Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radar

Nuclear explosion in Russia, US and Europe's differing Iran policy

a 7-minute news roundup from the Press the Button podcast

This is a transcript of a recent Early Warning segment from the podcast Press the Button, in which Michelle Dover, Mary Kaszynski, and Daniel Wertz discuss an emergency meeting in Vienna and North Korea’s recent missile launches. Listen and subscribe to our weekly podcast today! 

Early Warning segment, August 13, 2019

  • Michelle Dover, Director of Programs
  • Mary Kaszynski, Deputy Director of Policy, Ploughshares Fund
  • Jessica Sleight, Program Director, Global Zero

MICHELLE: Thank you, Joe. Welcome back to another Early Warning. I'm Michelle Dover and I'm joined today by Deputy Director of Policy here at Ploughshares, Mary Kaszynski, and Global Zero's Program Director, Jessica Sleight. Thank you both for joining me. So you know the drill. We have seven minutes to discuss the news and what a week we had. So Jessica, let's start with the story that we saw last week about a mysterious explosion that released radiation off the coast of northern Russia, killed at least seven people. Some experts think that this may have happened during a test of a new type of Russian nuclear-propelled cruise missile. This was really strange. What do you make of this story?

JESSICA: It was a strange story. It was a testing of a missile that we think is the centerpiece of Russian strategic arms modernization and build up. So it's really an indication of the dangers associated with a nuclear arms race that doesn't talk about, you know, actually forward-deploying these nuclear weapons or their potential use. It's talking about just the testing of these new capabilities and dangers come along with that. And I think we need to open our eyes to all of the dangers that are associated with a nuclear arms race.

MICHELLE: And you mentioned that it's the centerpiece. My understanding is the missile is designed to evade US missile defense systems. And you know, there's at least questions that have been raised about the reliability and efficacy of those systems. What about this system with the, with the Russian system, is it similar?

JESSICA: Yeah, so it's similar in that it's questionable of its efficacy, kind of like you said about the US missile defense system, and it's just very puzzling why we would have an arms race that is, that is kind of based on this one-upping of each other with systems that don't actually really work or haven't proven than selves to work. So we're entering this again – this arms race that is just, “Well this system doesn't really work, so we have to test it and get more capabilities. And then Russia sees that and says, well, we have to evade those systems that don't really work, but they could work someday.” And so it's just this perpetual testing and race to see who can outdo each other.

MICHELLE: Well, let's talk about the cost of that race. So this leads us to our next story that we heard in the past few weeks that Boeing has dropped out of the competition to build a next generation of intercontinent continental ballistic missiles. And so if nothing changes, the Pentagon will have to award the contract to Northrop Grumman really early in the competition, which raises questions about whether this is cost effective. You just published a piece with Bill Hartung and Defense One titled “Who Needs ICBMs” in which you say that we should be looking to phase out that leg of the triad. How would this reduce the risks?

JESSICA: So ICBMs are really just a staple of the US’s nuclear war fighting strategy, which engages in plans to fight and win a nuclear war, which does not make any sense. Nobody wins a nuclear war. And these ICBMs are vulnerable, they're expensive like we talked about, and they're dangerous. They actually increase the risk of nuclear use, whether it is by miscalculation or by launch on a false warning of an incoming attack from an enemy. So what we're saying is – and Global Zero put out a report last year that really advocates for this – that we shift from a war fighting strategy that would rely on these first strike weapons, cause they are first strike weapons, and we would shift to a to turns or only strategy based on never using nuclear weapons first. And not only would this decrease the risk of these nuclear weapons being used, they would actually strengthen our nuclear deterrent and they would ensure the security of the US and our allies. So we don't need these ICBMs when we can have a smaller force based on submarines and a reserve force of bombers. That's all we need for a credible nuclear deterrent. We do not need ICBMs.

MICHELLE: Well, and I think it's, it's really striking and this is where I see the linkages between the stories of the frame that we're using in “what new weapons do we need? Do we need them?” I don't know if you saw the piece that the former Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz and former Senator Sam Nunn put out in foreign affairs last week where they said that the US and Russia are in a state of strategic instability and that an accident or mishap could set off a cataclysm. So what you're describing, it really sounds like a way to take a step back from that instability, and move towards a place of avoiding accidents. So switching gears, Mary, on Thursday we saw that president Trump took to Twitter to lambaste French President Macron saying that "no one speaks for the US but the US itself, when it comes to Iran." This seems to be a pretty upfront rejection of France’s attempts to create a multilateral approach to resolving the tensions with Iran. But it's also coming at a time when the US appears to be trying to corral its allies to support its approach. Bolton than is in the UK this week trying to talk to Britain about how to bring Britain more in line with the US on foreign policies like Iran. Do you think the US administration will succeed in pulling allies closer in line or is this going to drive them away?

MARY: Well, if President Trump's remarks and very clear rejection of President Macron’s attempt to mediate, if that's any indication of how the US plans to work with allies, I would say no, there's no chance of the US getting allies on board with this maximum pressure approach to Iran. And that's been pretty much par for the course when it comes to the administration’s Iran policy. So the Trump administration first created this crisis by pulling out of the nuclear agreement. And since then every step that they've taken to increased pressure on Iran simultaneously drives away US allies rather than bringing them together.

MICHELLE: And this is also affecting the cooperation they're also trying to build with in terms of maritime security. Right? Exactly. It's yet another example of the administration driving a wedge in the Transatlantic partnership; rather than building those relationships, trying to bring allies on board and said, we're pushing our allies away. So the US is attempting to put together a Gulf Security Initiative to protect oil tankers going through the Strait of Hormuz from the Iranians. The UK has committed to joining this initiative for obvious reasons. First there's the, the tanker crisis: the UK seized an Iranian tanker, the Iranian seized a UK tanker, so there's that ongoing stalemate. And then of course there's Brexit and that entire debacle that the Brits are dealing with right now. So it's no surprise that the UK joined, but the French and the Germans have very clearly said that they're not joining this US initiative. So once again, it's another example of the administration pushing away allies and the complete failure of the maximum pressure strategy.

MICHELLE: Well, you mentioned the issue with the tankers – this is happening in a broader context in the Middle East of regional insecurity and instability. Later on on this podcast, Joe will be talking with Rob Malley from the Crisis Group about how we can avoid the Guns of August. So stay tuned to hear more about that. And with that, ladies, our seven minutes are up. Thank you so much for joining me.


Listen to the whole episode here: