with Dr. Sydney Drell
As a nuclear physicist and arms control expert, Dr. Drell has been a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee and a consultant to the National Security Council and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. From 1978 to 1980 he headed studies on MX missile basing for the Pentagon. According to the New York Times, Dr. Drell is among the small group of influential scientists "who operate as a shadow government" and "scientific countervoice" on strategic weapons in space.
In this interview, conducted at SLAC, Dr. Drell addresses the present crisis in arms control, the impact of public protest on arms agreements and the "star wars" proposal of President Reagan. He also discusses the human rights situation in the Soviet Union and the fate of his friend and colleague, Andrei Sakharov.
NPQ: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently moved their doomsday clock closer to zero hour. Why was that decision made?
DRELL: The decision by the editors of the Bulletin was made because the facts are that the arms control process has broken down and that increased nuclear forces are confronting each other at close distances in Europe. The growth of the Soviet SS 20 force has been matched by our missiles, in particular the Pershing IIs. The risk of conflict is certainly heightened when weapons are put closer to each other's vital targets in greater numbers, and when the rhetoric associated with the confrontation gets hotter.
I don't think either the U.S. or the Soviet Union would deliberately attack one another because we have too much to lose. The stability of deterrence has, if anything, been harmed in recent years by the new weapons. If deterrence is based upon the ability to retaliate, we harm the stability of this arrangement as we begin to threaten each other's deterrent forces. Both sides need to have confidence in their retaliatory capability. We ought to be moving toward a decreased reliance on these weapons.
NPQ: What is the decisive element that makes for this destabilization? Is it a lack of a "political understanding?" Is it an unwillingness on the part of the United States or on the part of the Soviet Union to try to come to some overall agreement on a framework within which to conduct arms control?
DRELL: Well, I guess you could say a lot of things are lacking. Hostility between the countries is certainly at the root. It has been expressed toward the Soviet Union in recent years, and they express it back. Somehow, we haven't developed a comfortable balance. We both have adopted policies of deterrence. We both have said that these policies should be based upon equal security and parity. But we have not done well translating generalities into specifics.
I don't like to say it's good guys versus bad guys. It's just a situation where we are still struggling to settle into what is a fundamentally new relationship between major countries forced upon us by nuclear weapons.
Governments have always in the past been constructed to defend the vital interests of their societies. But now with nuclear weapons, we're saying there is a new condition due to this overwhelming destructive power. We can't go to war anymore. What we need is a new common sense which says these are weapons of suicide, they are not militarily useable, their only value is to deter nuclear aggression.
It's difficult to realize that there's not more security in greater strength. You can't defend yourself. We keep looking for some technological escape or some advantage. We've lost sight of the scale of the problem. Namely, we can destroy each other, we can destroy civilization.
NPQ: A broad consensus seems to be forming on this point. In his most recent book, Real Peace, Richard Nixon argues similarly:
"In the nineteenth century the German military strategist Clausewitz called war 'the continuation of political activity by other means.' In the age of nuclear warfare to continue our political differences by means of war would be to discontinue civilization as we know it ... Unless the superpowers adopt a live and let live relationship, the world will not see real peace in this century. "
DRELL: I agree with that completely. We don't have to like the Soviets, we don't have to like their system. I find that there are many aspects of their system which are poor - in the treatment of human beings particularly - that directly affects colleagues I know and respect. But we're either going to live with them or we're going to die with them. I think that was the essence of deterrence, trying to establish a working relationship. The highest priority is to avoid a nuclear conflict. But I also recognize that if we can normalize and improve relations in other areas, then the climate for making progress in arms control will improve.
NPQ: Other areas meaning...
DRELL: We also need to respect each other's vital interests in the spheres of influence. We need to understand each others' responsibilities as a major power. We must respect each other as having equal rights for developing our trade, economic growth and influence in new areas around the world. We have to develop a relationship so that we don't have enormous distrust as to what each others intentions are.
Basically, when you strive for arms control the first thing you ask is what kind of a treaty can we have? What are our goals? And then you say, "How can I verify compliance with the treaty?" But, there is no perfect verification. You can't know that every "t" is being crossed and every "i" is being dotted. The more you deal with people, the more confidence in your dealings with them grows, the more room you have for making accommodations. That's why detente, trade, commerce, etc. are important parts of building a better way of being a neighbor with someone in the world we may, or may not, like.
A Solution: Limiting the Number of Warheads
DRELL: I would like to see us take concrete steps to reduce the risk of war through accident or miscalculation and to make real progress in arms reduction in a meaningful way.
There are things we can do. For example, my own specific proposal in Senate testimony two years ago, and I say this based upon discussions with senior Soviet military and political people both in this country and in Moscow, is to say we both have too many warheads. It doesn't really matter whether they are on submarines or ICBMs* or on cruise missiles or on bombers. Let us agree that there is a certain number of these warheads that we want to meet whatever our immediate targeting needs are. We could agree on that number with the Soviet Union and then build down to that number. That's very different from a lot of the build-downs that are now being talked about.
NPQ: How is that different from the Reagan Administration's current "build down" proposals?
DRELL: I can't say precisely, because I don't know what's on the negotiating table. But, always there come other requirements such as trying to equalize the "throw weight" or "destructive potential." Or, trying to equalize the faction that are at sea versus the number on land. This gets us involved in trying to mirror-image each other's strategic forces, which is very difficult to do.
The Soviets have a tremendous tradition of land-based rocket forces, but they have a weaker naval tradition. They have poor access to warm water ports. Geographically, we are quite different. Our traditions are different. We have wisely, I believe, put the major part of our forces at sea. And so, to try and configure the Russian forces like ours or ours like theirs makes no sense. Also, the Russians have traditionally built bigger missiles than we have. That states something about their technology.
What matters above all else is the number of nuclear bombs. The difference in their yield - whether they are half a megaton or a megaton - is relatively unimportant when compared with accuracy. These conditions about equalling the throw weight or putting the same proportion at sea or on land or in bombers or missiles are not relevant. For existing systems, we should grandfather past differences. Ignore them. All we have to worry about is the number. Let's agree to some number, something like half of what we now have. In future negotiations, put detailed limits on what the destructive potential is or what the throw weights are. I think there's no problem, because we've made a lot of progress at SALT and START in verifying that weapons have been decommissioned.
I'm convinced that if we would just agree on the number of warheads and the number of launchers for existing systems, then the likelihood of a treaty is very large. It's simple, it's understandable, it's flexible. It allows the Russians to take their reduction steps the way they choose, it allows us to take the ones we choose for our own interests, and it leads to a more stable world.
Counting warheads is the only sensible way to go. If you count throw weight, then you'd be allowing us to have two MXs for every Soviet SS18. That, I can tell you, will not get us anywhere in negotiations. You can't force the Soviets to get rid of the queen of their force that way. In fact, in past negotiations at START we have begun by insisting on a very big drawdown of the SS 18. I understand why the Russians have fought us on that. So, I just want to get rid of these subconditions. I am confident that we could have a treaty then.
NPQ: Presumably, the subconditions are put in the current administration's negotiations because they believe that your proposal would leave the Soviets with superiority in certain kinds of weapon systems.
DRELL: We have chosen to have a superiority of submarine based systems and in bombers. If we believe in overall equivalence, there's got to be some category where the Russians have superiority. And that's why I think the flexibility and simplicity of this proposal increases the prospect of success. It's my understanding from conversations with Soviet leaders, that it would be the basis for a constructive negotiation.
To repeat, because this is an important point, I strongly feel that those of us who have said let's just count warheads are on the track to a breakthrough. That would be the first step. It would serve our needs and permit us to go ahead with our modernization programs as we desire them. It would have the effect of limiting the MX deployments. If you're going to cut down the number of warheads, you're not going to put many MXs out there, because you'd be putting too large a fraction of your warheads on just a few vulnerable aim points. And so, this has the effect that one wants in preventing these huge build-ups of first-strike forces.
Public Awareness and Arms Control
The decision to build the hydrogen bomb in 1950 was made without any public discussion. It may have been futile. It may have been unavoidable, but in 1950 both the US and Soviet Union went ahead escalating the destructive power of weapons. In 1960, the public was involved, expressing concern about fall-out from atmospheric tests. It was not an arms control movement, it was an environmental movement. "What was the air doing to our families and our friends?" they asked. That was certainly a catalyst in the resulting debate leading to the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty.
In 1968, at the beginning of the debate on ABM* systems, the public got involved because the original proposals to defend cities in the United States meant deploying intercepter missiles with nuclear warheads near northern metropolitan cities. The public questioned whether they wanted nuclear bombs around Detroit, Chicago, Boston. That lead to a national debate about ballistic missile defenses, and for the first time the Congress debated about a weapon system in public. The creation of a constituency concerned about the problems catalyzed the political process in a way it had not been before.
At the same time, we went ahead with MIRVs*. That only involved putting more warheads on existing missiles in areas where there were not big populations Wyoming, North Dakota. There was no public saying "why are we doing this? It's going to be harmful to arms control. It's going to make ICBMs into hydraheaded monsters which, with improved accuracy, will threaten each other's security and survivability and thereby fuel the arms race." And so, the absence of a public constituency there was regrettable. The last issue was in 1979, when the public really wasn't on the scene in an effective way at the time of the Salt 11 ratification debate in the Senate. We lost an opportunity for a perfectly sound, if limited, treaty.
