attack, only one had seen it. And therefore they discounted it because there was an error in that system. A computer failure. A training program [that had been] put in or something, instead of a genuine one. But that's terribly dangerous. I don't think President Carter would have launched. I really don't. But who knows?

General Habiger says that in the Norway incident the missiles never actually went on alert. They just were on a procedure of communication that led up to Mr. Yeltsin being notified.

I don't give a darn about what level of alert they were at. It was a totally unnecessary alert. And when you start pulling off nuclear alerts, you're in danger. And we're in particular danger today because the Russian early warning system has broken down, in part because some of it's in countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union but are not part of Russia today, and in part because they're not maintaining it. And so they feel vulnerable. They feel like they're not going to have warning. They're on higher hair-trigger alert today probably than they were during the Cold War. So we've got to get away from that. And I think that one of the first things we should do is take every US weapon off of high alert. We have an absolutely insane policy in this country. Had it now for 30 or 40 years.

Which policy are you referring to?

That is that if we see an attack coming from Russia, we are going to get the President to decide to launch our counter-attack before this one lands from Russia. That's 25 minutes. Now, when you take out time to evaluate this and decide it really is coming, when you take out time at the end, between a President's decision and the fact the missiles actually get off and far enough away that they're not going to be damaged by the blast of the incoming attack, the President's got somewhere between two and ten minutes to make this most momentous decision. No President's going to do that. It would be insane to do it anyway, because our counter-attack doesn't stop this incoming attack. It's not intended to do that. And we don't need to worry about that attack knocking out our missiles. Our missiles that count are in submarines out here at sea, and they can't see those. So we can always counter-attack, no matter what they do in that attack. ...

Why do we have this policy? What is this policy called?

The policy is called "launch under attack"--launch our weapons while they are under attack, that is, before the attack has arrived. And we have this policy because we have transmuted to nuclear strategy the theorems of conventional military strategy. And one of the problems in conventional warfare is surprise attacks, Pearl Harbors. It really makes you vulnerable. This is a different case. And we have not appreciated that nuclear strategy is generically different than conventional strategy. We just have got to get away from this idea that we're under a threat of attack. If we would just get rid of those land-based missiles anyway--we don't need them--then there's nothing for them to attack, other than our cities and things. The excuse for launching quickly goes away. And it's really just a US preoccupation with big land-based missiles, which are obsolete. ...

The submarine is what has saved this country from nuclear war since the early 1960s. ... Because in the submarines we have more than enough to put Russia, China, anybody out of business. And we want to get down now to a number that's so much smaller than what we've got, like a factor of 100 lower. We've got 15,000 nuclear warheads in this country today. A hundred and fifty, 200 is more than enough to threaten anybody in the world with enough damage to make them say, "I'm not going to start a nuclear war." And that's what we want. And if we get rid of the excess, we reduce these threats of accidents, we reduce these threats of proliferation, and make the world as well as our own country much safer. And the treaty process is irrelevant because it is too slow and too small, as I've said.

And what we need instead is a process called strategic escrow. Now, under strategic escrow, we take 1,000 warheads off of our missiles and we move them into storage 200 or 300 miles away, so that you can't just put them back at the drop of a hat. We ask the Russians to put observers here who count what goes in, and if anything goes out. No authority to stop us, but there they are. If we do that, Yeltsin has got to follow. He's got to put 1,000 in storage. Why? Because his deputy in October announced that in ten years they're not going to have the capability of firing more than about 500 nuclear warheads. They've let the thing deteriorate, and they don't have the money to rehabilitate it. ...

We can go to zero alert, because we do have those submarines out there, and they'll be able to fire back whenever we want.

But the Russians don't have submarines out there that can fire back?

Well, today they don't. They normally do. They normally, even with the perilous conditions in Russia today, they've been keeping two submarines out. I believe right now they don't. They're at pier-side alert. ... And it is a troublesome thing that Russia, because it doesn't have submarines out, because its early warning radar and other systems are not all in good shape, feels nervous. And we don't want them to feel nervous. We don't want them to feel on hair-trigger alert. So that's a reason I recommend we go away from hair-trigger alert; we renounce it right now. That will not necessarily make the Russians renounce it. But I can guarantee you, the Russians will not renounce it if we don't. So since it does us no good and it pushes them to retain it, let's get rid of it. And maybe then they'll come to their senses and get rid of it too. And maybe we'll both use the Y2K problem as an excuse for standing down this alert, and then leave it down.

Do you think we're at a special moment in history right now, where we can do this?

