Interview: Paul Bracken on American nuclear forces in the 21st century

By Dan Drollette Jr | December 15, 2014

Yale University professor Paul Bracken has written numerous books on strategic thinking, including The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger and the New Power Politics; Fire in the East: The Rise of Asian Military Power; and “Command and Control of Nuclear Forces." A physicist and engineer, Bracken teaches “Strategy, Technology, and War,” “Business, Government, and Globalization,” and “Managing Global Organizations” at the Yale University School of Management. He has written articles on topics such as “Financial Warfare” and “Business War Gaming,” because, he says, issues regarding government and multinational corporations often overlap. Bracken serves as a consultant for private equity funds and accounting and insurance companies, as well as several arms of the US government, and he describes his research interest as “the strategic application of technology in business and defense.”

In this interview, he talks about the recent exposés concerning the dangerous state of US nuclear forces, the long-term plans to renovate all three legs of the nuclear triad—at a cost of over a trillion dollars—and how to do so in the post-Cold War era. Bracken also describes how the multi-polar world of today compares to the old bipolar world of the United States and the Soviet Union.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Bulletin: The Obama Administration has proposed spending money for 12 new missile submarines, 100 new bombers, and 400 land-based missiles—either new or refurbished. This is in addition to the tens of billions of dollars the administration already designated to upgrade nuclear laboratories and extend the lives of aging warheads and does not include any emergency fixes, such as for problems that were reported by the New York Times and the Associated Press in the past few weeks. (The November 14 New York Times quoted anonymous senior officials who said “they were trying to determine how much the emergency repairs would cost. The short-term fixes ‘will be billions’ over the next five years, one official said.” Altogether, the Monterey Institute of International Studies estimates the total cost of the country’s nuclear enterprise over the next 30 years will be up to $1.1 trillion. Do those numbers seem about right?

Bracken: These are just estimates; you and I both know we’ll be lucky to get it for under $2 trillion over 30 years, if the past is any guide. History shows that there’s a bias towards underestimating the final cost of any big overhaul programs by a factor of two-to-three in real dollars. This is presuming that you want to take everything we have now, in every leg of the triad, and replace every bit of it with more modern versions: new bombers, new submarines, and new ICBMs. That figure would not include the costs of building, testing, and distributing a brand-new warhead, which seems likely to happen.

Bulletin: Is a complete all-out, top-to-bottom modernization of the entire nuclear triad worth it? Couldn’t fewer nuclear platforms made more survivable do the trick?

Bracken: Absolutely. Historically, greater survivability has been a favored avenue. Which is why the United States shifted so much of its deterrence to submarines in the 1960s; they weren’t hardened, but if you can’t find them, you can’t kill them. The underlying idea is that survivability doesn’t always mean you need super-hardened concrete silos in Montana; you could get the same end result through greater mobility or concealment. So you have fewer platforms giving you more bang for the buck.

That means that there are many alternatives to the triad.

But it is striking to me that the intellectual capital to analyze these questions has more or less disappeared after the end of the Cold War. So for example, the Air Force doesn’t really explore any of these alternatives in anything like a creative way. I think they’ve forgotten how to think about these things. There’s a bias towards reproducing what you already have in place.

Bulletin: It’s a case of bureaucratic inertia?

Bracken: It’s bureaucratic inertia, but also a real absence of thought leadership in these areas. There’s no intellectual capital to reach out and draw on—or reject. In the Cold War, there were a number of think tanks that pursued some very creative—some would say wild—thinking about what our nuclear posture should be called upon to do, and what form it should take. But there are very few think tanks that study these issues any more, other than from a very partisan point of view; they know the answer before they start.

And hewing to preconceived viewpoints is not just confined to analysis of strategic forces. All of the major think tanks have moved inside the Washington Beltway over the past 20 years. The whole place of think tanks in American society today is nothing like what it was during the Cold War, when there was a real striving for scientific objectivity, drawing on people from all over the political spectrum, and from many different fields. The absence of the physicists today is quite striking.

And I say this as someone who worked for the Hudson Institute think tank back in the 1990s—it’s just not the same field today.

Bulletin: Still, despite the tendency towards partisan viewpoints, isn’t there a cheaper or more innovative way to accomplish nuclear deterrence?

Bracken: Well, we’ve sort of forgotten how to explore other nuclear postures outside of the dated, old Cold War measures. So there’s a ripe, rich area for analysis concerning alternatives. For example, we could give up one leg of the nuclear triad entirely. Or even two legs of the triad—such as the ICBM force and the bomber force—and put all of our nuclear deterrent on submarines. So, that’s one alternative.

