Illusions about Nuclear Weapons
Admiral Noel Gayler, 1985
Admiral Noel Gayler is chairman of the Deep Cuts Campaign of the American Committee on East-West Accord. In a forty-five year naval career spanning three wars, he commanded all the U.S. forces covering half the globe, and was director of the National Security Agency. Today, he shares some of his central insights into the quest for peace.
Whiteley: Admiral Gayler, you've written that nuclear war is the only thing that can undercut the peace and security of the United States. What do you mean?
Gayler: Well, let's look at what happened. At the end of World War II, here we were on an island continent with oceans on both sides of us, the world's largest navy, strongest air force, weak and friendly neighbors north and south who could have come against us. And then we invented the atomic bomb and we've been in peril ever since. Not content with that, when the Soviets matched us a short four years later, we upped the ante by about a thousand, and invented the hydrogen weapon. And defense, which had simply been extremely difficult, became impossible, as it is now.
Whiteley: How has development of delivery systems affected our security?
Gayler: Adversely. What we did was develop long-range intercontinental bombers to hold Soviets at risk, and in a comparatively short time, we got back intercontinental ballistic missiles and the warning time went from hours to minutes. And then we invented the multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVS), and when the Russians came back with bigger rockets and more MIRVs, it was we that was more at risk then they. Now if we attempt the Star Wars, what's going to happen quite clearly, is that the Soviets will again ratchet up their offensive capability and we'll each be worse off than we were when we started.
Whiteley: You've indicated that both the Soviet Union and the United States have engaged in a game of nuclear chicken. What do you mean?
Gayler: The attempt on the part of the Soviets and of ourselves to gain some political advantage by, if you will, brandishing a nuclear weapons build-up; it's not accurate, it's not practicable, we can't coerce the Soviets that way, and the Soviets certainly can't coerce us that way. All it does is increase the danger for both of us.
Whiteley: You've indicated that both the United States and the Soviet Union must bear responsibility for what you've called the sorry state of affairs today.
Gayler: I think that's right. We have an action-reaction relationship which we've had for a long time. One side sees the other building something, or sometimes even just declaring something, and they go to work to top that, and the other side sees that and they go to work to top that. And I think on the part of our leadership over the years and the Soviet leadership over the years has been a lamentable failure to see where our true interest lies, and our true interest lies in reducing the risk of nuclear war between us, and in fact of any war between us because of the inherent dangers.
Whiteley: In reflecting on the fact that both the Americans and the Russians are at risk today, you've identified a series of illusions, which the fact that they're held by people in positions of authority and responsibility, dramatically increases the risks of nuclear war. I'd like to present those illusions to you one at a time and ask you to share with us what you're trying to communicate. The first illusion is that balance and a quantitative measurement is significant.
Gayler: Well, if you do the targeting as I have done in the past, it turns out that it makes a difference whether you target cities or not, it makes a difference whether you fuse these terrible weapons to explode at ground level and create fallout, but a thousand missiles one way or the other doesn't make any difference on the outcome of the nuclear exchange. So the idea that we have to have some kind of balance in every category is fallacious. What we have to have is a situation in which neither side can attack without risking utter destruction from the retaliation of the other side. That's a very different thing from balance. That's what's called a minimum invulnerable deterrent, and that's what we should seek.
Whiteley: A second illusion is that advances in technology make a difference with the exception of accuracy.
Gayler: There's no real gain in nuclear weapons from improvements in technology. After all, if you can put a megaton in something that big it doesn't much matter if you can put a megaton in something that big. Accuracy has, curiously enough, a negative value because accuracy let's you put the opponent's fixed targets at risk - his missiles and silos, his command centers, and that sort of thing - and therefore creates a premium for him to shoot out first; either to shoot out on warning, and we know how inaccurate warning can be, or even worse, just to shoot out on suspicion. So it's highly destabilizing.
Whiteley: A third illusion is that it makes a difference where the weapons are based.
Gayler: Well, it really doesn't, if you think about it. It only makes a difference where they land. Whether a missile lands on a given target starting from North Dakota or starting from Europe or starting from at-sea, or the corresponding Soviet launch points (Incidentally, they have a lot of submarines, and some of them operate under the Arctic ice where nobody can get at them), it really doesn't make any difference.
