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NPR's Talk of the Nation Interviews NPEC's Executive Director on the Future of Nuclear Weapons

On March 26, 2012 NPR's Talk of the Nation interviewed NPEC Exec Director Henry Sokolski on the topic of Defining Nuclear Security in Face of Modern Threats.

Mar 26, 2012

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TRANSCRIPT: Defining Nuclear Security in Face of Modern Threats


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. President Obama announced earlier today he's open to further reductions in the nation's nuclear arsenal, that the country can deter its enemies and protect its allies with fewer weapons than the level specified in the most recent START agreement.

The president spoke on a visit to South Korea, where world leaders gathered to discuss nuclear security. While much of the talk focused on the threat of nuclear terrorism, the president said that the massive Cold War arsenal his administration inherited is poorly suited to today's threats and that he wants to discuss not just strategic weapons when he meets with Russia's president in May but tactical weapons and stockpiles of warheads held in reserve, as well.

So how many is enough? Does the U.S. arsenal need to mirror Russia's, and post-Cold War, what are nuclear weapons for? 

CONAN: Joining us now from Manassas, Virginia, is Henry Sokolski, he's the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, previously deputy for nonproliferation policy in the Department of Defense. And thanks very much for being with us today.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And as you know, the president said today he's open to reducing the number of nuclear weapons. How much - how many is enough?

SOKOLSKI: How many is enough, or how many can we get by with?


CONAN: How many can we get by with?

SOKOLSKI: I think it's a kind of impossible thing to answer except in the context probably of what you think or fear others may have. You've just listened a little bit to the tos and fros of deterrence, which is a very esoteric topic, which seems to drive our policy.

But the bottom line is you don't want to be caught out with numbers where someone else has a good deal more or can work in combination with someone and gang up on you. And so the drill should be, if you want to reduce, is to get everyone into the arms reduction hot tub that might be in collusion or might have large numbers.

I think right now, that's got to start to include China, partly not because we know they have a lot of weapons, we don't. It's that we don't know what they have, and they have in the past worked with the Russians. As recently as 2000, the Russians volunteered to make some of their nuclear forces available to China to resist any encroachment on their sovereignty.

Now, I don't know how seriously to take all that, but the point here is it depends on what your neighborhood looks like, I think, and it's very important to make more of an effort to push down not just on our arsenal and the Russians' but probably at least this one additional third party, and it complicates things.

CONAN: Henry Sokolski stay with us, also we'll hear more from Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund and from you. How many is enough? What are nuclear weapons for in the 20th - 21st century? 800-989-8255. Email Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. An exact tally of nuclear weapons in the world is difficult to come by. The total often depends on who's counting and why. In many cases, the information is a national secret.

One recent estimate, though, from the Federation of American Scientists shows the U.S. with a military stockpile of around 5,000 warheads, Russian 5,500. Both numbers jump if you include retired warheads. France is third with some 300, China and the U.K. with over 200 warheads, Pakistan and India roughly 100 a piece.

President Obama said today, the U.S. has more nuclear weapons than it needs. We're talking today, how many is enough? Does the U.S. arsenal need to mirror Russia's post-Cold War? What are nuclear weapons for? 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Joe Cirincione, currently president of the Ploughshares Fund, an advocacy that, again, in the interest of full disclosure, has provided financial support for NPR programs in the past, and Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, who previously deputy for nonproliferation policy in Office of the Undersecretary for Defense.

And Henry Sokolski, let me just follow up on something you just said. That number, around 200 for China, well, that's a guess. We really don't know about China.

SOKOLSKI: I just testified at a hearing of a commission the Congress created to look at Chinese security issues and economic issues, and the testimony that the commission took in laid out roughly the minimal numbers of fissile material that - the most bearish of estimates that have been made. And it's a large amount. It's much larger than what you would need for 200 weapons.

And so all sorts of questions arose: Well, could they have militarized this and we not known it? No one knows. Now, I don't think you should jump to the assumption that they have militarized all of this material, but I also do not understand how for 30 years the popular estimate of about 200 could be so static.

Now, there are some explanations, but I think we need to sort of start engaging the Chinese. I've thought this for the last five or six years, and it becomes more and more evident that they're someone to be in the arms control hot tub with us.

The Russians, for example, are now writing in Russian in their military journals that they're very concerned about what the Chinese have, both conventionally and nuclear, and it may be something that, frankly, there are so few things we can really work with the Russians on, it might be something where we finally have some community of interest to clear the air.

CONAN: Transparency with China, would that be an important achievement, Joe Cirincione?

CIRINCIONE: Yes, and we are trying to involve China in these talks. We do have these kinds of nuclear discussions with them. But quite frankly, what the Chinese say to us is: Look, when you and Russia get down to our neighborhood, then we can really have something to talk about. And they're right. When the U.S. has 5,000 in its active stockpile, and Russia has 5,000 roughly in their active stockpile, it's difficult for China, which has about 200, to get serious about talks.

SOKOLSKI: Well, yeah...

CIRINCIONE: Hold on, hold on, just a second. By the way, the - just because Henry doesn't know how many they have doesn't mean we don't know. You talk to anybody in the intelligence community, intelligence is quite good on how many weapons China has, and it is not many, and the reason is they feel they don't need many.

With 200 weapons, in fact, they are deterring other countries from attacking us. And it gets to your central point, Neal: How many is enough? I mean, how many weapons do you actually need? And when you think about using these things, what military mission requires us to use one nuclear weapon, which would be a complete catastrophe unlike anything we've ever seen because the weapons we have are now 10, 20, 80 times more powerful than the weapon at Hiroshima.

What mission requires us to use 10 of these or 100? You realize once you start to think of it in that way, you realize when you make a sort of a zero-based approach, you're really at very, very low weapon - numbers of weapons. So we have a long way to go.

But Henry's basic point is right: When you start doing this, when you start reducing and eventually eliminating your nuclear arsenals, everybody has to be in the game. This is something that you have to do together. No one's talking about unilateral disarmament. China's got to be part of this. India has to be part of this. Israel has to be part of this. Everybody has to be part of the game to do this.


CONAN: Go ahead, Henry Sokolski, then we'll get to callers.

SOKOLSKI: Look, I really take exception to this notion that our intelligence community has a handle on the number. If you take a look, they haven't published a number for a good many years. I think the last time was at least a decade ago. So, you know...

CIRINCIONE: We don't publish weapons on any other country.

SOKOLSKI: Well, no, that's not true.

CIRINCIONE: Yes, it is. We don't just publish weapons on Russia. They give us the numbers and we report what they've given.

SOKOLSKI: Well, we at least have that. We have nothing that we have published, and we have an annual report that's required to get into these topics, unclassified. It's quite unusual, and I think...

CIRINCIONE: No, it's not unusual at all. We don't publish the English arsenal, the Indian arsenal, the Israel arsenal. We don't publish numbers on any other country.

SOKOLSKI: Yes, we do. I think that's where we have the point of difference. The DIA has routinely published what they think the range of estimates were. In this area, they don't, in this particular country. And I think the problem is that we do not have a handle on not just the nuclear numbers but the missile numbers. And they're related. And we don't know that much.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation now. Let's go to Pat. Pat's with us from Fleming in Florida, is that right?

PAT: Fleming Island.

CONAN: Go ahead.

PAT: Yes. You know, it appears to me that it doesn't take many missiles or nuclear weapons to be a deterrent. If you look at Pakistan, and if you look at North Korea and even Israel, the reason that those countries have not been invaded is because they are - they have nuclear weapons.

And it's so obvious why Iran wants a nuclear weapon, because they have learned from North Korea, and they have learned from Pakistan that we will not invade them if they have a nuclear weapon. I mean, we are talking about thousands of nuclear weapons, and it looks to me like it doesn't take many. What do you think?

CONAN: Henry Sokolski, there was a Pakistani general famously quoted after the first Gulf War said the lesson of that conflict was never fight the United States without nuclear weapons.

SOKOLSKI: I don't think Pakistan will be fighting us soon. But put that aside. I think the numbers which have been thrown around here, the numbers that we have deployed are under 2,000. You can have reserve, can come up with numbers that come up to 10,000 at various forms. But the number deployed is quite different than what's been used.

I think that's the reason why, when you bring that number...

CONAN: You (Unintelligible) to say, we said 1,800 deployed.

SOKOLSKI: Eighteen hundred, I think, about 2,000, something like that. I'm sure you won't get in trouble with that number. But as you come down, you have to wonder. You'll notice that the Pakistanis seem to be building up at a feverish rate, and that's because they're worried about the numbers India can produce. And India, meanwhile, is worried about the numbers not only Pakistan's produced, but China may have.

And that's the reason why transparency and downward pressure would be very helpful in that area of the world, as well. I think on this Joe and I actually are in agreement.

CONAN: Pat, thanks very much for the call.

PAT: Sure.

CONAN: Here's an email from John(ph) in Athens, Georgia: Isn't it true that the U.S. is committed, via treaty, to eventually eliminate nuclear weapons? Doesn't that make our concerns about Iran or North Korea look awfully cynical? He's referring to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Joe Cirincione?

CIRINCIONE: Every U.S. president since Harry Truman has wanted to eliminate the weapons we invented. The trouble is actually getting there. And the Cold War for many, many years made the elimination an impossible task, even though President Reagan tried very mightily to come to an agreement in Reykjavik with then-General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and almost got a deal to eliminate them.

But since the Cold War is over, it's become more feasible to stand by the pledge that we have made in the Non-Proliferation Treaty to work towards the - in good faith towards the negotiation and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

So all the countries with nuclear weapons that have signed that treaty have agreed to that. We've been making steady progress. Since the Cold War, the nuclear weapons arsenals of the world have been cut by almost 80 percent. There used to be 66,000 nuclear weapons in the world. We're down to about 19,000, and that number is going to continue to drop.

And what you see is President Obama putting together a very balanced approach on this, and he referred to it in his speech. He talked about reductions, but he also talked about preventing new states from getting these weapons, and most importantly, he talked about securing the existing materials from terrorist threats.

And he's got these three pillars - reduce, prevent, secure - that all have to work together. When you reduce your own arsenals, you start building up the international cooperation you need to prevent new states from getting them and to secure the materials from terrorists. When you do that prevention and security, you build up the international confidence that allows states with nuclear weapons to disarm.

So you just take that disarmament and flip it over to the other side of the coin, non-proliferation, and you just keep doing it over and over again. That's what the president's trying to do, and so far he's been doing it fairly successfully.

It's true Iran and North Korea programs haven't been stopped, but they have been greatly contained, and nobody wants to mimic them. You don't see other people lining up to say I want to be like North Korea, I want to be like Iran, I want those kinds of sanctions placed on me. And you see more and more states securing their materials. There's been - we just announced in the last couple of weeks, Mexico, a country you don't think about as being a security threat, got rid of bomb material that it has had in its country for decades - highly enriched uranium it uses in a research reactor. Ukraine just got rid of its last material. So you're seeing this kind of international cooperation build not as fast as we need, but it's going in the right direction.

CONAN: Well, Henry Sokolski...

SOKOLSKI: Yeah. I think there are a couple of clinkers there. You mean to tell me that Saudi Arabia hasn't voiced no interest in the last two years in getting nuclear weapons publically through their former national security adviser? I mean, they have. I think what happened in Syria suggests Syria was interested in nuclear weapons. I don't quite see it as rosily as you do. I agree with you that we're coming down. But as we come down, some countries want to go up. And this is actually one of the blind spots that you and I have spoken about publically together, that the Obama administration has in sharing nuclear technology in the Middle East, which is just nutty as it could be and dangerous.

There are still frogs in our garden. Now, with regard to how many weapons you need, if you have better conventional options, you can drive down the numbers. That's what explained most of the reductions, not arms control agreements, but just military science. There's more to be done, but there's still will always be some extremely hard targets that can only be, you know, pushed to dig deeper into the, you know, more expensive to build by having the threat of nuclear weapons. I think that number - I would agree with Joe - can be made small. But it requires pushing the military science as well as non-nuclear things.

CIRINCIONE: I agree that none of this is easy. All of it is difficult. And by the way, for full disclosure, Ploughshares Fund has provided funding in the past for Henry's group as well.


CIRINCIONE: We believe in a variety of use...

SOKOLSKI:'s been several years, sir.


SOKOLSKI: And I haven't made headway in the last few years. I can - maybe this is a change of heart here.

CONAN: Well, let's get Robert on the line. Robert is with us from Charlotte.

ROBERT: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ROBERT: A couple of things, I think it's going to be very tough for us to get a lot of these other players at the table to agree on what is the appropriate number for everyone to have. For example, do you really think you're going to get India at the table when they want to have as big arsenal as we do at some point? And they're looking at Pakistan, and they're going to say, all right, two warheads is enough.

And the other point I'd like to make is, you know, in my apartment complex, there's a lot of apartments that have no security obviously at all. And then, there are some that have stickers that say protected by this security agency and this one. And I know that some of them are just stickers. They're not really protected by it. And there are others I know that have those stickers actually are hooked up to security, and people know that these people have guns. If I'm a thief, which one I'm going to be least likely to break into? We're a sovereign nation. We need to protect our borders. So the number, find out what our enemy has and maybe double it. I mean, I don't want us to have a gazillion nuclear warheads, but I want us to have enough so that we can remain a sovereign nation to be safe from our enemies.

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the call.

ROBERT: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking...

Well, is there any reason why that can't be commented on?

There is - well, I just need to say that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: And now, it could be commented on.


SOKOLSKI: All right. A thousand apologies. Well, I think he's right in one respect. You - but numbers alone - fair enough - don't tell the whole tale. If your weapons can't be easily destroyed or knocked out, if they actually work and are effective in taking out specific targets, you may not need as many as if those qualities weren't there. So there's some military science in that. I'm not sure you need double what the other fellow has. You may want to just have weapons that survive and that are very effective in taking out the targets you need to take out.

Also, I mean, at some point, playing this game runs the risk that eventually these things will be used. So if you can put downward pressure on acquisition, that makes sense. I mean, this makes sense.

CONAN: The caller did raise the question of India, and that raises the question of Pakistan.


CONAN: And don't you get, Joe Cirincione, into that China builds weapons to make sure that it can deter Russia, but India builds weapons to make sure it can deter China, and then Pakistan builds weapons to make sure it can deter - it gets into a self-creation loop?

CIRINCIONE: Absolutely. We call this the proliferation chain. You know, why do countries get nuclear weapons? And for most countries, the reason is security. They want to prevent another country from attacking it, so they want - they believe that nuclear weapons will give them security. And when the other country that is their adversary has nuclear weapons and they feel they have to match it. So that's what happened with the Soviet Union vs. the United States, then with China vs. the United States and Russia, then with India; exactly the chain you described. As soon as India tested a weapon, Pakistan felt compelled to do it.

CONAN: And as Henry Sokolski said, if Iran, then maybe Saudi Arabia.

CIRINCIONE: That is the big fear. You know, the Sunni-Arab rivals of this Persian-Shia state, Iran, cannot allow it to get the military diplomatic advantage it might gain from nuclear weapons. So you want to stop this chain. And we've been very successful, by the way, in stopping this chain. There are more countries that have given up nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons programs in the last 25 years than have tried to acquire them, including countries like Brazil and Argentina and South Africa and Libya and Iraq, who have given up these weapons - Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, et cetera.

But you still have - so it's this - it's a constant struggle. So what that tells you is that in order to get those - a country to give up nuclear weapons or stop a program, you got to resolve the underlying security dynamic that is giving rise to this desire for nuclear weapons. So you're never going to solve the India-Pakistan arms race unless you get at the underlying security conditions in those two countries. And if you can do that, then you can resolve it.

We've seen it happen in South America, we've seen it happen in Central Asia, we've seen it happen in Africa. You can do this. My - just to close this out, the country that worries me the most of all the countries we've discussed is Pakistan. They are building weapons faster than any other country on Earth, far in excess of their genuine security needs. Most experts believe the place we're most likely to see a nuclear weapon used is in South Asia because of this India-Pakistan arms race. You add to that the instability of Pakistan, and you have a serious threat of terrorists getting these weapons should something - should the Pakistan government collapse.

CONAN: Joe Cirincione, now president of the Ploughshares Fund, joined us here in Studio 3A, thanks very much for your time.

CIRINCIONE: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And our thanks as well to Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, deputy for nonproliferation policy in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense from 1989 to 1993. Thanks very much for talking with us.

SOKOLSKI: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: We're going to talk about The Opinion Page. When we come back, the sponsor of Florida's Stand Your Ground law on the Trayvon Martin case and the limits of self-defense. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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