An Atomic-Weapons Expert’s Worst-Case Scenario for What Trump Might Do With All That ‘Access to the Nuclear Codes’

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This undated picture released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 7, 2017 shows the launch of four ballistic missiles by the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Photo: KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Not since the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, have most Americans been jittery about the prospect of a nuclear holocaust. Back then, it seemed like such an immediate possibility that suburban families were constructing fallout shelters and schoolkids were subjected to bomb drills. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, atomic war came to feel like an abstraction, the stuff of sci-fi movies. Then, during the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton started talking about Trump having “access to the nuclear codes,” which has turned out to be more than simple campaign fearmongering. As recently as two weeks ago, the 45th president effectively called for a new nuclear-arms race, and he’s also threatened to revoke the nuclear agreement with Iran and to invade North Korea on account of its recent nuclear tests. Of all the threats Trump poses, surely the gravest (if, let’s hope, the most far-fetched) is that he could set off a firefight that would incinerate the globe.

Atomic-weapons expert Philip Coyle was the head of nuclear-weapons testing under President Bill Clinton and an adviser to the Carter and Obama administrations. And as a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California, he spent 30 years helping design both nuclear arms and the only anti-missile weapon ever deployed by the U.S. Now mostly retired and living in Sacramento, he consults for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a group that lobbies for arms reduction. In other words, there are few people better equipped to explain just how terrified we should be of global annihilation. Below, he discusses the best way of responding to North Korea, why we should be concerned about India and Pakistan, and his own worst nightmares of our nuclear future.

Is there anything about nuclear weapons that would keep us up at night if we knew about it?
Well, for one thing, because I’m old enough, and because of the work I used to do, I’ve actually seen nuclear weapons go off. It’s an amazing, amazingly powerful thing. Once you’ve seen it … It’s something you don’t ever want to see happen during war.

I would watch from miles away. If it’s in a place like the Nevada test site, then you’re in a bunker, protected. Or if it’s underground, then you see the ground heave, which is amazing. If it was in the Pacific, you would watch, perhaps, from a Navy ship. I was the director of the largest underground test the United States ever did — five megatons — in Alaska. On the web, you can see pictures of the ground rising as the explosion goes off. It just goes up and up and up, and it looks like it’s never going to stop. We begin to get an idea [of what it’s like] in violent storms, tornadoes. Violent landslides. But it’s just not the same.

What do you think of the outlook for the Trump administration’s nuclear policy?
It’s a little hard to tell. President Trump has said that nuclear weapons are terrible, or awful, something like that. But on the other hand, he told Mika on Morning Joe, ‘Bring on an arms race!’

Trump has gone back and forth on whether he supports a “No First Use” doctrine. Could you explain what this means and the ramifications?
Yes. It means we pledge we will never be the first to use nuclear weapons. If the other side does, we might use them in retaliation, but we would never start a nuclear war. It’s a way of adding security and stability to the peace process. It has always been set by the president. We don’t know yet what President Trump’s view is.

What was the significance of the North Korea nuclear test, the one in January, that Trump responded to from his Mar-a-Lago dinner table?
North Korea has tested nuclear weapons several times now, and while some of the early tests appeared to be fizzles, the more recent tests look like they have actually achieved relatively small nuclear devices. By ‘small,’ I mean about the size of Hiroshima. They’re not the big thermonuclear weapons of the sort that the United States, Russia, France, and China have. And they don’t have many. And they don’t have many. Congress estimates 10 to 16; other estimates are less than 10—but essentially, a handful. But they’re continuing to test them, and also testing missiles that might carry those weapons. So far, North Korea does not have a missile that can reach the United States, but people worry that given enough time, it could develop one.

The significance [of the January test] was that it was about the same size as the previous one, so it appears they can do it twice in a row. And the previous test may — we don’t know this for sure — may have helped them make some progress toward making their nuclear device smaller. That is, more easily mounted on a missile of some kind.

Mostly their problem so far has been that their missile tests simply haven’t been intercontinental-range. They’ve been short-to-medium range. So they don’t even have the capability to reach Hawaii, let alone the continental United States. However, they certainly are a threat to South Korea and Japan. They’ve tested missiles with enough range to reach either of those countries.

Philip Coyle. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Trump administration is considering military action and regime change in North Korea, among other options, for dealing with the nuclear threat there. What’s your take on that news?
I think the administration is simply considering the options, and that’s not so surprising. I think every administration looks at the options. Some will be more attractive than others. The main thing North Korea wants is for the United States to stop threatening it. Instead, just last week, the U.S. started military exercises in South Korea.

Is the nuclear threat at a level that could warrant an action like regime change?
Certainly it’s a threat that we should be very concerned about. But threatening regime change — all that does is threaten them even more with the very thing they’re worried about. That’s not going to work. What North Korea wants is for us to stop threatening them and to talk with them, and to sit down and try to reach an agreement, perhaps with the help of other countries: namely, South Korea, Japan, and China. When we’ve done that in the past, it has produced salutary results. North Korea has followed the agreements that we’ve made until we do something to break them.

