Striving for National Security

The Essentials of National Security

James R. Schlesinger, 1984

James R. Schlesinger has contributed significantly to the national security of the United States in four key policy positions in government. He has been chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of Energy. In the discussion we had, the focus was on identifying the components of national security, and their relationship to maintaining and sustaining peace in the world.

Whiteley: Mr. Schlesinger, what do you consider to be the central components of the national security of the United States?

Schlesinger: I think that the central components include a defense capability that serves to deter the Soviet Union, and that depends upon an alliance system. In order to maintain the alliance system, we must accommodate the desire of our allies as well as our own desires, and that means compromise. It is, therefore necessary for the United States, as the leader of the free world, always to be prepared to take into account the views of other nations at the same time that we maintain our defenses.

Whiteley: In taking account the needs of our allies, does that have some implications for our weapons systems, and where we deploy them?

Schlesinger: I think that it does. I think that perhaps as important as the weapons systems themselves, is an understanding of the political needs of our allies. For example, here in the United States we sometimes say that we cannot have a differential detente. That detente is indivisible, and if the Soviets are not prepared to cooperate in Central America or Southeast Asia that we cannot allow detente elsewhere in the world. But that is politically unrealistic for the United States, because the Western European allies of the United States will not allow their own relations with the East to be disturbed by events in Salvador or in Vietnam, or in the Middle East. They like the climate of detente, and if the United States is seen to be disturbing that climate, our alliance system will suffer.

Similarly, you ask about weapons systems. The most important thing for our alliance is to preserve the political cohesion that underlies it. That is more important than any specific deployment of weapons systems. If a weapons system deployment will prove to be too costly, then we should consider foregoing it.

Whiteley: What implications has that had for our deployments in the last decade when there has been a growing tension and hostility with the Soviet Union?

Schlesinger: It has had remarkably little impact on our decisions to deploy. We have not refrained from deployment in order to ease the problems of our allies, but we have decided on particular deployments in order to encourage our allies, as it were. We must remember that the deployment of the missiles in Europe in the last year reflect decisions that were taken in 1979. And the Carter Administration that made those decisions was suspect in Western Europe for being insufficiently strong-minded about defense, and therefore, the decision to deploy those missiles was designed to buoy the spirits of our allies. Now, in the subsequent administration, the Reagan Administration, those attitudes towards America turned around, and what had originally intended to buoy the spirits of our allies when they thought America was weak, turned out to have adverse consequences when they thought that America was too strong, or even too belligerent.

Whiteley: What do you see as the major weapons systems that give credibility to deterrence?

Schlesinger: I think that the major weapons systems ought not to be looked at in terms of particular phrases, like the B1 or the MX Missile. It is important for the United States, because of our responsibility to our allies, to match Soviet capabilities, and to be seen as matching Soviet capabilities. That is what has underlined the arguments for the MX, for example. the Soviets, regrettably, have deployed major counterforce capabilities, and the United States lacks, at this time, major counterforce capabilities. The argument for the MX has been that it will increase American counterforce capabilities, the ability to go after hard targets in the Soviet Union. Now, it's regrettable that both sides have developed counterforce capabilities. We all would have been better off if neither side had done so, but in view of the fact that the Soviets proceeded in this direction, the argument for the MX is that it would be ill-advised for the other side to have a unilateral advantage, particularly in light of the special dependency of the western alliance upon the threat of nuclear retaliation.

Whiteley: What do you think of the argument that with the submarine capability, and the cruise missile capability, and the bomber capability, that we already have a sufficient retaliatory force that's invulnerable to a Soviet first-strike that basically makes intercontinental missiles in fixed silos no longer as viable as they once were?

Schlesinger: Well, I think that argument is sound, as far as it goes. Indeed, we have an invulnerable - sufficiently invulnerable-retaliatory force that we can always destroy the cities of the Soviet Union, if that is regarded as an appropriate military or political objective. That cannot be taken away. That argument, incidentally, is made frequently by those people who most object to the strategy of attacking the cities of the other side. In addition to having the relatively invulnerable capabilities for retaliation, it is true that the fixed silo missile has become more and more vulnerable. The problem that we have is that if the other side has counterforce capabilities, that at this stage only ICBMs provide us with prompt counterforce so that we cannot do entirely without ICBMs, given the strategy of the West. I might say in passing that ideally, all of the Western nations, the European alliance, as well as the Canadians and Americans, ought to put together the conventional forces that will deter conventional attack by the Warsaw Pact so that we should not be dependent upon the threat of nuclear retaliation to a conventional assault. But we haven't done it yet.

Whiteley: Should the United States, at this time, renounce a first-use of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons?