Whiteley: A fourth illusion is that population centers can be defended.
Gayler: There is no prospect whatever that we can defend populations against nuclear attack, not even ballistic missile attack. And there are so many other ways of attacking, with cruise missiles, with bombers, with missiles fired from submarines on low trajectories, smuggling in weapons in ships or across borders, and so forth, that there is no prospect to defend populations, and no prospect of getting any usable or significant military advantage either.
Whiteley: A fifth illusion is that improbable technology in any combination can provide a defense.
Gayler: It doesn't look like it can be because, not only are there extraordinarily improbable undeveloped technologies, but more important, the countermeasures that are available are within grasp technically now. They're rather obvious and comparatively cheap, they can be mounted long before the defensive systems can be put into place, and the defensive systems themselves are far more vulnerable than the missiles they're intended to defend against. But perhaps the most important comment of all is that to run something like the Star Wars system would require, it's estimated between 10 million and 100 million lines of software instruction for the great computers yet to be built. Now anybody who has any experience with computers, and the most expert members of the computer profession all are unanimous in agreeing that there is no prospect whatever of building a software program like that that will work perfectly the first time without being 'debugged', as they call it. So, it's not on.
And then finally, the implications of the timelines, so-called, the instantaneous reaction that's necessary, is that it takes people out of the system. So we would be dependent on computers to recognize what is going on, do the correct thing, and do it perfectly the first time around, incidentally anticipating in the software what the Russians might or might not have in their offensive system.
Whiteley: A sixth illusion is that there exists a window of vulnerability that somehow the United States will be in a period of time where we're at risk to Russian power.
Gayler: That illusion comes mostly from confusing the survival of our land-based missiles with the survival of our whole retaliatory force, which of course is a Triad, and has a bomber leg, and particularly, has a submarine leg. And what most people don't recognize is that the submarines actually have more retaliatory warheads available than the rest of the system, and the submarines are essentially not subject to preemptive attack. So the risk doesn't exist.
Whiteley: The seventh illusion is that Soviet missiles in Europe, and American missiles in Europe are particularly destabilizing.
Gayler: Well, that's not true either. If you take the Soviet missiles first, the SS20s, Europe is not especially threatened by them because Europe can be destroyed by any of the Soviet long-range ballistic missiles back in the Soviet heartland. All you have to do is to change the guidance. And the Soviets have got plenty of missiles to destroy Europe and destroy the United States together. In the same way, the Pershing II and the cruise missiles that we deploy to Europe do not, despite the Soviet claims to the contrary, pose a special threat to them because, again, we have so many other ways to attack the Soviet Union. And the comment that the Soviets make that we've drastically reduced the time of reaction, I think they know better. The time from submarines is comparable to the time from missiles fired in Europe.
Whiteley: An eighth illusion, and the most fundamental of all, is that nuclear weapons are usable military weapons.
Gayler: That is the most important illusion. Many Americans confuse nuclear weapons with military strength. We do need military strength in an imperfect world. It's the ability to keep open the seas and the air above them that are the links of our oceanic alliance; it's the ability to hold ground in Europe, Korea, elsewhere, without resort to nuclear weapons; it's the ability to project and sustain power for good reason. These are things which nuclear weapons make no contribution at all to. If you go around theater by theater, as I did in the Pacific when I had the responsibility for it, and try to see in what circumstances conceivably nuclear weapons would have a sensible military use, a military use that was commensurate with the risks, commensurate with the drawbacks, there are no such places. And analysis of the other theaters, whether it be Europe or elsewhere, shows the same thing. So we don't build strength when we build nuclear weapons in this country; what we build is danger, and because we divert attention from real military needs, we actually build weakness with nuclear weapons.
Whiteley: Why are there 50,000 nuclear weapons in the world?
Gayler: It's very difficult to tell. It is probably a product of procurement systems, both in the United States and in the Soviet Union, running almost without rationale. In a curious way the weapons procurement drives the strategy rather than the other way around. There is also a lot of money in it, particularly in the Strategic Defense Initiative and things like that; they're already flocking around to find the money in those programs. But basically it's sort of a mindless run, more is better sort of thing which in the end gets us into this terribly perilous situation that we're both in.