The public's awareness in recent years that we're not doing well in arms control has led to the creation of an arms control constituency. This gives me great confidence and optimism. It seems to be a politically broad-based and enduring constituency. It involves moral issues led by the churches. The Catholic bishops have written a magnificent statement about deterrence. It involves medical issues, with the doctors and scientists bringing home the notion of what nuclear war really means. It involves people in the freeze movement saying something's wrong and I want to protest the rhetoric we're hearing about limited winnable nuclear wars. And it wants to protest an arms control process which has not seen decreasing, but increasing arsenals. I think that's great.
The very fact that the MX hasn't been deployed for a long time is not a sign of weakness in the United States. I take it as a sign of the strength of our political process. We have not been indecisive. What indecision has there been? We have Trident submarines, we have cruise missiles, we have two new bombers, we're designing a new small ICBM and another Trident missile. There's a lot of commitment to an increased defense budget. Congress, and the people expressing themselves through Congress are saying, "What the hell do you want the MX for? What's it got to do with deterrence and security? It's going to be vulnerably based. It's going to be a first strike weapon. Why do we want it?"
DRELL: What concerns me about the President's star wars scenario is that it offers the prospect of a technological escape from our present conditions as mutual hostages, and I don't believe one exists. With unconstrained proliferation, no defensive system will work given the destructive power of nuclear weapons, given the fact that a nationwide defense really can't save you unless it's 100% perfect, given the ease with which the offense can take counter measures to either destroy a defense in space or to do an end-run around it. I just don't see any prospect for an effective shield. I do see that if we wanted to improve our circumstance and make nuclear weapons obsolete and impotent as the President said, that the path has to start now and for a large part of the way, consist of arms control and arms reductions.
I liken, and this is a straight technological judgment based upon looking at the systems - the various directed energy technologies and star wars technologies - to a leaky umbrella. A leaky umbrella doesn't do you very much good if you're in a downpour. In other words, if you're facing a very large threat, like we are at the moment with 8-9,000 strategic warheads targeted on us and a comparable slightly larger number of ours targeted on the Soviet Union. But a leaky umbrella, like a leaky defense, can do you a lot of good if you're in a drizzle. And so, if the downpour were reduced to a drizzle by arms reductions so that the forces that we have to defend against are very small, then you can think of a thin umbrella against accident.
Now, the problem with announcing a change in our fundamental strategic relationship with the Soviet Union and unilaterally pursuing it, is that our actions may very well be perceived by the Soviet Union as if we are preparing for a first-strike strategy. And, what would be the result? The result would be, first of all, to foster arms control instability and secondly, crisis instability. Arms control instability because if we see a new Russian defensive system, or they see ours, the first thing they're going to insist upon is to maintain their deterrent. That will mean more offensive weapons being built. History tells us that will happen.
The crisis instability is that in a crisis either side will feel that the other - with this mixed offense/ defense - might strike first because they would perceive that their defense would be relatively more effective against a reduced retaliatory attack. This certainly would breed an insecurity and instabily during times of crisis.
That's why I think moving in the star wars direction
now, unilaterally, is an unfortunate policy. I see no technical escape
from the present circumstance. I think we're better off living with an
imperfect peace, an imperfect treaty with imperfect verification, than
looking for salvation in some imperfect technology. I do think that continuing
research and development as a hedge against technical surprise, at the
appropriate level, and within treaty restraints, is sensible.
It is a truly dangerous illusion that a complex system using all the advanced technologies could be built if you put it in space. It's vulnerable to direct attack by the enemy and it's much more vulnerable than are the ICBMs themselves. It's up there like a sitting duck. If you put them on the ground, and they're to pop up at the time of the attack, there's just no time. It'll be a totally automated system and the response of the offense to burn its boosters faster is available to deny time. You even have to face the prospect that this extremely sophisticated system would have to work perfectly the first time it's turned on. No technical person could ever conceive of that happening.
NPQ: Is what you're saying a consensus among the scientific community?
DRELL: Against an unconstrained offense, most scientists will say that it's impossible. I think many scientists would tell you that it's much too early to have any idea of what a system would be. We don't know how to do battle management for tens of hundreds of thousands of objects. We don't know how to make a system reliably work the first time it's turned on. We can't test it in a nuclear environment.
I believe in an ASAT* treaty because I think that the satellite assets in space for reconnaissance are at least as valuable to us as they are for the Soviet Union. Any development of star wars is going to be a threat to our satellite assets. In fact, development of anti-satellite capabilities is trivial compared with the development of an ABM defense because the anti-satellite capabilities only have to shoot at something like a sitting duck in a shooting gallery as it moves on a predicted trajectory, whereas an ABM has got to handle many objects all at one time and the characteristics can be changed by the offense.
