Critical Thinking: ‘At the Nuclear Brink’

William J. Perry, secretary of defense during the Clinton administration, discusses acquisition reform, program managers and his worries about a nuclear catastrophe.

Dr. William J. Perry

Dr. William J. Perry
Professor (emeritus) at Stanford University, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution; director of the Preventive Defense Project at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

When President Bill Clinton asked William J. Perry to be his secretary of defense, Perry, then deputy secretary of defense, initially turned him down. Clinton’s first pick to succeed Les Aspin, Adm. Bobby Inman, had suddenly taken himself out of consideration.

Perry decided to decline the job after “anguished discussion” with his wife, Lee. Together, they thought that the bright public spotlight would be too much for them, Perry writes in his memoir-cum-call to action, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.” At the time, Perry, who turns 89 in October, was deputy secretary and had served as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering from 1977 to 1981. (On July 1, 1986, that title was changed to undersecretary of defense for acquisition. Later the title was expanded to add technology and logistics.) Perry’s concern wasn’t just about the media glare, however. He was also concerned that, while he had been able to serve as deputy under Clinton and undersecretary under President Jimmy Carter in an essentially “apolitical” fashion even though “I was (and am) a Democrat,” it would be difficult to be a nonpartisan secretary of defense.

Clinton had called on a Friday to offer him the job. On Saturday, Perry declined. But later that same day, Vice President Al Gore, who was “aghast” at Perry’s decision, invited him to his residence to discuss it. Gore convinced him that he should take the job, Perry wrote, and both the president and the vice president assured him of their support. After another consultation with Lee, Perry accepted, but told the president that he would serve only through Clinton’s first term. Perry became secretary of defense in February 1994 and held the job until January 1997.

Perry was exceptionally, even unusually, qualified to be secretary of defense, and not just because of his previous service in the Carter and Clinton administrations or his service on the Packard Commission and other high-level government panels. Perry had served as an enlisted man in the Army, beginning at 18, and then as a reserve officer. He’d worked in the defense industry as a top scientist and as an entrepreneur.

During the Cuban missile crisis, he was director of Sylvania’s Defense Electronic Systems, which he said was a “pioneer in sophisticated electronic surveillance systems.” Perry was called to Washington by the head of the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence, where he spent eight days with a team analyzing images of nuclear-capable Soviet missiles in Cuba.

After former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, his boss in the Carter administration, Perry was only the second scientist in the post. “Most of the secretaries of defense had backgrounds in law or politics,” Perry said. “Of the scientists, there were, besides me, Harold Brown and [now] Ash Carter, of course. It’s an unusual background for secretary of defense.”

TIGHTENING THE CIRCLE

TIGHTENING THE CIRCLE
President Barack Obama leads a moment of silence April 13, 2010, at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., in memory of the lives lost when the plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski crashed in Russia three days earlier. The moment of silence preceded the first plenary session of the summit. Obama has held four such summits, which aim to bring together dozens of countries and international organizations to maintain better controls over fissile material and keep it from terrorist groups. (Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Service would seem to be a part of Perry’s DNA. When, as a 14-year-old in 1941, he got the news from a friend that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, his biggest concern, he said, was that the war would be over before he got the chance to serve. In 1944, at age 17, the Pennsylvania native passed the tests and enlisted in the Army’s Air Cadet program, then went home to wait for an opening. In anticipation, Perry left high school early to get a head start on college at what is now Carnegie Mellon University. In May 1945, just as he was finishing up his first semester, the Army disbanded the program and gave him an honorable discharge. He finished two more semesters and, at 18, enlisted in the Army engineers, he wrote, although the war was over. It would prove to be a life-changing experience. He was assigned to the Army of Occupation of Japan, and he went to Tokyo.

In a telephone interview with Army AL&T Senior Editor Steve Stark on July 28, Perry said that his experience in Tokyo, and then in Okinawa, forever shaped his worldview.

