BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS

NUCLEAR HOTLINES

March 03, 2021 Dana Lewis Season 3 Episode 15
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
NUCLEAR HOTLINES
Chapters
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
NUCLEAR HOTLINES
Mar 03, 2021 Season 3 Episode 15
Dana Lewis

Imagine a nuclear threat to another nuclear nation and no way to communicate? Believe it or not communications can be hacked and most nations have no direct communications in a crisis at all. 

On this Back Story with Dana Lewis, talks with former British  Rear Admiral John Gower, on nuclear threats and communication as the single biggest component of averting war, and Philip Reiner of the U.S. Institute for Security and Technology on a newly proposed nuclear hotline for nations with nuclear weapons.

Show Notes Transcript

Imagine a nuclear threat to another nuclear nation and no way to communicate? Believe it or not communications can be hacked and most nations have no direct communications in a crisis at all. 

On this Back Story with Dana Lewis, talks with former British  Rear Admiral John Gower, on nuclear threats and communication as the single biggest component of averting war, and Philip Reiner of the U.S. Institute for Security and Technology on a newly proposed nuclear hotline for nations with nuclear weapons.

Speaker 1:

The whole office offensive buildup , a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated all ships of any kind bounds to Cuba from whatever nation or port where they found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons be turned back, shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launch from Cuba against any nation in the Western hemisphere. As an attack by the Soviet union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet union. I call upon chairman crucial to haul and eliminate this plan to Stein, reckless and provocative threat to world peace.

Speaker 2:

Hi everyone. And welcome to another edition of backstory. I'm Dana Lewis. I've devoted a few segments here to nuclear arms control because it's a former correspondent. It was based in Moscow for American TV. I covered many of the strategic arms control negotiations and came, I think to understand how nuclear war is a larger risk than we realize that recording. You just heard a president Kennedy came about an October, 1962. The closest the world may have come to nuclear war. The Cuban missile crisis. When the us discovered Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba, president Kennedy demanded their removal

Speaker 3:

And announced a Naval blockade of the Island and the Soviet leader, Khrushchev exceeded to us demands a week later, but it wasn't as simple as that, there were tense moments, a lack of communication. Anything could have gone wrong, and it was decided to establish a hotline between the two nuclear superpowers in the wake of that to ensure if heightened tensions arose again, there would be communication to talk, but since then a lot has changed. Nuclear weapons are hypersonic and warheads appear on conventional delivery systems like cruise missiles. There are more nuclear nations. It's simply more complicated, more confusing. And as you're about to hear on this backstory, incredibly communications can be hacked and hijacked and are sorely lacking. And when decisions have to be made in seconds in a crisis, none of it is good. And then you system is being proposed a kind of nuclear crisis conference call. One that we hope will probably never have to happen. All right, joining me now from England is rear Admiral John Gower, who served until his retirement in 2014 as the assistant chief of defense staff, nuclear chemical biological in the UK ministry of defense. Hi John, thanks for joining me. Good to see you again. And Phillip Reiner from California is the chief executive officer of the Institute for security and technology. Phillip , thank you.

Speaker 4:

It's really great to be here. Thanks for having me,

Speaker 3:

Phil . First of all, you are a podcast expert because I've listened to your podcast. What's it called again?

Speaker 4:

We have a podcast that's focused on a very niche set of issues in the nuclear domain. We call it the fourth leg .

Speaker 3:

That's what I listened to and I thought you've got some great segments there. And , uh, so, and I've stolen all the questions from that. They were so good. Let's talk risk . First of all, before we talk about communication, I mean there are, are there nine countries, somebody said seven in one of your broadcasts , Russia, the United States, China, India, Israel, France, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. I hope somebody was counting. Do they communicate if there's a crisis like the Cuban missile crisis, do you want to take that first film ?

Speaker 4:

There are historical precedents via which nations that maintain a nuclear weapons arsenal are able to potentially communicate with one another much of which actually Springs out of , of something you referred to to keep in missile crisis where the United States and the Soviet union found themselves in the lead up to what , uh, what could have been a disastrous nuclear exchange without said means for communication. And what it did was it established a historical precedent via which , uh, uh, the red phone was something that was deployed for leader level engagement in the lead up to an , uh, in order to avoid such a such a nuclear catastrophe. And what you found in that instance was this , uh, diplomatic and technical means of a hotline via which the two leaders could communicate with one another. And it is something that has evolved over time. And I'd love to invite John into, to talk about this a little bit as well. It's something that's, you can find in a number of different historical examples, really in, in a number of the different nuclear dyads around the world. Um, it is, it is not something however that has been revisited for quite some time, both from a political and a technical perspective, much less , uh, acknowledging how the nuclear really the nuclear world that we live in has evolved from kind of these dyadic relationships into a much more multipolar reality.

Speaker 3:

John Gower, I not been in the white house, but I haven't been in the Kremlin and seeing these rickety old , uh , white and red telephones , uh, that, you know, our crisis lines and surely , um, it has evolved from that because the weapons themselves. And I would think that the time , uh, those precious minutes involved in being able to respond to a crisis , uh, that is also, you know, a moving target because the missiles are getting faster and the time is getting shorter. Well , I think that there are several , uh,

Speaker 5:

I wish I could allay your, your concern about this catching up with the reality of the world, but, but the truth is apart from, with the possibility of, of Russia to America , um, one-to-one Moscow to Washington, and I don't have any specific knowledge, but I think given all the arms control and arms reduction activity, that's probably the hotline that is , uh, the most likely to be effective one-to-one, but the world has significantly changed and it is no longer a crisis. And a nuclear domain is not going to be just for the two guys head to head on that particular crisis , um, for a start and for a long time, NATO as an organization has three nuclear arms States in its membership, and they have needed a way to communicate with each other and with the rest of their allies in any crisis. So that is a separate thing. It's not a hotline, it's a series of abilities within the NATO infrastructure to communicate, but we have the de facto for , um, who have become nuclear arms States since , uh, the [inaudible] joined the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. We have India and Pakistan who have a history of going toe to toe over a whole load of things. We have the DPRK North Korea , um, and we have Israel who is reputed to , um, own nuclear weapons, but doesn't talk to anyone about that. So a crisis, and of course the [inaudible] China, Russia, and the three NATO allies, UK France, and the U S and any crisis that is approaching , uh , a level where nuclear weapons may be employed, involves every one of those.

Speaker 3:

I want to ask you, but first I want to, will you give me an idea of a crisis? I mean, what, what would be, would it be a launch? Would it just be tensions on the border? Uh, probably all of the above.

Speaker 5:

Well, the answer is all of the above, but what a significantly changed is that the things that people were feared of in the Cuban missile crisis, and for most of the cold war, where a strike from the blue, by the opposing super power who suddenly got up one morning and decided they could win a nuclear exchange and then tire politics, and , uh, an armaments of the, of the cold war that rush up to 60,000 warheads was based on, on that premise. That is still a possibility, but in my view, in the view of many others, that is really the outside risk. The risk is that nations colliding with each other over a whole host of things from the availability of water, the effects of climate change ambitions in the South China, sea injure, and Pakistan's enmity, and a whole host of other issues, we'll stumble into a crisis where through misinterpretation or miscalculation nuclear weapons will be employed. And this is not helped by having whole batch of nuclear weapons and the death of the inf treaty. They're all increasing the chances of these slightly easier to use mentally nuclear weapons being used. And so what is needed really is a proper way in the 21st century of communicating yourself away from the brink. And I think , uh, Philip and his team have used operations at the brink. And that's exactly what we're talking about, and you can't with any number of crises. And , and you can add to that if we fail to reinstate the JCPO, if we fail to deal with Iran in a grown-up way that acknowledges needs as a nation, but also the fear of her becoming nuclear. And in recent weeks, they've been very vocal about how effects got wrong. They will follow a nuclear path in a way that they've not been vocal over the years of the worry about them. That just adds you then have 10,

Speaker 3:

This just not the old mutually assured destruction , uh, um , uh, you know, argument where one side, you know, wouldn't push the button because they know that the other side would destroy them as well. Uh, but now you have a lot of these weapons like hypersonic , uh, I don't want to use Trump's term, but, you know , hypersonic weapons and then , uh , cruise missile deployment with nuclear warheads, which suddenly one nation doesn't know what's in common. Is , is it nuclear or is it conventional? So the stakes as we talk about this, and I want to set this up properly because a lot of people think, well , you know, nuclear war is somewhere out there. And , uh , Saifai movie. I mean, John , you've spent your career on this, are you, are you worried that we are much closer to that brink than we've probably been in a long time?

Speaker 5:

I think the brink is more difficult to identify and therefore we may be very close or a little bit further away, but I think it is fair to say that I am more concerned now in 2021 than I was at any time in the six years, between 2008 and 2014, when I was involved in this,

Speaker 3:

That's really notable. It's Phillip , thank you for being patient. So what that brings us to , um, is how do you then have some kind of communication between nations , uh, that is able to, I think one of your guests on one of your podcasts said, you know, get the off ramp on the super highway heading to disaster, which I thought was a very good analogy.

Speaker 4:

Well, this is where , uh, some of the ingenuity and the , the depth of technical understanding within , uh , the communities that we're able to touch here in California in Silicon Valley, really come into play. And through some of the conversations that we've been able to engender, some of which you can hear in those podcasts and the papers that accompany them. There's the , the reminder that complexity is the enemy of security, where so many, the technical solutions that may be devised to address some of these real challenges go so far out in terms of , uh, the , the backend technical complexity that it actually , uh, increases , uh , the attack vector. It makes it something simpler to , for instance, through cyber means to , to go after. Um, how can we from a jumping off point actually build something from the firmware all the way up that can, through a very transparent, open source process, be collectively and collaboratively built that that these nuclear weapons States could turn to as a communications options.

Speaker 3:

So tell me, take me, take me through the range of that. W one would be in the old days that rickety old phone , um, you know, a hotline, a bilateral hotline between the two nations that have detentions. Um , and now you're talking about CA cattle link . Is that that's, how am I saying it properly? And what is the name

Speaker 4:

That is right? So the, this , this capability that we've been talking about potentially building is if we call it Katelyn and Katelyn consists of essentially two different components, there is an endpoint device that is actually used somewhat similar to , uh, the , the telephone that one recognizes today. And then there is a system upon which that can actually ride, which we call the rocks. And so there's the puck device in the rocks network upon which the signal has to has to travel.

Speaker 3:

You've completely lost me. I hope you weren't meaning to do that.

Speaker 4:

The , the intent and that's, that's somewhat ironic there because it's a, it's an attempt to, to simplify things , um, is to build a very basic communications device that you can open source the code for all the way up from the actual Silicon. You can show that it is something that's secure. And so what we have been able to do is we can talk to someone like Eric Gross, who is the former security chief at Google. You can talk to one of his counterparts who is also , uh , at Google, who is referred to as the high priest of core boot in the communities, in which he exists. These are folks who have thought for many, many years about how do you actually build software that is reliable, that is verifiably secure, and the intent here, and this gets back to some of what John was talking about. How do you then get that into the hands of not just the United States and Russia who may have very well developed capabilities, but you're talking about a much more diverse set of actors who need this sort of capability , uh, to, to potentially reduce the increasing , uh, tensions that are, that are building up to a potential nuclear exchange.

Speaker 3:

Well, let me bring John in here, by the way you said puck, would you say that to a Canadian, you , you know, we get the wrong idea right away, but there's no ice in this one and there's , there's no hockey. So John, this is , um, something that would bring in all nations because I presume first of all, to set the scene for that, a launch somewhere, if that's what we're talking about , uh, people don't necessarily know what the target is and where it's headed, and suddenly everybody moves to a hair trigger, and you can have a very dangerous exchange maybe with people that nations that were not even part of the original conflict. Is that the idea?

Speaker 5:

Well, I think I'd walk back a little bit from that. I mean, clearly it has a use when launch has happened, but its primary use is to prevent the transition to a nuclear weapon launch. And I think the significant things that there's open source based technology would bring is the critical issues which we've seen in Hollywood. Um, do you know who the guy or girl is at the other end of the phone? Can you be certain that they are the leader of that particular notion ? Can you have a conversation with them with other leaders of directly involved nations? And I would say that is the nuclear arms States to start with. Um, and can you have such a conversation , uh , within all levels of disaster? So after launch as well, and in fact, after detonation , and I think the trick here is that this is in, in, in technological terms, it's relatively simple, but the trick is not to try and make another iPhone. This is about making it capable simply to conduct the sort of textual messaging that would need to be undertaken to identify what's going down to talk and to deconflict

Speaker 3:

And kind of link the audio. Would it be strictly an audio telephone call that's encrypted since somebody couldn't hack in there?

Speaker 5:

I think that that is for discussion, but at its primary level, it's like a text messaging service. And so it is about the identification and the cryptology of that through an open source algorithm that gives confidence and trust between the nuclear arms States who take this system up, that when they speak on it, the people they want to listen can listen at the right level and nobody else can get in the way or spoof it. And I think it is demonstrating that capability through the kind of open source technology. And one of the problems with people thinking about this is they're too used to a new thing, having all the bells and whistles they want, and largely it's the bells and whistles, the ability to send images or music or video like we're doing now with zoom, it's those bells and whistles that give , um , problems with security and with identity and with hacking. And if you shed all of that, if you bear bear it down to its barest elements, do you want the president to be able to talk to the Supreme leader, to be able to talk to the prime minister in a tripartite way and

Speaker 3:

Get everybody that calm the hell down? That's exactly what this is going to be pulling out a , you know, a mobile launcher and somebody sees it on a satellite. This is the first thing that they're going to reach for and engage that region and engage the nuclear powers. So who's been involved in pushing this idea because it seems like the nations want to do the old do business, the old way with their plastic telephones, you know, kind of can I just before Phillip answers that question, because he's been driving the engagement with a multiple number of countries, every one of the new Kieron state says clearly that their weapons are last resort. They don't want to use them. They'd really rather not. It's all about security, well , not rushing anymore. They said that they would, they would use nuclear weapons well that they have, but the part of their declaratory policy, each of the nuclear arms States use the words of restraint, whatever you may believe about them. And , but this is the ultimate level of restraint. And so if they believe what they say, if they do what they say on the tin, they should have something like this. But I'll let Phillip answer your question. Phillip , try to try and reassure me a little bit because , uh, you know, when they, when they talk about restraint and we talk about some of the nations that are involved in this conversation, you know, it's not, it's not very consoling isn't

Speaker 4:

And I think there's one more piece on the technical element. And then I'll, you know , very specifically to that, you know, one, one may ask, why don't you just rely on WhatsApp in these scenarios, that's secure Indian , uh, encrypted communications cable . Why don't you just use signal? That is not something that these States could turn to in these very extremely sensitive scenarios, because they haven't seen it built from the bottom up. And the discussion that we're having is, so how do you actually do this with technically savvy individuals from each of these countries , um, within their industry, how do you get those people together so that they actually see it from the beginning? And you come up with a solution that is imbued with integrity from the outset, because they've been part of that technical build from the very beginning. So we continue to have conversations with people really all around the world on this very topic. We have had conversations with folks who are based in, in Geneva , uh, folks who are based in Berlin , uh, those who are based in London , uh, as Lama bod new Delhi , the conversation really has attempted to make sure that we're reaching out to folks who are in Moscow and in Beijing, but then all of those who may be able to contribute to this as well, who bring a bit of a technical savvy or who understand what it is to actually work through the, what is known as the open source community of folks who can potentially help develop these things in an open, transparent way again, so that you imbue the outcome with a significant level of trust. And that gets to what John was talking about. And Dana , to a certain extent yourself, if these leaders are going to be able to use this, they have to know what it looks like from the inside out. And they have to be able to red team it. They have to be able to go after it and try to break it, find vulnerabilities in it. And the process that we've put in place, both from a political and a technical standpoint is built off of that. Very notion. How do you build it with integrity?

Speaker 3:

I mean, I take a big breath because the very notion or idea that somebody would hack into a conversation or pretend to be somebody that they're not with a world leader whose finger is near a nuclear button or code or whatever, it's, it , it really takes you back. And I assume than some of the people that are really pushing this are like John Gower who has , uh , you know , deep knowledge and career in working with nuclear forces and understands, you know, this is not a , um , this is not a far-fetched idea that we have miscommunication that leads to nuclear war.

Speaker 5:

No , I , in fact, I would class it and I have written recently, and I'm not alone in this and saying that misinterpretation of misdemeanor location is the single greatest risk for stumbling into a nuclear conflict. And, and, you know, Dana that I, that I write and work in many areas of risk reduction , um, in , uh, against nuclear cruise missiles against low yields against dual-purpose weapons, this doesn't supplant any of that work. All of that work remains important, but this is the fullback . This is the backstop, the linebacker, depending on what sport you're looking at, I don't know the, the ice hockey equivalent, but if you fail to make these changes, to remove the weapons that are most liable to misinterpretation and miscalculation, and you stumbled towards a crisis, what you really need at that point is the best way of communicating your way out of a crisis.

Speaker 3:

It's not there. And I think a lot of people listening to this would , would be as well. What is the support Philip for the concept and John , what are the next steps? Why don't we start with Phillips ?

