The Nuclear Equation

Fundamental Truths about the Nuclear Arms Race

John P. Holdren, 1984

John P. Holdren is Professor of Energy and Resources at the University of California, Berkeley, Chairman of the Federation of American Scientists, and chairman of the U.S. Pugwash Committee. For his work on energy and resource problems, he is the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Prize. During this interview Professor Holdren defines four truths about the nuclear arms race that must be accepted by world leaders and citizens alike if this planet is to be made safer in the years ahead.

Whiteley: Professor Holdren, you've indicated that there are four basic truths as you think about the nuclear arms race that everyone ought to keep in mind when thinking about the ways to a more peaceful world. What are they?

Holdren: I think there are four absolutely crucial points that I wish our leaders would surely grasp; so far they seem not to have. But the four points are these: number one, nuclear weapons must never again be used. Any use of nuclear weapons is overwhelmingly likely to lead to the ultimate catastrophe, to the use of huge numbers of these things, and the destruction of civilization as we know it.

Whiteley: In other words you think limited war simply is not limited when it's nuclear weapons.

Holdren: We certainly can't count on it. No one can predict with confidence exactly what will happen when nuclear bombs start to go off, but the overwhelming likelihood is that once a few go off, large fractions of the arsenals are going to be used and that's going to be enough to destroy Western civilization. Certainly, and maybe, the whole human prospect for an indefinite time to come. The second crucial point is that there is only one function that nuclear weapons can serve in this world, and that is to discourage other countries who possess them from using theirs. There are no other functions. Military, political, or otherwise. Discouraging other people who have them is the only use for these things.

Whiteley: Are we therefore always going to have nuclear weapons?

Holdren: I hope, and I think many thoughtful people hope, that we may eventually find a way to banish these weapons from the world. But for the foreseeable future, for the next few decades certainly, it's impossible for me to imagine getting rid of them completely - in part because we don't know how to uninvent them. The knowledge of how to build these weapons exists. Even if you were to manage to throw away all the ones that already exist, you can imagine that in a time of conflict, countries might start building them again. Nobody knows yet how to deal with that problem. But we're so far from having to deal with it, there are so many sensible things we can do short of there that it doesn't distress me that I don't have a prescription for the next 200 years that will permanently get rid of them.

I think the third point that is absolutely essential to understand is that for this single purpose that nuclear weapons can serve; namely, discouraging other countries who possess them from using theirs, both sides in this massive east/west nuclear arms race already have far more nuclear weapons and far more capable nuclear weapons than they really need. That is, both sides are in the situation that even after the most devastating sneak attack by the other side, the side that was attacked could still inflict absolutely intolerable retaliation on the other. And in this situation, of course, there's absolutely no incentive for either side to strike first, because doing that would be a prescription for suicide as well as the annihilation of one's adversary.

This point, that both sides have far more than they need already, has several important ramifications. One is that any additions to the present arsenals are wasteful at best, and dangerous at worst. Wasteful in the sense that we're spending large sums of money for weapons that have no function, that cannot already be more than adequately served by the ones that already exist. And dangerous, because the specific characteristics of many of the new weapons are in fact increasing the chance of nuclear war by mistake, misjudgment, miscalculation, or inadvertent escalation of a smaller conflict. Whiteley: What are those characteristics?

Holdren: The specific characteristics that are doing that are (1) increasing accuracy in nuclear weapons which puts the other side in the position of wondering whether you're not seeking, or getting closer to obtaining, the capacity for a successful sneak attack. Again, that capacity doesn't exist yet, but the more accurate nuclear weapons get, the more the other side worries that the hardened silos that contain the land-based ballistic missiles, that the submarine pens, that the hardened command and control centers, all of these things might become vulnerable if the other side had sufficient numbers of very highly accurate warheads. And so that concern tends to encourage a sort of a hair trigger posture. If the other side can strike first in a way that deprives me of a lot of my forces, I'm tempted to push the button either preemptively when I think my adversary is getting ready to fire, or on the first sign from radar, computer, or what have you, that my adversary has fired. That's a very dangerous trend.