Whiteley: You've written that America has a special responsibility for freedom in the world and that therefore, we need usable military strength. What is that special responsibility, and what is usable military strength?
Gayler: The special responsibility is ours because we are the only country that is both strong and free. There are other strong countries; there are other free countries. We combine both, and we therefore have a special responsibility for freedom, not only at home, but around the world. The useful military strength which contributes to that, and political strength is important, and economic strength is important, and moral strength is important. But the military strength is the ability to keep open the seas, the ability to hold ground in Europe, Korea, elsewhere, without resort to nuclear weapons. The ability when needed to project and sustain power at great distances. These are true military needs. Nuclear weapons contribute to none of them.
Whiteley: You've written that America's security is inextricably bound up with that of the Soviet Union. What do you mean and what are the implications?
Gayler: I think that the only way we and the Soviets can remove the threat of nuclear destruction is by reaching a general nuclear settlement together. And it will have political elements, and it will have military elements, and it will have doctrinal elements, and it can be reasonably negotiated because it is very much in the interest of both of us that we not be destroyed, that we not see nuclear weapons floating around the world in the hands of irresponsible people, irresponsible governments or terrorists. On those two strong common interests we can build, but we cannot, in my judgment, unilaterally, neither we nor they, find security through gadgetry, preemptive build-up, or any of those other things.
Whiteley: In thinking about the problem of achieving peace in the nuclear age and defining its components, I'd like to present you a number of issues before the democracy, and to ask you what you'd like your fellow citizens to keep in mind as they think for themselves about the challenges facing the country and the world. First is arms control in the national interest.
Gayler: Arms control is so much in the national interest that we should pursue it without fatigue. We should not be discouraged by past failures, we should go ahead with proposals which make sense both for ourselves and for our principal potential adversary, and for other countries. And I think that proposals of that kind, for example, to institute a process for deep continuing cuts in nuclear weapons are very practical and they ought to be on the table. And we should regard arms control negotiations not as an arena where two champions - our president and their premiere - contend before world public opinion, but as a place where we and they get together to make agreements in our mutual interest. I further think that the reduction of the risk of nuclear war is the first thing that should happen. First, because it's by far the most important kind of agreement that we can get, and second because it can be a bellwether for improved political relationships and improved security relationships worldwide.
Whiteley: Is it necessary to trust the Russians as part of reaching arms control agreements?
Gayler: Averill Harriman said, 'you can trust the Russians to act in the Russian interest.' And I think that's accurate. But we don't have to trust them in any fundamental way because our intelligence is good, because the nuclear balance is so stable, it's extraordinarily difficult to upset because numbers don't make much difference, technology doesn't make much difference, and we can, in my judgment, absolutely, certainly find any violations of an agreement that make a significant difference in our power position.
Whiteley: As you have reflected on the problems of verifying arms control agreements, what can your fellow citizens rely on?
Gayler: They can rely on our being able to detect at a fairly early stage, any significant violations of an arms control agreement, significant in the sense that they make a difference in the power position or the outcome of a nuclear exchange between us and the Soviet Union. I think we can be quite confident in doing that. There are all sorts of ways, of course, known to the general public. There's some chance we've got a mole in the Kremlin and we know everything that goes on. We had one once; nobody knows whether we do or don't now. There's every chance that if the Soviets build something significant we'll get pictures of it from our satellites. If they undertake underground testing in violation of the agreement, with the modern seismology that's available to us, we will detect that too, and so forth. From the Soviet standpoint, our society is so open that they really have no trouble. All they have to do is subscribe to technical journals and the Congressional Record.
One important point though, is that we should not threaten satellites, military satellites, by competitive development of anti-satellite weapons, and that's because of the difference in the nature of our societies - our open society, their closed. Satellite observation is far more important to us for intelligence and, incidentally, for communications command and control than it is to the Soviets. So it's very much in our interest that military satellites, and satellites in general, not be threatened by competitive anti-satellite development. We should also recognize that space will not be forever the exclusive province of ourselves and the Soviets. It will belong to all mankind. And the downside of that is that just as with nuclear weapons, other powers became capable of building nuclear bombs, so other powers will be - can now, develop anti-satellite weapons. And if we have a system where six or seven different countries have anti-satellite capabilities, we will all be in grave danger.