Speaker 4:

I think we've seen a , a real positive set of responses from a number of the, of the folks that I mentioned just a moment ago. I think people realize that and , and directly to what you just said, Dana, I think it's incredibly important. There may be something for instance, that the United States can put forward right now that could potentially serve as this solution. But why would for by way of example, why would Pakistan want to adopt something that was developed by the United States without asking questions about what it was, what it actually could do, for example, they would have to plug it into their system. What does it give the United States access to the demand ? Those are the exact trust issues that this would begin to address from the , from the bottom of this

Speaker 3:

Conversation's already well underway.

Speaker 4:

So the, yes, those are the types of technical conversations have been having internally at the political level. We have engaged with counterparts , um , in each of the countries that I mentioned before and in a number of others as well, people see the inherent value to trying to build something like this, because it does, I think, provide that nuclear risk reduction potential that John was alluding to

Speaker 5:

John next steps. I mean, you , you feel that this has some momentum now. Well , it has a certain degree of momentum in the non-governmental world in particular, although we have engaged with governments , uh , clearly we've been in a time of huge distracting crisis. We've gone through a major , uh , significant political change in the U S and elsewhere in the world. Um , and we're just coming to grips with the implications of the new administration in the U S and I think it's true to say that that coinciding with all of that change has probably led some of the governments, just, just Mark Pace two or three times, but Phillips mentioned the key word, and this is trust. Trust is both essential to take this forward, but I also believe this is a very vehicle upon which trust, which is lacking in other places could be built. And so , uh, I know there are organizations like European leadership network, which is highly significant in the Euro Atlantic area, and others who have endorsed this as a very positive step of it's taken forward. And one of the purposes of talking about it to you today is to, is to raise awareness of it and to seek an opportunity for governments to, to, to engage more proactively and , and together so that we can, we can take this beyond what is an extremely good idea with a lot of the , the foot work done on the technical side , um, to something that could be taken forward, not necessarily by a team led by a us centric think tank, as, as Phillip says, you know, you can have the idea, but you want to hand it on and you want to hand it on to a government or several governments who would be trusted to, to engage at the governmental level. This is only going to fly when the governments of the nuclear arms States , uh, engage with it. And that's what we're trying to do at the moment. And any involvement from them would be extremely, extremely positive because in the end is not very high tech, all of this is it, it really comes down to personalities and who's on the other end of the, whatever the communication device is . And whether they're going to pull the trigger on a nuclear launch and , you know, president Kennedy , um, his speech in front of the United nations talked about the ominous and omnipresent sword of Damocles that everybody lives under hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation, or as he rightly pointed out by madness. And that slender thread steel all these decades later is still in place. And you would have think that we we'd come further than where are now with assuring that there wouldn't be a nuclear exchange somewhere. I think something like this, they know , and I agree with all that you've said is , um , part of this reestablishment of trust. We, with the last time that we had a positive , uh, level of trust in my mind was around 2010. And if you look at the way in which NATO is writing about its relations with Russia, the direction of travel , uh, with , uh , star, the fact the I and half was still , uh, the intermediate nuclear forces treaty was still operating. All of the conventional armed forces treaties were operating in Europe. Um, things have gone seriously downhill since then. And what is really missing is co-operative trust. And if you don't have cooperative trust, then it really doesn't matter. Your , your chances of having a miscalculation or misinterpretation are hugely magnified. And so whilst this has a practical application in the reality, it is also a vehicle for trust.

Speaker 4:

Oh , I would just, I would reinforce what John was just talking about. There's so few instances in all of the dialogues around, around nuclear weapons, the nuclear enterprise writ large, where you can see a positive conversation around technical trends. And what we've we feel we've struck upon here is something that could add value, not only from a technical perspective and give people tools that they could build off of, but it would be something that a diplomatic level that they could use as potentially a way to create trusted discussions and collaborative endeavors. That's our intention here is to both address from a technical perspective, but maybe give people some political space to engage with one another as well.

Speaker 5:

Let's do a quick, thank you so much to both of you. Former rear Admiral John Gower and Phil Brian ,

Speaker 2:

The chief executive officer of the Institute for security and technology. Thank you so much. Thank you, Dana . Thank you, Dana. And that's our backstory, please subscribe and share this podcast. I also run a newsletter now to help people who complained . They simply can't navigate media anymore to try and understand what's important and steer people away from this information. It's Dana Lewis dot sub stack.com. Sign up. It's free. I'm Dana Lewis reporting from London. Thanks for listening. And I'll talk to you again soon .