01/10/2013 - 05:09

Secrecy, the last refuge

To speak frankly, when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists invited me to participate along with colleagues from developing countries in a roundtable discussion on nuclear journalism, I had some reservations. After all, Russia is the primary successor to the Soviet Union, a country that during the cold war was equal to the United States in the nuclear realm. Russia today, due to its giant arsenal of weapons and its advanced nuclear power industry (which constructs plants both domestically and in other countries, notably China and India), occupies the number two position in the nuclear arena. So I had some doubts about whether Russia truly belonged in a discussion of nuclear issues in the developing world.

The surprise is that my fellow Roundtable participants, judging from their initial essays, face many of the same problems as nuclear journalists that I have faced. Primary among these is the swamp of secrecy that confronts anyone who writes on nuclear issues in Russia, and evidently in India and Egypt as well.

I would argue that in the nuclear field there are not as many real secrets as there were 30 or 50 years ago. Designs for atomic bombs can easily be found in textbooks for university physics courses. Because of treaties between Russia and the United States, the locations of these countries' nuclear weapons and the organization of their nuclear forces are not a big secret, and the same largely holds true for France and the United Kingdom because of their transparent democratic institutions. The most important nuclear secrets of other nations are not secret either because of what is delicately referred to as "national means" (space reconnaissance, espionage, and the like). Today, the truly secret information amounts to very specific technical details about weapons or weapons production -- and these topics hold no great public interest.

But a veil of secrecy nonetheless surrounds nuclear issues, and this allows officials to hide their own mistakes and incompetence when it comes to decision making on security issues. The Russian government recently announced that it intends to develop and deploy heavy liquid-fuel missiles to replace its retiring SS-18 missiles. The decision was made in complete secrecy, without discussion, without consultation with experts. But one must wonder how the missiles will be produced. Under the Soviet Union, "heavy" missiles were designed and manufactured in Ukraine. Russia has never produced land-based "heavy" liquid propellant missiles. So Russia must design these new missiles and might also have to build plants to produce them. All this would cost billions of dollars. The leaders of Russia's defense industry are keen on producing the new weapons, and so are top generals from the Strategic Rocket Forces. But no one asks whether the missiles are necessary to the country's security.

President Vladimir Putin insists that Russia's national security can be assured through maintaining quantitative equality with the United States in nuclear warheads. That's why he badly wants these "heavy" delivery vehicles, which can carry a dozen nuclear warheads. In Putin's eyes, only quantitative parity, with its promise of mutual assured destruction, can provide stability. But how do Russian strategists calculate the damage that might be inflicted in a nuclear war? This too is a great secret. Do they follow the sort of formula that US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara established in the 1960s, in which an "unacceptable degree of damage" was calculated as the destruction of 50 percent of a nation's industrial capacity and 20 to 25 percent of its population? In my view, exploding a single warhead represents unacceptable damage, and one warhead is enough to deter any aggressive US proclivities. But if this is the case, Russia is spending enormous resources on nothing.

A culture of secrecy turns national leaders into the hostages of those who provide them information. For example, Putin still believes that the United States wants to use ground-based interceptors to destroy Russian ballistic missiles in the boost phase. The US Congress stopped funding this project in 2009, but Putin ignores publically available information and trusts his secret reports instead.

Secrecy is the last refuge of the bureaucrat. It is where one hides incompetence and conceals self-interest -- meanwhile doing all that can be done to avoid discussing one's decisions.