Herbert York Interview (1982): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Nuclear Arms Race: Conversation with Herbert York, Director, Program in Science, Technology, and Public Affairs, Professor of Physics, U.C. San Diego; with John Holdren; 4/26/82 by Harry Kreisler

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The Next Stage in Arms Control

The political response in this country [to an arms buildup] is the freeze initiative. Do you support that?

There are several freeze initiatives. And, yes, I do support the concept of a freeze. I was one of the early supporters of the California freeze of Harold Willens and his approach. I support the Kennedy-Hatfield freeze within the Senate. And, like Cranston, I even see merit in the Jackson-Warner version of the freeze. I regard the freeze not as a specific plan of action with everything worked out, but as a clear statement of direction. In particular, a repudiation of the present direction -- which is to expand the nuclear forces, to try to, in some sense, achieve either superiority or a version of parity that's in our favor -- to repudiate that, and to tell the president that we want to go the other way, that the establishment of some sort of parity, the use of arms control and the disarmament negotiations and unilateral actions where that's appropriate, to turn this whole thing around, rather than to go the direction we've been going in. So, I see the freeze movement as providing an excellent opportunity for the people to say what their general goals are and what the direction is that they want the country to move in.

HOLDREN: You have spent a fair amount of time negotiating with Soviet officials at rather high levels in the Comprehensive Test Ban negotiations, and I think in some others. What do you think the Russian reaction is likely to be to a continued attempt by the United States to establish or re-establish superiority?

Here I have to say that except under very unusual circumstances, I believe the Soviet programs are influenced more by events which are internal to the Soviet Union than they are by external events. So the first answer to your question is probably not very much of a reaction. They will continue to do what they've been doing. I would not expect them to accelerate any of their programs, but I would expect them to continue along the same line that they have been on. I think that the only way it's possible to get them to reverse what they're doing is to enter into very serious negotiations at the highest levels designed to produce formal agreements that would involve, first, a freeze in numbers and a freeze in quality, perhaps followed by reductions. So that I don't think the Soviets do react, in general, to external stimuli, unless they're very large. I mean, they did react to the first American atomic bomb. They did react to the Cuban Missile Crisis. They did react to the American buildup in long-range missiles in the early sixties. And, probably, the Soviet MIRV is derived from the American MIRV. But with the exception of a half-a-dozen such cases, I think their program is determined by their own considerations, separate from exactly what we do.

HOLDREN: If I can pursue this line of argument just a little further, it seems to me that at least some prominent Russians have recently expressed very specific and unusual degrees of alarm about particular developments in the U.S. weapons program. That is, particularly, for example, the notion that an MX missile in a Minuteman silo is not good for anything except a first-strike capability. The notion that the Pershings, with the their ability to hit targets as deep as Moscow in six to eight minutes, seems very threatening in terms of surprise. The notion that the Soviet Union is intrinsically, perhaps, more vulnerable to a first strike than the United States because so much of its missile force, over 70 percent, is in its land-based missiles, whereas a much larger percentage of our deterrent is in the submarines, so hard to find and destroy. Among the people saying this has been Georgi Arbatov, the head of the Soviet Institute for American Studies. And my own interpretation of his remarks, as I saw him at the Pugwash conference last summer, was that he was much more agitated than usual about this state of affairs. And his argument was, basically, that what the United States is doing, aside from overall levels, is destabilizing in an important respect. Do you agree with that argument? Do you think it's fair to make that argument

I agree with it and I disagree with it. Let me try and answer it at some length. With regard to Arbatov himself, I think that he's under fire within the Soviet Union. He is adopting a tougher line, when he meets with Americans, at least, partly for that reason. He's under fire because he has been, I believe, a genuine supporter of the notion of détente and negotiating with the Americans, and that notion is in just as bad repute in the Soviet Union as it is in the United States, and for rather similar reasons: it hasn't worked out; they don't see that it's produced much in the way of benefits.

