The Threat of Nuclear Weapons Is Truly Terrifying and No One Seems to be Paying Attention

A conversation with one of Obama’s former advisers on arms control and nuclear nonproliferation

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This story was originally published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists subscription magazine at Taylor & Francis Online. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Jon Wolfsthal has spent much of his professional life working on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation and associated international security issues. In the second term of the Obama administration, he served as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. In the administration’s first term, he was a special adviser to Vice President Joe Biden on issues of nuclear security and nonproliferation. Now, Wolfsthal is director of the Nuclear Crisis Group, an independent project of Global Zero, an international movement that seeks to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide; he’s also a non-resident fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and with the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard University and a member of the Bulletin‘s Science and Security Board.

In this interview with Bulletin editor-in-chief John Mecklin, Wolfsthal provides his wide-ranging views on the current nuclear situation, how the new Congress might deal with US plans for a $1 trillion-plus modernization of the American nuclear arsenal, and ways the inordinate cost of that modernization program might be reduced. The first step in controlling the nuclear budget, he suggests, would be for the current administration to develop a nuclear strategy.

John Mecklin: You were in a national security position with the Obama administration at the start of his term; he gave a speech in Prague about at least aspiring to a world without nuclear weapons. Now we have a trillion-dollar-plus nuclear modernization plan and all sorts of plans for new nuclear weapons. How did we get from there to here?

Jon Wolfsthal: Well, it’s not quite as grand a deviation as you might expect. Even in the Prague speech in April 2009, the president made clear that as long as there were nuclear weapons, America’s arsenal would have to be safe, secure, and effective. While I support the global elimination of all nuclear weapons, I don’t believe that that’s going to happen through atrophy or starving the entire nuclear complex of funding. And there are risks that have to be managed if you are going to have nuclear weapons.

That includes ensuring that they work properly, and the ones that you decide you do need have to be reliable. I think the massive, unintended, unexpected growth in the price tag of the nuclear arsenal is one that came about because of the Pentagon’s own deep commitment to the nuclear mission—even at the price of opposing President Obama’s efforts [to contain] classic Pentagon program growth. Whether you want to call it endemic or mismanagement or simply the price of doing business, it’s clear that the Pentagon cannot procure major defense items on time or on budget. So there’s always been a growth factor.

Quite frankly there’s been a concern that the Pentagon itself, when it pushed for these programs, and when the Senate pushed for these programs under a Republican majority, had no idea how much they were going to cost. In 2014, when I was out of government and offered a trillion-dollar report [on the cost of nuclear modernization], it was clear that the Pentagon itself had no internal mechanism for estimating the cost of the nuclear mission year by year. The only recommendation of that report was that the Pentagon needed to have a stand-alone nuclear budget, so the public policy debate could be an informed one: How much is the nuclear mission worth? And are we paying more or less than is needed?

The Pentagon rejected that, and now the Congressional Budget Office has come out with its own budget that says the Pentagon might spend as much as $1.7 trillion dollars, adjusted for inflation, over 30 years. So I think there was a combination of a political commitment to the programs that grew even beyond what the president intended, and I think this is also just a recognition that the Pentagon can’t manage its own programs and that its appetite has to be curtailed from the outside if these programs are going to be sustained.

JM: Obviously from what you just said, you think there are probably some parts of the nuclear modernization plans that are just the cost of having nuclear weapons. You need to make sure that they will explode when you want them to, and that there are other parts that maybe we could save money on. Anything in particular come to mind for you in terms of what are things we shouldn’t do that are now in the modernization plan?

JW: I sort of take it from a slightly different direction. I think there are major cost savings to be had in the nuclear budget once you actually have a nuclear strategy. The Trump administration doesn’t really have a nuclear strategy; they just have a desire for more, without understanding or appreciating what consequences will be and clearly underestimating the risks associated with their current plans. I firmly believe the United States has far more nuclear weapons than it needs.

That was the determination of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Obama. I believe that it’s still the current position of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and so we could go down significantly even under the current targeting strategy. I think the current targeting strategy’s also overkill, literally, and could be dramatically reduced. So if you adopt a very modest nuclear strategy, one that is geared only for deterring our adversaries from considering an attack on us or our allies, then all sorts of things are possible in changing the nuclear arsenal and major cost savings can be the result.