We're at a very special moment in history, I believe, if we can just get away from the old Cold War nuclear theology. Why are we at a special moment? One, ... our own Joint Chiefs of Staff are saying, "We're willing to trade in some of this nuclear stuff for other conventional forces that we prefer," saying, "We don't have a real rationale for the size we've got." So now let's look for a rationale. And when you look for one, nobody will come up with 5,000-10,000 nuclear warheads. It's insane to think of that number of detonations being necessary to protect our country.

We're at a special moment because the Russians have announced they're going down to something like 500 nuclear warheads, no matter what happens. They can't afford any more; that their whole establishment has deteriorated that far. So that gives a great impetus to really take some action.

We're at a very special moment because in November the Germans announced they wanted NATO to pledge it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons again. I've been advocating that in spades for years. I went to people in our establishment and said, "Why don't we pledge we'll never be the first to use these?" And they said, "Well, it's because it would scare our European allies. They want that guarantee." Here it's the principle and most vulnerable European ally is now standing up saying, "I don't want that guarantee."

So it's a time of ferment. There are all these opportunities. President has now come out for ballistic missile defenses, which are good. Only a question of: What do we afford, and what capability can we technically build? But up till now, they've been saying, "Oh, if we build defenses, the Russians will keep more offenses, and therefore they won't comply with the arms control agreements." Well, that's all undercut because the Russians have said, "We can't keep more offenses. We're going to 500." So many of these false theorems of nuclear warfare are crumbling today.

And I predict that we will find a way, but it's got to get around this treaty process, because a treaty has got to be negotiated. Takes time. A treaty's got to have this detailed verification, because it's a legal document and we're very legalistic in this country. Because a treaty has to be ratified, and that takes time, even in our country. Took three years to get the current treaty ratified. And then a treaty has to be executed, and it takes time to go through it because you've got to have this detailed verification while it's being executed. ...

And something like strategic escrow, where you just put the warheads away, and then when they've been put away, if you agree under a treaty that they can be destroyed, you destroy them, but in the meantime, they're out of the way; they're offline. And most of all, you've told your military, you've told the world, "We are not counting on these weapons as our primary ... line of defense." And there is no reason that the United States of America, moving into the 21st century with more economic, political, military power than any nation has ever had, need rely on nuclear weapons for its security. We have all the other ways of doing this.

General Habiger was just describing 5 or 6 steps that the US has taken unilaterally in terms of reducing warheads, and the Russians have not followed suit. How do we know that if we decide to take 1,000 off the shelf, that they would do so? What makes you trust them?

Because Yeltsin is in this position. If he doesn't find a way to make an agreement with us to go downward quickly, we're going to have 10,000 warheads ten years from now, and he's going to have 500. And he's not going to like that prospect. In short, we can maintain any number we want into the indefinite future. So if we make an offer for him to find a way to get down quickly--and we're totally at loggerheads on the START process--strategic escrow process is away around this. It's also a way around the treaties because you don't have to have Congressional or Duma approval. This is just changing the readiness. And it's no risk to us. If we put 1,000 here today and Yeltsin says "niet," we [put] them back. There's no problem. We have not put ourselves in any vulnerability if we go from 15,000 to 14,000. But if Yeltsin does this, we do another 1,000 or 2,000, and we go back and forth. And in a few years, not a decade, we're not down to 10,000; we're down to the hundreds that are ready to fire. The rest of them are still there.

How do we verify that they are in fact still there?

Because we're allowed to put an observer there. He sits there 24 hours a day and he counts what goes in and he counts what goes out.

But we're having major problems with the Russians now, just under the Nunn-Lugar program in the Cooperative Threat Reduction, over the issue of verification. We want total access to their stuff, and they won't let us in.

That's certainly true. But you see, that's where the treaty process is hurting us. We're building a treaty that's going to allow us to go to zero. Well, you have to have real verification for that. And we're building all that into these treaties today, when it isn't necessary.

Let me give you a story, a real example. I'm Director of Central Intelligence, 1978. We're working on a treaty with the Russians called SALT II. I have to tell the Senate how accurately our intelligence can check on the Russians for every term of that agreement. And I've really struggled to come up with a legitimate estimate. And I finally went to the Congress and said, "If they cheat by about 1,000 warheads, we'll know it." Do you know how many warheads they had at that time? Forty thousand. Now, at that time, knowing 1,000 plus or minus was insignificant, it was good to have the provisions in the treaty, in the sense that ... 5-10 years later, it would be good to have that degree of ability to check. But we were wasting our time and effort in 1978, when it didn't make that much difference. If we had known within 5,000 or 10,000, it would have been enough for that treaty.