Another idea is to retain all of the individual legs but make each one smaller—to simply have a much smaller overall numerical force in terms of launchers or warheads or whatever. That could be an adequate deterrent in a world where a massive surprise attack by a Russia or a China on US nuclear forces seems a remote possibility—or at least more remote than it did during the Cold War.

Bulletin: If a massive surprise attack by a major power is so remote, then does the United States really need a nuclear response at all? Can we have zero nuclear weapons?

Bracken: The easy answer is that it is precisely because the United States has nuclear weapons that the chances of such an attack are remote—retaliation from us is assured.

But beyond that, I think that there are always contingencies that we cannot consider, such as a local regional war that develops between two smaller powers and somehow causes the United States to need to get involved in order to prevent it from escalating further. Or maybe even the presence of our nuclear weapons deters that kind of regional war entirely.

It’s just like what could have happened during the Cuban missile crisis, or the Afghan war, or the Iraq wars: Conflicts can escalate in ways you can’t predict, and you can’t spell out the whole scenario beforehand. Who would have thought that the assassination of an obscure archduke in a remote part of the Austro-Hungarian empire would lead to France fighting Germany?

So, the United States needs more than zero nuclear weapons.

And let’s admit it: Domestic politics and perceptions have historically mattered a great deal in the Cold War, and are likely to do so in the future. The mere fact that Russia or China had some number of weapons—and say that, hypothetically, the United States did not—would cause domestic pressure for us to catch up.

I’m just thinking out loud here, but there is also another side to all this. It’s likely that US nuclear guarantees to other countries—saying that we’ll protect them by using our nuclear weaponry—means that those countries don’t need to get their own nuclear weapons. Places like Japan don’t need nuclear weapons of their own because they are protected by our nuclear umbrella. So you could argue that what we have stockpiled in the United States actually prevents nuclear weapons proliferation worldwide.

Bulletin: Wouldn’t this huge investment in upgrading the triad be hard to explain, coming from an administration that came into office talking about a path to eliminating nuclear weapons around the globe? Although in fairness, Obama did also pledge to spend the money to make the country’s nuclear arsenal as safe and reliable as possible.

Bracken: First of all, most of this money would be spent by future administrations. The pattern in the Obama administration is to come up with these very large modernization budgets and then not spend the money to put them into effect. But there’s a deeper question: The president’s 2009 Prague speech, in which he laid out a vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world, was viewed by many people as, well, a very “illusioned” one that had little chance of practical realization. At least so far—admittedly only five years—it does not seem to have convinced Russia, China, North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, India, or Iran to go down the weapons-free road.

Bulletin: If you feel that we cannot get rid of nuclear weapons entirely, then do you think it is possible to at least reduce their numbers? 

Bracken: Most of the nuclear weapons in the world today are held by the United States or Russia. Which means you’ve got only two countries to deal with. Based on that, I would say that it is very possible to shrink that force. And it would be a good thing to do.

Bulletin: Can we further shrink the number of countries in the nuclear club? By way of example, South Africa got rid of its nukes, and Libya dropped its program.

Bracken: My view is that the fewer nuclear-armed countries, the better. It’s clearly a good thing to try to do.

But it’s harder, although still possible. For example, North Korea may collapse on short notice. And if it does so peacefully, that would eliminate one of them.

And although we just don’t know for sure, it is conceivable that we could stop Iran from joining the list of nuclear countries.

And then there are the interesting cases of Britain and France. It is striking to me that, after the president’s Prague speech, we put no pressure on either London or Paris to give up their nuclear weapons. If you think that the use of nuclear weapons by the United States is just a remote possibility, then it has to be transcendentally remote for the United Kingdom or France to use their respective nuclear weapons. This would have been an easy pathway for cutting down the number of countries who have atomic weapons. But the United States did nothing to pursue this option.

We also did nothing to restrain another nuclear-armed country that is often in the news: Israel. 

Bulletin: Why didn’t we encourage our allies to get rid of their nuclear weapons?

Bracken: If those countries gave up the bomb, then the United States would be the only Western democracy with nuclear weapons.

And by letting them keep their bombs, that allows them to punch above their weight in international affairs, due to the mere possession of nuclear weapons. There’s a lot of subtle issues here; we can’t put as much pressure as we’d like on our allies, although we can put all the pressure we want on Iran.

But I think we should try to encourage our allies to go down this road; it makes no sense for Britain to have nuclear weapons. And yet we’ve never pointed this out to London.

