Yves here. This Real News Network interview with MIT’s Theodore Postol (the second part of a series) discusses some of the history in the fraught relationship between Russia and the US which spurred Putin to invest heavily in technologies that could circumvent some of our core weapons platforms.
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. This is part two of my conversation with Theodore Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT. We’re talking about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recent speech where he announced upgrades to his country’s nuclear arsenal, calling it a response to the US withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002, as well as the recent Nuclear Posture Review issued by President Trump. I want to go to one more clip from his speech where he’s reacting to Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review which lowered the threshold for nuclear use by the US, and this is what Putin said.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Translator): Several points of the renewed US nuclear strategy which lower the threshold of using nuclear weapons provokes great concern. You can reassure anyone in any way behind the scenes, but if we read what is written and what is written is that it can be launched in response to an attack with conventional weapons or even a cyber threat.
AARON MATÉ: So, that’s President Putin speaking last week. Professor Postol, so he’s talking there about this lowered threshold under Trump’s review which called for the authorizing the use of nuclear weapons even in response to a non-nuclear, non-military attack like a cyber attack, like if vital US infrastructure is hacked and damaged, the Trump review would authorize nuclear weapons in response to that. As we wrap, Professor Postol, your thoughts on this move by the Trump administration, and overall, where you think this nuclear competition is going under Trump in the aftermath now of Putin’s speech.
THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I think this competition has been in place, in fact, as Putin said it, certainly since 2004. He actually signals 2004 as a time where there was a decision made in Russia that you couldn’t talk to the Americans and were just going to have to go ahead and build some weapons to make it clear to them that there’s no possible advantage they can gain from missile defenses. He made that pretty clear in his speech. And the issue of using low yield nuclear warheads in conventional military situations or in response to a cyber attack, first of all, I don’t know how you would know where the cyber attack came from. I think when you look carefully at the issues associated with cyber attacks, it’s so easy to conceal the true perpetrator, the identity of the true perpetrator. It would be a remarkable, remarkably reckless thing to do, to respond in any military way to a cyber attack without absolutely having the information that clearly showed you knew who did it.
And against anybody who’s even modestly competent, even some of these hackers who really are not very competent people, you can hide your address, your location from anybody you’re attacking. So, it’s kind of a crazy, thoughtless and dangerous kind of statement to be making that you’re going to use nuclear weapons or any kind of military force in response to a cyber attack unless you claim also that you have the means to determine unambiguously who was responsible for the attack.
So, it shows a kind of reckless attitude on the part of the Department of Defense people and ignorance, or ignorance, or recklessness and ignorance among the people who wrote the Nuclear Policy Review, and I’m afraid that that is evident in a whole bunch of things they say. The idea that a low-yield nuclear weapon would be seen as different from a higher-yield nuclear weapon shows a complete lack of understanding of how information promulgates in the world.
We did not even know when the World Trade towers were attacked who did the attack. I was in Washington when that attack occurred. We, at one point, did not know if there were tens of aircraft across the country or more that were going to engage in similar attacks. We had to ground the whole air travel across the nation.
This is, when something like this happens, you don’t really know what’s going on. It takes time to collect the information. You’d need to have sensors, you’d need to have the ability to evaluate the information from these sensors and that information doesn’t exist if you don’t have those abilities.
So, the fact that you could pick up a telephone and talk to somebody on the other side of the world does not mean you know who’s on the other end of the telephone and what’s really happening there. And all of this is embedded in this incredibly dangerous and uninformed position put out in this Nuclear Posture Review. It’s just hard to believe that any competent soldiers were involved, at least from my point of view. I know many competent soldiers and I think any of them would tell you immediately you never know exactly what’s going on and sometimes not ever. It’s a crazy policy.
AARON MATÉ: You know, compounding the dangers, I have to mention this. You put out a paper last year with some colleagues in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, talking about how because of the modernization program of the nuclear arsenal undertaken by President Obama, the US has increased the killing power of its nuclear weapons by a factor of three or more. Right?
THEODORE POSTOL: Right. I mean, in fact I, who have during my career, have reviewed actually real nuclear war planning because I was at the Pentagon working for Chief of Naval Operations. When I look at the situation we have today with the American nuclear arsenal, I don’t know how we’re going to use all these weapons because the number of what you might call targets, Russian ICBMs and command centers, has been reduced substantially because of arms reductions. So, the number of missiles we would shoot at is much smaller. And it turns out that these weapons that we’re modernizing are much more numerous than any of the targets we might have shot at earlier in an attempt to disarm Russia.
And because we have so many weapons that are now capable of attacking the Russian forces that were not capable earlier, we now have weapons freed up for other missions. I can’t find targets for them. I’m sure people do find targets for them, but the point is that the effective firepower of our arsenal relative to the threat we’re now facing is very, very, very large, even by these crazy, nuclear war fighting standards, which I think are crazy, that are applied in a lot of the military planning today.
AARON MATÉ: So, we have targets that don’t exist and a couple that with what you were talking about earlier, which is missile defense systems which don’t even really work.
THEODORE POSTOL: Yeah, and it’s a very dangerous situation when you have people on all sides either misunderstanding or not caring what the facts are. This comment from the White House, “We have no missile defenses that work. It’s a joke.” Now, Putin seems to understand that. So, he’s not afraid that we have a working missile defense. He’s afraid we might think we have a working missile defense because our political leadership is so out of touch with the realities of our own military capabilities and limitations.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, one last question. One thing that is commonly cited, I believe it’s even cited in the Nuclear Posture Review that was recently released by the Trump administration, is that Russia has pulled out of the INF, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. I believe that happened after the US, under Bush pulled out of the ABM. But if you could address that, what about that charge against Russia, that they’re …
THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I think that’s a very unfortunate thing the Russians did. However, their argument for doing that is not ridiculous. What they have said is, “Look, you have these ballistic missile launch sites that you’re putting in. You have one in Poland and one in Romania.” Now, these ballistic missile launch sites, they’re defensive, supposedly ballistic missile defense systems, they are derived, they’re land based but they’re derived from a sea-launched system. They’re called vertical box launchers. A typical destroyer or a cruiser, a modern cruiser or destroyer has them.
They look like kind of square coffins and inside the square coffin is a missile. And that missile can be a surface-to-air missile or a ballistic missile defense missile or a cruise missile, a missile that’s designed to fly like an airplane and carry a nuclear weapon. And those launchers are designed from the beginning to be compatible with launching any type, any kind of these types of missiles. And those launchers have been put in the ground in Romania and in Poland for supposedly for ballistic missile defense interceptors. But they can carry nuclear armed cruise missiles, sea launched cruise missiles that would be launched from these ground locations.
And the Russians had been complaining about this for years, for quite awhile. And the United States doesn’t want to talk to them about it. So, the reaction was “Okay, this is a violation of the INF treaty. You’re putting a missile of long range into Europe that can attack Russia, and so we’re going to withdraw from the INF. We’re not going to follow all the terms of the INF.”
Now, I happen to disagree with that Russian decision. I think their argument is sound. Let me be clear, their argument has merit. But I think it would be better just to ignore the situation for now and just try to not allow things to escalate beyond what they’ve already done. But I want to underscore the Russian argument is not bogus and people ought to be thinking about it and addressing it.
AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Theodore Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT. Thank you.
THEODORE POSTOL: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.