With regard to these particular issues -- to take them one at a time -- the notion that the MX is useful only for a first-strike: that can be said about a much larger proportion of the Soviet force than it can be said about the American force. So the notion that certain missiles are useful only as a first-strike missile applies to them as well as it does to us. They maintained for a very long time, and still maintain, missiles which are so softly protected that they can only be used on a first strike. The SS-4's and -5's in Europe -- those missiles are soft and would be legitimate targets very early in any kind of nuclear exchange. And there they are. They maintained the SS-6's until very recently on that same basis. I'm not even quite sure that I know the status of the SS-6 today. The bigger and later missiles are well protected, but they do have a first-strike capability, or, at least, if they don't now, they may not very long down the road because of the combination of MIRVs, accuracy, and very large power. So I regard much of what Arbatov says somewhat less charitably than you do on two grounds. First of all, he learned it from us. I don't think Arbatov learned any of those arguments from discussions ... well, maybe, he did. But Arbatov is very aware of what Americans argue, including you and I, for instance, to name two, and a lot of others who are associated with promoting arms control in the United States. Those criticisms which you quote him as making -- I'm sure that you could find almost everything he said is either a direct quote or nearly so from what some American has said in criticism of those very same weapon systems.

With regard to the Pershings giving only so many minutes with respect to striking targets in the Soviet Union, it's true; but it's equally true of Soviet submarines off the East and West Coast, and in the Caribbean and in the Gulf of Mexico. The warning time for those is also in the five-minute range with respect not only to American cities, but even with respect to most of the American bomber bases. The warning from those submarines is in that same length of time. So that I would say that's a situation where there's basic parity. This question about whose equipment looks most like first-strike equipment is something where there's plenty to criticize on both sides.

I would also go so far as to say that in each case, it's not the result of intentions, but the result simply of exploiting the technology as it comes along. It's one of the reasons why people who want to stop the arms race and reverse the situation and somehow get rid of this problem have got to focus not on particular issues, like the question of the MX going into a Minuteman hole, but on SALT as a means of freezing things, or any other freeze proposal. And then the follow-up negotiations, which would actually reduce the numbers. I think you can only get at the problem that way.

I may not have responded to everything you said. You mentioned that they have a larger proportion of their force in land-based systems. That, of course, is true. It cuts both ways. It means that a larger part of their force is available for early, sudden use. The bombers, which form a larger part of our force, are less adaptable as first-use systems and the Cruise missiles, which are among the new systems we're bringing in, are also not first-use systems.

Are you disturbed by the talk in Washington about the possibility of limited nuclear war?

Yes, but, mainly because it illustrates to me the fact that there are a large number of people at very high positions who don't understand. It's not so much the ideology of those remarks. That is disturbing, don't mistake me. I am disturbed by that. But I'm even more disturbed by what I perceive as the underlying ignorance and lack of understanding. I think that's more dangerous even than the ideology. Furthermore, those people are, as I said earlier, victims of a small group of very well-placed ideologues, who do understand the details and who are able to manipulate the top leadership.

What in the present environment do you find most disturbing, if it's not Soviet fear of a first strike?

Well, the most disturbing on the American side is, as I said, the lack of understanding of these issues at the top, and the dangers in the form of accidents or bad policies that will propagate bad results for a long time in the future.

On the Soviet side, I think the passing of Brezhnev is also a negative feature because I think the odds are pretty good that his successors will be substantially different; in fact, will want to be different. And that it's just as likely, or maybe more likely, for bad to come out of that as far as these issues are concerned, than good. We know in this country how many people regard détente as a failed policy and as a bad policy that has to be reversed and repudiated. It's my suspicion that there are a lot of people in the Soviet leadership who feel the same, and that détente is in just as much trouble in the Soviet Union as here. Once Brezhnev passes from the scene, in the political infighting that we suppose will take place over the next year or two, as they jockey for position, a tough foreign policy may sell better than a seemingly soft foreign policy. So I'm pessimistic about the evolution of affairs in the Soviet state as well. And there are the other reasons people give -- the economic problems, the problems within the satellite system.

What about the problems of verification in future negotiations? Are they going to become more difficult?

Probably, but it's a little hard to be certain because there are two technological trends going on at once which are counter-balancing. One is that the technology of verification keeps getting better. The other is that the technologies that go into making up the weapon systems are getting harder to verify. In particular, the introduction of systems which are simply physically smaller. The Cruise missile is an example of that. It's just harder to keep track of things of that size. The introduction of mobility or moveability, as in the case of some of the Soviet systems -- the SS-20 or the MX, for which the long-term plan has been to make it moveable as a means of assuring its survivability. Those two lines of technology alone, and maybe there are things we're not anticipating, will make verification more difficult.

