Leave Nuclear Deterrence To The Experts?

Sometimes it is claimed that we should leave nuclear matters to “those who know better” because classified information allows the experts to make better decisions. While I don’t have direct experience with classified information related to nuclear weapons, a very similar argument – later proven to be false – was made repeatedly with respect to my work in cryptography.

My cryptographic research was all done without benefit of classified information since it was intended to protect unclassified but sensitive information, such as your medical records, credit card transactions, and confidential business plans. While I was repeatedly enticed to work in the classified domain, I resisted that temptation because it would hamper my ability to publish and make my work available for public use. During that period, I can’t count the number of times I was told, “If you knew what we knew, you’d think differently.”

In 1994, Congress directed the National Research Council to undertake a study of national cryptographic policy and, as a well-known privacy advocate and contributor to the field, I was asked to serve on the committee. Because I was retiring from Stanford and active cryptographic research, I decided I now could accept a clearance, see what “they” knew, and decide whether it really would change my perspective. Our committee included former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti and former Deputy Director of the National Security Agency Ann Caracristi (representing law enforcement and national security interests respectively), yet we unanimously concluded:

The conduct of the debate regarding national cryptography policy has been complicated because a number of participants have often invoked classified information that cannot be made public. However, the cleared members of the National Research Council’s Committee to Study National Cryptography Policy (13 of the 16 committee members) concluded that the debate over national cryptography policy can be carried out in a reasonable manner on an unclassified basis. … After receiving a number of classified briefings on material relevant to the subject of this study, the fully cleared members of the committee (13 out of the total of 16) agree that these details, while necessarily important to policy makers who need to decide tomorrow what to do in a specific case, are not particularly relevant to the larger issues of why policy has the shape and texture that it does today nor to the general outline of how technology will and policy should evolve in the future. [emphasis in original]

There is further evidence that classified knowledge would not contradict the common sense that tells us that putting 20,000 nuclear weapons in the hands of fallible human beings is too risky: Adm. Bobby Inman (USN, Retired) is a former Director of Naval Intelligence, former Director of the National Security Agency, and former Deputy Director of the CIA. He certainly had access to all relevant classified information, yet has signed the statement of support for bringing risk analysis to bear on nuclear deterrence. That statement says in part:

Russia and the United States each have thousands of nuclear weapons, whereas a few hundred would more than deter any rational actor and no number will deter an irrational one. Either side could therefore reduce its nuclear arsenal with little to no loss in national security, even if the other side did not immediately reciprocate. In light of the growing specter of nuclear terrorism, a reduced nuclear arsenal could even enhance national security by lessening the chance for theft or illicit sale of a weapon.

The home page of our related web site starts off with a short story about “the man in the TNT vest,” which is another way to see that common sense trumps expert gobbeldy gook. If you ever start to get confused by megatons, calculated ambiguity, or other details of nuclear deterrence, go back and re-read that story. It cuts through the fog and illuminates the need for change.

Martin Hellman

What You Can Do
If you agree that society’s complacency about nuclear weapons is unwarranted, please share this blog post with friends and read the home page of our related web site. At the end, it lists four simple, but effective actions you can take.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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6 Responses to Leave Nuclear Deterrence To The Experts?

  1. Christopher Lord says:

    Keep up the good work.

  2. yousaf says:

    Martin,
    thanks — similar arguments are made in missile defense discussions: i.e. that there is some special new classified physics that the Missile Defense Agency can use to counter decoys and other countermeasures. There isn’t. Decoys and countermeasures are the Achille’s Heel of missile defense.

    The simple scientific reason why the GBIs and SM-3s interceptors will never be able to reliably function in real combat conditions is because the infrared emissions and reflected radio waves from targets can be modified by an attacker to disguise, remove, deny, or simply overwhelm (e.g., via decoys and other countermeasures) critical information needed by the defense to find attacking warheads

    That is the beauty of physics: it’s laws are public domain.

  3. amanfromMars says:

    Seems like some sad and bad and mad and rad folk are addicted to that old cold war type BS and cannot function or control systems without it, Prof., whilst more than quite significant others would be immune to it and in Command and Control of ITs Virtual Spaces, nowadays.

