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Colonel Larry Wilkerson explains the significance of China considering placing nuclear arsenal on high alert

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. According to newly translated documents, China’s military wants to put its relatively small nuclear arsenal on hair-trigger alert for the first time. Unlike the United States and Russia, China currently keeps its nuclear weapons off alert. Now joining us from Williamsburg, Virginia to understand the significance of this news is Larry Wilkerson. He is the former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and he’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the college of William and Mary. And of course, he’s a regular contributor to the Real News. Thanks for being with us, Larry. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: So Larry, what’s the significance of this news? WILKERSON: I think it’s more rhetorical flourishes. Dangerous ones, I think, but more rhetorical flourishes than it is substance. Most people who don’t know much about nuclear weapons are under the impression that they are in England, France, wherever, under the control of the uniformed militaries. They’re not, they’re under the control of the civilian authority. There are different methodologies, there are different techniques and procedures for those weapons, should they ever be deployed, or be deployed and to be used. But civilians control them. The same is true in Israel, as far as I know, though it’s a little bit more opaque there. No military controls nuclear weapons, unless the civilians release them to the military. In the case of China I think what we have here is a statement about the readiness of nuclear weapons being changed, and perhaps something might be changed on the ground. But it’s really meant to warn the United States, to send a signal to the United States about its freedom of navigation, its freedom of maritime operations at sea, and so forth. Procedures in the South China Sea where we have been more or less challenging, on the other hand, China’s assertion that it has built things on these little outcroppings, these little rocks, these little atolls. And therefore those things corroborate ownership and sovereignty, and that increases the EEZ under the law of the sea treaty for China, and therefore gives them more territory that they can claim as their own. This is a very dangerous game we’re both playing. DESVARIEUX: Yeah, and some folks would say it’s even a more dangerous game because of the way this hair-trigger alert system works. Because it, doesn’t it mean that a technical glitch or human error could actually cause an accidental launch of a nuclear weapon in response to a false warning? We’ve had some close calls in the past, like in 1979 at the North American Aerospace Defense headquarters, and in Russia, back when it was the Soviet Union in the ’80s, it faced this type of errors that could have prompted a nuclear launch. So if China is even considering the possibility of using this high alert system, shouldn’t we be concerned? Isn’t that just one more state actor that could potentially make an error and launch an attack inadvertently? WILKERSON: Jessica, I’m far more concerned about what are rumored to be, and they’re strong rumors, nuclear-tipped submarine launch ballistic missiles on board Israeli, two Israeli submarines, furnished to them by the Germans, sailing around the Eastern Med or maybe even the northern Indian Ocean than I am the Chinese. I’m quite confident that the Chinese have control over their nuclear weapons. And there’s always the possibility of a technical glitch or a problem. But there are so many safeguards built into these systems that, permissive action links, for example, dual key control, civilian authority necessary to fire, and so forth, that I’m confident that the same procedure’s basically safe, that adhered during the Cold War between the two massive stockpiles of the Soviets and the United States, will continue to adhere. I’m far more worried about a, a loose nuke, if you will, a situation where one is in transit or one is not quite as secure as it should be. It’s not going to be launched at anyone by an authority, but it’s going to be stolen. Or it’s going to be somehow purloined by some terrorist group that is going to, you know, then use it in some nefarious scheme to kill a lot of people. That, to me, is a lot more troubling. And in that regard, those who don’t guard the nuclear weapons quite as assiduously as they should disturb me more than any announcement by China that it’s going to go on hair-trigger alert with its nuclear weapons. DESVARIEUX: Yeah, and curbing nuclear proliferation, that was a big policy for the Obama administration. I don’t know if you remember the president’s speech in Prague in 2009. He declared that he, quote, would see America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. Really high ambitions for the president. How, how good has the president been on keeping his word to push for nuclear disarmament for the U.S.? WILKERSON: Absolutely lousy. We’re going to spend something like a trillion dollars-plus over the next 30 years to keep the military-industrial-nuclear complex alive. And we’re going to argue that it’s for surety purposes, that means we need to know they’ll go off, should we use them. And it’s going to be argued that it’s for safety purposes. That is, they’re not growing so old in the stockpile that they might accidentally explode, or whatever. While both of those purposes are legitimate, and both of them do need effort and funds expended, they do not need a trillion dollars. We do not need to modernize our nuclear weapon arsenal. What we need to do is reduce it. We did the Moscow treaty in 2002 and we made a major inroad into that with both the Soviets, the Russians, and us, the two main holders of nuclear weapons in the world. And we needed to continue that progress. There have been analyses done that show, for example, that we and the Russians could probably go down to three or four hundred and feel very confident that that would deter one or the other, or anyone else in the world. That would be a much safer posture, and not present some of the problems we’ve talked about with accidental launch, or stealing, or whatever. But it looks like now we’re going to stay pretty much where we are, maybe even increase a little bit, modernize, make sure they’re safe and all those kind of things, keep the military-industrial-nuclear complex alive. And that’s just going to incentivize others in the world, I think, to want their own stockpile of nuclear weapons. It’s not what the Nonproliferation Treaty says. We’re a signatory to that. It says that in exchange for all these other countries signing the treaty and disavowing ever having nuclear weapons, the great powers, the nuclear powers, the original nuclear powers, Britain, France, the United States and so forth, will work to get rid of their stockpiles. Well, we’re certainly not living up to that aspect of the treaty. DESVARIEUX: All right. Larry Wilkerson, joining us from Williamsburg, Virginia. Thank you so much for being with us. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.