Another characteristic that's very dangerous is short flight times. We have just initiated, on the Western side, installation in western Europe of Pershing II missiles which have an unusually short flight time - ten or twelve minutes - to targets in the western Soviet Union. This has the main result of causing the Soviets to get itchy trigger fingers, to approach, or to think about approaching, a hair trigger posture for fear that those missiles would be used in a sneak attack that would destroy their command and control facilities.

Whiteley: That also puts them in the position of having to depend more on mechanical aids such as...

Holdren: That's right. And anyone who has ever seen a Soviet computer should be very nervous indeed about resting U.S. security on the adequacy of Soviet computers. And the Soviets have made the same sorts of stupid mistakes in response to our installing the Pershing II's which were a response to the SS20, a Soviet missile deployed in the Soviet Union with short flight times to target in western Europe, which was itself very dumb. We did a dumb thing in response; the Soviets are now doing another dumb thing - they're stationing more Soviet missiles on submarines close to the U.S. coastline so that they can say you are also at risk from short flight time missiles that could reach Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and so on, in eight or ten minutes. But again, the effect of that, if any, is to cause some people in the U.S. National Security bureaucracy to think perhaps we should get into a more hair trigger posture because they might blast us on ten minutes notice.

So the whole point relates to this one I made that at best, deployments of additional weapons are expensive, but at worse they are dangerous because they push both sides closer and closer to an automated response, a hair trigger posture, pondering the idea of a preemptive attack if you think your adversary is getting ready to attack. This turns out to be absolutely unnecessary; that is again, at the present time neither side is really vulnerable to such a sneak attack, nor close to acquiring the capability to do it to the other side. But every step in that direction is a decrease in the security of everyone. Every step we take that makes the Soviets think that we might have the capability for a first strike, every step that they take that makes us think that they might be acquiring this capability or might want it, is a step that makes everyone less safe. Absolutely a crazy thing to do. Whiteley: You've indicated that there are four basic truths.

Holdren: The fourth truth is that the margin by which the arsenals of both sides exceed the real requirements of deterrence, of discouraging the other people who have nuclear weapons from using theirs, that margin is so big on both sides that it provides an enormous amount of maneuvering room to do sensible things, to reduce these arsenals, and to get rid of the weapons that are most dangerous - the high accuracy, short flight time, multiple warhead weapons that most aggravate this syndrome of hair trigger automated response, the possibility of launching on computer warning that the other side has launched, and so on and so forth. We have the margin of flexibility, if only we have the wit to recognize it, to get rid of a lot of those weapons. We could do it unilaterally, initially; that is, we could get rid of all kinds of weapons out of the U.S. arsenal that being gotten rid of, they would increase our security. We would be better off whether or not the Soviets responded because all those weapons are doing is putting the Soviets in a hair trigger posture, and that does us no good at all.

Similarly the Soviet Union could easily afford unilaterally to get rid of any number of dangerous and destabilizing weapons that they possess. They would increase their security by doing it; in no way would they become inferior. The key point in all of this is that there is no such thing as nuclear superiority anymore. When both sides have 20 or 30 times more nuclear weapons than they need to destroy the other as a civilization, it makes no sense to talk about superiority.


Whiteley: In thinking about the world as it is today you've indicated that four basic truths help one understand the situation, but this has been based on four decades of development since World War II. And in reflecting on those you've indicated that there are four basic phrases that help one understand how we got to where we are. The first is the "military-industrial complex."

Holdren: Yes. Of course, one of the most famous things that President Eisenhower ever said was in his farewell speech in which he said we must increasingly watch out for the political and economical influence of the "military-industrial complex," in which he effectively coined that term for general use. And the idea was that people who invent weapons, people who manufacture weapons, and the military who use weapons, all have certain vested interest in pushing technology as far as they can push it, building, designing, developing, deploying the most capable weapons possible and persuading the Congress and the public that there's a need for these weapons. We constantly have this very influential lobby arguing that the national security of the United States requires that we have the most capable possible arsenal.