“The first month I was over there I was in Tokyo, and I witnessed the complete devastation of that city, which was—if you hadn’t seen it, you’d hardly believe it,” he said. Okinawa, he said, was far worse. “I don’t know whether you remember your history of World War II, but Okinawa was the last great battle of World War II, and we absolutely devastated the island. There was hardly a building left standing. I saw firsthand at age 18 the devastation that could be done by conventional bombs, and then I recognized [in light of] the history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki … [that] what had taken a thousand raids and tens of thousands of bombs in World War II now could be done by a single bomb in an instant.”

Perry completed his service in the Army in 1947 and returned home to marry Lee, his high school sweetheart, and finish school, transferring to Stanford University, where he would earn both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics on the GI Bill—unwittingly transplanting himself into the heart of Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley.

But a couple of years later, he returned to his native Pennsylvania to pursue teaching and a doctorate at Penn State. It was there that he got his first taste of applying his knowledge of math to defense problems, working for a local defense company called Haller, Raymond & Brown Inc. The company, later known as HRB Systems Inc., was acquired by E-Systems Inc., which is now part of Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems.

According to Perry, it was just after completing his master’s that North Korea invaded South Korea, and, having joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while at Stanford, he fully expected to be called upon to serve. He was not, but he continued to grow increasingly concerned about the threat of the “belligerent and aggressive Soviet Union,” which supported North Korea and, in 1953, had detonated its first hydrogen bomb. That same year, Perry applied to finish his Ph.D. in absentia and applied for a job at Sylvania’s Electronic Defense Laboratories in Mountain View, California, not far from Stanford.

If not as wildly successful as some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Perry founded two tech companies, Electromagnetic Systems Laboratory Inc. and Technology Strategies Alliances, and worked at the cutting edge of defense capabilities.

STEPPING UP

STEPPING UP
Perry, then deputy secretary of defense, attends the NATO Defense Ministers meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in March 1993. Perry, who served as deputy secretary in 1993 and 1994, initially turned down President Clinton’s request to serve as secretary over concerns that it would be difficult to be nonpartisan in that role. (DOD photo by Robert D. Ward)

Despite his reluctance to enter the harsh glare of the public spotlight when first offered the job of secretary of defense, Perry now attempts to use whatever glow that remains to educate the public, especially young people, about the dangers of nuclear weapons. In 2007, along with former Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger and former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Perry co-authored an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” in which the four urged the U.S. to lead the world in reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons. Perry continues to work for education and understanding of the dangers of nuclear weapons, especially in the hands of terrorists, through his organization, the William J. Perry Project.

As a scientist, and a man who was at the heart of significant acquisition reforms as secretary of defense and as a member of the Packard Commission in 1985-86, Perry led DOD during the 1990s, giving him an unusual and distinct perspective on acquisition reform then and now. He is an extraordinarily accomplished man who could be resting on his many laurels, but, as his advocacy on behalf of his project shows, Perry has no intention of putting his feet up any time soon.

Army AL&T: When you look at the oversight that Congress has and you look at the many layers and stakeholders with oversight responsibility throughout the acquisition system, do you have any idea what percentage of the defense budget goes to compliance with regulation and oversight?

Perry: Well, I’ve never seen a reliable percentage figure for that, but I have to believe it’s a pretty big figure because of all the people involved in it and the way it slows down the whole process. There’s no doubt that it’s an important part of the overall cost of our defense. Some of that, I have to believe, is necessary. I mean, we’re spending the public’s money. It’s a lot of money, and there’s always a possibility of fraud, and we don’t have to speculate about that because we see that happening in many other countries.

Army AL&T: And we’ve seen it happen in our own.

Perry: Well, yes, but I will say that there’s a relatively small percentage of corruption and dishonesty in defense. Of course it happens, but it’s a relatively small percentage compared to what we see in some other countries that are just riddled with corruption.

So I think because of the potential [for] corruption and the evidence of it in other countries, one could make a pretty good argument that the necessity for some sort of oversight minimized that possibility … I would not make the argument that oversight is not necessary. Perhaps we’ve overdone it, perhaps we don’t do it as efficiently as we should, but certainly to some extent this oversight is necessary.

