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Toward a New Nuclear Policy: Reducing the Threat to American Lives

Speaker: J. Robert Kerrey, Member, U.S. Senate (D-Neb.)
November 17, 1998
Foreign Affairs

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Note: Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good afternoon. At the beginning of this talk let me say I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to you today and hope that at the conclusion of my remarks you will feel some gratitude as well. Either for my coming or my departure. It is an honor for me to be introduced by Warren Rudman, with whom I had the great honor of serving. Two other former colleagues, Jim Exon and Sam Nunn, have been instrumental in helping me learn more about, and keeping America safe from, nuclear dangers. They have my thanks as well. Special thanks are also in order for other members of the Council on Foreign Relations, especially my friend Skip Stein, who helped organize this lunch. Michael Krepon of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington has been generous with both his time and his creativity on the topic I will address today, as has Bruce Blair of the Brookings Institution and many others.

The most important business of the Federal government must be to keep the people of the United States of America safe. The President and Congress have the responsibility of assessing the threats to our country and designing an appropriate response to minimize them.

At the dawn of our Republic the thirty- nine men who drafted our Constitution defined this objective as “providing for the common defense.” They envisioned this purpose as little more than defending our territory against outside invaders. Over time, as our nation has grown, this mission has grown. We have learned from bitter experience that our interests extend beyond our borders. We have learned that diplomacy backed by a credible military force can prevent wars from happening. We have learned that good intelligence can help us build and direct that force so that threats are accurately assessed.

In these times, devastatingly hovering over mankind are three weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological. They have the dynamics of plunging the world suddenly in an unimaginable war aimed more at civilians than military casualties.

A commission created by my colleague, Arlen Specter, is engaged in an in-depth study of this threefold threat. It is headed by chairman John Deutch and its report is expected shortly. I hope we have learned the importance and value of a credible military force—but I do not assume it.

The history of this century should keep us vigilant against the tendency to want to disarm. We disarmed and came home after the Great War, the war to end all wars. We responded to the military actions of Japan and Germany with words which were not enough to prevent 50 million people from dying in the Second World War. Little remembered is this fact: After the second world war we slashed our defense budgets again. We withdrew our forces from Europe and Asia. And though it is an open question as to what might have happened to Eastern Europe had a credible military force faced the Soviet Union or a credible force been close to the Korean peninsula, there can be no doubt it would have had a deterrent impact on the decisions made by Soviet and North Korean leaders. They did not believe we would respond and so they acted.

Today the United States of America is the most important arbiter of world peace. The measure of our success can be seen around the world. More people are living in free and democratic nations than ever before. The cold war is over. Today, when the word “Russia” is spoken, we think of economic problems and not espionage or proxy wars or nuclear weapons. The global economy—frustrating, confusing and challenging—is making us more interdependent and reducing the old territorial and military tensions between nation-states. But please observe: It is the threat of conventional force deployment which produced the Dayton Accords and the agreement in Kosovo and, hopefully, Iraq’s compliance with United Nations Resolutions.

Still, threats remain. Not only do they remain, but the nature of the threat has changed radically from what it was as recently as 10 years ago. Because of that,there is a clear and present need for constant re-examination of policies to ensure we are not using yesterday’s strategy and/or force structure on today’s and tomorrow’s threats. Never before has thinking outside the old box that confined our plans been so important.

That is my purpose here today: To step outside of the old way of meeting the one threat with the potential of killing every single American: nuclear weapons. I begin by describing that threat. Consider this scenario, which could unfold by sundown today:

A peaceful scientific rocket is launched off the coast of Norway. To the east, in Russia, radar operators mistake the launch for a nuclear attack by the West. A deadly process—nearly on auto-pilot—is triggered. Within minutes President Yeltsin has been alerted of the attack. For the first time in history, the Russian nuclear briefcase is activated. With thousands of nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert around the world, commanders tell Yeltsin he has just minutes—three minutes, five at most—to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike against American cities. Like a raft on a raging river, Yeltsin is being carried away by events. Literally minutes before a retaliatory strike is ordered, military commanders realize the rocket is peaceful. They had been given advance warning of the scientific launch. They had simply failed to pass it on to the duty officers who evaluate warning indicators.

In the chaos, though, it is too late: After a breakdown in discipline or communication within Russia’s underpaid and poorly equipped command structure, one SS-25 missile with a 550-kiloton warhead has been launched at Chicago. The missile rockets north over the top of the world, across the arctic pole, and inside an hour detonates over Chicago within—even on a bad day—a few hundred yards of its intended target.

