National lab director makes the case for new nukes

To his critics, C. Paul Robinson is Dr. Strangelove incarnate, a Cold Warrior who after nearly four decades working in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex learned to love the bomb. While even hard-liners in the Bush Administration are today trumpeting "deep cuts" in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Robinson, director of Sandia National Laboratories, argues for new types of nuclear weapons to deter new kinds of threats. Although most of the globe embraces the dream inherent in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of a future world without nukes, Robinson--with unusual, to-the-point frankness--decries this "delegitimization" of nuclear weapons.

Not even his critics, however, question Robinson's credentials as an articulate advocate for the continued value of the United States' nuclear deterrent. A physicist by trade, Robinson spent nearly 20 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory, eventually heading its nuclear weapons programs. With the title of ambassador, he also served as Ronald Reagan's chief negotiator and head of the U.S. delegation to the Nuclear Testing Talks in Geneva in the 1980s. He is presently chairman of the policy subcommittee of the Strategic Advisory Group, a panel that advises the four-star commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which is in charge of U.S. nuclear weapons. Many of Robinson's ideas for reshaping America's nuclear arsenal--contained in his white paper "Pursuing a New Nuclear Weapons Policy for the 21st Century"--have been embraced by senior Bush Administration officials. National Journal correspondent James Kitfield recently interviewed Robinson in Washington.

NJ: In a post-Cold War era when most policy makers are focusing on reducing nuclear arsenals, you argue in your paper that nuclear weapons not only "have an abiding place on the international scene," but also that new ones should be tailored for new kinds of deterrence.

Robinson: As I wrote this paper, it felt like putting my head in a guillotine, because I knew that some people were going to try and chop it off for making these arguments. A lot has been done in recent years to delegitimize nuclear weapons to the point that I find people are lulled into a belief that nuclear weapons are going to go away soon, and thus we needn't worry about them anymore. But it's ridiculous to think that we can "uninvent" nuclear weapons.

I also happen to think that nuclear weapons have not only been vital to U.S. national security, but also that history has turned out better for our having nuclear weapons. U.S. nuclear weapons help maintain peace, and a lot of other nations depend on our nuclear umbrella. So, like it or not, for the foreseeable future we have no alternative but to continue to depend upon nuclear weapons and the deterrence they provide.

NJ: Are there no compelling strategic and moral arguments for, as you say, "delegitimizing" weapons of such horrific destructive potential? For instance, the United States signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which calls for non-nuclear states to forgo nuclear weapons, and for nuclear weapons states to work to reduce their arsenals eventually to zero.

Robinson: The NPT Treaty, the arguments surrounding the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and a lot of the rhetoric we heard from the Clinton White House all suggested that sooner or later nuclear weapons are going to go away. I simply don't believe that is true. I think it's important that people wake up and realize that nuclear weapons have meant a lot to our security, and we'd better make sure that our arsenal doesn't erode if our future depends on it.

NJ: And you've taken on the mission of sounding the alarm?

Robinson: No one likes thinking the unthinkable, because it's a tough business. But someone's got to do it. I guess after spending my entire career in this field, I don't think anyone else knows more about the subject than me.

NJ: Arms control advocates would argue that the NPT is largely responsible for many nuclear have-nots doing without nuclear weapons.

Robinson: Yes and no. I believe the establishment of NATO did more to prevent proliferation than the NPT, because it extended our nuclear umbrella over the nations of Western Europe that could relatively easily have developed their own nuclear weapons. I think there's a lesson in that example which applies today to South Asia.

NJ: The Bush Administration has proposed deep reductions in our offensive nuclear arsenal as a sweetener in selling its proposed national missile defense shield. At some point, might such reductions erode the United States' ability to extend its nuclear umbrella?

Robinson: I support deep reductions, but at some point [those cuts] would call our umbrella into question. I worked on a report on that subject for the commander in chief of U.S. Strategic Command as a member of the Strategic Advisory Group. Essentially, our blueprint concluded that at some point between 2,000 and 1,000 nuclear weapons, we will run into speed bumps and probably a stop sign on reductions. It's not an exact science, and that level would still represent a dramatic reduction from today's massive U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

At some point in reducing our arsenal, we also have to switch from bilateral to multilateral negotiations, because our nuclear arsenal has to deter a potential threat from unforeseen alliances that might develop in the future between other nuclear states. Stranger things have happened throughout history. Somewhat counterintuitively, a world in which there are just a few nuclear weapons would also be very dangerous, because the possibility that one side would "break out," and secretly construct a dominant nuclear force of a hundred or so weapons, would be quite high.