On the Soviet side, of course, there is an equivalent. There is effectively an influential lobby, although it lobbies with the Politburo and the Central Committee rather than with the Congress, but they lobby to the same effect, that the national interests of the Soviet Union require that they develop and deploy the most capable weapons possible. And that force on both sides has been one of what I consider to be four major driving forces behind the nuclear arms race.

Whiteley: The second was what you call the "action-reaction syndrome." What are you referring to?

Holdren: The "action-reaction syndrome" is essentially what you might call the deep principle of "monkey see, monkey do." Each time one side makes any new military development, any new deployment, adds some new missiles to his arsenal, develops a new kind of aircraft, the other side feels obliged to respond in some way. Every action by one produces a reaction by the other. And so if one looks at the whole history of the arms race with the introduction of long-range bombers, land-based intercontinental missiles, missiles on nuclear submarines, cruise missiles, reconnaissance satellites, and now the impending arms race in space, in every case you see this "action-reaction syndrome" operating. My adversary is doing it, therefore I have to do it. I mean one can argue and look at the details and see who did it first in these different categories, but the basic phenomenon is that neither side has ever been able to refrain from anything. We've had this reflexive response that whatever the other side does we have to respond, whether it's stupid or not. And so we're really in the position that we see our adversary shoot himself in the foot as the Soviets did when they deployed their SS20 missiles targeted on Europe starting in 1977, and since our adversary shot himself in the foot by deploying missiles that reduce his security as much as they reduce ours, we have felt obliged to shoot ourselves in the foot too by deploying Pershing II's which have the same characteristic. This is "action-reaction" at its worse.

Whiteley: A third, and very related to that, is to opt for the "worst-case analysis."

Holdren: The syndrome that is often called the "worst-case assessment syndrome" says simply that - well, take the position on the U.S. side. We look at the Soviet Union and we say look, we in the United States are the guardians of democracy. Prudence requires that, with that great responsibility of being the guardians of democracy, we must make the most pessimistic assumptions about Soviet military capabilities and Soviet intentions, and then we must build into our military posture a margin of safety against that "worst-case" perception of what the Soviets have, and what they might want to do with it. On the Soviet side, of course, they're doing the same thing. They're saying we're the guardians of world communism. Prudence therefore requires that we make "worst-case assessments" of what the West possesses, and what the West may intend, and build into our posture a margin of safety against that "worst-case assessment." And if you think about it for a moment, it's perfectly clear from logic alone that both sides cannot simultaneously have a large margin of safety against the "worst-case assessment" of what the other has and may do. What you've got here then is a prescription for an upwards-ratcheting arms race. The "action-reaction syndrome", combined with "worst-case assessment", causes each to do things which stimulate the other into trying to build in a margin of safety against the new thing the other side just did, and you go on and on, higher and higher.

Whiteley: This relates to the fourth, which is what you call the "fallacy of the last move." What are you referring to?

Holdren: The "fallacy of the last move" is the idea that either side can do something, gain an advantage thereby, and the other side will somehow fail to respond, and let that advantage therefore be permanent. The most prominent example of the "fallacy of the last move" was when at the time the SALT I Treaty was being negotiated, the United States had to decide whether or not to include its new technology of multiple, independently targetable warheads on each missile, in the negotiation. And Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon decided at that time that this was such a tremendous advantage in which we had a substantial lead over the Soviets; we had figured out how to put three or five or ten separately targetable warheads on each missile - the Soviets hadn't figured it out yet, and so we refused to negotiate about it. We wouldn't put that technology into the SALT I framework. And it was the "fallacy of the last move." We thought we have an advantage, why should we give it up. Of course, within five years, the Soviet Union had duplicated the same technology, and then they proceeded to deploy it in even larger quantities than we had deployed it, more missiles with many warheads on each one. And of course we started to wring our hands and say, "Horrors - what has happened here?"