In that circumstance, where we have a deterrence-only strategy, there’s even a strong argument for not replacing the current generation of ground-based, long-range ballistic missiles [also known as intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs]. And the savings for not replacing the current arsenal on procurement alone is over $100 billion. When you take in procurement and operation, the management, and personnel, you’re rapidly over $200 billion over the next 30 years. So there are significant savings. I think there’s also dramatic improvement in strategic stability, but that’s again, something that has to come from a high-level decision on nuclear strategy.

There’s also a very strong argument that we don’t need to have the 12 Columbia-class nuclear submarines that are currently called for. For a significant period of time the United States will have only 10 strategic ballistic missile submarines at sea or deployment. If we can live with 10 for a series of years, I don’t see why we couldn’t live with 10 permanently. And again, if you change nuclear targeting requirements, you might be able to bring that number down to as low as five or six submarines, with each submarine costing upwards of $10 billion dollars to buy. Again, you’re dealing very quickly in the tens of billions to hundreds of billions of dollars over the lifetime of the program.

So again, the nuclear strategy can drive major cost savings. I would say we need a different strategy, and if we can save money so much the better. This gets to an old argument, which I think is sort of a red herring. Some people call the nuclear budget unaffordable, and others counter that the United States can afford anything it needs for its security, and I agree [with the latter]. We have more money than threats, and so we can spend what is needed.

However, we are now planning to buy way more than we actually need and therefore it’s not a question of whether the nuclear program is affordable; it’s a question of whether it’s politically necessary and sustainable. I think it’s already clear from statements by Democrats in both the House and the Senate that there’s going to be tremendous attention paid to the nuclear budget. And that there are significant political disagreements about whether we can sustain funding for these programs. Historically, when program funding has been controversial, the solution is to drag out the timelines, drag out the political debate; the costs of those systems go up, and the capability that’s delivered at the end goes down. So that’s a recipe for further program cost increases.

JM: Okay, you’re painting a reality where the policy from a certain point of view is pretty obvious—that we could do with a lot fewer nuclear weapons. Probably get rid of one whole leg of the triad, do other things. The Democrats in the new House have been talking a good game. Do you think there’s some possibility of some sort of bipartisan make-a-deal on having a more realistic modernization plan that doesn’t cost so much? Or do you think Republicans are just locked in?

JW: Well, I think Republicans have for many years felt that they can make political hay by trying to … What’s a nice way to put this?… They think they can play to their national security strengths by spending a lot of money on defense. Even though Republican presidents have in my view criminally mismanaged America’s national security—the invasion of Iraq, the expansion of the global war on terror, the increase of threats created by President Trump and denigrating our alliances. I think the last two Republican presidents have been disastrous for American national security, and the way Republicans plan to fix that is by saying, “Well we’re gonna spend a lot of money on defense—so see, aren’t we good at it?”

I think they are fairly locked in. It’s going to be very difficult for them to compromise on President Trump’s nuclear policy. I think the Democrats—particularly in the form of incoming chairman of the House Armed Service Committee Adam Smith—rightly believe that scrutiny is required, that oversight over these programs is required, and they are apparently committed to using the very same strategy that Republicans used under President Obama to leverage their position and to achieve their policy outcomes.

That includes writing into law requirements that money shall not be spent unless and until the President can certify that certain programs are well thought-out, necessary, cost-efficient, and don’t come at the expense of other national security and defense priorities. So I see a position where it’s possible that Democrats and Republicans can agree to support funding for ballistic missile submarines. Those generally have very broad support across military and civilian and congressional delegations. I think there will be increased scrutiny over the B-21 bomber. One of the last things that the late Sen. John McCain did as Senate Armed Service Committee chairman was to help support classifying the cost of the bomber by saying that letting our adversaries know its cost could reveal its capabilities—when in fact there is no national security justification for classifying the cost of the bombers other than to make it less politically controversial.

So I think we’re going to see a lot more scrutiny of a bomber that could end up costing well over a billion dollars an aircraft. So I think there’s less chance of consensus over the bomber than there is over the submarine. And I think where the rubber will really hit the road is on the ICBM program, but also on the two new programs that President Trump has championed: that of a new low-yield warhead for the submarine-launched ballistic missile, which has been funded at relatively low-levels, and for which there is no consensus or bipartisan support. And also, I think you’ll see an effort to constrain any effort by the administration to pursue a new generation of nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles, which were eliminated in the 2000s and actually removed from service by President Obama in 2010, and for which President Trump believes there is a new mission, again, for which there is no bipartisan support.