GOING COMMERCIAL

GOING COMMERCIAL
The Army’s Common Hardware Systems program office was designated last year as the primary organization to oversee procurement of tactical commercial off-the-shelf information technology. One of the acquisition reform initiatives rolled out under Perry’s term as secretary of defense was to give program managers more authority to bypass military spec when off-the-shelf equipment would work just as well. (U.S. Army photo)

Army AL&T: How much of the defense budget—this is asking you to speculate—is for Congress to make sure that there are jobs in their districts?

Perry: There’s some of that, but I have to say that it’s easy in the Pentagon to blame our problems on the Congress, that they’re buying things that we don’t need and that there are unnecessary restrictions on us. I think that’s a relatively small percentage of the problem. A good bit of the problems we have in the Pentagon, however, are problems of our own making, and it’s probably because it’s just very difficult … we can undertake very difficult tasks, and it takes a long number of years to accomplish them, and lots of things can go wrong.

So, I’m not one who would tend to blame the Congress as the primary problem. I think they contribute, but they’re not the largest part of the problems.

Army AL&T: In your view, what is the biggest problem?

Perry: The biggest problem is we’re undertaking very big, complex and expensive systems over many, many years, and we have a changing cast of characters as we go through that process, so it’s not a formula for efficiency and we don’t really get much efficiency. I think, in general, our system is not corrupt, which is good, but it’s inefficient, which is not good.

Army AL&T: About that inefficiency, we’ve heard again and again about the government program management capacity and the structure of the military and the inadequacy of training. Dr. J. Ronald Fox, in our interview with him, told us that one of the problems is the failure of most program managers (PMs) to have a competency in quantitative analysis, and that the lack of appropriate training makes PMs woefully outgunned. (See related story, “ ‘Groundhog Day’ All Over Again,” Page 14.) Is that part of what you’re talking about with the inefficiencies?

Perry: Yes, it is. These are long-term programs. People rotate in and out of them. It has to do with the fact that we’re looking at eight-, nine- and 10-year programs. So, as people rotate in and out, you obviously have an inefficiency because of that. That doesn’t happen in industry, but it does happen in the government. We had looked a few times at fixing that problem. Years ago when I was the acquisition director, we had a program manager for the joint cruise missile program, for example, Rear Adm. Walter Locke, who was a longtime professional in program management. And he did a superb job, I think, of managing that program.

So there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the quality of the people we get for this. It’s just that we do rotate them in and out of the jobs much too often. When we have not done that, as in the case of Admiral Locke and Rear Adm. Wayne Meyer, we got a superlative job of program management—equal to, if not better than, their counterparts in industry.

So I think we have demonstrated we can do it on occasion, but that … does take people professionally dedicated to program management, not the people rotating in and out of it.

STEALTH DEFENSE

STEALTH DEFENSE
The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Maryland prepares to get underway in March for routine operations from Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia. Ohio-class submarines carry Trident ballistic missiles, a weapon that Perry supports modernizing as part of a larger strategy to deter Russian aggression. (U.S. Navy photo by Mark Turney)

Army AL&T: In your view, what is driving acquisition reform today? Do you see parallels between what you were attempting in your reform efforts and what Secretary Ash Carter is attempting now?

Perry: I don’t think I’m enough of an authority on what’s [going on now] to comment in an informed way about it, but [from] what I know about it, I would say it’s being driven by the same concerns and being driven by the same ideas for reform. In fact, Dr. Carter and I have worked together in this field on acquisition reform, both back when I was the [secretary]. Even though he was not the acquisition director, he and I had worked together before we both went into government on an acquisition reform study. I would not be surprised to see him pursuing some of the same ideas I was trying to pursue as the secretary.

Army AL&T: Is it fair to say you wanted to get rid of military spec?

Perry: I didn’t want to get rid of it. I just wanted to make sure that it wasn’t used in cases where it wasn’t necessary. We know that whenever we can buy over the counter equipment, we can get a better deal on it. Therefore, the important thing was not to demand the military spec when the over the counter stuff will do the job. That’s the point.

