Starr Forum: Night Watch: A discussion about nuclear warfare

Alex Maggio with Vipin Narang

VIPIN NARANG: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to today's Starr Forum, where we're going to screen and talk with one of the writers and producers of "Night Watch" for Madam Secretary-- a discussion about the threat of nuclear warfare. And we'll be looking at this through the lens of the CBS drama. It was the season finale of season 4-- last year.

I'm Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science and a member of the MIT Security Studies Program. I work primarily on nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy. And I'll just be moderating today. But I'm thrilled and honored to introduce our guest speaker, Alex Maggio. Mr. Maggio is a writer and producer on the CBS drama Madam Secretary. He was part of the team that developed the storyline of "Night Watch" and figured out how to dramatize the danger of hair-trigger nuclear alert status.

As an MFA graduate of UCLA, his thesis play, Lost Cause was an Alliance Candida National Graduate Playwriting Competition runner-up and an O'Neill semifinalist. His theatrical work has been performed in New York, LA, Atlanta, Houston, Aspen, and Santa Cruz. Before becoming a playwright, Alex worked as an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, DC-- and is a teaching fellow in history at the Andover Phillips Academy, just up the street.

In his spare time, he's a trivia junkie, trying to relive his glory days on Jeopardy, where he was a three-day champion. He has a BA from Yale University. And we're very excited to have Alex with us today. He will show a clip from the episode-- and then a short discussion about how they arrived at the concept and the show itself. And then I'll make a few very brief remarks before opening up for question-answer.

For Q&A, I'd like to remind everyone to ask only one question. And line up behind one of the mics on either side to ask your question. And please keep it brief, so that Alex can actually answer your question. So please, join me in welcoming Alex Maggio. And we look forward to the clips and your discussion today, Alex. Thanks for coming today.



And I do talk again tomorrow. And I'm going to give you another-- oop-- waterfall. I'm going to give you another brief spoiler and tell you that, ultimately, Elizabeth McCord, our secretary of state character and the hero of this story, is able to sign a treaty with the Russians, agreeing to mutually de-alert our nuclear missiles, thereby presumably reducing this particular threat to our lives and safety.

So this is an episode that ends with a win-- so you know. But I would encourage everyone to go watch it. So I just want to take a moment to thank MIT's Starr Forum and Mass Peace Action for bringing me here today. It's a absolute thrill to be in this setting. It's really cool to be sharing the stage with a guy like Vipin-- talented academic that normally I only encounter on the page, alone in my room, when I'm imagining cool people I'd like to write dialogue for.

So I'm happy to be here. I'm also just happy to be representing the show as a writer. Normally, actors are the ones who get to do this kind of thing. So any time we can crawl out from the dark and be in the limelight makes us feel happy. So thank you for that.

So has been mentioned, I was part of the writing and producing team that put together the story for this episode and plotted it out. The dialogue in the script itself was written by two of our top writers and our show creator Barbara Hall and David Gray. But I was happy to be a part of it. And I was able to contribute, I think, some small amount to the process. And so I'll speak to that a little bit today because, obviously, I'm not an expert.

I did start my career thinking I was going to work in government intelligence. And my area, when I was working for the DIA, was counterproliferation, so I had some awareness of nuclear issues. And I've always been interested in them. But it was an interesting bit of serendipity when we ended up doing so many stories about them on this show.

So I'll try to answer the question-- how does a layperson like me, someone without a lot of special training-- same as the other writers on their show-- go about trying to dramatize a story like this? And I'll talk a little bit of the origins of how we decided we wanted to do it. Now, for any writer of any television show, the temptation to do stuff about nukes is pretty strong.

I think, just take a survey of your local DVD library. And you'll see a lot of nuclear incident stories. So it's always a temptation. And there'd been a couple of scare incidents that had been happening in the news, including the false alert in Hawaii. We were in the writers room. But more than anything else, it was the fact that, for some reason, with this current president, a lot of people have been talking about the power of one individual to press a button and blow up the world.

And so we wanted to dramatize that in some effective way. But we knew, if we were going to do it, it had to be really in keeping with the mission of our show. And from the very beginning, our creator, Barbara Hall, has tried to emphasize two things very strongly. One is that it's civic minded. She always likes to talk about trying to give the civics lesson of the show.

And in the case of this episode, I'd probably interpret that to mean-- show what the actual process would be like behind the curtain for the people involved in trying to execute a president's order in this situation. And then, also, that it's aspirational. We are unashamedly positive. We solve a lot of problems in 43 minutes that probably couldn't be solved in 43 years.

But we like to try to keep as much verisimilitude as possible. And what we're always going for is something that's a reach, but it's achievable. And that's what we tried to do in this episode. So we knew we wanted to do a story about a nuclear launch and the scare that would follow. But we wanted to leave viewers with something positive at the end of day, because we didn't want to scare people to death or paralyze them with fear.

We wanted to have some positive takeaway that would, hopefully, make us safer in the future. And we talked to a number of nuclear experts, who were made available to us through this organization called Hollywood Health and Society. That's run out of the Annenberg Center at USC. And so we were particularly lucky. We talked to Global Zero. We talked to the Plowshares Fund, Jeffrey Lewis from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

And then also, this guy, Bruce Blair-- that a lot of people in this room actually know-- gave us a lot of information. He was a former missile officer and told us a lot about what the actual launch process was like. So I would recommend watching the episode again. You can see some of those scenes inside the silo. They're very cool. Or at least, I think they're cool, for obvious reasons.

So we knew we wanted to tell this story in an aspirational way that ended with something positive. And what these experts told us really is that, probably, the most achievable concrete thing that could be done-- that might make the possibility of an accidental nuclear war a lot smaller-- would be de-alerting our land-based missiles. Because in the current system, even though we can detect launches really rapidly-- and this is my understanding-- by the time the information successfully filters up to the president, he or she is only going to have about five minutes in which to make the decision that's going to affect the fate of everyone on earth.

And as writers, we really are interested in putting our characters through that situation. And in particular, we're always looking for flaws and possible tragedies to exploit for drama. And so it's always more interesting to us when we take a very responsible, intelligent, reasonable person-- and that absolutely describes the character of President Dalton on our show-- into this situation, where it's incredibly high pressure and you're dealing with a certain doctrine that's existed for decades that says, you can only make one choice.

And we wanted to dramatize how intense those few minutes would be. So that was our intention. The next step after that was trying to figure out what specific thing could have caused the president to accidentally give a launch order. And looking through history-- this was the point in the story-breaking process where we lost a lot of sleep. And you just look through nuclear near-misses-- at least the ones that have been declassified. And a lot of them are kind of horrifying.

The particular one we zeroed in on was from November 9, 1979. And this was a real-world 3:00 AM phone call that NORAD made to the national security advisor at the time of President Carter. I think it was Zbigniew Brzezinski, right? Yeah-- Brzezinski, saying that they thought a launch was happening. And fortunately, he waited a few minutes before waking up the President and telling him that we needed to retaliate.

And then they realized, belatedly, that a training tape had been, I think, put in the wrong system. And they were looking at a training exercise, rather than an actual attack. We thought that sounded pretty good. And we also liked the idea that, when you keep a certain system in place, history might repeat itself. And if you don't reform the system, you run a risk of having the same mistake happen again.

So we decided to crib from that a little bit. It was referenced in the debate. So we had the generalized elements of what we wanted to do with this story. And we had our basis on a real event to be inspired from. And so then we played around a little bit with the format. If you watch the episode-- you can't really see it here. But we actually go back in time. And we look at different shifting perspectives from those few minutes where the false information starts first coming in, to the reactions of people and the eventual recall order.

So we really hyper-focused on those few minutes. Beyond that, we tried to be very truthful to what the experience might be like for the people involved. That's why you see, in the setup of this episode, a lot of people going through their daily lives. Like, imagine you're playing tennis with your buddy. And all of a sudden, you get a text message telling you you have to participate in the continuity of government plan at Mount Weather, which itself is a totally fascinating subject that I would recommend people looking at.

We don't see it. We didn't see it in this clip. But ultimately, our main character, Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord, when she eventually finds out that this is taking place, decides she wants to die with her family rather than go on without them. So she tells her security detail, she doesn't want to be evacuated. So we tried to be truthful to what the human drama of those individual moments might be for the people who are the leaders of government, for the people who might be asked to survive, for the people who wouldn't be asked to survive that particular event.

And then we really tried to get the details right. We were fortunate to have a number of military consultants who were really able to help us. I mentioned Bruce Blair earlier. We also had numerous connections we made to the Glover Park Group in Washington, DC, who helped us get a lot of the details from the biscuit to the football-- there's so much jargon in the military. It always drives us crazy as writers. We leave blank spaces and then call, begging for help from technical experts who can then help us fill them in-- through the whole the whole process of issuing the launch order.

And hopefully, we came as close as we could be, within the confines of a 43-minute network drama, to illustrating that. And ultimately, I hope people come away with the point-of-view that five minutes is an awfully short time for anyone to make a decision. And whether or not you believe that that's the right posture-- and we tried to be very faithful to the other side of the coin and the military arguments for why you don't want to remove one leg of the stool, as we heard referenced multiple times.

We tried to be faithful to that side of the argument. But hopefully, at the end of the day, people watching this episode will come away with the kind of curiosity interest that will lead them to get more educated and engaged in the subject. And that-- beyond just entertaining people and speaking to artistic elements of the human condition or whatever else we tell ourselves when we look in the mirror in the morning-- we really hope that we can motivate people to learn more and hopefully connect with experts in the field who can help them become more engaged, either politically or just as citizens.

So that's the process of writing this episode. And I'm happy to answer any questions you might have about decisions we made that I didn't get to in this little talk. So thank you.


