Concerned about a “war by blunder,” Sam Nunn, the former U.S. senator from Georgia who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he favors “tightening the screws in sanctions” on North Korea, but the U.S. needs to communicate with the country at the same time. In an interview with VOA Contributor Greta Van Susteren, Nunn favors modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, as set forth by the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. But Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, questions the need for developing more low-yield nuclear weapons. Interview was conducted February 20, 2018.
Van Susteren: Senator nice to see you, sir.
Nunn: Good to see you, Greta.
Van Susteren: Senator I want to go back to the Nuclear Threat Initiative and how you began, got involved in this, but I want to go back to 1991 what happened with the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Soviet Union was falling, tell me what you did?
Nunn: Well I was chair of the Armed Services Committee, and Senator Luger was a big player on the [Senate] Foreign Relations Committee and I’m in Budapest, Hungary at a conference with Soviet Union representatives, European representatives. Gorbachev gets taken captive. For three days we wait to see what happens. He gets released, one of our Russian friends who had been at the conference calls me, says: “Come to Moscow, big things are happening.” I went to Moscow, I stayed about four days. I visited with Gorbechev. I watched the debate about the break-up of the Soviet Union. I visited with the “new military leaders” who were loyal to [Boris] Yeltsin and I said to myself on the way back: “This place is coming apart and it’s coming apart with thousands of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons materials and we’ve got to do something about it.” That led to the introduction of what became the Nunn-Luger bill. It passed in late 1991 after a very rough start but three or four months later the House and the Senate went along with it and it became known as Cooperative Threat Reduction, helping the former Soviet Union, not just Russia but the other countries that had nuclear weapons and there were four of them — not just Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan and they were very big arsenals and we helped all of them over the next ten, fifteen years to try to secure their nuclear weapons and materials. Try to prevent catastrophic terrorism and also to try to give some meaningful role in life to people who weren’t being paid very well — the scientists — that knew how to make a nuclear weapon — that did not know how to support their families.
Van Susteren: Since that point when the Soviet Union fell and the legislature was passed to help contain or help secure nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, has the threat increased or receded?
Nunn: I think the threat of a deliberate all-out war with a major party like Russia — deliberate, I’ll put the emphasis on that — has receded. I think the chances of a war by blunder, or a war because of cyber interference with command and control; a war because the United States and Russia escalate in some region like the Middle East or Ukraine; I think that kind of danger has gone up. And certainly the danger of catastrophic terrorism because the know how — the ability to make a crude nuclear weapon, not necessarily one that could be put up on a missile and fly through space but a crude nuclear weapon that could be put in the back of a truck or in a ship in a port, I think those dangers have gone up. So — deliberate war in my view, has receded, but war by blunder has increased in terms of risk and danger.
Van Susteren: After 9-11 the 9-11 commission said that al-Qaida wanted to get their hands on a nuclear weapon. Obviously the know-how is, as you said, out there. The materials are out there, materials that are insecure in many nations and you’ve got the added part that terrorists often times suicide bombers don’t have that survival instinct. Does that increase your worry, does that make you feel that there is more of a danger or am I being an alarmist?
Nunn: I think there is more of a danger. The basic fundamental thing we have to all understand, in Russia and the United States is Russia and the United States — we have together 90 percent of the nuclear materials. When we’re at each other’s throats, so to speak — when we’re in the Middle East or Ukraine or over the elections, where there is cyber interference here, all of those things make the world inherently more dangerous. The United States and Russia have the huge nuclear arsenals and have a huge responsibility. Unless we’re working together the world gets more dangerous. And then you overlay cyber, you overlay terrorism, you overlay the fact that we’ve got four new countries with nuclear weapons and nine nuclear weapons states now. All of those things in my view have driven up the risk and the danger.
Van Susteren: Do we need as many nuclear weapons as we have? Does the United States have a huge arsenal — far more than we need?
Nunn: The key of survivability — the key is reliability and the key is safe and secure. So as long as we have nuclear weapons we have to have them safe, secure, reliable and in my view — as many as possible for survival, meaning they can take a first attack and still be able to retaliate. That’s what deterrence is. That’s what stability means. So the answer is we can reduce nuclear weapons but we have to do it in concert with what’s going on in Russia and what’s going on in China, so we need to work together. And I’ve said a number of times that if you look at all those dangers, particularly catastrophic terrorism and cyber and so forth, the world is in a race between cooperation and catastrophe and right now, cooperation is not running very fast.
Van Susteren: Modernization. I hear that used all the time. Do we need to modernize our nuclear weapon arsenal or is what we have sufficient?