If the United States could have put pressure on any one country to disarm, it would have been the United Kingdom: there’s a lot of domestic support for disarmament over there, and has been for years. Yet we fully supported Tony Blair’s decision to spend all that money on an upgraded nuclear submarine fleet.

And I also think that France is a possibility for nuclear disarmament, especially at a time when they are cutting so much of their defense budget. The French nuclear force consumes an enormous fraction of the overall French defense, despite the fact that most French generals think that they will never use these things. It would be far more practical for them to concentrate on building light, mobile forces—they would be much more usable, in Africa, the Middle East, and other places where France is most likely to be involved.

Bulletin: If these nuclear systems are so expensive, unpopular, and unlikely to be used, then why don’t these countries give up their nuclear forces of their own accord, without any encouragement from us?

Bracken: It gets complicated fast. For France, for example, to give up all its nuclear forces now would be to give up all pretenses of being a global power. Germany is clearly the major economic power in the European Union, and that doesn’t leave much for France to claim for itself, outside of military power. I was just in Berlin, and the remodeling and rebuilding there has turned that city into a sort of anti-war peace museum. This is not true of Paris, with its large military museum on Les Invalides and Napoleon’s Tomb—they’re still, in some sense, celebrating French military prowess.

French dictionaries still come with maps on the flyleaf showing old French possessions from the height of the French empire.

And there’s another element involved: If France did give up all its nuclear weapons and Britain didn’t, then this would play on the huge inferiority complex that France has with Britain already. And that would really be intolerable, it seems to me, for Paris.

So, one can think up all these reasons for our allies to want to give up nuclear weapons on their own, but then all these other factors come into play—it’s not just technical issues about "counterforce versus countervalue" targeting.

I don’t know why more analysts haven’t looked at these interesting political and cultural questions regarding why our allies still have nuclear weapons. We always want to focus on Iran or North Korea.

Bulletin: Do these complications mean that the world is a more dangerous place now than it was in the Cold War?

Bracken: I think that we are at least living in a second nuclear weapons age.

While there were several nuclear powers in the previous era, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union overshadowed the others, which meant that the dynamics then were largely bipolar. In contrast, today we live in a multipolar nuclear world.

For example, although I’ve described it as an anti-war museum, Berlin is selling six Dolphin-class submarines to the Israeli Navy, and they are almost surely to be used by the Israelis as carriers of nuclear weapons. Now, the Germans didn’t have anything to do with the nuclear warheads, but that’s what von Braun used to say about his involvement with the V-2: “I just build the rockets, and what the military does with them isn’t my department.”

To top things off, the sale of those submarines was not even reviewed by the Bundestag—the German legislature. It was totally an executive decision, done over their heads.

Now, I’m not saying that I oppose this decision; just that there are so many interesting dimensions. Yet in the United States the whole debate is reduced to a very narrow conceptualization of what a nuclear posture is.

Nuclear weapons are now integral to foreign and defense policies in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, where governments have embraced them as necessary tools of regional stability and deterrence. This emerging global nuclear system will make it impossible to eliminate nuclear weapons for the next 50 years, although who knows what will happen in the longer term. The only solution for the near future is to manage the problem.

And everything is all inter-related. No one can look at the Middle East today and say: “We’ll just separate the peace process between Israel and Palestine from the Iranian nuclear program or Iranian support for Hezbollah.” Similarly, one can’t just look at South Asia and just look at the conventional military balance.

Bulletin: Your 2012 book, The Second Nuclear Age, charged: “Nuclear forces were left to rot, technologically and intellectually.” This issue came to a head recently, as shown in an Associated Press exposé last month. A subsequent New York Times followup reported that the Pentagon will have to spend billions of dollars over the next five years to make “emergency fixes” to its nuclear weapons infrastructure. Investigators said that things had gotten so bad that the crews that maintain the nation’s 450 ICBMs had only a single wrench to share between them—and they have been forced to FedEx the one tool to three different bases in order to attach the nuclear warheads.

Bracken: (Laughs.) Yes, I saw that. You can’t make this up. This fits in very much with my findings and those of others. We’ve gone overboard in trying to save money.

But I want to point out something important, that’s easily missed. I teach at a business school, and if you looked at a company that had these characteristics, you wouldn’t blame the store clerks or the waitresses. You would blame senior management—the Department of Defense, the armed services—for its handling of the operation and maintenance of our nuclear weapons.

And all the studies that have been done of this issue all blame senior management for a lack of attention to the nuclear enterprise. These were major studies, one of which just came out two months ago.

The point here is not to blame the store clerks, but to blame who gets paid the big bucks to make the decisions. There have been inadequate efforts here.

Bulletin: The Times article went on to say that things such as the broken blast door and the lack of tools were just a few of the many maintenance problems that had “been around so long that no one reported them anymore.” Promises of new infrastructure had been made for so long that the missile launch crews did not believe the new equipment would arrive during their careers.

Bracken: That’s right. There was a very good, concise summary of this done within the last year by Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes during a visit to Strategic Command. One thing I’ll never forget was when she was on camera with some Air Force officer who said that they’re not susceptible to cyber attack—because they don’t have any Internet access. They are still using those big floppy disks that I used way back in college. I think that’s really looking on the sunny side of the street.

Bulletin: Is this decline something new, or has it been festering for a long time? A Wall Street Journal article said: “Most Americans have thought as little as possible about nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War.” Is that part of the reason why our missile command has been neglected?

Bracken: There are a number of factors, one of which is the Cold War’s end. Another is that the center of action in military operations has clearly been in areas like precision strike, information warfare, and other places.

But I think another dimension to this is that some people are so opposed to nuclear forces that they welcome their disappearing due to apathy and lack of maintenance. They would be the last ones to call out these problems because they think that if the problems go on indefinitely, the systems will just be too expensive to refurbish. And they think that’s a good thing.

But nuclear weapons are dangerous items to neglect, and there have been several well-documented accidents, which have been very troubling.

Although I do have to admit that I personally don’t think we were ever close to a nuclear launch or a detonation. Those who tell you that our nuclear forces are on a hair-trigger simply don’t know what they’re talking about—thank God.

If you had this force and only one wrench, you wouldn’t want to put it on a hair trigger either. We’re not that stupid. But the accidents we’ve had, have been bad enough.

Bulletin: The maintenance problems came on the heels of scandals over cheating on tests among nuclear forces. (In March, the Air Force fired nine officers and accepted the resignation of the commander at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana for failing to provide adequate oversight of the launch officers implicated in the scandal.) A newly released study by Gen. Larry D. Welch of the Air Force and Adm. John C. Harvey Jr. of the Navy found that in the tedious work of nuclear readiness, a culture of micromanagement flourished, creating busywork while huge problems with equipment and readiness were ignored. “Extreme testing” meant that the goal became scoring a near-perfect grade on exams, rather than making sure that the systems worked and the missile crews were ready to operate under combat conditions. Does that fit in with your observations?

Bracken: That squares with my experience and knowledge of the system from my research.

And it does raise a question that no one seems to want to ask: If things are so bad, if for some reason we did want to fire an individual nuclear weapon, could we? Would the weapon take off?

With all of the problems in our nuclear force, it seems to me that there’d be some real doubts. You really wouldn’t want to use one of these weapons, because you don’t know what is going to happen.

Now, if there was a massive Russian attack, I’m sure we could retaliate—we’ve got enough weaponry at our disposal, if we fire enough of them in a mass counterstrike, some are bound to work. But anything short of that is likely to offer only low-confidence options.

And if that’s what the situation is like here, it makes one wonder what it’s like in the former Soviet Union.

Bulletin: What could be done to improve things here? 

Bracken: I would support the idea of more pay, more recognition, less nit-picking, more focus on essentials like having the proper equipment—and fixing blast doors. And doing things to bolster morale, such as handing out a pin or patch for successfully completing a hundred missile alerts.

But just as essential is that the Department of Defense and the armed services need to develop more intellectual capital in this field. They need to think about why we need nukes; what the important scenarios are, for us and other countries; how a nuclear war could start, and what difference it would make for the United States; and how arms control needs to be restructured to fit the situation of the 21st century and not a bipolar competition that ended in 1991.

These are not things that can be handled by simply changing some bureaucratic procedures. We have to ask, "What is the whole role of nuclear weapons in the 21st century?"

And I would go further and say that the problem today is not US nuclear weapons, but it’s really other countries’ nuclear weapons. That is what really influences what we should be buying.

Bulletin: Would you describe yourself as an optimist or a pessimist about the future?

Bracken: I’m an optimist, in that I sense that the problems relating to nuclear weapons in the 21st century are reaching such a level that they’re attracting better people, smarter people, and more government interest. So attention is coming back to these issues; I’ve seen a lot of it just in the past year, with the attention given to the Air Force’s problems being but one of several examples. At the same time, our nuclear force is wearing out from age, forcing us to take stock.

And we’re coming to realize that other countries will likely have the Bomb for a long time, so we’d better understand how they think about it.

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