We're having trouble under Nunn-Lugar and such forth because we're insisting on these detailed agreements for verification that will be necessary some day, but not today. And under strategic escrow, you have easy verification. Does the thing come in? Does it go out? I mean, warheads are not minuscule. And there are ways to check that they aren't fooling us. I mean, we don't have to get inside and tear it apart. We have detectors from the outside. We can tell this is a genuine warhead.

What do they detect?

They detect the radioactivity inside. And therefore we can check without being so intrusive that the Russians get upset that we're finding their technology and they find ours and so on. It's a very simple process. ...

General Habiger told me that less than the treaties, what the militaries are relying on is the person-to-person contacts that are being developed through the variety of US-Russian military exchanges. Do you think that's enough to maintain the safety of the world?

Oh, I think it's very good, and I understand what the General is saying. And he helped develop a lot of that, and it's wonderful. But I don't want to count on it. I think we've got to have more than informal military-to-military relationships, because that's not going to stop the proliferation of these weapons to other countries. That's the biggest threat today. That will help with the accidents, and he was very much involved on the accidents because he was in charge of ours. But he is not, I think, grappling with the proliferation problem by those personal contacts.

You're in favor of a national missile defense?

I'm in favor of national missile defense, as long as we don't get carried away and think we're going to have an impervious shield over this country [that will] just completely take care of all these problems, because technically that doesn't look feasible. Even if the technicians were able to promise us a perfect shield, like President Reagan hypothesized, I would not count on it. Not because of technology, because of what the German strategist Clausewitz told us over 150 years ago: There is always friction in war. Things don't go the way you plan. Something happens. A transistor breaks down. Somebody doesn't push the right button. The weather interferes. The enemy does something you didn't expect. So you never count on perfection. And with nuclear defenses, or defenses against nuclear attack, you've got to have perfection. ...

You were an advocate for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program?

Yes, yes. ... I would go in and buy the whole Russian nuclear establishment, whatever it cost. If we could do it, that would be the greatest bargain we ever had. ... I think Senators Nunn and Lugar really came up with something important here. Yes. If the Russians aren't going to spend enough money to protect their nuclear establishment from being bought or sold or stolen, we want to help them do that, because it's in our interest in the long run. So I think that was a very foresighted program. I think we should be putting more money into it today, because we're getting more and more reports that there isn't the security that's needed over there.

One of the great benefits of my concept of strategic escrow is that it puts our inspectors over there, our observers. And if the observers, who are just counting what goes into Russian storage, happen to see there is no padlock on the door, they'll say to the Russians, "You need a padlock," and the Russians will say, "I can't afford it," and the American will say, "Here it is." I mean, then we'll really know we're getting our money's worth.

But they don't want to let us over there. We're stuck at this observer thing. And politically, they look at Desert Fox, they look at the announcement on missile defenses, and they say, "You guys are going into attack mode again."

But you've got to remember, they don't have the power. You've got to remember that they're in a difficult situation. They think they're still a superpower, and they're not. And the adjustment is difficult. The adjustment they're making to changing their thinking about nuclear weapons is much slower than in this country. It's an ant's pace in this country, snail's pace in this country. It's even worse in Russia. I was there six months ago, and their thinking is very backward. But I take such delight in the fact that they have had to acknowledge that they cannot maintain a large nuclear establishment into the future.

Now, that means that one of these days they will have to wrench themselves away from some of these false theorems of nuclear warfare that we taught them and they have now clung onto. And so I don't worry about their bleating about the ABM treaty. What are they going to do? Are they going to pretend that they can maintain 5,000 nuclear warheads when they've said publicly they can only maintain 500? No. They're going to have to face reality.

Now, I'd like to make it as easy for them as I can. I shouldn't even be talking like this about "they are weak" and so on, because that really does annoy them, and I don't want to annoy them, and I don't think our country ought to annoy them. We particularly ought to remember that the way we exercise our superior power with respect to Russia today could come back to bite us in 50 years, 75 years. We want to be as gentle but firm, as fair as we can with them. But at the same time, let's remember, there's a limit to how much they can resist in this program because they're going down, whether they like it or not. And they don't want to be down at 500 and find us out here with thousands and thousands of these nuclear weapons.


home . atomic suitcase bombs . a close call? . a nuclear smuggling scenario . russia's nuclear complex . debating the future . interviews . readings
join the discussion . synopsis . links . press . tapes & transcripts
frontline online . pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS