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The present proposal, advanced by the distinguished former director of the CIA, now more than ever deserves a careful reading by all who contemplate such unthinkable occurrences as nuclear war or even nuclear accident. We at American Diplomacy, disquieted by some of the information set forth by Admiral Turner, and concerned about the nascent nuclear arms race in South Asia, urge you to consider seriously his ideas on a unique strategic “escrow” form of disarmament.~ Ed.

“In conventional warfare comparative
numbers and capabilities are often decisive.
Not so in nuclear warfare . . . .”

A New Nuclear


by Stansfield Turner

There are more than 35,000 nuclear warheads in the world today. That statistic alone should impel us into urgent action. Unfortunately, there is nothing resembling urgency on this topic today. Any of three dangerous possibilities could overtake us:

  1. A small number of nuclear weapons could be launched from Russia by accident or mistake because of deterioration of the maintenance and control mechanisms in Russia’s nuclear weapons facilities. A single, typical Russian nuclear warhead detonated above any major city could unleash the equivalent of one billion pounds of TNT in blast effect; kill as many as 250,000 people; level almost all buildings in a two-mile radius; ignite fires and sustain winds of 100 mph over an area twice as large; and start an unpredictable sequence of counter-actions and counter-counter actions.
  2. A small number of nuclear devices could be detonated on almost any nation by a rogue state or terrorist group because of a failure to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A single rogue or terrorist detonation could be as small as that at Hiroshima, where 110,000 people died within days, though it could possibly be only a crude nuclear contaminating device that would make an area of several square miles uninhabitable. Psychologically, however, the uncertainty as to where, when, and why the next nuclear detonation would occur would distort the international scene.
  3. A large nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States could take place much as we feared during the Cold War, should relations between Russia and the United States deteriorate and a miscalculation flash out of control. The consequences of major nuclear war are unimaginable.

We are attempting to avoid these possibilities primarily by negotiating treaties to limit or control nuclear weapons. These have reduced U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to about one-half of what they once were. Looking ahead, though, the negotiated treaty process is ponderously slow. The current treaty, START II, was signed in 1991, but the reductions were not scheduled to be completed until 2002. Last September, because the Russians claimed they could not meet that deadline, Washington agreed to extend it to the end of 2007. The treaty supposedly provides that both countries will get down to 3,500 nuclear warheads by then. The limit of 3,500 covers only intercontinental range warheads that are actually mounted on missiles or aircraft. The United States has announced plans to retain an additional 3,500 strategic warheads in case some of the ready warheads deteriorate or are lost in accidents, and still another 3,000 tactical warheads of lesser range. If the Russians act similarly, each side have some 10,000 warheads ten years from now. That is hardly meaningful progress.

Even more revealing, last September the Russians and the Americans agreed that the next treaty, START III, would set a ceiling of 2,500 warheads each. Hopefully that treaty will close the loopholes on reserve and tactical warheads and 2,500 will be a real number. Still, it has to be disappointing to drop only to 2,500 warheads. The problem is that going much further would cross new, difficult thresholds in the negotiating process. Were the new target to be 1,000 warheads or less, there would be demands for more stringent verification; and China, France, and Britain would have to join in the treaty process, as their nuclear arsenals are about 400-600 warheads each.

This glacially slow rate of progress, then, is inherent in the treaty process. As numbers decrease, apprehension about cheating increases; negotiations become embroiled in greater and greater detail; and ratification by the Russian Duma and the U.S. Senate becomes more difficult.

Such a slow rate of progress seemed tolerable during the Cold War. For one thing, there was no alternative. The record of the Soviet Union was too unreliable to consider any procedure other than detailed, legal agreements. For another, the objective of reducing numbers was not seen as urgent because neither Washington nor Moscow believed the other side would deliberately start a major nuclear war, at least once the Cuban missile crisis was behind us. Today, though, the objective of reductions is to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to rogue states and terrorist groups and is urgent. Efforts to persuade the world that proliferation is an urgent issue are being undercut by the dilatory example of U.S. and Russian arsenals of 35,000 warheads and plans that take them down to only about 20,000 a decade from now.

