On Oct. 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed millions of Americans by television to declare that Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba were unacceptable and tantamount to an act of war. Among those watching was Bruce G. Blair, a high school student in Kankakee, Illinois. Within a few years, the reality of the Cold War would become even more immediate to Blair. In the early 1970s, while in the U.S. Air Force, he volunteered for the job of strategic missile launch control officer, and for three years his vantage point to watch the Cold War unfold was deep underground at a Strategic Air Command center in Montana. As a wing commander, he had general authority to supervise the use of as many as 200 Minuteman ICBM missiles.
In the 1980s, Blair earned a Ph.D. in operations research from Yale, and later served as a senior fellow in foreign policy studies with the Brookings Institution. In 2000, he became president of the World Security Institute, which promoted arms control to policymakers and the media. Now considered one of the foremost experts on nuclear weapons in the world, Blair in 2008 co-founded Global Zero, a world initiative that’s pushing for phased multilateral disarmament. The organization has received encouragement by President Obama, and its basic ideals are endorsed by 300 world leaders. Over 450,000 people have signed on as Global Zero members.
In a wide-ranging interview to mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dr. Blair talked exclusively to NAPF about current nuclear perils facing all nations, and how certain risks have receded, grown, or changed over the past half century. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.
Kazel: In terms of alert status and the speed at which war might break out, it seems remarkable that it took seven days from the time President Kennedy saw the photographs of the missiles in Cuba until SAC actually went to DEFCON 2 [just short of war]. Today we tend to think of presidents having to respond to a potential nuclear threat in about 10 minutes, correct?
Blair: I think that we certainly did have an early-warning apparatus in place in 1962 that was designed to provide immediate warning of any attack that was underway. We had a system in place, though it was cumbersome and slow, and not at all streamlined to insure some major nuclear response to a major nuclear attack against the United States.
We were pretty close to a hair-trigger, launch-ready configuration back in those days, but over the last many decades we streamlined the command-and-control and early-warning network and primed the weapons themselves, and the crews that manage and launch those weapons, for very, very rapid reaction…
What’s really changed is by the 1970s, both the Soviet Union and the United States had adopted a posture that was designed to detect the first signs of preparation of nuclear weapons or their actual use, to allow the leaders of those countries to make immediate decisions on the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons, and to carry out those decisions within minutes. Or, if not preemptive, then at least…to launch [their] weapons on tactical warning of a potential incoming strike…
There’s just been a revolution in surveillance, reconnaissance, mainly from space, and we’ve become the “surveillance country of the world.” Now, the Russian system also evolved in a very sophisticated way, but in the 1990s, as everyone knows, suffered this economic calamity and it has not yet really recovered from the loss of its capabilities in surveillance and many other aspects of nuclear force capability.
So we today could detect a kind of set-piece [carefully premeditated] move by Russia to deploy weapons in some place like Cuba. It’s inconceivable that a country could relocate nuclear weapons to another country without detection.
I would emphasize that certainly the United States and the Soviet Union evolved their postures to a launch-ready configuration that remains in place today despite the end of the Cold War, and that technically the two sides are entwined in a hair-trigger dynamic that is inherently dangerous. If for some reason we find ourselves embroiled in another confrontation with each other, that hair-trigger posture presents a very serious risk to both sides — and to the world — in terms of the possibility of an inadvertent or accidental or mistaken launch based on false warning.
So the world is no safer today, certainly, than it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact [it’s more dangerous] from the standpoint of this hair-trigger dynamic.
What’s really dramatically deteriorated in terms of nuclear danger to the world has been the proliferation of nuclear weapons: the emergence of new states with significant nuclear arsenals, in particular Pakistan but also North Korea and growing arsenals in South Asia and Northeast Asia and potentially in the Middle East, with the prospect of these materials for the weapons, or the weapons themselves, falling into the hands of bad actors – including, possibly, terrorists.
The set piece, the major nuclear state-to-state scenario that is of concern to me, would be between the United States and China.
Kazel: Could you elaborate on that?
Blair: It used to be a bipolar world of U.S.-Soviet bloc confrontation that involved large nuclear arsenals on the two sides, and the whole question for many decades during the Cold War was how stable was that bipolar relationship. It clearly turned out to be dangerous, but we survived it. Unfortunately after the end of the Cold War, we saw the Soviet Union collapse and Russia become kind of a country that was not in complete control of its nuclear arsenal. We saw China emerge as a rising power that began throwing its weight around.