So I think you will see some areas of agreement, but I think those will be few and far between when it comes to the nuclear budget. I think there’s much greater chance for cooperation and bipartisan support on parts of the conventional [weapons] but not on nuclear.

JM: But you do see some possibility that the new nukes—such as the small warhead for submarine-launched missiles and submarine-launched cruise missile—that those might somehow just get stalled or killed because they don’t really have the support.

JW: That’s right. And if both Houses don’t support them, they can’t get funded. That’s the way our budget works. So if the House refuses to fund it, even if the Senate does, in conference the Democrats can block it or require that it’d only be pursued under certain circumstances. So I think that gives the new House majority a lot of leverage over these programs.

Interestingly, the Pentagon’s own nuclear team has said that it’s only interested in moving ahead with programs that can gain bipartisan support or consensus. And if they stick with that mantra, it’s clear that the low-yield D5 [Trident nuclear missile] doesn’t pass muster, that the [submarine-launched cruise missile] doesn’t pass muster. I think there’s going to be some real pressure mounting on the ICBM replacement program, at the very least to try to delay it, if not kill it outright. But Congressman Smith himself said that he believes the rationale for the triad no longer exists, and if that’s true then the Pentagon needs to do a much better job of explaining of why we’re going to spend so much money on systems that may not be needed.

JM: Besides the internal dynamics, there’s sort of a worldwide dynamic to nuclear modernization. The United States for its own reasons is modernizing; so are the Russians, so are the Chinese. They all look at each other and use [this] as justification for sort of a new arms race: “Well the other guys are doing it, so we have to do it.” How does the United States stop that? How do we return to a non-arms race? Because it seems like we’re edging into a real international arms race again.

JW: Yeah, we are in an arms race. The Russians are reacting to our military programs, not necessarily our nuclear programs but our military programs. And President Trump has repeatedly said that we must have the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, we should be second to none. Regardless of what the nuclear strategy or the goals of our nuclear arsenal are. So I think quite frankly the way to stop the arms race is to decide that we need to adopt what’s commonly referred to as nuclear sufficiency. It’s not about having the largest arsenal; it’s not about having the newest arsenal. It should be about having the arsenal that is designed to achieve our strategy, and our strategy should be to deter the use of nuclear weapons and to be able to respond effectively should nuclear weapons be used.

The United States does not need to have an arsenal that matches Russia’s in order to achieve that outcome. There are so many analogies that have been used over the decades, but just because your neighbor likes to ride roller coasters doesn’t mean you have to get on the ride. The United States could very easily adopt a strategy which requires us to maintain 500 nuclear weapons, 1,000 nuclear weapons in total, and decide that we’re going to have a much smaller set of nuclear delivery options—regardless of what the Russians or the Chinese themselves build, as long as those systems are reliable and our command and control and communications system can be counted on effectively in a crisis.

If we do that, it doesn’t mean the Russians will stop building, but it will create opportunities for us to engage Russia in ways that we haven’t been able to in the past. The key to preventing Russia and China from building much larger arsenals and from increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons quite frankly has very little to do with American nuclear systems; it and has to do with engaging those countries on a broader set of defense issues, including missile defense, precision and conventional strike capabilities, cyberspace, and advanced conventional capabilities. The United States has to recognize that Russia and China are responding to what they see as an inferiority in their own conventional capabilities and are increasing their nuclear [options] to compensate to the extent that that presents a challenge for the United States.

We should be trying to find ways to engage and reduce the incentives for those countries to pursue their nuclear modernization programs. And I think there are opportunities for us to do that. I think there are ways for the United States to engage Russia and China on missile defenses. I think there are ways for us to engage them on advanced conventional capabilities—not necessarily to produce arms-control agreements but to engage on strategic stability talks that could yield agreements on what should and shouldn’t be deployed, how they should and shouldn’t be used, and how to create transparency, so that none of the countries are over-militarizing at a time when the trust between those countries is quite low.

JM: I’ve always thought that missile defense was a key thing here. Both Russia and China see that as well; maybe the United States has a plan for striking them first and missile defense is part of it. But it seems like a particular political loser to go out and say, “We want to limit US missile defenses.” How do you politically sell that?

JW: Well I think that the knee-jerk reaction in the Senate is going to be against any new arms control treaties, period, as long as Republicans are in charge. Ronald Reagan is seen as the father of modern missile defense and the strategic defense initiative, and no sin against him shall pass. Although if President Trump fulfills his pledge to withdraw from the INF treaty, I think even that has to come under some scrutiny, that maybe everything Ronald Reagan did isn’t sacrosanct to Republicans.