VIPIN NARANG: Thanks, Alex. That was great. So I thought it was a great episode and very realistic and had high fidelity to the details. In some ways, I actually think you didn't scare people enough. And that's a hard-- you want a feel good story and everyone survives. But there are couple of features about our nuclear posture and global nuclear postures that are actually, I think, scarier than the episode surfaces.

So the detail about the-- and if you watch the whole episode, the two launch control officers are given an abort order after one had already turned the key. And so if the second officer had simultaneously turned the key before the abort order came in, that would have been one vote to the missile flight to launch its missiles. You don't need five votes in a missile squadron, which consists of five flights of control officers, to launch all the missiles. You only need two. And this was by design.

All of the features in the episode that kind of look insane in the American nuclear strategy are features and not bugs of American nuclear strategy. This was how the system was supposed to be designed, with a ton of redundancy, assuming that we would be losing pieces of the command and control structure, losing missile flight officers, and launch command centers. So you only needed 40% of the officers to concur to launch the missiles.

And if they didn't, there was still an airborne system that could override the launch control centers and launch the missiles. So the amount of luck required to contravene a valid and authentic order, when it is given, is actually tremendous. And it might have underplayed it in the episode, if you walk through what the redundancy in the system is. And it's there precisely because the amount of time a president would have to respond to a warning and then spin up the forces-- the ICBM leg and the SSBN leg and the bomber leg-- is very, very small.

And so the system was designed this way. And I think, a really important question is whether de-alerting solves this problem-- whether de-alerting is enough. Because our system skews so heavily towards usability rather than safety. And that was because the Cold War had-- the belief was, there's so much time urgency and that, when we had to go, we had to go quickly with everything against the entire Soviet arsenal and the entire communist bloc.

The second thing that's interesting about the episode, to me, was-- this was a scenario responding to a warning. So we were retaliating to a warning from Russia, in this case. And so the president had time to convene and opted to get consent in the process. That consent is not required. The President does not require the consent of the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, or the STRATCOM Commander in order to launch nuclear weapons.

That does not constitute a valid and authentic order. If the President-- so we take the Hawaii missile false warning. If President Trump had seen a tweet about it on his phone-- and this is leaves President Trump as an example, but this is a process that has existed from the beginning-- and decided that he, without being informed by the National Security Advisor or anybody else-- he saw the tweet, there's a missile in-coming to Hawaii.

And that was a tweet that was out there during the fog of this alert. If the President decided, you know what? Kim is done. I'm going to launch a first strike with nuclear weapons against North Korea, nothing can stop him, short of a mutiny. If he'd have called the military aid over that carries the football-- he didn't have to consult with the National Security Advisor.

If he picked up the phone, called the duty officer at the National Military Command Center, whipped out his biscuit-- and hoping it wasn't Cheerios or something-- and it said, this is the President of the United States-- authenticate Alpha Zulu Tango 9-6-5, strike package North Korea, the duty officer the National Military Command Center would issue the order to the forces. It would not require approval from the Secretary of Defense, Chief of Staff, National Security Advisor, Secretary of State.

The process that's in the show is consultative in a lot of ways. But it is not required constitutionally for the President of the United States to launch nuclear weapons. So the first-strike scenario is actually the scary one. It would essentially take a mutiny or several key officers in this process, who are not necessarily generals or have stars on their brass, in order to stop the President from doing this.

And even then, once the issue is ordered, you could have a large portion of the ICBM officers say, I don't want to do this. I have no reason to believe this is what the United States should be doing, you need only a small number of officers to override any attempt to slow it down. And the US is almost unique in this. There's no other system that I know of, publicly, where you have sole authority, where the president does not require the consent of anybody else to launch nuclear weapons-- he or she.

Even in the Russian system, there are three footballs. And it requires the order to be issued from both the president-- so President Putin-- and one of the other two, either the Chief of General Staff or the Minister of Defense. You need two votes. One of them has to be the president. But you'd need a second one in order to confirm the launch. So the president alone-- I don't know when they instituted this-- maybe when Yeltsin was drunk all the time.

But you need at least two votes in the Russian system. And so the US is unique in this way. And it is a question that's being raised in Congress today about whether sole authority is the right way to organize our system in the post-Cold War world, where one person has this authority.

President Nixon was drunk for a large portion of the last days he was in office. And Schlesinger, the former Secretary of Defense-- his Secretary of Defense-- goes around saying, I told the military and anybody to contact me or read me in into any orders before executing them. And that wasn't constitutional. That, in fact, if it was true, he exceeded his constitutional authority. And so there's a debate that probably should be had in the US system as whether sole authority is the right way to organize the system.

And the third final point is this was about the US and Russia in the episode. But there is another conflict out there where the time pressures are even more severe. In the US and the Russian system, they're 30 minutes basically from when an ICBM would be launched until it hits. So you have 30 minutes to get the warning to the relevant parties, some time to decide what to do to confirm the warning, and then launch at least the ICBMs. SSBNs would take a little bit more time.

But India and Pakistan-- the flight times are not 1/2 an hour. They're two to three minutes. So imagine in a crisis-- we're just coming out of a major crisis between India and Pakistan where, thankfully, nuclear weapons-- I don't think-- were in the picture. But if you got going and the music started in South Asia, the time that a prime minister in either Islamabad or Delhi has to decide whether to retaliate if there's indication of a strike or a launch by the other side is effectively 0.

And we have to ask yourself if this is the way we want to run postures in, not only Russia and the US, but worldwide also. So I thought the episode raised and surfaced a whole bunch of interesting questions and was almost, probably, I think, too optimistic actually about how lucky we could get. Because if that scenario actually happened, we're also banking on the redundancy in the system not to override the abort orders. And that was always a feature of the system and not a bug.

And so I encourage everybody to watch the episode. It was a real pleasure to have Alex here with us today and talk about the process. And the details were, I thought, fantastic and accurate. And it's hard to do in a show like this. So I encourage you to watch the show. And now, we'll take your questions.


AUDIENCE: Thank you for the presentation. I did not see the episode. But I was wondering-- I remember, growing up, there always was a hotline, a red phone between Moscow and Washington. Is that part of the protocol anymore, in terms of, if there's a possible alert, get Putin on the line, verify if this is happening, or try to verify it or not?

VIPIN NARANG: I think so. But it depends on somebody being on the other end of the line too. I don't know what the state of the hotline currently is. These confidence building measures-- I know that there is one between India and Pakistan, but at the military-to-military level, not at the prime ministerial level.

AUDIENCE: Right. It would at least be an opportunity to find out if, in fact, it is a false warning.


AUDIENCE: Thank you.

VIPIN NARANG: Please come to the microphones if you want to ask a question, so everyone else can hear you.

AUDIENCE: Thank you-- mine's just a follow up to that. Even if you had the phone between the two, if they did do the first strike, would they necessarily give you the honest answer? And that's my thought about that. If they did it, they did it.

VIPIN NARANG: We're going to some really dark places-- yeah.



VIPIN NARANG: Don't be shy.

AUDIENCE: My name is [INAUDIBLE] and I'm working as a consul in the Korean Consulate General. Thank you for making the fantastic episode. I already saw the whole episode. It was very moving. My question is whether if, in the near future, North Korea attempts another provocation-- such as the demonstration of the ability and technology of reentry into the atmosphere or the ability to make warheads small enough to be loaded into an MIRV-- do you think President Trump will press the button?

VIPIN NARANG: Do you want to answer the question?

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: I don't think my opinion's worth a lot. I don't know.

VIPIN NARANG: I-- I think, any military strike on North Korea, either with conventional or nuclear weapons, runs a very high risk of a nuclear weapon being used in the region-- probably US bases or forces in Japan, maybe South Korea, although there's some evidence that Kim Jong Un wouldn't use nuclear weapons against fellow Koreans on the peninsula.

But in extremism, the fear-- we have to assume that Kim Jong Un has designed his command and control structure, such that any sort of centralized control of his nuclear forces rapidly shifts to being able to use them before he loses his nuclear weapons. And that creates a very dangerous dynamic. He has long been afraid-- and North Korea has reason to be afraid-- that, if the US wanted to attack him and eliminate him or his nuclear forces, it would have to be a surprise attack.

And we desensitize North Korea all the time by running B-1s, which they think are nuclear capable-- which technically are not, but they think they are-- up to the NLL and back. And one day, all they have to do is take a left turn. And that's how the music will get started with North Korea. And so we have to assume that he's instituted procedures to rapidly launch nuclear weapons, in an effort to improve his chance of survival, even though it would be relatively low.

And the arsenal size now is-- depending on whether you believe the CIA estimate or the DIA estimate-- anywhere from, let's say, 20 to 70 nuclear weapons. The idea that you can go and get all of them before he uses them is a very risky sporting proposition. And there is a world in which-- OK, you can attrit the force. And you got missile defenses which may, in theater work. And then our national missile defense really doesn't-- it's not great yet.

So you're talking about potentially exposing a state in the region to a nuclear attack and, possibly, the United States homeland. And President Obama-- Bob Woodward, in his book Fury-- Fury? Fire and Fury? Fury? there's this anecdote where the President Obama said, look, if we're going to go get it, can we go get it? And the assessment was, we can eliminate 80% of North Korea's known nuclear weapons capability.

So you've got the problem of the unknown capabilities. And you have the problem of 20% of those that you do know are still going to survive and then probably be used. So I think that window has passed. And I know, Washington is allergic to the idea of accepting nuclear North Korea. You don't have to accept it. But you may have to live with it.

And so the discussion today, actually, between your president and President Trump about a step-by-step-- slowing the program is a good idea. I think that we should focus on slowing the North Korean nuclear program first, so it reduces the chance of vertical proliferation in North Korea, but also of spreading nuclear weapons. North Korea's shown a penchant for selling nuclear technology.

So for me, that's-- I think-- the more realistic and sensible pathway forward, as opposed to trying to eliminate their force by force.

AUDIENCE: All right-- thank you very much.

VIPIN NARANG: Yes, ma'am.

AUDIENCE: Hi, I'm Annie [? Peets. ?] I was Andover Class of '10.


AUDIENCE: I'm just curious about the differences between what we saw in the show and the example scenario you based it on, where he had those few minutes to wait to tell the president. Where was that, in the sequence you described and the sequence we saw-- take place?

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: Yeah, sure. So I'll just tell you about the sequence that happened in the episode. And then maybe-- I assume that maybe you know more about that 1979 incident than I do.

VIPIN NARANG: Brzezinski was asleep.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: He woken by a 3 AM phone call.

VIPIN NARANG: So was the President. And so he was woken up. And then he said, I'm going to go back to sleep until they confirm. And so, they weren't on a golf course.


VIPIN NARANG: The president was standing right there. So if you--

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: Yeah, we chose to do ours in daylight. We chose to have the president try to reach most of his National Security Council-- which he was able to do in this scenario, with the exception of the secretary of state-- and then have that debate right then and there. So the national security advisor, in this case, was literally on the golf course with the president when her phone started having the crazy alarm.

So there wasn't any chance to filter it out, even if she'd wanted to, in our scenario.

AUDIENCE: And how long does he or she have to do that?

VIPIN NARANG: Just a couple minutes.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: Yeah, we were told five when we were writing.

VIPIN NARANG: Five to seven, depending on if you see-- there's very little time, because it's also the question of-- there's a process where the call, if it's an alert-- I think this is exactly right. STRATCOM goes to the NSA. The NSA then decides-- you confirm. And then it goes to the President. And this is in the event of an alert like this.

If the President wanted to go first, then it's a different story. But in this kind of retaliation scenario, from the time that we detect a launch to-- you really don't have a lot of time. Because 30 minutes incoming-- you've lost 10 minutes by the time the NSA is probably contacted and reached. So there isn't a lot of time after that.

AUDIENCE: Hi, I'm Peter Metz. And Alex and I met last night when the whole film was shown. And it's very powerful. And I've seen it a couple of times before. I retired from here quite a while ago. I was the Executive Director of what is now the Center for Digital Business.

I chose, a couple years ago, to focus my energy on nuclear disarmament. So I'm very, very, very concerned about this. And my question is to you, Vipin. If we do de-alert, aren't we still at tremendous risk?

VIPIN NARANG: Yes-- I think that this is the-- so I'll just say-- so my own analysis and scholarship focuses on deterrence at low numbers rather than complete disarmament. And I don't need to get into that debate. Because I think, a world without nuclear weapons but with nuclear knowledge can be more dangerous in a lot of ways, as you're racing-- the NSA makes the argument, if you de-alert-- but when you're generating the force, there are all these risks that are created.

If you were trying to disarm but everyone had standby nuclear programs, my view is that that would be very destabilizing. Because the first one there is a monopoly. And we need to think through whether, in a world with nuclear knowledge, deterrence at low numbers may be more stable than a world without nuclear weapons.

So de-alerting would solve the problem of-- the ICBM leg-- the reason I think Bruce Blair focuses on de-alerting the ICBM leg is because the ICBM leg is the most responsive leg of the triad. And because it's on alert, it only takes two to three minutes, whereas the SSBNs take about 15 minutes. So given the time pressure, if incomings would have taken out our ICBM leg completely-- which is what the Secretary of Defense points out-- while you're SSBNs are spinning up-- and your bombers, if they're not ready, are still hours away from their targets.

And so the argument that the Secretary of Defense was making is, if you lose an entire leg of your force and the de-alerted force is a sitting duck, then you're putting a lot of pressure on the SSBN force. And these are debates to be had. Is it better? It solves this problem for sure.

And if you think there's zero chance of the Russians launching a first strike at you, then you're not really losing anything. And it's possible, in this world, that de-alerting-- you can re-alert pretty quickly too, right? So in this phase, if we're not worried about the Russians in particular, who are the only other country with the ability to disarm us of our ICBM leg-- if you're not worried about a bolt-out-of-blue strike from Russia on our ICBMs, then you could go to a de-alert-- I think, you could eliminate this particular risk, where you'd have more time for recallability at the very least.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: And we knew, when we were approaching this, that this was a very small step to take in the larger, extremely scary architecture of how nuclear work could start. But as I maybe mentioned-- yeah-- 43-minute episode of network television-- we wanted to start somewhere. And this seemed like a rational place for us.

VIPIN NARANG: Absolutely.

