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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 22, January 1998

Documents and Sources

Interview on US Nuclear Presidential Policy Directive

'Transcript: Newshour Interview on Nuclear Policy,' Federal News Service Transcript (reproduced with kind permission), 6 January 1998

Editor's note: the interviewees were Robert Bell, Senior Director of Defense and Arms Control in the National Security Council (NSC), and Bruce Blair, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Bell and Blair were discussing a recent Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-60) on nuclear policy - the first PPD dealing with the issue since 1981. As reported in The Washington Post on 7 December 1997 (see last issue), the Directive stipulates renunciation of the traditional US commitment to winning a protracted nuclear war.


"Interviewer (Charles Krause): 'Mr. Bell, from your perspective, and from the President's perspective, why was it time to change the protracted war doctrine?'

Bell: 'Well, starting about a year ago, Charles, 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consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and our strategic command, it was our sense that the 1981 directive was wildly out of date and not consistent - not only with the environment seven years after the end of the Cold War, but consistent with the course we were trying to follow in terms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.'

Interviewer: 'So this in a sense was a way of signaling the Russians that we were serious about reducing our arsenals and our plans for the use of nuclear weapons?'

Bell: 'Not 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 2,000 to 2,500 range in terms of strategic nuclear warheads. But in order to take that step, in order for the President to have the confidence 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 - it's been long-standing in our government - has been sustained. What is different...is that we have not carried over what we think was unrealistic from the beginning directive from President Reagan that we have a force capable of fighting and winning a protracted nuclear war.'

Interviewer: 'In that case, in the new doctrine what is the principle - what does it say about the mission and the deployment of US nuclear weapons? What's different?'

Bell: 'Well, it's different in that we make no pretext that there is 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 months, but rather just to 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 types of weapons systems, what we call the triad of bombers and submarines and inter-continental 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 deterrent situation would realize that any attack would be futile, because in response there would be an overwhelming devastating retaliation.'

Interviewer: 'Mr. Blair, do you think that the administration has gone far enough in changing the doctrine?'

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 a half a year and 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 poised 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 guidance, projects a much more potent even war-fighting, war-winning threat at Russian strategic forces than we did during the 1980s 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 1960s.' ...

Interviewer: 'Mr. Bell, listening to that...one of the major concerns...is that we and the Russians both continue to have our weapons on hair-trigger alert, which means they are ready to go almost instantaneously. Why is that necessary?'

Bell: 'I don't think we're in a hair-trigger posture... 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 de-activate a nuclear weapon system is to destroy it, and we are in the destruction business now. It's tempting...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. ...'

Blair: 'Well, I 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 timeframe for this process is measured really in decades. We are 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...

But our problem isn't deterrence, in my judgment. Russia does not pose a 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.'

Interviewer: 'Let me go to Mr. Bell. Do you agree that the state of Russian nuclear forces is as dangerous to us as the number?'

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 true with regard to the radioactive material the fissile material itself 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 inter-continental ballistic missiles, I think we have very high confidence about the Russian control and security of those systems. The commander in chief of our strategic command, General Habiger, 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 inter-continental 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.'"

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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