I think the answer here is to recognize—as New START does, and as the United States has done historically under every president except for George Bush and President Trump—that there is a relationship between offenses and defenses when it comes to strategic stability and deterrence. If the United States and Russia want to maintain a certain number of missile interceptors, they should be allowed to do so. Russia has 100 interceptors deployed around Moscow, the United States has 44 or 46 interceptors deployed in Alaska. If the two sides agree that they want to maintain those, then let’s agree to a numerical limit and say that both sides are free to have as many as 100 or 150 interceptors to protect what they view as necessary to protect.

If there is some predictability and some transparency, that should be enough to then ensure that nuclear agreements constraining offenses can be maintained. Russia is not—nor have they ever been—insistent that America can’t have defenses. What they’re looking for is some predictability over where those defenses are going and how they’re going to grow in the future. So in my view, it’s always been politically feasible to negotiate an agreement that has numerical constraints on both offenses and has numerical limits on defenses as long as those are supported strongly by the military and by the president, and opponents are forced to argue why those limits shouldn’t be adopted.

The reality is the United States does not yet, nor is it likely to any time soon, have the capability to defend the United States from strategic nuclear strikes. And the premise of deterrence is based on a concept of mutual vulnerability. If we still believe that mutual vulnerability is the path toward stability, then we need to agree that there will be limits on our missile defenses. If we actually believe that the United States should seek nuclear superiority or the ability to deny Russia or China their own retaliatory second-strike capabilities, then let’s have that debate as a country. Let’s decide whether or not we want to be fully protected against these capabilities and put the resources necessary to achieve that into the budgets.

But I don’t think that there is support for that in the public. I don’t think there’s support for that in the Congress, and I know that there isn’t the money for that in the US defense budget.

JM: And that would posit that missile defense works, also.

JW: Well, we already assumed that missile defense works, so we’re already in the fantasy world. If Russia develops underwater high-speed torpedoes, or nuclear-powered cruise missiles that can fly for days, or maneuverable hyper-glide systems that can evade defenses, are the investments in your missile defense capabilities worth it? And the answer is clearly no.

There is no way to protect the United States and its allies 100 percent from the risk of nuclear or strategic attack through missile defenses. That’s just a physical reality, and anybody who tells you that they can protect the United States from those threats through missile defenses is lying.

JM: I’ve taken almost exactly 28 minutes out of your life with this interview, so I’m going to ask a final question here that goes a little bit off from the direction of what you’ve been talking about, but not much. You’ve talked about a lot of things where the current policy about the nuclear forces and our plans to modernize seems kind of over the top, way too expensive, in some ways kind of crazy—absolutely unnecessary. But when I look at the major national media, these issues are almost never talked about. It’s very seldom that they’re addressed, and you can count on one hand the number of reporters at the [New York] Times or the [Washington] Post or anywhere else who actually with any sophistication deal with this. How do we raise the visibility of this, so the major media must confront that this is kind of crazy?

JW: There’s a big assumption there which is that we have to raise the profile in order to get something done. I don’t have the answer. I think that public pressure was clearly a motive for Ronald Reagan to negotiate arms control agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev, but I think also that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reality of our political dynamics were just as strong a factor.

I believe that the public should care about these issues. I’ve dedicated my adult life to working on them, because I believe that there is nothing more important for the survival of our species and our planet. That being said, the lack of public attention, the lack of media attention to me shows that there’s much greater room for politicians to maneuver than they accept there is. The president and a Senate and a House that can reach agreement on a new nuclear strategy can implement that, and there will be little or no public reaction or implication.

In fact, if you can demonstrate that there are real benefits in terms of cost savings or stability or security, you’re likely to get very broad public support for doing so. But the reality is that the American people don’t vote based on nuclear issues. They are not motivated to pick their leaders based on how they manage nuclear affairs. If they were, Donald Trump would get nowhere near the White House, because there has been no more dangerous or unstable person to occupy the White House than Donald Trump in the nuclear age.

So while it would be good for the public to pay more attention, for the media to make investments in coverage, I think the reality is that that’s not going to change any time soon. And military, civilian, security, leaders, and politicians should see that as a sign that they do have room to unlock themselves from this dogma that the United States needs to have the same nuclear arsenal we did during the Cold War, even though the threats now are radically different.

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