Bill Perry, who was secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, has released a new book called My Journey at the Nuclear Brink – here’s an article at New York Review of Books. He was present at the front lines through a number of historic events, from Hiroshima to the Cuban missile crisis to development of submarine-launched missiles to efforts to secure weapons following the Soviet collapse. I’ll pick a short excerpt below but this whole article is really worth a read.
…Perry concluded that there could be no acceptable defense against a mass nuclear attack, an opinion from which he has never deviated. Many political leaders, including several presidents, have disagreed with Perry and have sponsored various types of anti-missile defense systems, the latest being the ballistic missile defense system now being installed in Eastern Europe.
Then as now, Perry writes, he believed that America would possess all the deterrence it needs with just one leg of the so-called triad: the Trident submarine. It is very difficult for armies to track and destroy it, and it contains more than enough firepower to act as a deterrent. The bombers provide only an insurance policy for the unlikely contingency of a temporary problem with the Trident force, and also have a dual role in strengthening our conventional forces. Our ICBM force is in his mind redundant. Indeed the danger of starting an accidental nuclear war as a result of a false alarm outweighs its deterrent value.
…nuclear weapons can’t actually be used—the risk of uncontrollable and catastrophic escalation is too high. They are only good for threatening the enemy with nuclear retaliation. Our submarine force, equipped with nuclear weapons, is virtually invulnerable and can perform that deterrent function well. (It should be noted that the doctrine of deterrence is severely criticized by those who worry about the implications of threatening mass slaughter.)
He talks about how there was a brief period of good will and cooperation between the U.S. and Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet empire, when the former adversaries cooperated on weapons reductions, securing of loose weapons, and the conflict in the Balkans. That all ended when the U.S. insisted on expanding NATO “right up to the Russian border”, which Perry considers a huge mistake. He also talks about the catastrophic fallout from an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange, and the risk of nuclear terrorism in a U.S. city like Washington D.C.
This article suggests a couple clear policies. One is that the U.S. could unilaterally eliminate all its nuclear weapons right away except for the submarine force. This would actually reduce risk for our country and the entire world. If our leaders don’t have the courage to do this tomorrow, they could at least cancel “modernization” plans for all but the submarine force, and phase weapons out as they become obsolete. This would give us the moral high ground when we insist somewhat hypocritically on nuclear nonproliferation for everyone else. The final step would be to negotiate with other nuclear powers to eliminate their weapons in exchange for elimination of the U.S. submarine weapons, with a robust worldwide inspection and verification program.
This would save tens of billions of dollars every year, some of which could be invested in homeland security and intelligence to counter the terrorist threat, and some of which could be invested in infrastructure or education or tax cuts. I see no logical argument against any of this.