Schlesinger: I do not believe so; I think that that would be quite ill-advised, and it would be ill-advised in two ways: First, the alliance depends on the threat of nuclear retaliation. It is an agreed upon strategy by the NATO alliance which the United States, though the largest member, is only one of fifteen. That strategy was hammered out over six or seven years. If we ever decide to change our strategy, we cannot unilaterally renounce what we have agreed to with the other NATO nations, but we must come to further agreement. Now, the NATO nations are equivocal about nuclear strategy. They are quite ambivalent about it. They do not want the threat of nuclear war to be there, but at the same time, they do not want the United States to seem to abandon the threat of nuclear retaliation. This has most clearly been the position of the German government, the most exposed country in Western Europe. For the United States to unilaterally renounce first-use of nuclear weapons would lead to severe problems in the alliance. For that reason I don't think that we should do it.

Whiteley: And for you the alliance is fundamental to American national security.

Schlesinger: The alliance is fundamental to American national security. If the Western European nations were to fall under the shadow, or the influence, of the Soviet Union, this nation, in turn, would change. We would become isolated here in North America, certainly in the western hemisphere, and this country would become mean-spirited in a way that few people can appreciate now. I've sometimes told the Canadians, who have been reluctant to provide support for Western Europe, how would they like to be bound up in the North American continent if the United States had lost its influence in the eastern hemisphere. And the Canadians, under those circumstances, quickly see the point.

Whiteley: At the end of World War II the United States was largely seen as impregnable to attack, probably as secure as we've been at any time in our history. How are we today?

Schlesinger: Well, of course, we are now vulnerable in a way that we have never been vulnerable before in our nation's history. That is simply the consequence of the development of nuclear weapons, and the delivery capabilities to bring those weapons to the United States. It means that our cities are subject to immediate destruction, and that is an immense change, the consequence of the nuclear age. There is little, and perhaps nothing that could have been done to prevent these developments once the Soviets began to develop their weapons systems. Moreover, the United States is weaker today, relatively, than it was after World War II.

Whiteley: Why is that?

Schlesinger: After World War II the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, it was militarily, clearly and unequivocally, the most powerful state in the world. Our navy had advantages over the Soviets that were clear-cut and, beyond that, we were the dominant economy in the world. We had sixty percent of the world's manufacturing capacity, perhaps fifty percent of the world's total output. Now we've slipped in the course of some decades. There are other countries that have come up in terms of manufacture, the Japanese and Germans whom were then devastated, and our position in the world's economy is perhaps twenty-five percent, perhaps twenty percent of the world's total output. So we are no longer dominant, and that is reflected in our power position. We are first amongst equals, but we are not paramount as we were then.

Whiteley: Is defense possible in the nuclear age?

Schlesinger: Is defense possible in terms of preventing the other side from destroying our cities? The brief answer is no. There is no way that one can have a leak-proof defense that can protect our cities.

Whiteley: Which makes a reliance on a deterrent force an essential part of national security.

Schlesinger: It is indispensable to have a deterrent force to prevent the other side from using nuclear weapons. What is not essential is for us to depend upon the threat of nuclear retaliation to a major conventional assault by the Warsaw Pact. And if we are wise we will strengthen our conventional forces to reduce our dependency on that nuclear crutch.

Whiteley: What do you see the appropriate response to be to new technological developments? Each of the weapons systems that we've talked about, from the atomic bomb to the MX Missile, represented a new technological accomplishment in its own way. There are a number of systems on the drawing board today but it appears, as it becomes known that we are involved in a new weapons systems, that the Russians are soon to undertake a system, as recently announced, that they intend to deploy a cruise missile, for example. What should be our policy in the coming years as new weapons possibilities become available?

Schlesinger: I think that the first caution that one should understand is that we should probably - this is not an absolute rule, but it is one to which the exceptions will certainly be few and far between - we should certainly have the research and development activities at least sufficient to match the Soviet Union. And when it comes to deployment of new technologies, that's a much more complex question.

Whiteley: I'd asked you if you thought that the United States would have been more secure if we had been able to develop a treaty against multiple reentry warheads.

Schlesinger: I think we probably would be more secure today, and that the decision to start down that trail was a complex one. It reflected the desire of Secretary McNamara to be able to overwhelm what was seen to be the development of an anti-ballistic missile defense on the Soviet side. And the way that he did that was to fractionate the payload of American missiles. Now it turned out that the Soviets didn't deploy a major ABM system, so we have that choice once again whether or not to go in that direction because the original impetus had disappeared. The Nixon Administration decided to proceed with the deployment of the MIRV systems because it felt that the Soviets were gaining on us, and that a display of American technology would right the balance. If it did so, it righted the balance only temporarily so that today, in 1984, both sides are probably at a disadvantage because of the perfection of MIRV systems.

Whiteley: Okay. How do you intervene, when it's the most open industrialized society in the world, and the most closed industrialized society in the world, to try to find a way to talk ahead of time in a meaningful way to agree, as we've done at sometimes in our past, to forgo certain type of weapons developments or deployments in space, or at the poles?