So the issue simply is, can we give program managers the authority to go ahead and buy over the counter when they think it makes more sense, rather than restricting them by demanding [the] military to follow military specs? And one of the things that I tried to do when I was the secretary was give more of the authority to the program managers to make that decision. They probably were in the best position to decide whether they can get by with over the counter, so we should set it up so it’s not too difficult for them to make that decision.

Army AL&T: Is that training? Is that how you set them up better?

Perry: Well, at the time, program managers were able to use over the counter equipment by applying for a waiver to do so. I observed that they weren’t following up on that option because it was too cumbersome and involved too much time and red tape. So I wrote a one-page directive that authorized them to buy over the counter without seeking a waiver on their own judgment. It was a simple administrative change, but it’s assumed that the program managers wanted to do the best thing and were knowledgeable enough that they would know the use of over the counter equipment was appropriate.

Army AL&T: One of the things that [Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank] Kendall says is that we’ve really got all the tools we need. One way you can read the Better Buying Power initiatives is that they try to point people in the direction of the tools we need. Are the tools there?

Perry: Then and now, I think we had pretty competent people as program managers, and the idea was to not only give them the authority to act but also lead them to understand [that] they would not be penalized for acting in an efficient manner. There are two different issues with the program managers; first of all, the point that you’ve made, that a lot of them are rotated in and out of the jobs and therefore never do develop any experience and competence; none has sufficient competence.

One way, obviously, of improving the acquisition system is to make that job more profitable so that the program manager will want to stay in it and that the services will be motivated to keep the program managers in it for longer periods of time.

The other way is giving the program managers the authority to make sensible decisions that save money when they think it’s the right thing to do, which is what this directive was supposed to do relative to over the counter ­equipment—and also the point that you’re making now, that sometimes when they make that decision they’ll be wrong, so you don’t want systems to come down on them like a ton of bricks if they exercise that authority and then something didn’t go quite the way it was supposed to.

So all of this means having a program manager on the job longer to gain more competence and giving them more authority, and not jumping on them every time something goes wrong.

DIFFICULT CHOICES

DIFFICULT CHOICES
Perry, seated to President Clinton’s left, and other members of the Clinton cabinet—including, clockwise from left, U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John M. Shalikashvili—meet in the White House Situation Room in March 1994 to discuss issues related to the conflict in Bosnia. The U.S. sent roughly 25,000 troops to Bosnia, and the decision to deploy them weighed heavily on Perry. (Image courtesy of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library)

Army AL&T: Today, we read that the impetus for acquisition reform is that the United States faces a much wider variety of threats than it did in the past and that we really need to speed up acquisition. Do you agree with those propositions?

Perry: I think we’ve always needed to speed up acquisition. One of the reasons you want to speed it up is because time is money. If you look at programs that are overrunning in schedule, invariably they’re overrunning in cost, too, and, in fact, overrunning the schedule is the primary reason for the overrunning cost. So you always want to be able to do things more quickly. But that’s not any more necessary today than five, 10 years ago. I am absolutely convinced that doing programs faster is a cost savings as well as time savings.

Army AL&T: If people were going to take a more commercial approach in procurement programs, how would that work?

Perry: I’m not really advocating a commercial approach. I’m advocating longer tenure for program managers, No. 1, and No. 2, giving them the authority to buy commercial equipment whenever that makes good sense, which is very often the case. So that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re using commercial acquisition techniques; it just means they’re buying commercial equipment off the shelf.

Army AL&T: How does the program manager make that call: military spec, bespoke system or off-the-shelf commercial?

Perry: Well, certainly we end up doing that for computer systems. The Defense Department generally doesn’t go out and design their own laptops. They end up adopting laptops that were designed for commercial purposes. I think that’s a good principle to follow. You see something that has been designed [and] is doing a good job in industry and you have a need for something comparable to that in the military. I would think you would start off by saying, can we adapt that system that’s already been built rather than starting off with a new one? It may need some modifications to meet special military needs.

In general, I think you’d be better off starting off with an existing system and adapting it rather than starting with a clean sheet of paper. Now in the case of fighter airplanes, there is no comparable industrial model, so that doesn’t apply. In a lot of other things, it does. In aircraft carriers it doesn’t apply. I mean there are lots of cases where it just doesn’t apply. So you need to look at places where it does apply, and there are lots of those, probably more than we actually have taken advantage of.

A LEGION OF SERVICE

A LEGION OF SERVICE
President Barack Obama meets with, from left, Perry, former Sen. Sam Nunn, former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in the Oval Office in May 2009, to discuss the U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy. Since leaving their official roles, Shultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn have urged the U.S. to take the lead in reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Army AL&T: I have an 18-year-old son who tells me that the world is by far a safer place than it has been at any time in history, although the headlines certainly don’t make it seem so. Is it your view that the United States today faces more threats, or a wider variety of threats, than it did back in the 1990s?

Perry: No, I don’t think so. I think your son has a lot of data on his side to support his view. I think there’s an important exception to that rule, and it’s a very important exception—and that’s in the case of dangers of the nuclear catastrophe, which, in my opinion, are greater now than they were even during the Cold War.

Just looking at the time since the development of nuclear weapons, I’d say that the possibility that they might be used in a catastrophic way is higher today than it has been at any time since they’ve been developed. And that’s something I don’t think we generally appreciate. That’s a fundamental point in the book that I’ve written.

Army AL&T: Let’s get to the book. In terms of the way that DOD is going and the way that Congress is going and the way that the administration is going, you don’t believe that they’re taking the nuclear threat seriously enough, is that right?

Perry: I’ll give you a qualified answer to that. I do not have a yes-no answer. Of the catastrophes that I worry about, probably No. 1 on the list is nuclear terrorism. That is going to happen if a terror group is able to get hold of a nuclear bomb. But they can’t make one on their own unless they get hold of the fissile material. If they get hold of that, then they can make the bomb.

But what the [Obama] administration is doing in that regard is they have held what they call nuclear security summits, of which there have been four. The whole purpose of the summits is to get to the 50 or so nations that have nuclear fissile material either for weapons programs or for commercial programs to maintain better controls over that material.

For some years, some research reactors have used highly enriched uranium. The same research could be done without using highly enriched uranium, so a move is afoot now—and what the Nuclear Security Summit has been promoting—to get those research reactors that use highly enriched uranium shut down. There are a lot of things that can be done. Each one of them is small in and of itself, but in the aggregate they become important [and] make it much more difficult for a terror group to get hold of highly enriched uranium.

And that is a real worry. I would say that is the No. 1 worry right now, of a nuclear catastrophe, and in that area I think the administration has done very commendable work that has lowered the danger.

Another field is that we could have a regional nuclear war, and I’m thinking that the poster child for that would be Pakistan and India. And beyond the tens of millions of deaths that it might cause India and Pakistan, if they have as many as 100 or so nuclear bombs detonated in cities in those countries, it would cause atmospheric pollution that could very likely lead to something like a nuclear winter for perhaps 10 years.

And that would be another kind of catastrophe—not the kind you would ordinarily think of, but it would cause widespread crop failure and widespread starvation in the world. That’s another kind of catastrophe, and that one, in my opinion, is not a remote catastrophe. Beyond that …

ARC OF CHANGE

ARC OF CHANGE
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM launches during an operational test in February at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The William J. Perry Project aims to educate Americans about the dangers of nuclear war, offering easy ways to improve nuclear safety as well as more controversial ones, such as getting rid of ICBMs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kyla Gifford, 30th Space Wing)

Army AL&T: That’s not a remote catastrophe?

Perry: No, it’s not remote. The dangers we had through the Cold War, I don’t believe now that the United States and Soviet Union were ever ready to deliberately initiate a nuclear war against the other side, the so-called surprise attack or bolt out of the blue. We prepared for that, we worried about it and, in retrospect, I don’t think it was a serious concern. What was a serious concern in the Cold War was that we were susceptible to an accidental nuclear war or a war by miscalculation.