We are rational, we are very much concerned about nuclear war, but one can imagine one sees in the daily press people who seem so far removed from ordinary rationality, ordinary humane considerations, that the thought of an atomic weapon in the possession of one of those people is almost beyond belief dangerous.
Whiteley: Is there a risk of terrorism with some 50,000 nuclear weapons in the world? With six known countries that have the capacity to detonate nuclear weapons at this time, what kinds of risks are before us?
Gayler: I think that's the greatest risk of all. I think that the Soviets are rational, and the Soviets are very much concerned about nuclear war. We are rational, we are very much concerned about nuclear war, but one can imagine one sees in the daily press people who seem so far removed from ordinary rationality, ordinary humane considerations, that the thought of an atomic weapon in the possession of one of those people is almost beyond belief dangerous. And there are too many of them floating around. We've got 7000 in Europe; the Soviets have a large number. We safeguard them the best we can, but banks get robbed; someday, somewhere, a commando team can get one of those things out. Don't let anybody tell you that you can't make it go off; you can even if you have to rewire it. And the result is that we, our civilization, the Soviet civilization, are very much in peril. It is extremely necessary for us to cooperate together with other nuclear powers against that potential. In intelligence, in the proper restrictions on the export of nuclear technology and materials and so forth.
Whiteley: Is limited nuclear war possible?
Gayler: No, I don't think so. The interchange will almost inevitably escalate. You ask a commander to distinguish between enormous explosives that are occurring on his forces, and you tell him, well, these are just limited. We know what the Soviet doctrine is. It is to come back with a great deal more. I don't doubt that we would too. The escalation would go up very fast. I don't think there's any reality to that idea. And also because there's no real break-point that distinguishes between a so-called tactical, or so-called theater, or so-called strategic nuclear weapon. They're all on a gradation. The only real break-point is between weapons which are nuclear explosives and weapons which are not. And that's the break-point we have to preserve.
Whiteley: What is mutually assured destruction?
Gayler: A lot of people think that mutually assured destruction, which is of course, the idea that either side holds the other one in the palm of his hand in case of hostilities, is a strategy or a tactic of some kind, and as a matter of fact it isn't. It's a condition. It's a condition that we cannot escape, but it's nothing that we can turn on or off as a matter of policy.
Whiteley: As you reflect on the political and military relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States, how can that be improved?
Gayler: I think we have to recognize the extraordinary way in which we and the Soviets at the leadership level reflect each other in our perceptions of what the other fellow is doing. If we do something that the Soviets regard as threatening, they will come back with something that we regard as even more threatening. And the same thing is true for them. If the Soviets make a deployment or make a development that we regard as threatening, then we will certainly counter it. And that of course is a formula for building up the arms race, and specifically the nuclear arms race. A lot of it is 'monkey see, monkey do.' I have heard the argument in high circles where people ought to know better, 'My God, we've got to do this because the Soviets are doing it.' Whether it makes any sense even from the Soviet standpoint, it seems to be an irrefutable argument, 'because they do it, we do it.' And I'm sure the same arguments are used in Moscow - 'look what the Americans are doing to crank up the race.'
Whiteley: If we are successful in reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons in the world, what will be the basis of our national security?
Gayler: If we are successful in reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons, and particularly the strategies based on nuclear weapons, then the basis of our security will be our political and our economic and our usable military strength. And in the theaters where it counts, for example, at sea, I think we have every prospect of having adequate strength. The issue of a potential attack on NATO Europe, in my judgment, can be handled by putting to work advanced technology. Contrary to the nuclear situation where technology does you no good in, for example, ground combat, it is my judgment that high technology could obsolete manned tanks, and very probably manned aircraft, in a way that would make defensive forces far more capable than offensive forces.
Whiteley: You've also indicated that in an imperfect world we must keep our powder dry. What do you mean?
Gayler: I mean that we must never put this country of ours or our allies, or indeed like-thinking people, in a situation where military coercion can support the imposition of an oppressive government. That we should understand what it is that we want to do which is to create the atmosphere of the world around where freedom can survive and flourish, secure ourselves, and to the extent possible, secure our allies and like-minded people, not in any aggressive way, but just making it too indigestible to take over by force and impose tyranny.
Whiteley: Admiral Gayler, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the ways to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.