INTERVIEW WITH ADMIRAL STANSFIELD TURNER - (18/12/97)
INTERVIEWER: To begin with, you've written quite a lot about the numbers of nuclear weapons that America has. Why did America get into the position that it had quite so many nuclear weapons during the Cold War?
ADMIRAL STANSFIELD TURNER: America and Russia have excessive numbers of nuclear weapons today because we treated nuclear weapons, at the end of World War II, like they were just bigger conventional weapons. If you have tanks, and the other side has more than you, you may be in trouble - or airplanes or ships or whatever. With nuclear weapons, it's not the same: they're too powerful, and at some point you just can't use any more, it's just not meaningful. But what happened was, we had the lead of course, because we invented them. The Russians tried to catch up with us; we tried to stay ahead of the Russians; they tried to catch up with us, and we just had a never-ending race upward. By the mid-Sixties, we realized this, but because of the Cold War mentality, politicians couldn't stand up and say, "I'm willing to have less than the Soviet Union," and so the race continued, but we tried to mitigate it by instituting an arms control process, which at first tried to cap and then later to reduce these numbers.
INT: Why is it possible to have too many nuclear weapons?
ST: Because there's just no way you can actually use them; they become so destructive. I estimate that a couple of hundred nuclear weapons, not just on the center of cities, but on economic positions in the country, will drive a country to the point it will never recover, it will never be the same again. It will survive, but it'll be a totally different country. You don't need thousands to do that. There are only a few hundred cities of any size in even Russia or the United States, like 200, and you just don't need thousands of weapons to demobilize a country.
INT: And at its peak, can you tell about what the destructive power of America was, or what the destructive power, if you know, of the two superpowers was, perhaps in comparison to, say, Hiroshima?
ST: Well, the average Russian weapon, targeted on Europe or the United States today, is about 50 times as powerful as the one at Hiroshima. It is the equivalent of one billion - I say that again: billion - pounds of TNT in just the blast effect, but on top of that you have the radiation effect, you have the thermal effect that ignites fires, you have an electronic, magnetic effect that puts out electrical circuits, you have winds that can be up to 180 miles an hour a couple of miles away from the center of the blast. The destructiveness is unimaginable. But beyond that, when you completely take out some segment of the society - like, let's say, a major railroad yard in a city like New York or Chicago or St Louis in this country - the disruptive effect just multiplies, because things don't get through to other places. You take out factory A in this city, and factory B in that city does not receive its input, and therefore its productivity goes down, even though it hasn't been damaged at all. So we have totally underestimated the effectiveness, the damaging impact on the society and on the economy of a major nuclear war.
INT: And could anybody have won, I suppose, from a large-scale nuclear exchange?
ST: Again, we have used the conventional war analogy. In conventional war, if you do more damage to the other side than they do to you, you generally win. It's not the case in nuclear war; the measure in nuclear war is: can you accept the damage that's going to be done to you? Killing your opponent three times over, if you're killed once, is very little satisfaction.
(Wait for helicopter to pass)
INT: There was some sort of distorted thinking as well that you've talked about, just in terms of targeting and in terms of the control of the whole system, really. Could you tell me about why the thinking about actually how the weapons would be used in targeting was faulty as well?
ST: What we came to in this country, and I'm sure the Russians also, is: we were creating so many of these weapons in order to keep up with the other side, that we had to go out and look for targets. And I found, in my experience as a naval officer at one point, that I was in command of a carrier task group in the Mediterranean. I went to look at one of the things we would target with our nuclear weapons on board the aircraft carrier, and I found one of the targets was a railroad bridge across a river in Bulgaria. Now who wants to worry about Bulgaria in the midst of a major nuclear war, with thousands of these things going off? But the irony was that when I went to look at the reconnaissance photograph, the bridge was so small it couldn't be seen; it was just the railroad tracks that were visible on either side of the river. So I don't think there was much need to hit an invisible railroad bridge in Bulgaria.
INT: But they also talked about a lack of flexibility, if you like, the fact that people didn't seem to be able to understand and control the system that they'd set up to begin with.
ST: Well, it became so immense that we had a million pages of documentation behind our nuclear planning. Now nobody can understand that much; and even when they digested it down for a president, it was almost beyond comprehension, and very few presidents of the United States have truly understood the mechanics of the whole process. Let me give another example of how absolutely insane this process became.
(Interruption - aircraft. A bit of talk.)
ST: An example of how insane the process became was the doctrine that we still have, that we might launch a massive retaliatory nuclear attack upon warning that an attack was coming from Russia to the United States, but before that attack actually landed. The idea was, we wouldn't let them knock out our missiles, so they would still be able to respond. If you just look at the timing of this, it's about 25 minutes from the time they leave Russia till the time they get here; it [would] take us five or six minutes to know they're coming; it would take 10 to 15 minutes from the time a president said "Go" till our missiles were really in the air and safely on their way. You have almost no time left in here, is what I'm saying, to assemble the decision-makers, to evaluate what the warning indicators said, and then to make up your mind: is it really worthwhile doing this? So it's insane to even consider that, because you're going to say to a president, "You've got two minutes, Mr. President, and you're going to make the most cataclysmic decision that any government leader's ever made in history." It just wouldn't work. But the ridiculousness of it is, it's totally unnecessary - because, yes, our missiles on land are vulnerable to some considerable extent, but we've never, since the 1960s, not had enough at sea to completely eliminate the Soviet Union, and they can't find the ones at sea, they can't aim at them. So why are we rushing to get these things launched in order to protect these vulnerable ones that are really not very important or necessary?
INT: At its height, how many weapons, how many nuclear warheads did America have, and in your estimation, by how many did that exceed what was really necessary?
ST: At one point, the United States, in the late 1960s, had 32,500 nuclear warheads. That exceeds what we ever needed by a factor of at least 100.
INT: That's quite astonishing. And presumably the Soviet Union was in much the same position.
ST: They were worse than we: the Soviet Union once got over 40,000 nuclear warheads in its arsenal. It was absolutely insane.
INT: Great. Now a lot of this thinking is carried across into the postwar world, into the post-Cold War world. Can you tell me about why that situation has occurred, and why there haven't really been the types of cuts, the depth of cuts that would be really sensible, or that one might actually expect once the Cold War is over?
ST: Well, at the end of the Cold War we have not expunged from our thinking the thesis that we ought to have the same number of weapons, or roughly the same number, as Russia; we have not expunged from our thinking the idea that we might be vulnerable to a first strike from the Russians; and we have not expunged from our thinking the idea that we might be willing to start a nuclear war. We have said to our European allies since 1952, that if they were being overrun by a conventional military attack from the East, we would come to their rescue with nuclear weapons. That was a dumb policy in the Cold War; it's an absolutely dumb policy in the post-Cold War era. There is no military threat to Western Europe today, to begin with. But this country will never, never be the first to initiate nuclear war again, in my opinion. If you read the transcripts of President Kennedy's conversations during the Cuban missile crisis, he said, when he thought about using tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba, he realized that the situation, quote, "could get out of control so quickly", end quote. In short, the only American president who really came face to face with "should he use nuclear weapons?" said, "No, it just can't be done. Colin Powell, our general in charge of the Gulf War in 1991, had his staff do a study of the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in response to a hypothetical Iraqi chemical attack on our troops. When he saw the results, he says in his memoir, he told them to tear the plan up - not to put it aside, to tear it up. It wasn't doable, it wasn't usable, it wasn't reasonable. So we will never be the first to use these weapons. We are not vulnerable to a first strike, and what we need are the number of weapons to deter Russia, or anyone else, from ever initiating nuclear war. And in contrast with tanks that fight tanks, or troops that fight troops, nuclear weapons don't fight nuclear weapons, they fight economies and nuclear installations and cities, and such forth, so you don't measure what you need by the other one's strength, you measure by what is the threat that you have to create in the other person's mind to deter him from initiating a nuclear attack against you. Even with the worst you can impute to a Russian in terms of thinking about losses and destruction, there is no way the Russians want to lose their major cities - one, five, ten. But we've had 6- or 7,000 weapons targeted on them - it's just ridiculous.