And the poster child for war by miscalculation was the Cuban missile crisis, where we damn near blundered into a major nuclear holocaust. As far as an accidental nuclear war is concerned, I am aware of three false alarms that could very well have caused us to mistakenly launch our ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] during the Cold War, one of which [false alarms] occurred when I was undersecretary of defense.

I was actually woken in the middle of the night to help figure out what was going wrong.

So those dangers of a nuclear war, not just a catastrophe but a real nuclear war erupting during the Cold War, I think were only likely through an accident or miscalculation.

When the Cold War ended, those dangers went away, but now that we have a more and more aggressive posture between the United States and Russia, those dangers, I think, are coming back. So those are four different ways we could have some kind of a nuclear catastrophe: terrorism; a regional nuclear war; an accidental nuclear war, say by a false alarm; or a war by miscalculation. And those last two have only become issues since the U.S. and Russia in the last decade developed more and more aggressive attitudes toward each other. Those two are not as dangerous as I think they were during the Cold War, but they are unnecessarily dangerous. They add a risk we should not be taking.

Army AL&T: You seem accustomed to having a lot riding on your shoulders. What’s it like to be secretary of defense? What kind of weight does the job bring?

Perry: It’s challenging, exciting. I found it a very gratifying job. I felt I was doing something important. I felt I was doing it well, so it was very gratifying. But also the scary part of it, we were not looking at big nuclear issues in those days. That was one period of time in history when the danger of nuclear catastrophe was minimal, but we were conducting a peace-enforcement operation in Bosnia and we had 25,000 troops over there, not an insignificant number.

Before we sent them over there—and I testified to Congress about the proposed operation—a lot of congressmen did not want to send troops over there. Several of them were telling me, “You’re going to be having a hundred body bags a month coming back from there,” and if they wanted to say something that got my attention, that was it. Because I was the one to sign the deployment orders to send the Soldiers on a mission in which they could be killed, and I was the one who went out to Andrews Air Force Base and met the plane that brought back the remains and talked with the families, explained to them why it was we sent their husband or father or wife or son on this dangerous mission.

So, more than anything else, the personal aspect of the job—sending people on missions in which they could get killed—made a deep impression on me. And I always thought about that every time I signed those deployment orders. The reason I went to Andrews Air Force Base to meet the families was that they kept the human element of that alive, and when I signed the orders, I had to think about the objective element of it: “We’re doing this for the following security reason.” I had to satisfy that test.

Then I went out to Andrews Air Force Base to remind myself that I was also a human element to it. I didn’t want to get detached from that human element. So that’s a long-winded answer, but that was the thing which I think probably was unique about that job and which made a very strong impression on me.

UNDER THE RADAR

UNDER THE RADAR

The F-117A Nighthawk is the first operational aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. As undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, Perry spearheaded the development of stealth, funding a DARPA project that ultimately produced the F-117. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Army AL&T: When you left office, was it because you were tired and wanted to get on to something else? What were your feelings?

Perry: Well, first of all, when President Clinton offered me the job, I first turned it down. I wasn’t seeking the job and was persuaded that I should take it, and I think that was the right decision to take it. I wanted to make the point that I really wasn’t seeking the job in the first place, but I told him at the time I was only going to serve one term. And when the end of that term came up in 1997, I was totally ready to leave, not because I was unhappy with the job. I felt good about the job, felt good about what I was doing, but I was also just turning 70.

I thought, “Do I want to sign up for four more years? I’ll be taking it up to 74. Will I still have the energy at 74 to do the job? Will I have some kind of illness between now and then?” I mean, the statistical element of things that could happen to you after you pass 70 starts to get higher. It turned out that I got to the end of that next term all right, but that was one of the concerns in my mind.

