For former defense secretary William Perry, the danger of intercontinental ballistic missiles was starkly illustrated in 1979, when the then-undersecretary of defense for research and engineering was woken up in the wee hours and told 200 Soviet ICBMs were headed for the U.S.
The scare was quickly determined to be a false alarm, Perry told reporters earlier this month at a Center for Media and Security event in Washington, D.C. But the realization that such a scenario could disastrously trigger a U.S. response stayed with him.
"Some people can dismiss the danger of a false alarm. I do not dismiss it," Perry said. "It has a very low probability of happening, but a high order of disaster [if it does happen.]"
Perry, 88, related this and other accounts from his decades in public service in his book "My Journey at the Nuclear Brink," which hit shelves Nov. 11.
In addition to the frightening possibility that a false alarm could trigger the devastation of nuclear conflict, Perry said possession of the missiles was destabilizing, because it invited attack.The multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs, which attached multiple warheads to a single missile, were especially troubling, he said.
The U.S. made an improvement when it "de-MIRVed" its ICBMS in compliance with the 2010 New START treaty, Perry said. However, Russia has been introducing MIRVs to its missiles, he said.
Finally, Perry said, ICBMs are simply not needed for effective nuclear deterrence.
"Between our submarine forces, as they are modernized in particular, and our strategic bomber forces, they're not needed," he said. "Any reasonable definition of deterrence will not require them."
However, he predicted that the U.S. would not phase out its arsenal of some 450 Minuteman III ICBMs anytime soon. The desire for parity with forces such as Russia, rather than simple deterrence, was too strong, Perry said.
"Deterrence is deterrence," he said. "If you can achieve it with an asymmetrical force, you can achieve it with fewer numbers, [you should]."
Perry recommended the U.S. go below the reductions on nuclear assets set by New START, which set an aggregate limit of 700 deployed ICBMS, SLBMs and nuclear-equipped heavy bombers; 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed missiles, subs and bombers; and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and nuclear-equipped heavy bombers.
"ICBMs, get rid of them. Instead of going through huge expense of deploying a whole new generation of ICBM, taper off," he said. "The issue hasn't come up yet, but it will come up."
Whether the U.S. should maintain its nuclear missile arsenal has been a subject of some debate, especially as the nation prepares to upgrade its entire nuclear weapons triad at an estimated cost of $348 billion against a backdrop of military budget cuts.
Perry suggested the current strategy could come at the expense of military training resources.
"Money for training our forces, that's what's going to get hit," he said.