For instance, the Clinton administration had reached an agreement with North Korea, which they were following. The guidelines were not exactly parallel with what has recently happened in Iran, but conceptually they were the same. Then President George W. Bush was elected and immediately began threatening North Korea — and the deal had been that we wouldn’t do that.

So North Korea stopped abiding by the terms as well?
Yes. And that’s the problem with these agreements: They’re very fragile, and it doesn’t take much from either side to trigger an overreaction.

Besides North Korea, which countries should we be most concerned about?
There are also Pakistan and India. People worry that they could get into a regional conflict involving nuclear weapons that would bring in the rest of the world, and all hell would break loose. It could involve large nuclear-weapon states like Russia and China picking sides. Pakistan is estimated to have about 130 nuclear weapons, and India about 120. They tend to match each other. They’ve done exactly the same number of nuclear tests. They keep track and deliberately don’t do more, in order to avoid setting off an imbalance.

Are there any areas where our fears are overblown?
I don’t think you can be too concerned, where nuclear weapons are involved, because they’re so destructive.

You’ve criticized our nuclear defenses for the way they focus on intercepting “limited” attacks. Could you explain what this means and why it’s inadequate?
The missile-defense system that we’ve deployed in Alaska and California involves interceptors which would fly out into space and try to hit, head-on, a missile coming from, say, North Korea. The trouble is, that system has done very poorly in flight-intercept tests — and it’s been getting worse over time, when it ought to be getting better. If you go back over each test since, say, 2000, and look at why it failed, the reasons have varied. A couple failed because the interceptor never got off the ground; a couple failed because the interceptor never separated from its rocket booster.

It’s one of the most difficult things the Pentagon has ever tried to do. You’re trying to hit an enemy target that’s going 15–17,000 miles an hour. You’re going so fast that if you miss by an inch, you can miss by a mile.

Meanwhile, what our development of this intercept system is doing is encouraging other countries to build better offense systems, so that they can overwhelm our missile defenses. Typically in the tests, there’s only one target. You’re trying to shoot down one missile with another missile. There’s no reason why, if Russia were intent on attacking the United States, they would do it that way. They wouldn’t just shoot one missile out of the blue and see what happened — they would fire large numbers of them.

Recently Russia tested an intermediate-range missile that could be nuclear — that could hit Europe, let’s say. If Russia builds a bunch of those, the missile defenses we’re building in Europe right now, in conjunction with NATO will be overwhelmed also. Our system in Europe has interceptors deployed in Romania, and proposed to be deployed, in a year or two, in Poland. Russia hates it because they think it’s aimed at them, and conservative members of Congress say it ought to be aimed at Russia — just reinforcing what Russia worries about. So Russia’s inclination is to be able to overwhelm that system by building more and more missiles.

So it’s a vicious cycle?
Yes, that’s how it works out. If Russia were deploying missile-defense systems in Cuba or Mexico, close to our borders, in the way that Romania and Poland are close to their borders, we wouldn’t like that either. And if the numbers got very large, we’d be just as concerned as Russia is.

What is your worst nightmare of a nuclear disaster?
I have two. One is that somebody builds or steals a nuclear weapon, overseas somewhere. A military faction, for instance. William Perry, the former secretary of Defense under Clinton, has a video outlining how this could happen.

The other is that the United States and Russia will get into another nuclear-arms race and create a much more dangerous world than we’ve had heretofore. You see this in Congress, where various members are calling for new nuclear capabilities on the part of the United States — which, obviously, Russia and China would feel they had to respond to. You see it also in a recent Defense Science Board report, where they recommend low-yield nuclear weapons as a way of deterring Russia — the idea being that, because they’re low-yield, it’s more believable that we would actually use them. But, of course, if the idea is to make them more usable, that makes them more dangerous — because they might actually get used!

There’s a new bill Congress is working on called the Intermediate-Range Forces Treaty Preservation Act. It’s ironic that they call it that. It would be more accurate to call it the Violation Act, because the things it recommends would all be violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty [a 1987 agreement that the U.S. and Russia would eliminate all their ground-launched missiles with a certain range capacity]. It hasn’t been voted on or anything, so maybe it will never happen. But for example, they’re calling for a dual program of a dual-capable — meaning they could be nuclear or nonnuclear — road-mobile missile-launch system, with ranges between 500 kilometers and, say, 6,000 kilometers. Obviously, if the United States did something like that, Russia and China would feel very concerned and feel they had to respond.

So this kind of sword-rattling could ultimately make the world a much more dangerous place.

By and large, Americans aren’t viscerally afraid of nuclear war in the way they were in the 1950s and ’60s. But how close are we actually to the threat of a nuclear holocaust, compared to the situation during the Cold War?
Until very recently, I would have said that we were moving farther and farther away from nuclear war, because the U.S. and Russian stockpiles have been going down, and because other countries that have nuclear weapons have been restrained. They could have built many more than they have so far. And because of this general attitude that nuclear weapons are simply not acceptable anymore, as a moral matter, and that no sane U.S. president would ever use them. But more recently, with the sword-rattling we are talking about, I’ve become more concerned.

You mean since the last campaign cycle began?
Exactly.

An Atomic-Weapons Expert on the Worst-Case Nuclear Scenario