The surrounding air is instantaneously heated to 10 million degrees Celsius. The fireball shoots outward at a rate of a few hundred kilometers per second. A mushroom cloud dozens of miles across and high rips up from the explosion. Everything within miles of the detonation site is vaporized. In the immediate blast zone nearly everyone is killed. The radius of destruction reaches out for miles. Even in the farthest reaches of the blast zone, structures are severely damaged, thousands are dead, half are injured and most survivors have suffered second and third-degree burns.

If that sounds like a fantasy cooked up in a Hollywood studio, consider this: According to public reports, every event I have just described to you, right up until the actual launch of one missile, occurred on January 25, 1995, with the Soviet Union three years in the grave.

This scenario will probably not happen, but it most assuredly could. It is at least as plausible as any number of other threats that absorb the attention and rhetoric of our policy makers. And as important as it is to mount a good defense against terrorism, narcotics traffickers, or political instability in the Middle East or Balkans, they are pale worries in comparison to the number of Americans who would die if just one of Russia’s nuclear weapons were to be launched at the United States. Chinese weapons get more attention today, but it is Russia’s, not China’s, that are accurate and capable of being launched across an ocean and hitting a hard target.

The topic of this speech is reducing nuclear dangers. By the end of it, I intend to leave you with three ideas:

  • First, the several thousand nuclear warheads on Russian soil are the gravest, most imminent threat to the security of the United States.
  • Second, our old policies of arms control and deterrence no longer work and may be increasing the danger, both by making nuclear threats worse and by diverting money and resources away from the conventional forces that are the key to our safety in the post-Cold War world.
  • Third, we are confronted by both an urgent danger and an urgent opportunity. The danger is obvious; the opportunity is not. The opportunity is a window of time during which we can significantly reduce the danger nuclear weapons pose to American lives. But this window is closing. We must act now, and we must act boldly.

I call this nuclear threat to your attention with such an urgent tone because I fear that Americans, amidst our well earned joy in the victory of freedom in the Cold War, have been lulled into a false sense of security about it. What America needs from its leaders today is not a lullaby, but a wake-up call. I am not here to tell you to cast off old suspicions, but to replace them with new ones, suspicions in many ways graver than the old ones and less curable by the incentives for rational behavior on which our strategy of deterrence has historically relied. We need a new nuclear policy to confront new nuclear dangers.

What are these new nuclear dangers?

I see four scenarios in which nuclear weapons threaten American lives. First is an authorized launch, which is to say a deliberate attack by Russia on the United States. Even in the unlikely event of a throwback totalitarian regime in Russia, there is little reason to fear such an attack. Second is the acquisition of weapons in the Russian arsenal by rogue groups or individuals, whether they be terrorist states or their clients or simply a disgruntled Russian soldier. Third is an accidental launch, like the one I just described, based on technological error or miscalculation. Fourth is another country acquiring nuclear weapons, either through proliferation or their own nuclear program.

Today we must deal with nuclear threats differently. The policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, or deterrence, protected us from the old threat—deliberate attack. But it does not protect us from these new ones. In fact, I will argue, it makes them worse.

The underlying assumption of deterrence is rational behavior on the other side. None of these potential new nuclear powers—whether they be terrorist groups or rogue states or desperate individuals—can be counted on to respond rationally to the threat of retaliation.

In addition, leaving nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert is a recipe for miscalculation caused by events controlling leaders rather than leaders controlling events. In the case I mentioned to you earlier, President Yeltsin had a matter of minutes to react. The combination of hair-trigger alert, deadly weapons and the potential for human or technological error is a combustible mixture with lethal consequences.

The threats either of proliferation or the seizure of nuclear materials by criminals inside Russia are real. Russia’s economy is failing, creating an economic incentive to proliferate. The physical and human infrastructure responsible for safeguarding her nuclear arsenal are in dangerous disrepair.

You do not need the warnings of a senator responsible for oversight of our highly secret intelligence community to know this threat exists. According to the Los Angeles Times, last month a 19-year-old Russian sailor killed eight crewmen on his nuclear submarine near Murmansk, seized control of the sub and held it for 20 hours. Said one former Russian Navy captain: “It is really scary that one day the use of nuclear arms may depend on the sentiments of someone who is feeling blue, who has gotten out of bed on the wrong side and does not feel like living. The probability of this today is higher than ever before.”

Mutual Assured Destruction is no deterrent to such problems, and the massive, redundant arsenals this policy has produced may be making them worse. Our maintenance of a nuclear arsenal larger than we need provokes Russia to maintain one larger than she can control. In the wake of these kinds of threats, from proliferation to loose weapons, keeping massive nuclear arsenals far in excess of what we need is an accident waiting to happen. Every weapon we maintain that we do not need to defend ourselves provokes the Russians to maintain another to match it. This is a simple mathematical proposition: If what we most fear is a mistake, rather than a deliberate attack, the probability of that threat grows with every weapon in the arsenal of either side. In this environment, every nuclear weapon in those arsenals is like another round loaded into the chamber in what is a literal and deadly game of Russian roulette.

Nor can the United States ignore the power of our example in influencing others’ behavior. Our heavy reliance on these weapons ... despite the vastly diminished threat they were created to deter ... has helped make nuclear arms the Rolex wristwatch of international relations: a costly purchase whose real purpose is not the service it provides, but the prestige it confers. It was status, not just security, that the one billion citizens of India sought in electing a government that had made clear its intention to make their nation a nuclear power. It is nationalism, not just national security, that has hogtied START TWO in the Russian Duma.

And, finally, the passing of Cold War threats has given rise to new ones, ranging from ethnic or regional conflict to international terrorism. The $25 billion we reportedly spend every year to maintain our nuclear arsenal is diverting resources from those real and imminent threats to fight an old one. If America is to be engaged in the world today, it will be with the threat or use of conventional, not nuclear, force. Maintaining massive nuclear forces while trimming the conventional forces that are the real tool of American leadership is an act of retrenchment at a time when the world desperately needs our engagement.

By alerting you to these dangers, I do not mean to disparage the extraordinary Russian experiment with democracy. Russia’s progress, economic and political, must be measured in decades, not years. The courageous pro-democracy leaders there are navigating a complex obstacle course of domestic politics, international diplomacy and, most important, the friction between new ideas and the old.

Indeed, I underscore our friendship with Russia to suggest that history presents no better time than right now to reduce nuclear danger. But that opportunity comes with this warning: At the dawn of the millennium, history travels in high gear at high speed. The rapid pace of change within Russia and around the world will not shift into neutral while we debate whether to seize this opportunity. I expect our friendship with Russia to endure. I expect their experiment with democracy to succeed. But the road to that destination will take us around a few curves, into a few potholes and over a few speed bumps. We know what our relationship with Russia is like today. We can predict, but cannot know, what it will be in a year, or two, or five, or 10. We do not know whether the circumstances for reducing nuclear dangers will be as favorable then as they are now, and therefore it is incumbent on us to act boldly and to act swiftly. History will judge us harshly if we ignore this opportunity when it is open to us.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, process has taken us in the right direction. It has marked a steady series of steps back from the brink of nuclear conflagration. But even after START ONE is fully implemented and six thousand warheads are left, the walk back to that brink would be a short trip. More important, I fear the pace of change in Russia could overtake us and the opportunity before us could close before the START process has time to run its lengthy course. This process takes so long because its safeguards were erected under a cloud of fear of a first strike by a Cold War enemy. The result is a cumbersome treaty, more than 250 pages long, that makes the journey back from the brink long, laborious and expensive.

Today our open friendship with Russia and the technology of intelligence allow us to move more swiftly. We need a new nuclear policy that protects us from new nuclear dangers, and we need a new framework for enacting it that moves at the pace of world change and can seize this opportunity before it is gone.

To that end I am proposing the following:

First, the President of the United States should work with Congress to remove legislative restraints on reducing deployed strategic U.S. forces below the START ONE level of 6,000 warheads. This deployed arsenal no longer serves our national security interests, and it is provoking Russia to maintain an arsenal that undermines our national security interests.

Simultaneous with this request, the president should agree with Republican leadership to build a defined, rigorously tested strategic missile defense. He should make clear to Russia’s leaders we would build it for accidental and rouge nation threats.

The president should couple this request with a request for such funds as necessary to make certain Russia knows that Nunn-Lugar will be fully funded to go to START THREE levels.

Second, acting in his capacity as Commander in Chief and in an act of international leadership, the President should immediately order the reduction of American nuclear forces to no more than the proposed START THREE levels. The two thousand to twenty-five-hundred nuclear warheads that would remain are more than enough—many, many times over—to destroy any nation, any where, any time, that threatens us. And the diversity of our triad—nuclear weapons on air, land and sea—protects us against the risk of a first strike destroying our capacity to retaliate. If we can reduce farther without endangering our security, we should.

Third, because the complete and verifiable dismantling of those weapons will take time, the President should immediately stand down weapons in excess of START THREE levels from their hair-trigger alert. Warheads should be physically separated from delivery vehicles. Our national security will not be endangered by leaders having two days, rather than two minutes, to make life-and-death decisions about nuclear war. While this proposal would apply only to warheads in excess of START THREE levels, we should seriously explore the possibility of the United States and Russia standing down all forces from hair-trigger alert.

Fourth, this reciprocal reduction to START THREE levels should be only a way station, not an end point. We should continue to supplement the START process with a series of mutual, transparent and reciprocal steps between the United States and Russia to reduce nuclear arsenals and alert levels. We should be willing to go as low as Russia wants to go, as low as we can verify they are going, and as low as we can go without risking our security either from Russia or other nuclear powers.

To enable this process of mutual, transparent steps, we should greatly expand funding for the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program. We should spend whatever is necessary to help Russia dismantle and secure her nuclear arsenal. Nunn-Lugar is one of the great acts of post-Cold War statesmanship, and it defies understanding that we are engaged in a year-to-year battle to fund it. If we can spend $25 billion a year on a nuclear policy that is making people less safe, surely we can spend a fraction of that on an investment that is making us more safe.

There is precedent for action like I have described. On September 27, 1991, with the Soviet Union still intact and before the Soviet parliament ratified START ONE, President Bush went on national television to announce he was ordering the elimination of thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, deactivating 450 ICBMs, standing down our bomber fleet, and ordering a stop to Pentagon development of a short-range ballistic missile. President Gorbachev reciprocated nine days later. Likewise President Clinton showed courageous leadership by first unilaterally rescinding our nuclear testing, and, second, by providing the leadership that culminated in the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty at the United Nations. I will urge the Republican Senate leadership to bring that treaty up for Senate approval as soon as possible.

Today it is clear Russia not only wants to follow our lead, but must. Russia’s own defense minister recently said, publicly, that Russia is thinking of its long-term nuclear arsenal in terms of hundreds, not thousands. Our action would give Russia the confidence to do what the unbearable cost of maintaining nuclear arsenals already dictates that she must do.

The approach I have outlined would have the following benefits.

First, a bold gesture of friendship and leadership that does not threaten our security would give Russia the confidence to significantly reduce her own nuclear arsenal, strengthen the position of our pro-democracy friends there and send a signal to the world that nuclear weapons are a sign of peril, not prestige, in the post-Cold War era.

Second, by reducing the number of nuclear weapons around the world, we would reduce the new nuclear dangers of accidental launch, proliferation or acquisition by rogue groups or individuals.

Third, by de-alerting weapons in excess of what we need to defend ourselves—and perhaps the rest of the world’s arsenals—we would reduce the new nuclear danger of total war being dictated by a time-line that prevents rational deliberation.

Fourth, our reduction of our own stockpile would free money and resources to confront other, newer, threats, from regional war to ethnic conflict to international terrorism. We would, quite simply, be getting more safety for less money. This last point is crucial. The $25 billion a year it is estimated we spend maintaining our nuclear arsenal adds far less value to the safety of Americans today than $25 billion spent on our Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and the intelligence gathering that support these and other pillars of our national security infrastructure.

No President can take such bold action without domestic support. Our ability to forge a new nuclear policy for the post-Cold War era hinges on our ability to thaw the Cold War between those on opposite sides of the ideological divide in our own country. We must realize that we share a common goal: reducing nuclear dangers. I am eager to build partnerships that seize on that common ground while reducing ideological differences. If, for example, some of my Republican colleagues will support me in seeking steep cuts in nuclear arsenals, I am open to working with them on the deployment of a defined, rigorously tested missile defense. Whether it be through this or other means, those with a common goal—reducing nuclear dangers—must find common ground. If we elevate imagination over ideology, we can do it.

Imagination seems like a good note on which to end this speech. I opened by telling you we need a new nuclear policy to confront new nuclear dangers. I close by telling you that to do it, we need something that isn’t new at all. The same courage, creativity and leadership that won the Cold War are exactly the ingredients we need to keep our people safe in its aftermath. It is clear to me that our nuclear arsenal and the policies which controlled these weapons of mass destruction helped keep our safety and the world’s peace for 40 years. It is equally clear that we need a new policy—one which will seize an opportunity to make the world safer still. Thank you.