AUDIENCE: Hi, my name is Khalil. So it seemed to me that there was quite a bit of activity going on within a very narrow frame-- very important decisions had to be made. But it didn't seem to me that any thought was given to maybe alerting the public that we're under threat of nuclear attack or missile attack. And so my question is, in real-life, where does this happen in the sequence of events?

VIPIN NARANG: It wouldn't.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: Yeah, that's--

AUDIENCE: So we just--

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: --what we were told.

VIPIN NARANG: President Dalton has that great line-- what's the point?

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: Yeah, and I think we maybe weren't able to show this clip. So there's a whole debate, when the president is whisked to Air Force One. He's taking off. And his chief of staff-- Russell Jackson, on our show-- says, I was thinking about calling my wife or the boys-- his sons. And the president says, what's the point?

And what we were told, at least when we were researching this, was-- yeah, what's the point? Are you're really going to have millions of people trying to leave metro areas with only a few minutes' warning? They might as well die oblivious.


ALEXANDER MAGGIO: I think I would.

AUDIENCE: So then I'd followed that up with-- the people who spent quite a bit of money building their own bunkers-- and is that all for naught?

VIPIN NARANG: They wouldn't-- I mean, those were theater. Shelter in place-- if anybody was doing that, that was theater. It wasn't going to do anything. The bunkers that would survive would have been-- you have very hard and deep in-bunkers. But most of the nuclear shelters were not going to survive. Yes, ma'am?

AUDIENCE: So I'm on the board of Mass Peace Action. But I can't take any credit for this event. I have two questions. You did not mention submarines, which-- I believe-- no matter where they are, they can shoot off their missiles at Russia. But I have a more fundamental question. And that is-- do we have to consider Russia an enemy? I don't really think it is.

We may not like each other. But it seems that we always have to have some bogeyman out there. And Iran is one, which makes no sense to me. And Russia is another. Is that really necessary? Is it ever possible that we can have a civilized friendship or something like that with Russia?

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: It's a good political question. I can tell you, as a drama writer, you need a villain.

VIPIN NARANG: It's helpful, right?

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: You need the tension and conflict from an adversary in order to build up the tension and drive the story of your show. So in the world of our show, just from a purely fictional point-of-view, we did feel like we need that to create the plausible scenario for a possible false launch accident.

VIPIN NARANG: It's the only plausible scenario, too. This is not an issue-- if you detect a launch from China, you're like, OK. That's not-- Russia is the only plausible scenario.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: And we actually spent some time, plot-wise, building up tensions with Russia in a few episodes before this show just to the point where we were hoping-- even a reasonable president could pause and think, well, I don't know. Maybe they are really mad. Maybe the Russian president is a little nutty. And we covered a little bit of that in the opening. And--

VIPIN NARANG: I thought that was a great detail actually. Because it's not out of the realm of possibility if we kill 300 Russian soldiers in Syria, whether it's an accident or not. Remember, we accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Kosovo? The Chinese were pissed, right? They didn't think it was an accident.

And so, in this case, the lead up actually-- it's plausible the president said, well, is he really that crazy and upset that'd be a launch and launching an all-out nuclear strike. And it had to be Russia, in this particular case.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: In terms of the submarine part, we did try to touch on that a little bit when Elizabeth is arguing for de-alerting. One of the arguments she uses is-- all of the Ohio-class submarines we have available that we could use. And her argument is, why would we need the land forces, in that case? But in terms of how we regard Russia today politically, I can't really speak to that.

VIPIN NARANG: Yeah-- I wouldn't be able-- if I go into, maybe, academic professor mode for a second, the interesting thing is-- the argument-- we're modernizing our nuclear force now. We're spending-- they'll say $1.3 trillion-- all said and done-- I think it's going to be a little bit more than that-- over 30 years. But the argument that ends up being made for the ICBM leg to modernize it to the Ground Based Strategic deterrent-- which is literally the worst name. And I think General Heighton was made fun of in Congress the other day, because they don't have a nice name for GBSD.

But GBSD-- when you really push STRATCOM as to what the purpose is, it is to be a warhead sponge. Because our SSBNs actually have our hard-kill capability, our primary strike weapon is the submarine-based force. The missiles-- the D5 on the SSBN are far better and more accurate than our ICBMs. Although, GBSD will be accurate.

But when really pushed-- this is about getting-- the idea is to force Russia and only Russia to commit 1,400 warheads approximately-- to disarming us of the ICBM leg. And that's really the only rationale-- a warhead sponge. And so as taxpayers-- we're footing the bill for this. And I think there is a logic for the SSBN force.

The SSBN force-- if you're going to have a deterrent survivable at sea, this is the way to go. There's also-- I think, the air leg, the bomber force, has real advantages. The ICBM leg-- a lot of countries don't have ground-based. France no longer does. Britain does not. China and Russia do. India and Pakistan have mobile missiles, right?