The United States also has a doctrine that, if its national interests dictate, it would initiate nuclear war. When the most powerful nation on earth places such importance on its nuclear arsenal, it is inconsistent to argue that none of the world’s non-nuclear states has a need for even a few such weapons. It is not that being consistent would dissuade states like Iraq and North Korea from their nuclear ambitions. It is that the problem with proliferation today lies in Paris, Bonn, Moscow, Peking, and other capitals that are anxious to do business with Baghdad, Teheran, Karachi, and other nuclear aspirants. Witness the lack of support from these quarters for the UN mandates on Iraq and the U.S. embargo on Iran. Recall also the severity of arguments last October between President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin over China’s abetting Pakistan’s and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Russians and the Americans simply must demonstrate a much greater resolve to reduce arsenals quickly in order to elicit wide support for preventing others from having even small ones. It is time to acknowledge that the traditional arms control process is too slow to accomplish that and that it must be supplemented and accelerated.

This is possible only if we are willing to reconsider several key assumptions that have driven our thinking about nuclear weapons:

  • The Importance of Parity

    In conventional warfare comparative numbers and capabilities are often decisive. Not so in nuclear war where weapons are so destructive that at some point there is nothing more that can be achieved. President Eisenhower coined the phrase “bouncing the rubble around” to describe the impact of our executing the nuclear war plan of his day. What we need is only what it takes to deter anyone from attacking with nuclear weapons. That is an assured capability of retaliating devastatingly. Every society has a point of non-recovery, that is, an amount of destruction that would make it impossible for it ever to be the same again. For what it takes to threaten non-recovery, comparisons of the size of nuclear arsenals should determine what number of nuclear weapons any nuclear power requires.

    That calculation needs to account for two factors which estimates of nuclear damage have ignored. One is the societal and economic disruption any sizable nuclear attack would entail.

For instance, there would be immense economic interruptions caused by attacks on transportation and communication nodes, or by the destruction of one factory, that feeds to many others. There would be societal friction if just one warhead were detonated over a major city because it would create more burn casualties than the total burn treatment facilities in any country. A study done at MIT in 1987 estimated that 239 nuclear detonations aimed at critical points in the U.S. liquid fuel systems would so disrupt the flow of food supplies that sixty per cent of the U.S. population would die within two years.The other factor is the extensive peripheral damage when a given target is attacked. Military estimates of damage cannot take such damage into account because it is not certain and the military’s role is to do any job it is assigned with certainty. Some such side effects are inevitable, however.

There is, then, a finite amount of damage anyone needs to threaten. Instead, Russia and the United States have fallen into the trap of matching each other’s capabilities, with the result of each being able to destroy the other’s society many times over. Once is sufficient.

  • Nuclear Forces Could Be Vulnerable to Surprise Attack

    Here again nuclear doctrine has transposed theorems of conventional to nuclear warfare. In conventional war surprise attacks that destroy a large fraction of an opponent’s military capabilities can win a war. In nuclear war, a small fraction of an opponent’s retaliatory capability can do so much damage, even pushing the opponent to the point of non-recovery, that a preemptive attack is likely to be a pyrrhic victory.

    With the levels of forces maintained by the United States and Russia, and considering that both sides keep sizable numbers of weapons in submarines or mobile land-based missiles, either of which are very difficult to locate and destroy, unacceptable levels of retaliation to surprise attacks by either side are inevitable. We should also note that even fixed land-based missiles are not nearly as vulnerable as we have assumed. Because there is always friction in war, that is, nothing goes perfectly, an all-out attack on fixed missiles will never be 100 percent successful. Thus, the concern expressed as recently as a decade ago about a “window of vulnerability” was badly misplaced.

  • The United States May Go First

    The United States looked at the nuclear option in Korea, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, but never came close to using it. In 1962, President Kennedy said, “The decision to use any kind of a nuclear weapon, even the tactical ones, presents such a risk of getting out of control so quickly. . . .”1 General Colin Powell wrote in his memoir that in 1991 he had a plan prepared for employing tactical nuclear weapons against the Iraqi army. It so unnerved him that he had it destroyed.2 The uncertainties are just too great. There is no objective of foreign policy today that the United States could achieve only by the use of nuclear weapons that would be worth even one retaliatory nuclear detonation on its soil.

    A usual reason adduced for a nuclear power’s retaining the option of initiating the use of nuclear weapons is to deter or respond to biological warfare. As far as deterrence is concerned, no foreign leader could contemplate such an attack without assuming a nuclear power would retaliate in whatever manner it thought most effective.

    If we cling to these three theses on parity, vulnerability to surprise attack and willingness to initiate nuclear war, even the slow pace of arms control negotiations will come to a halt. Focus on parity will drive to such detailed comparisons of nuclear strengths that negotiations will take forever. Worry about being vulnerable to surprise attacks can only exacerbate concern over relative numbers. And reserving the right to initiate nuclear war creates some undefined minimum requirement for numbers of weapons.

    On the other hand, if we can shake off these remnants of Cold War thinking, we open three avenues for supplementing the arms control process: a new nuclear TRIAD.

First, we could place weapons at lower states of readiness to help avoid accidents.
Second, we could downgrade the role of these weapons in our military strategy.
Third, we could work toward the goal of permanently ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

In succession these steps are de-alerting, devaluing, and disarming nuclear weapons.

De-Alerting. As advocated by former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, Dr. Bruce Blair of the Brookings Institution of Washington, D.C., and others, the United States would temporarily reduce the readiness of many of its nuclear weapons by removing components from delivery vehicles, or removing the warheads from some delivery vehicles, and storing them separately. The hope would be that the Russians would take similar actions. If they did, the two countries could jointly move quite rapidly because treaties would not have to be negotiated; changing readiness is within the authority of the commanders-in-chief. It would be a safe process, since every step would be reversible and current verification routines or intelligence techniques could observe most de-alerting actions. De-alerting actions would not only reduce the risks of accidents or mistakes, but would show the world that the nuclear superpowers were determined to move quickly into a more stable nuclear posture.
Devaluing. The next step toward nuclear stability would be a process of establishing “strategic escrow.” The United States and Russia would each place de-alerted warheads at storage sites some distance from their launch vehicles. They would also invite the other side to place observers at those sites, with authority only to count what went in and what went out.

There would be a price for taking warheads out of escrow, however.

  • First, the observers would give warning. This would, hopefully, open the door to attempts to solve the problem through diplomacy.
  • Second, it would likely take three to four days to reassemble ready weapons, again creating a “fire break.”

Going to strategic escrow would not require new treaties and subsequent ratifications as, again, the commanders-in-chief would only be reducing readiness. The risks would be nil, as neither side would ever have fewer weapons than the other, either could pause or reverse if in doubt, and each would have warning if the other started to remove warheads from storage. In a matter of two to three years the arsenals of the two nuclear superpowers could be down to fewer than 1,000 warheads each. From there it would be necessary to bring in the other three declared nuclear powers; France, Britain, and China.

Would Russia or these others be likely to go along with strategic escrow? Today the Russians have considerable incentive to do so. In order to maintain even START II levels of nuclear weapons, they would incur substantial costs in making up deferred maintenance. Their submarines are rusting at the piers and they need to construct new ICBMs.

There is. however, an argument in vogue that because of the deterioration of their conventional forces, the Russians must rely increasingly on their nuclear ones. This does not make sense because nuclear weapons do not solve problems such as Chechnya. In the end, cost pressures will prevail over such emotional but irrational arguments. As for the French, British, and Chinese, they would only be asked to place their warheads in escrow, not to divest themselves of any nuclear capabilities; and with the example of sizable moves into escrow by the Russians and Americans, they would be under considerable pressure to follow suit.

The end objective would be zero ready nuclear warheads in the world, including, of course, Israel, Pakistan, and India. Hopefully those nations could in time be brought to regularize in escrow any holdings of assembled nuclear weapons with international observers. Finally, strategic escrow could be tied into the traditional arms control process under which nuclear warheads and their delivery vehicles will be destroyed, however slow or fast, until some agreed end point is reached. Selecting that end number today is not important. At 200 or 500 or perhaps more, but with all warheads in escrow, the world would be much safer.

