Sam Nunn on Plugged in with Greta Susteren

A transcript of the interview on Voice of America is below. Watch the video here.

MS. SUSTEREN:  In 1986, there were more than 64,000 nuclear warheads in the world.  That number is now down to 9,200 and the U.S. has 4,000 of them.  One of those who helped bring those numbers down is former Senator Sam Nunn.  He is now Co-Chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and was key to securing nuclear stockpiles in Eastern Europe right after the Cold War.  He joined me at VOA to discuss the nuclear posture review.  Now Nunn says that modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is necessary, but does question the need for low yield weapons.

MR. NUNN:  The key is survivability and the key is reliability and the key is safe and secure.  So as long as we have nuclear weapons, we have to have a safe, secure, reliable and in my view as many as possible survival, meaning they can take a first attack and still be able to retaliate.  That's what deterrence is and that's what stability is.

 So the answer is we can reduce nuclear weapons, but we have to do it in concert with what's going on in Russia and what's going on in China.  So we need to work together and I've said a number of times that if you look at all these dangers, particularly catastrophic terrorism and cyber and so forth, the world is in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and right now cooperation is not running very fast.

MS. SUSTEREN:  And one of the things that I was reading about was the nuclear weapons -- the low yield nuclear weapons and that do we need those, what's -- doesn't that start sort of an arms race of other nations wanting low yield nuclear weapons?

MR. NUNN:  Well, you don't want to make nuclear weapons usable.  The head of our strategic air command -- I call it strategic air command, that's old school – it’s “Strategic Command” now.  General Hyten said in testimony last year that all nuclear weapons are strategic, there's no such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon.  If someone uses a nuclear weapon, the world has changed and the response will probably be strategic.  So I subscribe to that theory and I think a lot of conversation about usability of nuclear weapons, whether it comes from the Russian side where they have a sort of a loose vocabulary of escalate to deescalate, I don't think there's any such thing as escalating with nuclear weapons to deescalate.  General Hyten made it clear that he doesn't think that either.  So this is something that will really be debated.

We've always had lower yield weapons, but the terminology in this nuclear posture review seems to indicate that United States believes that to counter Russia's escalate to deescalate, we need to have more usable nuclear weapons and new nuclear weapons.  So I think that raises serious questions and I think the burden is on those who think we need new weapons for that purpose.

And particularly the concern I have is the reference to having a small nuclear weapon on a missile, on a submarine.  These submarines are our most survivable part of the triad.  If we shoot a small nuclear weapon off a submarine, how in the world is Russia or any other country going to know that it's not the real biggest nuclear weapon we have and how -- what would we do if everybody goes to that concept and we start having small weapons being shot off submarines or with that capacity.  So I think this is a really dangerous move and I think there are serious questions that have to be raised on it.

Now on the other hand there's also a discussion of a cruise missile, sea launch cruise missile to counter the Russian violation of INF which is a great concern and I think that one has room for real discussion, but to take one of ours, we call them boomer's, tied to submarines and put a small warhead on it and act like the other countries would know it's a small warhead when it's being fired, to me it raises serious questions.  The other factor here would be, do we reveal the location of the submarine.

MS. SUSTEREN:  Though when we shoot one off, don't they know where the location is going to be?

MR. NUNN:  It is trajectory, we show where it is.

MS. SUSTEREN:  It would show where it is at that point.

MR. NUNN:  And I would be shocked if they didn't lay down as many nuclear warheads as they could in that region even though the sub would move out because they would fire under sea, but I think this raises some very big stability concerns and I'm hoping Congress will ask these hard questions because this is serious stuff.

MS. SUSTEREN:  As a non-sophisticated person in nuclear technology, the way I see these low yield nuclear weapons is sort of mini nukes and I don't quite understand why we need mini nukes.  I mean I guess it's because if the Russians lob a low yield nuclear weapon at some place, we want to respond likewise and not use one of the big nukes and take out it as something catastrophic, on the other hand it creates a whole new arms race maybe to me, because other countries will want them as well.

Secondly, why don't conventional weapons, why wouldn't they serve the purpose?  Can conventional weapons answer a low yield?

MR. NUNN:  Yes, I think all of those are relevant questions and good questions.  We also already have low yield.  We have had low yield for long time.  We even had weapons you could carry this big that we had ADMs that you put in holes in the ground and then fall the gap.  So we've had them a long time.  The real danger is the psychology and when we start advertising the United States as a country that is the strongest military in the world that we need a whole new weapons system and that we are thinking about having a weapon that is more usable.

Now those who are for it would argue well, they don't believe you'll use a big one.  Well, I don't know if that's accurate or not, but in my view U.S. and Russia, if we both start talking about usability and then you project that on the other seven nuclear powers in the world or nuclear weapon states, I think the world becomes very, very dangerous.

MS. SUSTEREN:  What's the situation between the United States and Russia?  How much notice do we give each other whenusing these weapons?  Because I know that you've been outspoken about that.

MR. NUNN:  Well, the United States and Russia have never had much decision time for leaders.  If there was some kind of warning, the President of the United States and the President of Russia don't have much time.  You can debate whether there's two minutes or five minutes or seven minutes, but the point is we should both be working to increase decision time.

MS. SUSTEREN:  And especially if in fact there have been mistakes.

MR. NUNN:  Absolutely false warnings and as I mentioned cyber-attacks where someone simulates an attack, you have a false warning or they interfere with cyber or even non-nation states might interfere with cyber command and control.  And so I think the lack of decision time is fundamental and it would be my view that the world would be a lot safer if the United States President and the Russian President and hopefully eventually the other nuclear weapon states would say to their military command, let's go off and get in a room with each other and come back and give us more decision time.

If we have five minutes now, give us 10 minutes before we have to either use them or lose them.  And when we get to 10 minutes, let's go to 20 and then 20 to an hour and an hour to a day and then a week and then nuclear weapons become less relevant.  And guess what, if they become less relevant than we can begin decreasing the numbers of nuclear weapons.  But if we make nuclear weapons more and more relevant, more and more relevant and that's the big question in this posture review, are we making them more relevant, are we increasing for instance there is at least an implication in the nuclear posture review that's just come out that we might respond to a non-nuclear attack with nuclear weapons if it's a cyber-attack, a major cyber-attack.

Well, this raises questions about attribution, do we really know where it came from and then we have to ask the question if the other eight countries do the same thing and now we've got nuclear weapons around the world responding to a major cyber-attack, how do we know it's not third-parties, how do we know who it is? So we don't want to go down that route unless we ask them very, very serious questions and in my view have discussions with the other nuclear weapons states. Communication in this era is enormously important because all nuclear weapons states have grave dangers facing them and if we don't have some rules of the road in the cyber world, if we don't have rules of the road on decision time, then I really fear for the future of our children and grandchildren.

*  *  *  *  *


February 21, 2018

NTI Co-Chair Sam Nunn joined Voice of America's Greta Susteren to discuss the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Founder and Co-Chair