Schlesinger: Well, there have been improvements with regard to the possibility of communication. If one thinks back to the days of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet society was more primitive, far less sophisticated than it is today. They were suspicious to the point of paranoia, in a way that communications just did not exist after World War II during the height of the Cold War. So the Soviets are more sophisticated, and the opportunities for communication have, in principle, increased. In recent years since the Soviet movement to Afghanistan, however, there has been a reduction in the trust between the United States and the Soviet Union, and that has impeded the possibility of making better use of the capacity for communication. And when I say trust between the United States and the Soviet Union I'm not talking about a very high degree of trust; I'm talking about the minimal trust that is necessary for communications between rival superpowers. That has been reduced.

Whiteley: W. Averill Harriman once remarked that you can trust the Soviets to act in their self-interest. Do we need to trust them to do anything else?

Schlesinger: I think that it is correct that we cannot trust them to do more than what lies in the Soviet interest, but there probably has to be a greater degree of trust simply to get them to do what is in their self-interest, and for us to do what is in our self-interest. If we have chilly relations with the Soviet Union, you do not have that bare minimum, [of trust] on the basis of which you can proceed with arms negotiations.

Whiteley: Is it possible to count on them to exercise restraint if we do the same?

Schlesinger: I think that that has never been fully tested, but the historic record is pretty spotty with regard to that. For example, Secretary McNamara believed that we had deployed more than a sufficient number of ICBMs when we had deployed a thousand, and he believed that as the Soviets reached close to a thousand ICBMs, that they would stop deploying and match us. But the fact is that back there in 1970-71, contrary to those hopes, as the Soviets reached - approached the ceiling of one thousand ICBMs they kept deploying, day after day, and they didn't stop deploying ICBMs till they had reached 1600. The expectation that they will match us but not go any further is, I think, one that requires more hope than experience to continue to believe.

Whiteley: Is it your belief that we can sufficiently verify their compliance with agreements, based on advances since World War II, to make some arms control agreements, at least in principle, safely ones we can enter into?

Schlesinger: I think so. I think that there are two types of verification - two criteria for verification. One is that we have absolute certainty of catching them in every - any deviation from an agreement. If that is the criteria, our means of verification are indeed inadequate. The other standard for verification is that we can detect any violation that is sufficiently large to influence the overall balance between the Soviet Union and the United States. I think that we can have reasonable confidence that our means of verification are adequate to that task. The Soviets also believe that the United States will be able to detect continuing deviations from an accord, and the Soviets, while they're always pressing the limits of any accord, and in our view, stepping across the line into violation of the accord, nonetheless are fairly circumspect about gross departures from the letter of an accord.

Whiteley: There are several developments underway at present that, while important in themselves, raise policy issues about how we address national security in the future. One is the potential of an anti-satellite treaty, with satellites so important to our national means of verification, as well as communication in the world. Would you favor the development of such a treaty?

Schlesinger: Well, that is not an easy question to answer, and one of the things that I should stress is the importance of all of these issues regarding alliance policy, national security policy, weapons systems decision, and the like, to avoid slogans and to avoid catch phrases. These are all complex issues. Now, if we could have an airtight means of verification, I would see nothing wrong with proceeding with a ban on anti-satellite weapons. But even a very low number of anti-satellite systems would affect the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union. And it is peculiarly in that area in which a low number of deployments create a problem for preserving our own defense posture that we must be careful. So I would throw the issue open to the Soviet Union and say, what ways do you have of assuring us that there will be absolutely no deviation from the treaty, because even a very small number of systems would be catastrophic.

Whiteley: Isn't a part of their national security, however, also based on their satellite surveillance systems?

Schlesinger: Absolutely. before I go into that, however, I should stress that all of these things should, in principle, be negotiable depending upon the maintenance of overall stability. If the Soviets, for example, were prepared to reduce the overwhelming conventional threat that they hold against Western Europe, and bring an improvement in the overall balance that way, we should be prepared to trade off some of the things that we're doing in the strategic nuclear area. You ask a question about the interest of Soviet Union. Recall that there isn't asymmetry between the United States and the Soviet Union. First, the United States and her allies are more dependent upon nuclear weapons than are the Soviets. They have a full conventional capability; we have a much more modest one. So anything that may disturb the nuclear balance is more of a threat to the western posture than it is to that of the Warsaw Pact.

And secondly, the - in the area of anti-satellite weapons, the Soviets as you point out, have a closed society, and the capacity to provide themselves with three, four, five systems clandestinely, is much greater than our own. It would seem to me that there is the possibility of proceeding with the Soviet Union in negotiations; the Soviets have now - in principle there's that possibility - Soviets have withdrawn from negotiations, but we could proceed in giving them some of what they want, which is to reduce their worries about American exploitation of technology in space. They can give us some relief with regard to the expansion of their offensive capabilities. And, thirdly, if they are concerned about anti-satellite weapons in particular, that we can probably accommodate them to some degree provided that we have a reasonably airtight system of verification.

Whiteley: Thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the quest for peace in the nuclear age.