Now we're terribly vulnerable because the Soviets have all these multiple warheads on their missiles. It was the "fallacy of the last move." Whatever made us think that we could do this and the Soviets would then allow us to have that as the last move rather than responding. The cruise missiles are a current example. The United States has a five-year lead on the Soviet Union in cruise missiles. We're deploying them initially by the hundreds; we aim to deploy them by the thousands. Our assumption is somehow the Soviets are going to let us get away with that as a last move. The Soviets of course will catch up. In five years they'll have as many cruise missiles as we do, and we'll be wringing our hands in agony at that time about, "How did we get into this predicament? What are we going to do now that the Soviet Union has 5000 sea-based cruise missiles off our coast capable of demolishing the United States?"

Whiteley: Do you consider that each side at this point is willing to pay whatever sacrifice is necessary to catch up?

Holdren: Well, I think each side has misled itself for so long about the nature of nuclear parity and nuclear superiority that there is almost this ritualistic sense that you cannot afford to be inferior in any category. And both sides have demonstrated for years that they are willing to pay the price, the economic price for example, to match whatever the other side does. Absolute numerical parity in every category and every index of nuclear capability is not even possible to obtain in theory because of asymmetries in geography, and many other differences in the composition and military posture of the two sides. But you don't need it. Again, if each side has the capacity to blow the other one up 20 times over, it's foolishness to argue about whether there is some sub-category of a sub-category in which the Soviets have more than we do, and another sub-category of another sub-category over here in which we have more than they do. It's like the metaphor of two men in a basement full of gasoline - they're in gasoline up to their knees, and one of these characters has 1000 matches and the other has 950, and the argument is about who is safer. That's absolutely crazy.

Whiteley: In reflecting on this ratcheting upward of the arms race, you've been an outspoken advocate of arms control, but as you assess the record of arms control to date, what difference has it made?

Holdren: I think there are a number of important, and so far enduring, accomplishments of arms control. One was the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 which stopped atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and thereby halted both a major environmental hazard and also certain lines of development in nuclear weapons technology which had the potential to make the world today even more dangerous than it is, had atmospheric testing continued. We still have that treaty. It's a shame that we have not succeeded in converting it into a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which would prohibit nuclear explosions underground as well as in the atmosphere. But nevertheless, even as a limited accomplishment, it has been important. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed as part of the SALT I accords in 1972, is an important and enduring accomplishment that makes us all safer today than we would be in the absence of such an agreement.

That treaty - the agreement that neither side would vigorously pursue defenses against ballistic missiles (although it sounds a little odd on the face of it that you would agree not to pursue defense) represented the first official recognition that there was no hope of controlling offensive weapons unless each side agreed to forego certain kinds of defenses, represented a recognition that what the "action-reaction syndrome" was going to do to you in that arena, was that as soon as either side started to deploy what looked like an effective defense, the other side would enormously multiply its offensive forces to be sure of being able to penetrate or overwhelm that defense. Now those facts haven't changed between 1972 and today, but today the leaders seem to have forgotten about that basic truth, and the United States and the Soviet Union are about to embark, it would appear, on the development of ballistic missile defenses which will have exactly this effect that the Treaty of 1972 tried to avoid; namely, an overwhelming offensive arms race - each side trying to maintain confidence that whatever defense the other deploys can be overwhelmed or circumvented.

Whiteley: You've indicated that there are some real reasons, at this time in the 20th Century, to be pessimistic about the human condition; that we're less secure now than we were at the end of World War II as a society. What else is on your mind?