So now the United States views China as a potential replacement of Russia in the nuclear equation. There are [confrontation] scenarios between the United States and China that you can imagine, that you can’t imagine in the U.S.- Russia case — for example, conflict over Taiwan being the clearest tinderbox in Asia between the United States and China.
Kazel: And yet China has far fewer nuclear weapons, and the ones they do have are not on hair-trigger alert?
Blair: Right, Chinese nuclear weapons, at least to the best of my knowledge, have not involved mating up warheads to delivery vehicles, to missiles and submarines and bombers, on a daily basis. But that would happen in a crisis, and in a crisis there are hundreds of Chinese nuclear weapons and there are plenty of scenarios in which the United States and China could be at loggerheads.
China clearly is emerging in the Pentagon as the next designated enemy, with a great deal of planning and targeting work going on oriented to China, while the [diminished] focus on Russia has led to a fairly dramatic decrease in the number of Russian targets in our war plan compared to China.
Kazel: How has the ascendance of China affected the willingness of U.S. military and nuclear planners to even consider de-alerting our weapons or further deep cuts in our arsenal to the point that Global Zero advocates?
Blair: The problem with China, and frankly all the other countries that are acquiring nuclear weapons – Pakistan, India, Israel, potentially Iran, North Korea – is that we have no history of a nuclear relationship with those countries. We have no history of negotiating nuclear arms reduction agreements with them. We don’t even have any dialog with China on this question, to speak of. We have very little transparency.
The rules of the road have not been set in the nuclear arena except with Russia, and so we are back in kind of a Cuban Missile Crisis phase in our nuclear relationships with countries like China. We have to figure out how to stabilize those relationships and engage with those countries in ways that allow us to go forward with arms reductions…
So Global Zero, as its next highest priority in the next couple of years, calls for the United States and Russia to continue their bilateral reductions but also calls for China and the other nuclear countries to be brought into this process, so that we can begin – if President Obama is re-elected – the first-in-history multilateral negotiations to cap, freeze, proportionally reduce, and otherwise constrain the nuclear arsenals of all the countries.
Kazel: You mentioned the possibility of future multilateral talks but you tempered it by saying “if President Obama is reelected.” I know your organization has a great ideological friend in him, although he hasn’t endorsed your specific timetable for disarmament. Mitt Romney is perceived as trying to be tougher towards Russia and has called it our “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Does the success of the disarmament movement hinge on having a friend in the White House?
Blair: The history of nuclear arms reduction agreements has been a history spearheaded by Republicans. The SALT agreement was a result of Nixon’s détente with the Soviet Union, the START agreement was begun by Reagan and finished by [George H.W.] Bush, then we got the Moscow agreement under Bush 2. So there is a legacy here for Republican support.
Now it sort of fell apart during the New START treaty deliberations in the U.S. Senate, and there has been sort of a breakdown in that legacy. Romney does seem to fall outside this tradition and seems to be under the misimpression that Russia is our No. 1 foe. He came out strongly against the New START treaty in a very flawed analysis that he published back then, and he seems to be under the influence of very hard-line figures in his orbit of consultants who have almost an innate problem in cooperating with Russia.
But a lot of this is politics and a lot of it will have to yield to reality — and reality is that the United States and Russia have reset their relationship after it reached its low ebb in 2008. We have had growing cooperation across the board with Russia and that cooperation, that common ground, is not something that any president of the United States, Republican or Democrat, would set aside. So I would expect that if there is a President Romney that he will moderate his views, he will recognize the potential benefits of cooperation with Russia across the board, including in the nuclear arena.
Also keep in mind the grass-roots arms control movement flourished during Republican administrations. I mean, the largest demonstration against nuclear arms occurred in the 1980s when President Reagan was running the show. There’s also the potential that Global Zero would actually gain some support and momentum in the event of a Romney presidency that ramped up nuclear tensions with Russia.
Kazel: In your 1993 book, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, you focused largely on the danger that missiles could be armed quickly and launched quickly and how that didn’t match the political reality of the post-Cold War era. But the book didn’t really advocate or even envision a time when all nuclear forces would be abolished. How did you evolve from supporting technical changes in command-and-control structures to being an outright supporter of nuclear abolition?
Blair: That’s a good question. I believed through the end of the Cold War that the United States would continue to maintain a nuclear arsenal in the name of strategic stability and mutual deterrence, and that the Soviet Union would do the same thing…
The United States and Russia…had a very good relationship in the early ‘90s. I mean we were almost allies. The euphoria, particularly on the Russian side over the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the optimism of a new relationship between the two countries, was just extraordinary and very upbeat. And so I, at the end of the Cold War, came to believe that it was possible to eliminate nuclear weapons.