There's also the general fact that as technology progresses, in a number of areas it becomes possible to make a new weapon by suddenly taking a number of components out of the general pool of technology and quickly putting them together in the form of something that was unexpected or even prohibited. We saw that in connection with the anti-satellite negotiation, where in the past and even in the present time, in order to build an anti-satellite system, you have to deliberately go about it. That is to say, you have to develop a booster, and a guidance and control system, and a command structure, and a warhead, and some kind of homing mechanism, all of which are somewhat specialized, all of which take time to develop and have to be tested. But we foresaw that in the future, ten or twenty years from now, when space technology is more mature than it is today, that you could build an anti-satellite system without going through a long and easily observed process by picking up a booster system there and a guidance control system someplace else, and a homing system someplace else, and putting it all together in fairly short order without making any easily observable traces. So the general trend of technology is making the verification problem more difficult.

HOLDREN: Many people have suggested that the development of the Multiple Independent Re-Entry Vehicle -- the MIRV -- turned out, in the long run, to be a bad idea because the Soviets were able to duplicate it and then threatened us with it in terms of this vulnerability of land-based missiles.

Perhaps an analogous question that's coming along now is the Cruise missile, which you've mentioned. The notion that, although the United States is now ahead in Cruise missile technology and can undoubtedly develop and deploy these devices, they're in the long run very dangerous to us because they're small, difficult to verify, easy to hide. We would have to consider every Soviet fishing trawler off the United States coast a potential launcher of strategic nuclear weapons once the Soviets develop this technology. Shouldn't we be thinking twice about how hard we push these missiles?

Yes, but for example, to the extent that smallness is the danger, the Russians could have built very small ballistic missiles and accomplished that same objective, if they'd wanted to. So, smallness does come out of technology. In the case of the Cruise missile, it's a small atomic bomb that was important. It was the micro-miniaturization of automated steering equipment. And it was the successful development of a very small high-efficiency jet propulsion engine in that particular case. But this miniaturization is going on in other areas as well, and is a general problem. The Cruise missile is just a special case of a more general problem when it comes to making these systems smaller. My answer to your question is, generally, yes, it's dangerous. But it's not just the Cruise missile itself, it's this whole trend of miniaturization and of improvements in weapons that makes them more effective. In the early nuclear years, the emphasis was on making them bigger for the first fifteen or twenty years. Since then, it's on making them smaller, in the sense of their dimensions, and more accurate, and making them "better" in these other dimensions, which makes them more devilish and more difficult to deal with.

Do you feel that our system pushes nuclear solutions for military problems too much? Is our research and development in a conventional field adequate?

The answer to the first part of the question is, yes, indeed, the system has put much too much emphasis on nuclear, and to the exclusion of convention solutions. I believe that, especially in the case of, say, tactical warfare in Europe, the dependence on nuclear systems, nuclear artillery, certain kinds of nuclear missiles, even certain kinds of nuclear armaments for air delivery has been carried out in such a way that it has delayed and slowed down the development of conventional systems that will do that same thing, and that there has been a large opportunity cost associated with our plans for using these systems.

As to whether it's adequate on the conventional side, that's a slightly different question. I would say that the balance, certainly, has been much too much on the nuclear side, and therefore it's only the question of the nuclear being too big or whether the conventional is too small.. As to whether the whole thing is too large, it's harder to judge. But I'm inclined to think that we could have done much better in the way of building anti-armor or defensive systems for use in Europe, for use anywhere, if we had put the same kind of talent and the same kind of effort on those questions as we put on the nuclear question.

Does this, in part, relate to the political problem of getting enough money for defense, or at least only doing it in certain phases of the cycle?

It has two parts to it, which reinforced each other, especially in earlier decades. One was that the nuclear system did seem to provide more bang for the buck. That's what Secretary Wilson said in the Eisenhower administration. It's part of the basis for the policy of massive retaliation, which we talked about earlier. It did seem cheaper, not only in terms of money, but even more so in terms of manpower.

In addition to that, the nuclear systems have always had a certain glamour associated with them -- that has tended to fade recently, but it's still there -- and a certain aura of mystery about them, in which people were prone to turn to them for solutions, and also, even more prone to listen to the advice from those people who knew how to make them and who had some kind of priestly aura about them, which carried over into their arguments and made them more persuasive. So, they are perceived as being cheaper -- and certainly, in terms of killing power per dollar, they are. Whether they're cheaper in terms of more fundamental terms is not obvious. But in addition to being cheaper, they do have this sort of special nature to them that has made people turn to them and to accept the advice of the people who made them with less criticism than they do for other kinds of systems.

Professor York, thank you very much for joining us. Professor Holdren, thank you. And, thank you very much, for joining us on Open Window.

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