So you ask-- we've had this legacy of the ICBM force. And it's ready. And it's on alert. It's reasonable to ask, is this how we want to posture and structure our forces going forward, if you really think that the chance of a Russian first-strike is small? We would devastate them with everything else we have. So it's an open question. I don't think there's an easy answer to it.

AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you for the preview of Madam Secretary. It looks like an exciting show. My question is-- do you think the white swan bombers that were flown down near Caracas last December are a part of Putin's political theater? Or are they there for any real military strategic purpose?

VIPIN NARANG: I do not have a good answer to that question. In general-- theater? I don't know. I don't know enough about that particular operation.

AUDIENCE: [? Cole ?] Harrison-- about the nuclear winter theme that was in the film, when they say, well, it's just a theory-- so what is the actual state of the doctrine among nuclear experts at MIT or the Defense Department-- people who think they've got a rational strategy? Isn't it true that the science of nuclear winter has made the theory of mutually-assured destruction no longer applicable?

Where is the breakdown in thinking? Or what am I missing here? What is your understanding, professor, of where this is being examined?

VIPIN NARANG: I'm not an expert on nuclear winter science. Areg might be.

AUDIENCE: Sure, that's an expertise of climate science, right? But the climate scientists say--


AUDIENCE: --don't they?

VIPIN NARANG: At the point that you're talking about ending the northern hemisphere anyway, nuclear winter is a disaster for the rest of the planet that survives. But the living may envy the dead anyway. There's that famous line. There was a study in India and Pakistan actually, also, about the effects of even a limited nuclear exchange and how devastating it would be for the environment.

My sense is that it's a real thing. But I think the Cold War-- this notion of exchanging massive nuclear exchange is not the threat today. The false warnings are real threats. And we still have our forces postured and our warning system postured for the Cold War scenarios.

But the real threat-- we traded, I think, a low risk of a world-ending event-- massive Soviet-US nuclear exchange-- for a higher risk of limited nuclear exchange in the Cold War. And I go around saying that, I think, in our lifetime, we will likely-- not likely. I think it is a non-zero chance that we will see a nuclear weapon used in anger in our lifetimes.

And there are several plausible flashpoints out there-- South Asia, Russia and the Baltics, the Koreas, if there is a misperception. And it wouldn't be a world-ending event. You wouldn't have a massive nuclear strike. We'd have nuclear use again for the first time in 70 years. And that's a different world.

So I think we traded one risk for another today. And a lot of our force posture is sized and geared towards the old threat and not necessarily the new threat. And I think that's something we should also be thinking about.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: Just in terms of our mention of nuclear winter in the episode or being a controversial thing-- we included that, because we heard that there were some people who disputed that. And we thought it might be a plausible point-of-view for one of our characters who is from the Defense Department. And in general, we put it there to illustrate the idea that, in these scenarios, and at least doctrinally, it seemed to us, as writers, that people were much more focused on the immediate victory and not really thinking a lot about long-term consequences for humanity in their war planning.

AUDIENCE: Just to quickly add that, if we're spending $1.3 trillion for a new generation of it, then the assessment that it's not the likely scenario doesn't seem to fit what we're doing.

VIPIN NARANG: Some of that is generating capability for the new scenarios. But we're keeping the old stuff too. So there is a pressure. I think, for those that value these legacy systems, it's very difficult to convince them to give them up.

AUDIENCE: Hello, everyone. My name is Areg Danagoulian. I'm from Nuclear Science and Engineering. Just to comment about the question on nuclear winter-- I'm not a climatologist or anything like that. But there were two papers that came out, I believe, last year-- this is a hot topic again-- no pun intended-- about exactly what's going to be the scale. Because the original concepts were developed in the '80s by Carl Sagan. And climatological models were not very accurate.

The difficult thing in trying to estimate what will happen is estimating how much particulate matter will get injected into the stratosphere. That's a very difficult problem. So the one paper that came out from University of Colorado, I believe, said that even something like 150 warheads exchanged between India and Pakistan would result in a six-year freezing temperatures in all agricultural regions in the northern hemisphere. Then the Los Alamos paper came out later, which was very detailed. Again, I'm not an expert. But I found the Los Alamos analysis much more detailed and much more rigorous-- which concluded that most of the smoke would come fall right back down.

And just to clarify what we're talking about is-- in case of a strike against city urban centers, which have lots of wood, you will end up having super fires that--


AUDIENCE: --inject lots of, basically, soot into the upper atmosphere. I think, the whole question is, will this smoke come up? Cool down-- fall back down? Or will it really go all the way up? And anyway, Los Alamos then concluded that it's not a big deal. Maybe 1% change in temperature or something like that.

So my question was about the chain of command. When Trump got elected three years ago, in 2017, there was lots of debate as to exactly-- what's the chain of command? And it looks like, from what I saw, there seemed to be a lack of clarity as to who orders what and who can intervene, et cetera, et cetera.