    Great Game Players akin to JSON ARGonauts in Parallel Multi-Dimensional LOVE Programs?

    Satyrs and Nymphs excel beyond your wildest dreams in Live Operational Virtual Environments, and are always satisfied themselves with their Sated Partners’ Desires, which is a Real Fab Trick which always Guarantees the Need for More of the Same and Anything and Everything Similar but Different …….. which is Quantum Type Field XSSXXXXPLoration, is it not?

  4. Martin,

    My mother, Jean Wahler, pioneer in the fight for Service -connected death benefits for Veterans in the Atomic Testing Program in the 50’s died August 4th at age 89. We miss her and owe her thanks for opening the door in 1969 to the many others besides my dad who gave lives in service to the country in the ATP.
    -Robert Wahler (son of Lt. Colonel William Louis Wahler, 1918-1967)

  5. Nuclear Risk says:

    Thanks to all of you for your thoughts. Robert, you have my sympathy on the loss of your mother and the much earlier loss of your father, especially since it sounds like he died young as a result of being exposed to nuclear testing. I have a good friend who was another “human guinea pig.” He was a Marine and his captain “volunteered” the company to do that. Even though they were in a six foot deep trench, facing away from the blast, he tells me he could see every bone in his arm as if it were an x-ray. (The troops were told to cover their eyes with their arms.) A short time after the blast, they were marched over ground zero to see how troops would behave in an atomic war. “Trust us, we know what we are doing,” loses something in light of such actions.

  6. Matt says:

    “Russia and the United States each have thousands of nuclear weapons, whereas a few hundred would more than deter any rational actor and no number will deter an irrational one.”

    Let me explain why that thinking is so dead wrong that people should now be leaving for South America.

    Russia has something that the US doesn’t – underground bunkers for millions of its citizens. If the US can only fire in retaliation one time, then those bunkers will come in awfully handy. They wouldn’t be all that handy if the US could retaliate several times over a year or more.

    Why did World War I start? Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor? In both cases there was fear about the future. The Germans were afraid that Russia and France were positioning themselves to defeat Germany in a few years. The Japanese were afraid of American interference in Asia. An attack sooner by the aggressor was thought to provide for a more favorable outcome.

    Today Russia is convinced that our missile defense system is being positioned (In Romania and Turkey) to neutralize their nuclear weapons in a few years. A preemptive strike by Russia today would provide for a more favorable outcome.

    There are a lot of other reasons for an attack:

    1. Putin hates America.
    2. Putin thinks Stalin wasn’t that bad. Only a monster would think that.
    3. Russia is falling apart and in danger of collapse.
    4. Russia’s military is falling apart.
    5. Russia is in demographic free-fall.

    The three Es of war as defined by historian Niall Ferguson are present today: Empires in decline, economic volatility and ethnic conflict (Think Israel.) And the Middle East is on the verge of exploding now that Turkey has taken an aggressive anti-Israel stance, and Egypt is moving in that direction. Conflict in the Middle East acts as a catalyst for a bigger event.

    The signs present right before World War I are present today.

    And I haven’t even gotten to China. There’s another long list of items showing how China is a major threat. Historically, when a rising power has a conflict with an existing empire, then war occurs 6 out of 7 times. The Soviet Union was the only exception over the last 500 years.

    Societies move into the future just like a forest. There is a heavy feedback loop from the past to the future. This feedback loop will ensure that there are always crashes from time to time. Suppression of these crashes – volatility suppression – only ensures that eventually the society will experience a massive crash or collapse. We are seeing this in the economy today. But it also holds true for war, because war is just another kind of collapse. The US has not been heavily affected by war since 1945, and that is the same as war suppression. We are due for a massive collapse – war – sooner rather than later.

    Notice how no nuclear war since 1945 has changed the thinking of so many people. Now let us disarm to safety. What happened to the wisdom of the people that were directly affected by World War II? They were heavily armed and hence no war (Directly impacting America) after 1945. If you want peace, then prepare for war. Today so many people want to prepare for peace, we will get war instead.

    The collapse in 1929 took 16 years to unfold. It started out as an economic crash then included a war crash. We are in the beginning phase of a new collapse like that in 1929. All the signs point to war coming next.

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