NJ: Do you think the Bush Administration's proposed missile defense system will lessen the need for some offensive nuclear weapons in the deterrence equation?

Robinson: I believe both offensive and defensive systems can coexist as part of an overall national security policy, though I have yet to hear that policy articulated. You'll never have a defense, however, that is dominant against offensive nuclear weapons. When I speak publicly on the subject, I also ask audiences to consider that the United States or one of its allies were attacked with nuclear weapons one day, and our proposed missile defense system worked as advertised. Say only 5 or 10 percent, or whatever number you pick, of the attacking nuclear missiles got through. Do you really think the war is then over?

NJ: The process of reducing the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia has been gridlocked for years by inertia over the START II treaty, which would bring each side down to roughly 3,500 weapons. The U.S. Senate has ratified the treaty, but the Russian Duma has not. Do you approve of the Bush Administration's suggestion to break the gridlock by abandoning the START process altogether and unilaterally reducing our arsenal?

Robinson: Well, the process has definitely become knotted up over the START II treaty. I considered START I a good piece of work and a worthy agreement. The START II treaty, on the other hand, was not the result of a formal negotiation in Geneva. It was more a ministerial statement agreed upon by both sides that they then decided to enshrine as a treaty. And quite frankly, from the Russian point of view, I can see how they find a lot of things wrong with START II. For the Russians, the whole process resembled a guy trying to negotiate with his loan officer.

NJ: Why is START II unfavorable for the Russians?

Robinson: The treaty certainly didn't win any applause from the Russian military or defense community. They felt it was an awful deal. At a time when Russia's [ballistic missile] submarines are falling apart and they can't keep them at sea, and they lack the money to build the mobile missile systems that they had planned on buying, START II would commit the Russians to going down to single warheads on all their land-based missiles.

NJ: Recently, Russia has threatened to rearm some of its ballistic missiles with multiple warheads if the United States unilaterally abrogates the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to build a missile defense. Would that be a worrisome development?

Robinson: When I heard [Russian President Vladimir] Putin talking about doing that, I knew we needed some new talking points with the Russians, because I can't think of anything more stupid. Presumably, we would be the target, since MIRVs were built to attack missile fields. As the United States has gotten rid of most of our land-based missiles and decreased our reliance on that leg of the strategic triad, however, we no longer present those kinds of targets. Today we have roughly 800 ICBMs, and we've telegraphed our intention of going down to below 500 land-based missiles, all with single warheads. So if MIRVs didn't make much sense in the first place, they make even less sense today.

NJ: In your paper, you argue that the United States needs to tailor its nuclear arsenal to deter new types of threats, especially chemical and biological weapons. Do we really need to find new uses for nuclear weapons?

Robinson: Not necessarily new. We had a pretty good test case with Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. If you look at the volumes of chemical and biological weapons later reported by United Nations weapons inspectors, it was astounding what Iraq possessed. Why weren't those weapons of mass destruction used? Many military experts I've talked to are absolutely convinced it was because of a secret letter sent by President Bush threatening the gravest consequences if such weapons were released. President Clinton made a similar threat against North Korea during a crisis in 1994.

NJ: If our implicit threat of nuclear retaliation deterred rogue states such as Iraq and North Korea, why do we need new nuclear weapons?

Robinson: The problem is, the strategic nuclear policy we developed during the Cold War has been stretched about as far as possible to fit a changing post-Cold War era. Today, we are threatened not only by nuclear weapons in the arsenal of peer nuclear competitors like Russia, but increasingly by biological, chemical, and radiological weapons that could kill huge numbers of people in a flash. Yet it's pretty incredible to think that the United States would respond to such an attack by vaporizing 11 million people in a rogue state just because they were poorly led. Where the hell are we going to use missiles with four to eight warheads, or half-megaton yields? Even the few "tactical" nuclear weapons that we have left have high yields of above 100 kilotons. I would hope a U.S. President would think it was crazy to use such weapons in response to a rogue-state attack.

After a decade of trying to sort out what we learned from the Cold War and how we might tailor our nuclear deterrence and deterrent message to fit the future, I now argue that we need lower-yield nuclear weapons that could hold at risk only a rogue state's leadership and tools of aggression with some level of confidence.

