The Nuclear Equation

Nuclear Weapons Are Here to Stay

Richard L. Garwin, 1984

Richard L. Garwin is IBM Fellow at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. Edward Teller, the principal creator of the hydrogen bomb, credits Dr. Garwin with developing the blueprint (in just a week or two) which made the bomb work. Enrico Fermi, who first achieved the controlled and continuous chain reaction of the atom declared that Dr. Garwin is the "only true genius I have ever met." In this discussion Dr. Garwin explains why it would be unsafe not to have nuclear weapons, and why they will always exist.

Whiteley: Dr. Garwin, you've indicated that the remarkable advances in military technology have been accompanied by a significant drop in global security in the years since World War II. What are you referring to?

Garwin: We now have ten-thousand nuclear weapons, ranging up to several megatons in yield. At the end of World War II we had spent three nuclear weapons, a hundredth of a megaton each. Our twenty-thousand weapons now, the Soviet twenty-thousand weapons, make us fearful of annihilation at any time. That cannot be counted as an increase in security.

Whiteley: But you have also said that we're always going to have nuclear weapons with us unless we inherit a world where there's not a threat somewhere else to the security of the people living here. Given our current state of world anarchy, in the foreseeable future nuclear weapons are going to be a reality of our world. Given that reality, what should we do?

Garwin: Well, I think we can live more safely and more comfortably with nuclear weapons. One of our problems is that we're uncertain as to the goals, and we assign jobs to nuclear weapons which they cannot perform. So like unwanted children in the family, we don't prize them very highly, we don't take care of them very well, we will use them some time for purposes of no great import, and that's a perfectly good prescription for starting a nuclear war that no one wants, and that could escalate to the use of most of the almost 50,000 nuclear weapons in the world today.

Whiteley: You've also indicated that the problem of nuclear weapons, however, is one of the easiest to solve. What do you mean?

Garwin: We and the Soviet Union don't have any common border. We don't like their social system and they clearly don't like our social system. But there's nothing for us to gain which is worth Soviet use of nuclear weapons against our country. Our survival, of course, is worth the risk of Soviets using their nuclear weapons against us, and that ever since the Soviets acquired their nuclear weapons in the 1950s we have assured our survival by the threat of retaliation with nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. We don't have any defense against nuclear weapons. I worked for a long time on air defense and on anti-ballistic missile systems, and the Soviets have such systems too, but there is no effective defense against our strategic nuclear forces.

Whiteley: You've offered a general comment that the offense can always overwhelm the defense in a nuclear age. Why is that true?

Garwin: Well, in the limited sense, for offensive weapons targeted against soft targets, that is, industry and the population that goes with that industry, one nuclear weapon of megaton class can kill half-a-million people outright, and it could destroy value worth a hundred billion dollars, even though that nuclear weapon costs only a million dollars, and ten million dollars to deliver it. So with that kind of leverage, 10,000 to 1, between the destruction caused and the cost of the weapon and delivery system, only 1 in 10,000 weapons has to get through. A defense would have to be almost perfect in order to have a nation survive. It's quite different in defending, for instance, a thousand Minuteman silos, well enough - maybe that's 20% surviving - against the Soviet warheads. That could be done; it's not worth doing. There are other ways of insuring the survivability of the strategic retaliatory force.

Whiteley: One of the ways that you've suggested we go about that is first and foremost, make the purposes of nuclear weapons totally unambiguous.

Garwin: Yes. The one purpose I think nuclear weapons should serve is that of deterrence by threat of retaliation. And that means that we could do with a lot fewer nuclear warheads, and would feel more comfortable at any time if our only use for nuclear weapons were deterrence by threat of retaliation. That's really the only practical use for them, and if we have that in mind then we don't need 20,000 nuclear weapons; we should be satisfied with 1,000, which is far more than is required to destroy the Soviet Union. So I would look for a world in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union have 1,000 nuclear warheads each, and we try very hard to make sure additional nations do not acquire nuclear weapons. That would probably necessitate getting our allies, the French and the British, to limit their forces to considerably less than 1,000 each, and the Chinese as well. And these countries indicate that they are willing to do so once the Superpowers are on the way to a very great reduction in the numbers we have.

Whiteley: One of the things you've said in beginning a plan to accomplish this reduction is you would start with getting rid of "low-value" nuclear weapons. What are those?

Garwin: Those are the ones that are deployed on the battlefields in Europe, the ones in our strategic force which are targeted against minor military targets. After all, when you have a nuclear weapon whose purpose it is to destroy another nuclear weapon, it's destroying a million - a few million dollars worth of value, not $10,000 worth, and it's relatively easy to interfere with those nuclear weapons well enough to make you doubt that it's worthwhile to have them. So that this casts doubt upon the value and the survivability of the nuclear force as a whole; wrongly casts doubt, because it is really quite easy to ensure the survival of enough weapons to deter by threat of retaliation.

Whiteley: What method would you advocate for assuring the survivability of our deterrent force?

Garwin: Well, there are things that we can do right now, which we should do, whether we are going to reduce or not. Some of them were advocated by the Scowcroft Commission under General Brent Scowcroft, set up by President Reagan in January of 1983. These experienced people, including former Secretaries of Defense, Assistant Secretaries of the Navy, and so on, said that there were two things we ought to do with the land-based force, and with the sea-based force, to move toward a more survivable force for the long run. That there wasn't any problem now, the much vaunted "window of vulnerability" for the Minuteman had no strategic significance because the Minuteman is not isolated. It's embedded in the overall strategic retaliatory force. So their view of nuclear weapons is very much my view, except theirs was a political document, and it wasn't so straightforward about saying some of the things, drawing some conclusions as I draw here.

Still, they said that we ought to develop the Midgetman Missile, a small ICBM with the same kind of warhead which is on the Minuteman II or the proposed MX Missile. It would have a single-warhead, though, and no matter how many warheads the Soviet Union and the United States had, a Soviet warhead could not destroy more than one of ours, if it was aimed against a Midgetman. So the Soviets would be disarming themselves in trying to destroy our land-based strategic retaliatory force. If we had a force of MX Missiles with ten warheads each, a single Soviet warhead could destroy ten retaliatory warheads, and that is totally unstable if that's the only kind of strategic retaliatory force you have. So, develop the Midgetman, deploy 450 of them to replace the larger single warhead Minuteman II in the existing silos, and be ready to build more in small skin-tight silos, which would cost about ten million dollars per Midgetman to build and operate. That would help the land-based force.

Whiteley: Why is that safer, since the purpose of them is deterrence, than the current independently targeted weapons that sit atop an MX Missile?

Garwin: You don't need to worry about these land-based missiles being vulnerable to Soviet attack unless the submarines and the bombers - the other two legs of our present retaliatory force - are also vulnerable. And you could imagine, after all, people have bad dreams that the Soviet air defense on which they've spent hundreds of billions of dollars, and is still ineffective in barring access by our bombers and the nuclear-armed cruise missiles which they carry, that someday that might be improved to be effective and partially nullify the bomber threat to the Soviet Union.

Whiteley: If you're calling for a shift to only 450 smaller missiles, how much damage can each of those do?

Garwin: Each of those could kill probably something like 400,000 people and the associated industry. So 50 or 100 of those warheads landing would surely destroy the Soviet Union as a functioning society. It would not destroy the Soviet capacity to destroy the United States with their deployed nuclear weapons. However, my proposal to develop and deploy some Midgetmen does not mean we would be limited in any way to 450. We could build 5000 of them if the Soviet Union didn't see it in their interest to limit their warheads, and we would be in a more secure position than the Soviet Union, if they chose to deploy their warheads on MIRV'd Missiles with the multiple weapons per missile. The other thing the Scowcroft Commission recommended was that we build small strategic submarines to supplant the large 18,000 ton Trident submarines, which have 24 missiles each, with something like eight warheads on each missile.

Whiteley: And what's the rationale for going to smaller subs with smaller nuclear weapons?

Garwin: If you worry about the survivability of our submarine retaliatory force, and the Scowcroft Commission said not to worry at least for the next ten years or more, then from my work on anti-submarine warfare (I was in charge of the President's Science Advisory Committee Naval Warfare panel, and the Anti-submarine Warfare panel, for a good many years), I know that we haven't even begun to fight. That is, to equip our submarines with the countermeasures which would allow them to counter anti-submarine warfare capabilities which the Soviet Union does not yet have. But if you have only twelve Trident submarines, and 200 warheads each - 2400 warheads or so - then there are only twelve ships at sea, and perhaps only two-thirds at sea at any one time for the Soviets to find and destroy or to trail. Whereas if we had submarines which carried, not 200, but perhaps eight warheads each, then 2400 would be on 300 submarines, and it would be a much more difficult task if ever the Soviet Union gets the capability to put at risk the big submarines. However, again, this is a good thing to do if one is looking toward reducing the Soviet warheads to about 1000, and accepting a similar reduction in our own strategic retaliatory force, because then maybe 400 submarine-based warheads would be on 50 submarines, instead of two submarines, one of which would be in port.

Whiteley: With the third part of your triad, what would you do differently with airplanes?

Garwin: We now have B-52 aircraft, and we're building B-1s; they carry twenty or thirty cruise missiles each, which are the modern and effective way of penetrating air defenses. These cruise missiles have a range of 1500 miles or more, are launched from outside the borders of the Soviet Union in case of retaliation, and they make their way presenting large numbers of targets that have to be destroyed, each one with smaller vulnerable area, and less detectable than the bomber that would have carried them. So, if we go toward the future and want to have 200 warheads on our bomber force, that would mean at present, something like ten bombers or less, and that's too few; they're too vulnerable to destruction by sabotage, to interception by air defense. I would like to have small aircraft which would carry two cruise missiles each, and then I could have 100 small aircraft of very modest size, the job of which would be to take the cruise missiles to their launch point, and then to return home.

Whiteley: Well, given the power of nuclear weapons, what you're advocating is a much smaller number deployed in many different ways that are hard to detect, hard to find them all. And in so arguing, you are calling for, it sounds like, about 5% of the current number of nuclear weapons that we have in our arsenal.

Garwin: That's right. This would be about a 96% reduction. It is very conservative, it adopts what everybody says is our present policy of deterrence by threat of retaliation, but it does a more workman-like job of it, and it provides a basis for building down, and allowing the Soviet Union to reduce their numbers as well. We don't have to force the Soviet Union into the same mold. If they go to 1000 warheads and want to keep them on 100 land-based missiles, and want to be vulnerable that way, that's their problem, not our problem.

Whiteley: Okay. It's been over a decade since we've negotiated an arms control treaty that was ratified. We've had three treaties that haven't been ratified, negotiated under different presidents in the last fifteen years. How do we begin to have an effective method for arms control to achieve some of the kinds of goals that you've outlined, would be safer in a world that's always going to have nuclear weapons, when our current methods don't seem to work.

Garwin: Well, first we have to accept the fact of deterrence by threat of retaliation. The Soviet Union accepts that fact, they squirm under it, they wish it weren't so. We try to look for new uses for nuclear weapons dating back to 1962. Secretary of Defense McNamara suggested that nuclear weapons which were excess, point-of-view of deterrence by threat of retaliation, could be used if war came to reduce the Soviet threat, to reduce the damage that the Soviet Union could cause to the United States. He has thought about that more since, and believes that that's not a good idea because there's no natural limit on what one does in trying to reduce the damage if war comes. It shades imperceptibly into a capability for destroying the entire Soviet force before war starts. That is, a pre-emptive strike capability, a disarming capability against the other side.

The Soviet Union is no better. They have built weapons which have unnecessary accuracy for deterrence by threat of retaliation, and cause worries here until the Scowcroft Commission Report. And since hardly anybody has read, or admits to believing the Scowcroft Commission Report, because it doesn't suit their purposes, Soviet accurate missiles are still cited as a terrible threat to U.S. security, which they are not. But they are unnecessary provocation, and the Soviet Union shouldn't have done it. We have to admit that there is nothing beyond deterrence by threat of retaliation; that posturing, the idea that we are stronger than the Soviet Union when it is only a matter of destroying the Soviet Union to a grosser extent than they can destroy us in return, there's no benefit there. There is only world instability and insecurity.

Whiteley: Can we win an arms race? Can we put enough resources in to increase our security to the point that we don't need to worry?

Garwin: Absolutely not. If we try to eliminate the Soviet capability to deter U.S. attack by threat of retaliation, we can maintain the capability ourselves at modest cost, and because of the enormous effectiveness of nuclear weapons in causing destruction of society, we cannot take that away from the Soviet Union.

Whiteley: You have offered deterrence as the center of a plan to make the world safer while we try to make nuclear weapons safer. You've indicated that the Star Wars initiative is flawed, but that's one approach to trying to find something other than deterrence to make us safer. Are there viable options in your mind, other than deterrence, in the short-run?

Garwin: No. In the mid-term there is nothing beyond deterrence, and the search for things beyond deterrence, in my opinion, renders us less secure.

Whiteley: Why is that?

Garwin: If you imagine that both sides, for instance, have a defense which as Dr. Keyworth, for instance (President Reagan's science advisor), suggests would be an excellent defense against a modest number, hundreds of nuclear weapons, and a pretty good defense against thousands of nuclear weapons. Then the advantage would be much more strongly with the side that strikes first because it could destroy - penetrate the defense - destroy a lot of the offense, have the advantage of being prepared, and of surprise against the other side. And what would come back would be a ragged retaliatory strike against which the Strategic Defense Initiative might work reasonably well. So either side would be closer and closer to pushing the button so that it should not be caught unawares. And the result, if war came, would be nuclear weapons retargeted, because one could not be sure they would get through against the most valuable targets: the largest cities, the most important defense industry. And the damage, if war came, would be greater than if there were no defenses.

Whiteley: Is it a moral position to threaten innocent civilians with the heart of your defense posture? Once you start targeting cities, or you target industries which in many urban areas are located near cities, you are in essence threatening the noncombatants.

Garwin: Yes, and a lot of people are uneasy with that posture. I am too. I am even uneasier with the alternative, which is not to have an effective way of protecting our society and Soviet society against nuclear war. If there is no nuclear war nobody is going to get killed by nuclear weapons. Paradoxically, it is moral for the Soviet Union to deter the United States by threatening our society because we are a democratic society, our people are fundamentally responsible for the actions of our government. And by the same token, most of us would think it was not moral to threaten the Soviet citizens who we believe do not have responsibility and authority over the actions of their government. But I think that paradox is too hard to accept; we must accept the practicality of deterrence by threat of retaliation until something better comes along.

Whiteley: You've indicated that in your view citizens have abdicated their responsibility in a democracy.

Garwin: Yes, they find this problem too frightening to look at, and when having gotten over their fright, they do look at it, too often they feel that there's nothing that they can do. It is too complicated. A million people can read a novel with enjoyment, and profit. But a million people can't write one. We've been negotiating on arms control as if we were writing a novel with a million people. Everybody who has anything to say, everybody who has any views about anything else which can in any way be tied to the negotiation, has a say, and must be propitiated before we can get an agreement.

Whiteley: As you've thought about why people oppose arms control, what do you think are the basic assumptions about what makes us more secure, that are behind it?

Garwin: Very many people feel that to have to agree with your principal adversary as a way of improving security is not so much within your control as building weapons yourself.

Whiteley: Well, arms control does, by its very process, in this case a bilateral discussion, allow your enemy some say in what your weapons system is. You also get a say in what theirs is.

Garwin: That's right, and you don't sign such an agreement unless it's in your net security interest. And the other side doesn't sign unless it's in their net security interest. And so both benefit. Now there are people who believe that any benefit to the Soviet Union is a disadvantage to the United States and I don't think that they live in the modern world. If you build weapons yourself, of course, the improvement in your security, if any, depends on the Soviet response, and that cannot be controlled any more than one can do without the Soviet Union in negotiating an agreement that would limit Soviet weapons.

Whiteley: You are calling for a streamlining of the process of negotiating arms control agreements, citing Averell Harriman's success with the Limited Test Ban Treaty. It then has to go through a very complicated process of review including obtaining the votes of two-thirds of the Senate. If people want arms control, a bilateral nuclear freeze is certainly an arms control method as one of many before the country, what do you want citizens to do differently?

Garwin: I want them to insist that we use arms control as a tool for improving our security, and to elect those who do not renounce it. It's all too easy to say - and be popular in saying - that the Soviet Union cheats on all treaties, that it makes no sense to deal with the Soviet Union, we have to look after our own security.

Whiteley: But Averell Harriman has said you can count on the Russians to act in their self-interest.

Garwin: That's right, and so the problem is to craft agreements which will be in the Soviet interest to sign and to obey. Then we can do that. But we can't do it if people will not entertain the idea of entering into agreements with the Soviet Union. It's very interesting. Some of the most dedicated opponents to the arms control process seem to feel that we are so incompetent at negotiating, that if we sit down in the same room with the Soviets, we will lose our pants. And I don't have such a low opinion of Americans as that. I think that after a draft treaty is brought home, there is plenty of time to review it in the Administration, and in the Senate, and to decide whether we want it or not. I even participated in the SALT I negotiations as a consultant to the Arms Control Agency; I was a delegate in 1958 to the Conference for Prevention of Surprise Attack. I know the Russians; Russians are very hard bargainers. And I agree with Averell Harriman and others who say that they look out after their own interest, and we have to take advantage of that so that our interest is served by proposing agreements which will also be in the Soviet interest to sign and to obey.

Whiteley: But the issue for you is one for the democracy...

Garwin: Of trusting the people, informing the people, rather than propagandizing the people, and allowing the people to choose their future. We don't have to choose forever. The next generation is going to have its own problems, they will have our experience to work with, as well as their thoughts, and the experience our forebearers had. And they should have the opportunity to choose their future. What we need to do is to make sure that they have a present from which they can project their future.

Whiteley: Dr. Garwin, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into nuclear weapons, and the way to a more secure world in the nuclear era.