the Bomb? Heck No, It's Too Useful
© National Journal Group Inc.
Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001
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
Kitfield recently interviewed Robinson in Washington.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. 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
A. 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.
Q. And you've taken on the mission of sounding the alarm?
A. 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.
Q. Arms control advocates would argue that the NPT is
largely responsible for many nuclear have-nots doing without
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. Do you think the Bush Administration's proposed missile
defense system will lessen the need for some offensive nuclear
weapons in the deterrence equation?
A. 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?
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. Why is START II unfavorable for the Russians?
A. 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
Q. 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
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. If our implicit threat of nuclear retaliation deterred
rogue states such as Iraq and North Korea, why do we need
new nuclear weapons?
A. 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.
Q. Isn't the United States' vaunted conventional military
superiority -- based in large part on our increasingly accurate
precision-guided weapons -- enough of a deterrent?
A. No. We've seen examples as recently as the 
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.
Q. Wouldn't fielding new, low-yield nuclear weapons capable
of penetrating underground bunkers require new designs and
a return to nuclear testing?
A. 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.
Q. 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
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. Are you seriously worried that aging will cause a catastrophic
defect in our nuclear stockpile?
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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
Q. Why not send a message that the United States will
not be the first to use nuclear weapons?
A. 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.