But at the same time we had a long way to go and I thought we should focus on the problems of the hair-trigger posture and the continuing dangers that existed in the command-and-control system and the deficiencies of nuclear safeguards against unauthorized launch. So I worked on those issues very hard during the 1990s. But I really didn’t know how you would get to zero. No one had taken it seriously to have worked up any kind of a technical roadmap for how you would get it to zero. There’s still not a mountain of good, solid research on how you get to zero from where we are today.
So I thought one of the ways of getting to zero was to get weapons off alert and to put them increasingly into reserve status and to relegate nuclear weapons to the back burner of military capabilities. And when you do that, the military planners discount them in an age of growing, non-nuclear, conventional weapons sophistication. During the 1990s, I could even imagine conventional weapons would replace nuclear weapons in many of the missions. So I was sort of approaching it through the back door: Let’s downplay the importance of nuclear weapons, get them off alert, and then they will just sort of drop out of the war plans.
[Then came] the proliferation of nuclear weapons during the ‘90s with India and Pakistan coming out of the closet, and then North Korea, and 9/11 with the obvious danger of proliferation, and “loose nukes” in Russia in the ‘90s. You know, all of that added up in my mind to a case for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. So you just had to ask the question in the 1990s and into the 2000s, certainly after 9/11, do you feel the United States would be better or worse off living in a world without any nuclear weapons?
I think the obvious answer to that question is that yes, we would be safer. As I go around the world for Global Zero, [meeting] supporters around the world, including very senior people from governments with nuclear weapons, I find increasingly that they also answer the question with that answer – that their country would be safer without any nuclear weapons on the planet. That includes countries like India now.
Kazel: Having taken the position that abolition is the best way to go, have you been disappointed over the past four years over the lack of progress under the Obama administration? An analysis by Jonathan Pearl of the Strategic Studies Institute [in the U.S. Army War College] said: “Contrary to popular belief, the general approach being advanced today by the Obama administration is strikingly similar to mainstream proposals of the past 65 years: arms control and nonproliferation now, disarmament at an undetermined point in the future. Meanwhile, numerous factors continue to militate against abolition, including a growing Pakistani arsenal and new sources of instability in the Middle East. Indeed, just as the perceived need for abolition may be growing, so may the difficulty of achieving it.”
Blair: Well, no one ever expected this to be easy, and we’re pushing this agenda at a time when there are just overwhelming problems in the world. I think that President Obama has been seriously sidetracked over the last couple of years by world events. I think in the first two years of his administration, he made step-by-step progress…moving us concretely toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. In the last two years, we’ve been sidetracked, and of course we have the political season that’s further sidetracked any bold moves in this arena.
But I would expect that if he is reelected, that he will revive this agenda, that [he could even] convene the first-in-history multilateral negotiations involving all the nuclear weapons countries to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons. Just getting that process started would be an amazing legacy for the president.
I think where President Obama sort of dropped the ball a bit was he really didn’t organize the government to develop a plan for the elimination of nuclear weapons. And so it remains a goal that is more rhetorical than it is concrete.
Kazel: Even if he’s sympathetic to your goals, how can something like the Global Zero agenda coexist with the long-range plan for modernizing our warheads and delivery systems, which the government seems to be locking into place for the next 10 years? The Stimson Center says modernization will cost $352 billion or more over the next decade, including B61 nuclear bombs. How can your goals happen at the same time the administration is committing to this kind of long-term upgrade?
Blair: (long pause) Well, I think he is going to have to come to terms with this question, because these are really 50-year decisions that are coming down the pike here for all three legs of the nuclear Triad. So we don’t want to be investing hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons systems that we want to scrap in the next 10 to 20 years, or whenever the time frame that the President might imagine nuclear abolition may be possible…Global Zero has called for the elimination of the land-based leg of the nuclear Triad on the U.S. side [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles], and so it’s a question that has to be confronted. If it’s not, then we will sort of drift along with business as usual.
Kazel: Can it be argued that modernization is necessary because the command and control systems, as well as the weapons themselves, are sort of crumbling — that if we don’t modernize them, your worst fear will be realized, that these systems will be vulnerable to seizure by terrorists or that somehow they’ll break down and malfunction?