Nunn: No, I think we need to modernize the arsenal and we need to modernize the infrastructure because you’ve got to have safe, secure and reliable weapons as long as they exist. Schultz, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger and Bill Perry and I all believe we need to reduce the amounts* of nuclear weapons, also make a contribution to having them not proliferate — not spread to other nations and ultimately — we would all like to see a world without nuclear weapons but as long as there are nuclear weapons, America has to have a modern, safe and secure infrastructure and delivery system as well as the weapons themselves.
Van Susteren: Trump administration released in early February the Nuclear Posture Review and this is the first one since the Obama Administration released one in early 2010. Do you know how it’s changed at all or what the difference is between the two?
Nunn: Well, the good news is, as you remember, President Trump during the campaign said two or three times that it would probably be ok for Japan and South Korea and Saudi Arabia to have nuclear weapons — well — those of us in this business — so to speak — were horrified at that because the policy of the United States under every president since World War II has been not to have nuclear weapons proliferate to new countries. It just makes all the dangers greater. But the good news is that in this Nuclear Posture Review it is very clear that United States policy has not changed in that regard. We’re still against proliferation and we still are signed up for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is enormously important. It’s sort of the pillar of stability in arms control. The other good news is the Administration has said they are not going to test. The bad news is that they are not in favor of ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty but at least we’re not going to test. So there are some good developments in here, in the Nuclear Posture Review and there are some things that I think raise very big questions and concerns.
Van Susteren: One of the things that I was reading about was low yield nuclear weapons. And, do we need those? Doesn’t that start sort of an arms race of other nations wanting low-yield nuclear weapons?
Nunn: Well, you don’t want to make nuclear weapons usable. The head of our strategic air command — I’ll call it strategic strike command — that’s old school — Striker Command now — General Hayden — said within the last year in testimony that all nuclear weapons are strategic. There is no such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. If someone uses a nuclear weapon, the world has changed and the response will probably be strategic. So — I subscribe to that theory and I think a lot of conversation about usability of nuclear weapons — whether it comes from the Russian side, where they have a sort of a worse vocabulary and “escalate to deescalate” I don’t think there’s any such thing as escalating nuclear weapons to deescalate. General Hayden made it clear that he didn’t think that either, so, this is something that really ought to be debated. We’ve always had lower yield nuclear weapons but the terminology in this nuclear posture review seems to indicate that the United States believes to counter Russia’s “escalate to deescalate” we need to have more usable nuclear weapons and new nuclear weapons. So I think that raises serious questions and I think the burden [of proof] is on those who think we need new weapons for that purpose.
Nunn: And particularly, the concern I have is reference to having a small nuclear weapon on a missile on a submarine. These submarines are our most survivable part of the Triad. If we shoot a small nuclear weapon off a submarine, how in the world is Russia or any other country going to know that it’s not the real biggest nuclear weapon we have. And what would we do if everybody goes to that concept? Do we start having small weapons being shot off submarines with that capacity? I think this is a really dangerous move and I think there are serious questions about to be raised on it. Now, on the other hand, there’s also discussion about a cruise missile, a sea launched cruise missile, to counter the Russian violation of INF, which is of grave concern. And I think that one has room for real discussion. But to take one of our, we call them ‘boomers,’ Trident submarines and put a small warhead on it, and act like the other countries would know it’s a small warhead when it’s being fired, to me raises serious questions. The other factor here would be, do we reveal the location of the submarine?
Van Susteren: When we shoot one off, don’t they know where the location…
Nunn: The trajectory would show where it is
Van Susteren: Would show where it is at that point.
Nunn: I would be shocked if they didn’t lay down as many nuclear warheads as they could in that region, even though the sub would move out because they would fire on the sea. But I think this raises some very big stability concerns and I’m hoping Congress will ask these hard questions because this is serious stuff.
Van Susteren: The way, as a non sophisticated person in nuclear technology, the way I see these low yield nuclear weapons is sort of mini nukes, and I don’t quite understand why we need mini-nukes. I guess it’s because if the Russians lob a mini-nuke, low-yield someplace, we want to respond likewise and not use one of the big nukes and take out, something catastrophic. On the other hand, it creates a whole new arms race maybe to me because other countries would want them as well. Secondly, why don’t conventional weapons, why wouldn’t they serve the purpose, can’t conventional weapons answer a low-yield?
Nunn: Yes, I think all of those are relevant questions and good questions. We also already have low-yield. We’ve had low-yield for a long time. We’ve had a weapon you could carry that is this big that we had, ADMs that you put in holes in the ground and fill the gap. So we’ve had them a long time. He real danger is the psychology and when we start advertising as the United States as a country that’s the strongest military in the world that we need a whole new weapons system and we are thinking about having a weapons that is more usable, now those who are for it will argue that they don’t believe you’ll use a big one. Well, I don’t know whether that’s accurate or not. My view, the US and Russia, if we both start talking about usability and you project that on the other seven nuclear powers in the world or nuclear weapons states, I think the world becomes very very dangerous.
