Michael KreponThe Wisdom of Herb York

Quote of the week:

“Small nuclear weapons are like northern Mississippi: there is no such thing, except in a detached theoretical sense.” — Herbert York

Herb York is one of the founding fathers of the practice of nuclear arms control. He gained prominence at a very young age as Ernest Lawrence’s choice to become the first Director of the nuclear laboratory that bears Lawrence’s name, where the Hydrogen bomb received a significant boost.

Herb was the beneficiary of one gift appointment after the next in his charmed life. It was my good fortune to meet up with him to lobby French and British parliamentarians during the negotiating endgame for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. His contributions to taming the nuclear arms competition by seeking to constrain missile defense deployments and to end nuclear testing haven’t received their due.

By the late Fifties, Herb’s views on nuclear weapons had evolved, as evidenced by his advice to President Eisenhower to readily accept Nikita Khrushchev’s offer of moratorium on nuclear testing in March 1958. Instead, Ike reluctantly followed the advice of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, and York’s former colleagues in the warhead development business. It took seven more months and two test series later before Ike accepted Khrushchev’s offer.

York writes that he came to see nuclear weapons in a different light after leaving Livermore and moving into senior positions at the Pentagon. He hints that one reason for this evolution was in reaction to the views of his colleague at Livermore, Edward Teller. He was also influenced by rubbing elbows with Eisenhower’s science advisers and by Ike’s perspective.

One of Herb’s books, Race to Oblivion: A Participant’s View of the Arms Race (1970), begins with Ike’s farewell caution about the “military-industrial” complex. Having spent quality time advising Eisenhower while in office and meeting him on his sojourns to Palm Desert after leaving office, York was well-situated to unpack Ike’s admonition — something the President himself never did: Beware of “hard sell technologists… Be wary of accepting their claims, believing their analyses, and buying their wares.” And keep your distance from briefers “loaded more with engineering virtuosity than with good sense.”

Eisenhower, twice victimized by the phony bomber and missile gaps while in office, knew whereof he spoke. Herb was keenly aware of the inner workings of the military-industrial (to which he would add the word “congressional”) complex, having served in the Defense Department at a time of great inter-service rivalry for building missiles (six, to be specific, when he believed three would do) in response to the Sputnik scare. He also dealt with the Air Force’s interest in the B-70 bomber and a nuclear-powered strategic bomber in addition to the B-52, when the latter proved to be quite sufficient.

With new types of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, such as hypersonic missile/glide delivery in the offing, thereby negating hoped-for advances in missile defenses, York’s admonitions continue to be useful reminders. His views also remain relevant in debates over new ways to deliver low-yield nuclear weapons and the three-way competition that is heating up in space warfare capabilities. Replacing and maintaining existing missiles, subs and bombers with new ones will be expensive enough; adding peripheral capabilities to their number, as well as defenses to deal with prospective improvements in Russian and Chinese capabilities, would add up to more deficits and less security.

Here are some passages from Race to Oblivion:

“Steady improvements in [technical accuracy] have had a more profound effect on the arms race than any other technological factor, save only the invention of the H-bomb.”

“Defense planning is full of arbitrary figures and figurings that have been thoroughly rationalized only after the fact… The fierce arguments that can break out over a cut of, say, five percent have their origins in the very great difficulties of making changes in large tradition-bound systems and not in the fact that the numbers as they originally stood were correct in any absolute sense.”

“In my view, the main reason an ABM program (any ABM program I have heard of) is dangerous and destabilizing is that it is simply another step in the arms race. It presents a technical challenge… to the technologists who design the offense. In designing around the ABM, these latter will usually come up with a more complex, more expensive, more deadly and more volatile offense.”

“The technological side of the arms race has a life of its own, almost independent of policy and politics.”

“Our unilateral decisions have set the rate and scale for most of the individual steps in the strategic arms race… In other instances, the first developmental steps were taken by the two sides at about the same time, but immediately afterward, our program ran well ahead of theirs… In some cases, to be sure, they started development work ahead of us and arrived first at the stage where they were able to commence deployment. But we usually reacted so strongly that our deployments and capabilities soon ran far ahead of theirs…”

History is repeating itself. Moscow’s advantage in being the first to deploy hypersonic missile-gliders will be quite temporary. Herb York’s observations about command and control also retain great currency — the subject of another post.

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