NJ: Isn't the United States' vaunted conventional military superiority-based in large part on our increasingly accurate precision-guided weapons-enough of a deterrent?

Robinson: No. We've seen examples as recently as the [1999] air war with Serbia, when we attacked underground targets with conventional weapons with very little effect. It just takes far too many aircraft sorties and conventional weapons to give you any confidence that you can take out underground bunkers. By putting a nuclear warhead on one of those weapons instead of high explosives, you would multiply the explosive power by a factor of more than a million.

NJ: Wouldn't fielding new, low-yield nuclear weapons capable of penetrating underground bunkers require new designs and a return to nuclear testing?

Robinson: In my paper, I conclude that we would neither have to conduct testing nor redesign for such a weapon, because we have them already. Right now, all of our weapons have primary and secondary stages. Through a process known as "boosting," you get a thermonuclear reaction. The primary alone, however, has a yield of 10 kilotons or less, or basically what you would want for a bunker-buster or a weapon that would cause relatively low collateral damage. All we have to do is send these weapons back to the factory and replace the secondary stage with a dummy. The beauty of that approach is that we are already very good at building dummy secondary stages. For safety and costs reasons, most of the weapons we have flown and tested in the past have had dummy secondary stages. So we could develop these lower-yield weapons without forcing the nuclear testing issue back onto the table, with a richer database of past tests, and at relatively low cost.

NJ: On the issue of nuclear weapons tests, the Bush Administration caused a furor when it was reported that they instructed the nuclear labs to develop a streamlined plan for a return to testing.

Robinson: I read those stories that jumped to the conclusion that the Bush Administration was planning a return to nuclear testing, and that's wrong. There was a congressionally mandated commission, however, that recently looked at why it would take the nuclear labs roughly two years to return to testing. If we discovered a serious problem with the nuclear stockpile, the commission members suggested to me that a President would probably drop-kick me out of the Oval Office if I said it would take us two years to figure out what was wrong. You simply can't have people who stay up at night worrying about the security of the nation kept in doubt for that long. So, the Bush Administration has asked that we go back and study the issue to figure out why it would take so long and how we might streamline a resumption of testing. We haven't come up with the answers yet.

NJ: During the 1999 debate over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, you expressed considerable skepticism over the ability of the Department of Energy's Stockpile Stewardship program to ensure the long-term reliability and safety of the nuclear stockpile without testing. Has anything happened in the interim to change your thinking?

Robinson: You're the first person to ask me that. I would say that since 1999, the Stockpile Stewardship program has, if anything, surprised me by working a little bit better than I would have anticipated. I still have my reservations, however, about whether the program can substitute for testing over the long term. In my mind, the jury is still out on that question. As long as our reliance on a nuclear deterrent is crucial, we'll be taking a chance until we know for certain that Stockpile Stewardship is a reliable, long-term substitute for testing.

NJ: Are you seriously worried that aging will cause a catastrophic defect in our nuclear stockpile?

Robinson: The toughest single thing I've had to do in my entire life was phone the commander in chief of Strategic Command and inform him that we had identified a problem with a particular warhead that affected a significant portion of the stockpile. We had to retarget many of our weapons and work like hell to figure out a fix. Our system of confidentiality proved itself in that instance, because we kept it all very, very secret. But that is one phone call I hope no one ever has to make again, because it was very, very tough.

NJ: How do you respond to critics who believe that by tailoring new nuclear weapons for new types of deterrence, you would make their eventual use in a crisis more likely?

Robinson: My response is that for God's sake, then, let's think this through in advance rather than doing it on the fly. Say Iraq had instigated the first use of biological or chemical weapons during the Persian Gulf War, causing huge numbers of casualties. How would we have retaliated to make good on President Bush's threat? By vaporizing 11 million people? Because I can tell you, we haven't given a lot of thought to this issue. We need to carefully think through our posture of nuclear deterrence, because whatever decision is made during the next crisis will leave a message to all of history.

NJ: Why not send a message that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons?

Robinson: The burden is on those who believe it is immoral to threaten nuclear retaliation for the use of chemical or biological weapons to propose an alternative. I subscribe to the advice of Winston Churchill: "Be careful above all things not to let go of the atomic weapon until you are sure, and more sure than sure, that other means of preserving the peace are in your hands." Those words reflect my thinking on the subject very well.

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