If we go ahead with star wars it will be impossible for us to negotiate a sensible, verifiable anti-satellite treaty. We'll lose an opportunity which we won't have again to help war security in our communications and reconnaissance and intelligence assets in space.
NPQ: Which enhance security?
DRELL: Which enhance security. They're not offensive weapons. They're there to improve our knowledge of what's going on. They are particularly important when looking at a closed society like the Soviet Union. They are there for better command and control and intelligence for a retaliatory force. I find it most unfortunate not to be seriously trying to work out a verifiable ASAT treaty. But doing that would cut off a star wars initiative. If we insist upon going ahead with star wars, there's no way we could have ASAT. Star wars depends upon those satellites. Of course, if you're going to have an ABM system working at the time of attack, you can't reconstitute your intelligence or your communications assets. They always have to be working. You've got no area of invulnerability up there. And so, we have a conflict. Do you want star wars which means you want ASAT? But, if you want ASAT, you can't have star wars. It's just part of the many problems to which I don't see a resolution.
NPQ: Do you think that the star wars proposal is itself in violation of the ABM treaty?
DRELL: The President said it won't be. I think that if one thinks of it only as long-term R & D and everybody understands that, then it won't be. But if we're really serious about star wars, we're going to have to test it and at a certain moment we'll come up against Article V of the Salt I ABM treaty which says parties agree not to deploy, test, or develop space-based ABM components. So, there's no way we're going to get anywhere down the road without running into that treaty.
A very subtle and perhaps dangerous line of argument has been presented on this point by the President's Science adviser, Dr. George Keyworth. In a recent speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, he said, "we might employ a high-powered ground based laser. We might set a goal to demonstrate a multi-megawatt pulse laser. We could do that. Such a demonstration would not demonstrate a workable ABM system. Such systems require an incredibly complex interweaving of technologies. But frankly, if I were a Soviet planner, I would quickly put two and two together and realize that the important part of the technology for an ABM system is well in hand, that development is more a matter of time and breakthrough. Such a demonstration might pressure the Soviets to take our arms proposals more seriously than they do now."
That is a very subtle line which comes close to breaching
the treaty. It's also one that I think is contraindicated by history.
It's a line of thought which I have great difficulty grappling with.
NPQ: You are a close friend of Andrei Sakharov, father of the Soviet H-bomb. He's been in exile in Gorky and I understand he's ill and his wife is ill.
DRELL: Yes, very ill.
NPQ: If we go back to our first question, that we have to find a way to live with the Soviets who have a different system, an oppressive system, because our mutual interest is survival. How do we deal with the question of the human rights of someone like Andrei Sakharov or other persecuted dissidents?
DRELL: Well, I think we deal with it exactly the way Andrei Sakharov himself has said we should deal with it. And that is you fight hard for human rights because you believe in them and they're right. And you fight hard for arms control because you want to survive in the world of civilization, but you don't hold one hostage to the other. It is certainly true that a Soviet system that was more compassionate would be one in which the climate for arms control would be improved. But I reject the notion that one should hold arms control progress hostage to their reforming their society.
I think that's quite consonant with what Andrei Sakharov has said. He gives highest priority to the avoidance of a nuclear holocaust. I feel that I have two fists - I push for arms control as a deep moral obligation to the future generations yet unborn. It's our number one challenge to avoid a holocaust. And I push, as I feel appropriate, for the rights of people around the world who are less fortunate than we are in this country where we've got the luxury and the benefit of the rights that we have.
I feel very bad about the Sakharov case. Andrei is now isolated. I have said to Soviet officials, "why don't you let me bring him here to Stanford where I have a job for him. It would help improve the climate and it would solve your problems?" I am very worried about his wife, because Elena, whom I saw in Moscow last December, has had several recent heart attacks and she's really in quite bad shape. We're urging that they send her to the West, that they show the same humanitarian concern that they showed in the mid-70s. When her eyes were in very bad shape, they allowed her to go to Italy for several eye operations for severe glaucoma. And I would just urge them to again let her come to the West for medical treatment that she very badly needs for her heart. But, I can't mandate that. I just wish they would understand that it's humanitarian, it's right, there's no risk to them in any fundamental way. It couldn't help but improve the climate around the world for more exchange, more scientific cooperation, for all our relations.
NPQ: Do you think they would let Dr. Sakharov himself come to the West?
DRELL: They have said no, for reasons of security. But as one who has been involved in national security for a long time, I reject the notion that a man who has not been involved for more than 18 years with any of the defense problems poses a risk to their security if he comes to the West. It's just not sensible.
*Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles