Ex-US defense head: America must roll back nuke program to stop Armageddon

In his book, The Button,Perry Perry also recommends that the US rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and focus on calming North Korea instead of immediate denuclearization.

Former US defense secretary William Perry 311 (R) (photo credit: Jo Yong hak / Reuters)
Former US defense secretary William Perry 311 (R)
(photo credit: Jo Yong hak / Reuters)
Former US secretary of defense William Perry published a book late Tuesday calling on Washington to roll back its nuclear program to prevent Armageddon.
In his book, The Button (BenBella Books), which he co-authored with Ploughshares Fund Policy Director Tom Collina, Perry also recommends that the US rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and focus on calming North Korea instead of immediate denuclearization.
For someone who spent decades either in the Department of Defense or in defense industry businesses, Perry’s ideas are unexpectedly radical and he admits that some of them go against bi-partisan political consensus in the US.
However, what Perry does argue is that the US public – if special interests are removed and if they understood the nuclear weapons dynamic – would overwhelmingly support at least some of his ideas.
According to Perry, US nuclear policy is stuck in a Cold War mindset in which it must preserve a triad of nuclear “first-strike” capabilities to destroy Russia and be the first to launch in a nuclear exchange.
“The defining error of US nuclear policy is that it is focused on the wrong threat,” writes Perry in summarizing his views. “We are preparing for a first strike from Russia that is very unlikely; what is not so unlikely is that we will blunder into a nuclear war.”
Perry continues, “preparing for the surprise first strike, we actually make the blunder more likely. Our misguided policies like sole authority, first use, and launch on warning are extremely dangerous, particularly when combined with the old dangers of false alarms, the new dangers of cyber threats, and the ever-present dangers of an unstable president.”
But the former defense secretary’s concerns are not limited to current US President Donald Trump’s casual comments about nuclear weapons.
He suggests that “we no longer live in a world – if we ever did – where one person should have the absolute power to end life on earth.”
As part of stepping back from a nuclear “first-strike” strategy, he says that the US president must share nuclear authority with Congress.
Noting that the US Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, he draws attention to the absurdity that the US president can initiate a nuclear strike without any consultation.
Having spent much of his life on defense issues, Perry is not saying that the US should remain defenseless. He is cognizant that if Russia or some other adversary launches nuclear weapons against the US, the response time before they hit could be a matter of minutes.
However, he says that the solution is a second-strike capability that cannot be eliminated by an adversary’s first strike and that, by itself, has enough nuclear power to destroy the adversary who started the exchange.
One way to play this out is to look at Perry’s recommendations regarding changing the US’s focus from Intercontinental Ballistic Nuclear Missiles and low-yield tactical highly land-mobile nuclear weapons to submarine-based nuclear weapons.
According to Perry, the US wastes hundreds of billions on maintaining a massive stock of ICBMs and is due to invest more than a trillion dollars in developing new weapons, like low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.
Yet, he says that 10 submarines with nuclear weapons is already icing on the cake for the capability to completely destroy Russia, China or any other adversary. This would be true since likely five to six such submarines could launch enough weapons to ravage any of these countries.
Since no country has developed any quick capability for striking multiple submarines of an adversary, this is all the deterrence the US needs against Russia or the others.
Deconstructing bipartisan consensus on the issue, he says that the US does not need to modernize all nuclear forces and “up” its nuclear game just because Russia and China are doing so.
He says that looking at the end point, since no one can “win” a nuclear exchange, all that is needed is modernizing US submarines with nuclear weapons and making it clear to adversaries that they will be destroyed if they ever strike the US.
RETURNING TO the shared authority idea, Perry says that given a second-strike capability from submarines with nuclear weapons, there is time for the US president to consult with Congress, however briefly.
Further, he supports the possibility of the US president ordering a second strike solely on his own authority once it has been established that the US has in fact been hit by nuclear weapons and that there is not just a computer glitch.
The computer glitch issue is crucial for Perry, who points out that the world almost ended a staggering five times because of false positive computer glitches with nuclear detection on either the US or Russian side.
Perry also briefly delves into addressing Iran’s nuclear program. He writes, “Tehran was complying with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) when the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018.
“The next president should seek to rejoin the JCPOA and begin to rebuild good relations with Tehran toward the possibility of negotiating a follow-on agreement to extend international limits into the future,” he adds, though he does not hint to how or why Iran could be convinced to extend the nuclear limits simply by goodwill.
Also, even if the 2015 nuclear deal had ended the Iranian nuclear threat – and many believe the deal merely postponed it – it did not even try to resolve Israeli security concerns about Iran’s adventurism in the Middle East.
Perry similarly favors diplomacy with North Korea.
He writes that, “Rather than asking the North to surrender its nuclear arsenal at the start of a diplomatic process, the United States should seek to build a fundamentally new relationship with Pyongyang such that North Korea no longer fears unprovoked military action by the United States, and South Korea no longer fears unprovoked military action by North Korea.”
However, Perry was part of such a peace process under then-US president Bill Clinton, which started with great fanfare and eventually fell apart – at least partially because North Korea reneged on parts of the deal.
The truth is that Perry’s book is much more about Russia as a main actor and China as supporting cast, and his comments on Iran and North Korea seem more in passing so as to have mentioned all key issues.
Perry writes that, “climate science tells us that a hundred or more high-yield nuclear warheads detonated on large cities could so damage the climate as to cause a major deterioration of life on Earth.”
His book is a call to action to move the world away from this Armageddon scenario.