Holdren: Well, I can continue in that vein on this ballistic missile business, and the prospects for an expanded arms race in space. Right at the moment we appear to be about to embark on the expansion of the nuclear arms race into an entire new arena: the arena of space, where previously the nuclear arms race has been excluded by treaties successfully, where the potential financial costs are almost beyond comprehension. That one is talking about the potential to spend trillions of dollars on an arms race in space, and the results of that arms race are, in my view, and the view of many other capable analysts, overwhelmingly likely to be a reduction in our security. That is, after spending these trillions of dollars we will be less safe even than we are today. We will induce in this arms race in space a whole set of new arms races on the surface of the Earth as well in response to the fear that perhaps some of these space-based weapons might prove effective against intercontinental ballistic missiles, so we'll see a big further increase of interest in manned bombers, an interest in cruise missiles, and interest in bombs in suitcases, anything to penetrate the space-based defense. This will be a terrible disaster if we don't somehow find the wit and the wisdom to stop them.

Whiteley: What else?

Holdren: A second trend that is extremely worrisome is that we are on a path toward deploying for the first time on our nuclear missile submarines, a new generation of missiles so accurate that they will be able to attack with very short warning, the most hardened missile silos of the other side. We are proposing, starting in the late 1980s, to deploy these things by the thousands on U.S. submarines. Once again, the Soviet Union is sure to follow. Once the Soviet Union and the United States both have thousands of highly accurate missiles on their submarines, both sides will be convinced that a new "window of vulnerability" has been opened, because those submarines will permit either side to attack simultaneously both the bomber bases and the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile silos --simultaneously and with devastating effect. The "window of vulnerability" uproar that we had in the Reagan Administration was really an uproar only about vulnerability of land-based missiles. No one was worried that the bombers and the missiles could be attacked simultaneously. Once we've deployed this new generation of sub-launch missiles it will be possible to attack both the missiles and the bombers simultaneously, and both sides will have moved a large step closer to this hair trigger posture; this position in which each side thinks, if my adversary is getting ready to shoot, I'd better shoot first, because if the adversary shoots first I might be deprived of my ability to retaliate.

Whiteley: You've also indicated there are some developments that give you some sign of optimism.

Holdren: Yeah. I think that because of this margin that still exists between what we have and what we need, which is much smaller in the way of nuclear weapons, we have the capability now to do a number of very sensible things, even if we start by doing them unilaterally rather than negotiating agreements, that would leave the Soviets to follow, in my view, and it would make us all less at risk from a nuclear war. One of those things is that we could immediately say we will have a moratorium on the testing of anti-satellite weapons, and on the testing of anything that could be construed as part of a ballistic missile defense system. We will unilaterally institute that moratorium, and we will not break it unless and until the Soviet Union tests such systems. Now that is a way to get arms control without negotiations. You say we'll stop, and we'll stay stopped unless we see the other side doing the same thing, and then the Soviet Union is in a position to make the sensible decision of stopping also.

Whiteley: What else is in your vision for the way to a safer world in a nuclear age?

Holdren: I think there are a couple of other things we have to do. One is we could, and should, immediately stop the flight testing of all new ballistic missiles. That would stop in its tracks this whole trend toward more accurate short-flight time missiles on both sides, and would give us a breather and a space that would provide us room to negotiate more enduring and more comprehensive agreements that would stop the whole additional round of developments in nuclear forces that would make us all less safe. There's no reason we couldn't do that tomorrow. If one takes an even longer view, I think it is well within the realm of possibility that both sides would come to recognize that as many differences as they have, as different as the Soviet Union and the United States are going to remain, as much as their interests are going to conflict, that it can never be in the interest of either, to blow up the world over their disagreements. And once those sides really at the top, grasp that fundamental insight, it really opens up a tremendous array of possibilities to back away from the nuclear brink that we are now teetering upon, with the deployment and the development of all these new weapons that basically increase the chance of nuclear war by mistake. We can back away from that brink, if only the publics and the leaders together decide that it's not where we want to be sitting.

Whiteley: Professor Holdren, thank you for sharing with us today your insights to the way to a more secure world in the nuclear age.