Van Susteren: What’s the situation between the United States and Russia, how much notice do we have of each other using these weapons, because I know you’ve been outspoken about that.
Nunn: Well, the United States and Russia have never had much decision time for the leaders. If there was some kind of warning, the President of the United States and the president of Russia don’t have much decision time. You can debate whether its two minutes or five minutes or seven minutes, but the point is we should both be working to increase decision time.
Van Susteren: And especially since there have been mistakes?
Nunn: Absolutely. False warning and as I mentioned before, cyber-attacks, someone simulates and attack, you’ve got a false warning or it interferes with cyber, non-nation states might interfere with cyber command and control. And so I think the lack of decision time is fundamental and it would be my view the worlds would be a lot safer if we, the United States president and the Russian president and hopefully the other nuclear weapons states will say to their military commanders ‘go off and get in a room with each other and come back and give us more decision time. If we have five minutes now, give us 10 minutes before we have to either use them or lose them and when we get to 10 minutes, go to 20 and then 20 to an hour, to a day to a week and then nuclear weapons become less relevant and guess what? If they become less relevant, then we can begin and decrease the numbers of nuclear weapons. But if we make nuclear weapons more and more relevant, and that’s the big question in this posture review, are we making them more relevant or are we making them, for instance, there’s an implication in the nuclear posture review that’s just come out, that we might respond to a non-nuclear attack with nuclear weapons if it’s a cyberattack, a major cyberattack. Well, this raises questions about attribution. Do we really know where it came from and then we have to ask the question: if the other eight countries do the same thing, now we’ve got nuclear weapons around the world responding to a major cyberattack, how do we know it’s not third parties, how do we know who it is? So we don’t want to go down that route unless we ask some very serious questions and in my view, have discussions with the other nuclear weapons states. Communications in this era is very important because all nuclear weapons states have grave dangers facing them and if we don’t have some rules of the road in the cyber world, if we don’t have rules of the road on decision time, then I really fear for the future of our children and grandchildren.
Van Susteren: It seems more perilous to me listening to you than back in 1991 when you were securing the military weapons the Soviet Union had, when you interject the dangers of cyberterrorism, I mean the world’s gotten profoundly dangerous that way.
Nunn: I think it has, but that was a period of, maximum danger because you had an empire coming apart with thousands of nuclear weapons, tons of chemical weapons and they had scientists and technicians that didn’t know how to feed their families, but they had this knowledge and possession of the weapons, so that was a danger of terrorism, of the weapons leaking. The long pole in the tent for any terrorist who wants to blow up a crude weapon, a nuclear weapon, is getting the nuclear materials. And at that stage, nuclear material was much looser and less protected than they are now. The good news is that we are the world is doing a much better job of protecting nuclear materials. We’ve got a long way to go but progress has been made on that front under both Republican and Democratic presidents.
Van Susteren: Alright, we’ve had situations like AQ Khan in Pakistan essentially being the Walmart of nuclear technology and peddling that to different places, but North Korea is getting it from someplace. Where is North Korea getting its nuclear material?
Nunn: Well, I would assume that would come from multiple sources. Perhaps back in the old days, China, perhaps Russia, perhaps Pakistan, you know the arms bazaar that came out of Khan in Pakistan, so various sources I’m sure/ But North Korea is a ticking time bomb. And the danger in North Korea is not only North Korea itself, but what happens in terms of the temptation of South Korea or Japan or other countries in the region having their own nuclear weapons and that’s the nightmare. The more nuclear countries you have, the greater the danger.
Van Susteren: It seems that we’ve had 70 years with the Russia and US having nuclear weapons, give or take, and we’ve had no nuclear incidents, with some near misses in that there’s been a false alarm but nothing happened. North Korea, we don’t have that track record and we have a threatening president of North Korea who’s tested nuclear weapon, he’s tested an ICBM, and we don’t have that relationship that we had, that you had back then with the Soviet Union.
Nunn: We did talk to the Soviet Union during the days of great tension, we always had communications with them.
Van Susteren: So what about this with North Korea?
Nunn: I think we need carrots and sticks with North Korea. I’m in favor of tightening the screws on sanctions but also think we need to communicate with North Korea. We don’t want nor should any country want a war by blunder. We can’t have that. It’s a mistake because the atmosphere is so poisoned, and the rhetoric on both sides, which has calmed down recently, because perhaps of the Olympics, makes everything more dangerous it makes mistakes more likely by people out there manning the radar systems that are basically controlling the weapons. So there, the rhetoric is important. Even if you don’t agree, I think talking is essential, if for nothing else, to make sure we don’t misinterpret each other and get into a war nobody wants.
Van Susteren: It sure feels dangerous.
Nunn: It is.
Van Susteren: Senator, nice to see you. We miss you in the US Senate.
Nunn: Good to be with you. Thanks.