Reverting Back to 'Cold War' Thinking: The Real Nuclear Danger Everyone Is Missing

why we need to recognize the fatal flaw in US nuclear policy before it’s too late

by Zack Brown, originally published in The National Interest. Listen to the whole episode on Press the Button.

American policymakers “have reverted back to Cold War thinking” on US nuclear weapons, argues former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry in his new book with Ploughshares Fund’s Tom Collina, “The Button: The New Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump.”

In the book, the two authors make the case that “today’s military leaders have learned the wrong lessons from the Cold War and are keeping the most dangerous aspects of US nuclear policy when they no longer need to.”

Chief among these is the hyper-focus on a “bolt-from-the-blue” Russian nuclear attack, a threat around which American nuclear forces - with their reliance on presidential sole authority and missiles on hair-trigger status - have long been designed to counter, said Perry and Collina on an interview with the Ploughshares Fund podcast, Press The Button.

But this danger, if it ever existed, is now “vanishingly small,” they wrote. “Smaller, indeed than the risk that we might start a nuclear war by mistake. And once you make that mental shift - that the real threat is blundering into war - you come to see existing nuclear policy as very, very dangerous.”

To Perry, this danger is not just an abstraction. In 1980, as undersecretary of defense, he was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from NORAD. The general on the other end of the line reported that his warning computer was showing two hundred incoming ICBMs, though he quickly reassured Perry that this was a false alarm (it was later determined that an operator had placed a training tape in the system by accident).

Had it not been recognized as a mistake, the alert would certainly have gone up to President Jimmy Carter, who would have had just minutes to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike. Had he done so, he would have invited an actual Soviet attack, leading to the deaths of tens of millions on each side.

Despite this danger, the United States’ nuclear posture has remained remarkably unchanged in the decades since the end of the Cold War. Collina blamed it on inertia, pointing out that “we never really rethought” our core nuclear policies once the Soviet Union collapsed.

Part of this, he explained, is that once large defense programs become established, they tend to self-perpetuate as careers and contracts are latched onto weapons systems. “It becomes very difficult to change,” he continued, “even if the underlying rationale for the policy in the first place is no longer true.”

US land-based ICBMs are a prime example of this trend, said Collina. “The false alarm dangers are driven primarily by our land-based ballistic missiles” which, vulnerable in their static silos, generate a “use-them-or-lose-them” mentality, he explained, especially if a cyberattack on US nuclear command systems shows phantom missiles inbound. “In fact, this is the scenario we write about at the beginning of the book: blundering into a nuclear war as a result of a cyber-attack that creates a false alarm” which forces the president to initiate a nuclear “response.”

But instead of moving away from this Cold War-era system with all its inherent risks, the military establishment is doubling down, said Perry and Collina. This year’s National Defense Authorization Act includes $1.5 billion for a new fleet of land-based missiles, just a tiny fraction of the estimated $100 billion overall price tag associated with the program.

Any chance at stopping this new program before it generates its own inertia can only come from the White House, explained Collina. “The president determines nuclear policy. These are the president’s weapons,” he said. But such a dramatic policy shift requires sustained public pressure against the nuclear status quo, something that’s been difficult to generate since the end of the Cold War.

That may change as ever-tighter federal budgets force a reevaluation of spending priorities, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current national reckoning on race, argued the two experts. “The need to repair the economy, the need to respond to the coronavirus, the need to respond to racial inequities that have built up for generations - all of these things will cost money,” said Collina. “And there’s a lot of money that is being spent unwisely on nuclear weapons.”

For Perry, who has spent a lifetime at the nuclear brink, it is a clear choice. “Even if our nuclear weapons came for free, I would oppose them,” he explained. “And that is because of the danger they cause. As long as we have them deployed, as long as we have policies to use them, they are a threat. And not just to our country; they are a threat to our entire civilization.”

The entire interview with Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and Tom Collina is available here on Press The Button.

Zack Brown is a policy associate at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.