I guess there was one other thing, a subjective factor. I observed that no secretary of defense had ever successfully served two terms. Three of them tried. There was [Robert S.] McNamara and [Caspar W.] Weinberger and, [after me, in his second time as secretary,] [Donald H.] Rumsfeld, and all three of them were fired about the third year of their second term. Now, it wasn’t that I was worried about being fired; it was that I thought there’s something about this job that gets to you, so I was worried about whatever it was that had gotten to those men, all of whom were quite capable.

I didn’t want it to happen to me. So that was my subjective thinking, and I cannot say which of these weighed most heavily on my thinking.

Army AL&T: Your title, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” suggests you’re still there.

Perry: Oh, yes. As I said, I think today, the danger of nuclear catastrophe is, if anything, a little greater than it was in the Cold War. It’s changed in nature, but the overall danger of a real catastrophe with a nuclear weapon is greater than it was during the Cold War because now we have the danger of nuclear terrorism, the danger of regional war that didn’t even exist during the Cold War.

I invite you, by the way, to go to my website and there will be a link to the video, [a] six-minute video. Spend six minutes watching it. It tells what happens if a terrorists’ bomb goes off in Washington, D.C., so it’ll make you feel right at home.

Army AL&T: Tell us about the William J. Perry Project.

Perry: Well, the project is an educational project. It’s set up to educate on a large scale, with a special emphasis on young people, about the dangers of nuclear weapons, about things that can be done to reduce those dangers. The first step is get people to understand there is a danger today that is in fact a greater danger than during the Cold War. I think hardly anybody understands that. If you read even the first couple chapters of the book, I think you’ll become convinced I’m probably right about that conclusion.

There are lots of things we can do to reduce those dangers. I’m not trying to scare people. I’m trying to focus them on: Here are the things we can do to make ourselves safer. Some of them are pretty simple. Others, like giving up our ICBMs, are hugely controversial.

THE LATEST CHAPTER

THE LATEST CHAPTER

Published in 2015, Perry’s book about his lengthy federal career issues several strong warnings about the growing nuclear threat and steps that must be taken to keep it in check.

Army AL&T: What are the stakes there? Is it one of those typical things where somebody says, “That’s my rice bowl, don’t kick it over?”

Perry: There is some of that, but I don’t think that’s a big issue. The big issue is that we have confused notions about deterrence. We deter the Russians. And I sign up for that. That’s why I’m willing to support a modernization of our Trident force, but we think we have to deter them weapon for weapon. In other words, doing the same thing they’re doing. We can achieve deterrence, in my judgment, with a strong Trident force backed up by a strategic bomber force.

We don’t have to have the same kind of deterrent weapons that they have, but because the Russians have ICBMs, we’re not likely to give them up even though we have more than enough Tridents to do the job, and even though our Trident submarine forces are probably better than their submarine forces. We just seem to have to do the same thing they’re doing. It’s a psychological factor, I think, rather than a military factor.

All during the Cold War—probably the time when I had a responsibility for maintaining that deterrence as the undersecretary of defense for acquisition—we were fielding 12,000 nuclear weapons. Nobody could make an argument that we needed 12,000 weapons for deterrence. We did it because the Russians had that many. We had to keep up with them. We had to maintain parity, not just in total numbers but in kinds of weapons.

And, of course, they had the same reaction and so that’s what led to this arms race, which eventually led to more than 70,000 weapons. It was a crazy thing, but it was driven by the psychology that we had to do what they were doing and they had to do what we were doing, better.

Army AL&T: You were instrumental in the development of stealth technology. How did that come about?

Perry: One of the first things I did [as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering in 1977] was review what was going on. I came across this program called stealth, which was in DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], a small research and development program. They were probably, I don’t know, eight or nine months into it. As far as I knew, that was the first anybody had done anything on [stealth]. I looked at it and I said, “This is revolutionary. I’ll give you six months to prove you can do this and all the money you need, and if you do prove it, we’re going to pull out the stops and go full-bore forward on it.” And then in six months, they built an experimental airplane to work over the radar ranges, which couldn’t detect it, and then we put the program in stealthy mode and poured the money into building the F-117. Talk about acquisition reform: We built the F-117 in four years.

This article was originally published in the October – December 2016 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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