Blair: Well, there’s obviously a certain minimum amount of investment that you have to make in maintenance and security…You identify deficiencies that need to be fixed. One area that is of profound concern to me is deficiencies in protections against cyber warfare that may leave some of our weapons and our command-and-control system vulnerable to exploitation by unauthorized people. That’s a whole brave new world that needs to be addressed, and as long as we have nuclear weapons we need to find deficiencies in their control and safety. And that takes money, obviously.
But Global Zero supports a time frame for the elimination of nuclear weapons. We can debate how long that should be, but it’s not 100 years, OK? And, it’s not really 50 years. We think that the time frame ought to be realistically on the order of 20 years. Maybe it’s 25. But it’s not taking us out to 2080. And 2080 is the year in which the next generation of U.S. strategic submarines is supposed to last.
So in other words, what the next administration needs to do is say to itself, let’s say it’s President Obama, “If we were to think about eliminating nuclear weapons in the next 20 to 50 years, or 20 to 30 years…what would be the implications – for our nuclear complex, for the modernization or investment in things like the plutonium factory at Los Alamos? What would be the implications for our forces, our submarines, our bombers, our land-based rockets and their modernization, and what would be the implications for arms control? Give me a plan that allows me to pursue zero [nuclear weapons] over the next 20 or 30 years with plenty of flexibility. In case we’re not able to achieve it through the arms control process and it take us longer, I need to have a plan that insures that we still have a viable nuclear arsenal during this period.”
These are choices and trade-offs that can’t just be managed by business as usual.
Kazel: It seems many nuclear weapons opponents think the answer to that is the U.S. and Russia participating in a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a set of agreements that would officially outlaw nuclear bombs and create an agenda for how that can be achieved. Is that a dream, or something that can happen someday?
Blair: A Nuclear Weapons Convention would be a phase of the Global Zero [plan]. The first step is to get all the relevant countries into a dialog and negotiation. So the first goal would be to have multiple countries decide the size of their arsenals, and other characteristics of their arsenals, let’s say five years from now. They negotiate where they would be five years after that. And then at some final stage they would agree to a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would have a requirement to go to zero. It would be a universal agreement applying to all countries, and would have mechanisms of verification and enforcement built into it that really have teeth. So I see a Convention as being essential at some stage.
Kazel: Have you heard of any officials, any politicians on any side, who support a Convention?
Blair: None that come to mind. But we do hear politicians – [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin, [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev, and the Obama Administration have all talked about how the next phase of nuclear arms reduction should be multilateral. So that’s the first big step into that arena.
Kazel: On another point, how quickly and how effectively can the superpowers communicate with each other during a crisis? You make the point in your writings that all bets are off during a crisis, that the usual logic and expectations of what any side might do can’t be predicated accurately then. The “Hotline” was established during the Cuban Missile Crisis and then it was expanded during the Reagan years, but other proposals to really ramp up communications mechanisms between the U.S. and Russia seem to have fallen by the wayside.
Blair: This isn’t the area that needs our primary attention. This issue, of miscommunication, of lack of adequate emergency mechanisms [for] communications and consultations – these are problems that largely are huge problems in other parts of the world. For example, India and Pakistan have a long way to go. The United States and China have a long way to go because we don’t have any tradition of transparency in arms control.
There’s big opportunities for misunderstanding between the United States and China, and all these other countries that are acquiring nuclear weapons are in the very early stage of evolving these kinds of mechanisms between themselves and their primary adversaries, whether it’s in the Middle East or South Asia or Northeast Asia…I think that Israel and Iran, for example, could easily get into a nuclear war if Iran got nuclear weapons, because of this [communication] problem.
Kazel: What represents a greater danger, Iran getting nuclear weapons or Israel attacking those weapons?
Blair: Well, if Israel attacks those weapons it will be a conventional attack. If Iran gets those weapons, the possibility of actual use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East grows exponentially. I think [that is] just an unacceptable outcome.
But I also believe that Iran is committed to getting nuclear weapons, because as long as regime change is its most serious worry, it feels it needs nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent. So there’s a long way to go with diplomacy with Iran to reach a stage where Iran feels it doesn’t need nuclear weapons.
It’s a very complex picture in all of these regions that are [acquiring nuclear weapons]: how to come to terms with their security concerns without nuclear weapons. So that’s the agenda of Global Zero. We think that the universal elimination of nuclear weapons is really the only solution. So that if Iran has to give them up, Israel gives them up, as well. And if Israel gives them up, then by gosh, Iran also has to give them up, in the context of a broader disarmament process.