  • A second avenue toward devaluing nuclear weapons would be for the United States to make a pledge of no first-use of nuclear weapons. It would not make a real difference and such a pledge would open the opportunity to expand the 185-nation Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty into a treaty of no first-use. Such an accord could include making any first-use of a nuclear weapon a crime against humanity, with automatic economic, political, and even military sanctions. It might or might not deter a would-be nuclear aggressor, but, more importantly, it would commit most nations of the world to preventing the use of nuclear weapons. This could encourage nations such as Russia, Germany, France, and China to forego commercial advantage in order to deter proliferation.
  • A third devaluation move would be to build defenses against nuclear attack whenever the assessment of the threats, costs, and effectiveness warrant doing so. These defenses must not only be against attack with ballistic missiles, but with cruise missiles, aircraft, trucks, and ships. It is a formidable challenge, but we need to size up the requirements and at least develop plans. There is an argument that claims that if the United States were to build defenses, that action would drive the Russians into retaining more nuclear weapons in order to overwhelm those defenses. This is specious because it assumes that if America felt invulnerable behind a defensive shield it would attack and disable all of Russia’s nuclear forces. The odds of anyone being able even theoretically to build perfect defenses in all these domains is infinitesimally low. But, even if technology were to offer 100 per cent defenses in each area, the frictions of war would make the possibility of retaliation loom too large for anyone to take the risk.

    With these measures in place, with modest defenses against accidental or small deliberate attacks, the world would have the prospect of long term stability. The results would include:

    • Minimum numbers of nuclear weapons,
    • No nuclear weapons ready to launch,
    • Observers to warn of any preparations for use,
    • The capability to reconstitute arsenals as insurance against cheating, and
    • A worldwide treaty threatening any nuclear aggressor.

    Strategic escrow would be, in effect, a nuclear condominium of the acknowledged nuclear powers, but with their having voluntarily limited — though not eliminated — the utility of their nuclear arsenals. Today some non-nuclear powers would stridently oppose any such discrimination between nuclear and non-nuclear powers. They insist on the total nuclear disarmament which we and 184 other nations have pledged as our objective in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Disarming. The argument for total nuclear disarmament has grown stronger in recent years. For some time it was advocated primarily by people with limited military experience, leaving it open to the superficial challenge of being naïve or impractical. Today, more and more experts with experience in nuclear strategy are advocating it. Their reasoning is that we should not underestimate how far we have come toward the intrusive inspection regimes that would be necessary under nuclear disarmament; nor how rapidly we may move even further.

Even a decade ago we could not have imagined there would be Russians in the United States and Americans in Russia watching missiles being cut up and silos being destroyed, as there are today. We even have international inspectors in our commercial chemical plants. There is a powerful argument here. We neither can, nor need to, resolve the case for disarmament soon. Even its advocates do not suggest it is achievable in the foreseeable future. Rather, what we should resolve is to supplement the traditional arms control process with de-alerting and devaluing so as to be in position to evaluate whether disarmament is feasible.

The world is not sufficiently concerned today about the slow pace of nuclear arms control. The challenges in foreign affairs, ranging from Bosnias and Rwandas to ensuring supplies of oil from the Middle East, must be placed in a broader perspective. These all pale in long-term significance beside avoiding a world in which the use or the threat of the use of nuclear weapons becomes commonplace, or in which there is a nuclear Armageddon. Additionally we need to acknowledge that the outlook for meaningful progress on nuclear arms reductions and controls through what is being done today is slim. In naval parlance, if you are not making waves, your ship is not underway — not going anywhere.

There are almost no waves from a START II even if it takes the United States and Russia to an optimistic 3,500 nuclear warheads each by 2007, let alone the more probable 10,000. There is, though, an opportunity to create waves for the good of all humankind. The window of opportunity may not be open long.

1. Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, , Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,1997, p. 657.
. Colin Powell with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey, , New York: Random House, 1995, p.67.

© Copyright 1998 by Stansfield Turner. All rights reserved.

Adm. Stansfield TurnerAdmiral Turner served in the U.S. Navy from 1946 to 1977 and as director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1977 to 1981. This article is drawn from his book, Caging the Nuclear Genie. An American Challenge for Global Security (1997). In addition, he has published Secrecy and Democracy: the CIA in Transition (1985) and Terrorism and Democracy (1991).

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