Then the head of STRATCOM, John Heighten, came out and stated that, if the President orders a first-strike and if they find the order illegal-- for example, it violates laws of war and things like that-- they will not follow that order. That seemed to have been what he said.

VIPIN NARANG: That's exactly what he said. No, I was going to mention this in my-- so that was very clever wordplay. All of the US strike options in the book are deemed to be legal by counsel-- substantively legal. So the President can't say, I want you to launch a nuclear weapon at Pyongyang. There has to be an approved strike package, which has been pre-vetted as legal, as consistent with the laws of war.

They tend to be counterforce options. And there are a couple of varieties of counterforce. One is hard-kill counterforce, so we don't target civilians. That's consistent with laws of war. The other is-- obliterate everything, and call it counterforce. So we say, we're not intentionally targeting civilians, but a lot of civilians will be-- the only legal question then is, is the order given authentic and valid from the President procedurally legal?

So what General Heighton, I believe, was referring to-- and I think, in subsequent conversations, there was some ambiguity as to what he meant. But I think what he really meant was-- we will work with the President if he orders something that isn't an already pre-approved strike package or wants to do something that is not already vetted by Counsel-- we'll say, OK. That's not legal, Mr. President.

We'll come up with something that is legal substantively.

AUDIENCE: Legal equivalent-- or something.

VIPIN NARANG: Yeah-- right? And then there's a question of process-- procedural legality. So in the scenario where the President decides, I want to order a first-strike on North Korea with a pre-vetted strike package which does exist-- OP Plan 80-11-- I don't know what the number is-- or whatever-- when you guys were doing the research-- when you came up with strike option one--


VIPIN NARANG: --was that a detail that came from experts? Or was that a-- I don't know what the language is anymore. It keeps changing.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: I forgot where we got that. But it was relatively old language, I think.

VIPIN NARANG: Yeah, there's--

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: So I don't know what the modern--

VIPIN NARANG: Psyops kept changing them. But in any case, if there was a pre-vetted first-strike on North Korea-- which almost, I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts there is-- the President picked up the football-- the biscuit-- national military-- that is a legal strike order. So the scenario that General Heighton was referring to was if the President said, General Heighton, I want you to drop a nuclear weapon on Pyongyang and get Kim Jong Un.

And General Heighton would say, that's not legal, Mr. President. It's first counter value strike. It violates the laws of war. We do have an option that is legal. If you'd like to do that, it is your prerogative to do that.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: Just in terms of the drama of our own episode, we did have the STRATCOM commander countermand the order, presumably completely illegally. But like I said, we're aspirational.


AUDIENCE: A couple of years ago, I borrowed a DVD tape from a local library near where I live. It's on Eisenhower. So at the end of the DVD is a speech by President Eisenhower. And he specifically warned the danger of the military industrial complex in the late 1950s.

So I want to refer to a comment on that. He was a general. And of course, he knows the importance of a strong military. And even him-- warned the danger of a too strong power of the military industrial complex. He said that the reason why we expend so much money, as you explained, on this capability.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: Well, I'll just speak for a moment about writing our show. We're constantly looking for obstacles for our secretary of state-- to performing her job. And I found this very fascinating-- the number of times diplomats will recount stories of bumping into the military industrial complex-- actually interfering with their work in the Department of State-- was actually interesting.

So it had been on our radar. We actually did an episode this season, season 5, about Elizabeth McCord, our secretary of state being dragged into an arms sale to Taiwan that the US military was pushing, because it felt like it needed to have a certain number of orders for a particular fighter, in order to cost control a program that was already super-inflated. So we kind of delved into the absurdity of that.

It was basically a thinly-disguised joint strike fighter problem that we talked about on our show. But just as an outside observer-- as someone who's trying to write about people in government trying to do their jobs effectively, it certainly seems like the inertia of a system where congressional representatives have very powerful caucuses forcing them to order a lot of spending-- it seems like a real problem.

AUDIENCE: Vipin, you said before that the US is the only country in the world that has the sole authority part of their nuclear strategy?

VIPIN NARANG: I think so. Don't hold me to that. It may be one of the few. The other countries I know have other checks in the system-- yeah.

AUDIENCE: OK, that makes sense. It sounds like you kind of are of the opinion that that's a bad strategy to have. Do you think there's a better strategy that already exists that would maybe be a better option for the United States.

VIPIN NARANG: Again, it was a feature, not a bug. We operated in a world in which you weren't-- it wasn't clear that the President would be able to get the Secretary of Defense or the STRATCOM. And if you needed consent from a very specific individual, given the time compression, and that individual-- Secretary McCord-- was not available-- what if she was the only person that could consent to the-- then the whole system fails.

And so there was a reason why we had sole authority and the President had the military aid always with him or her, could always reach-- there's a duty officer-- 24/7-- National Military Command Center. And then it just goes out. And so there was a logic. It came with a risk. And everyone understood what the risks were.

The belief was-- until Nixon got drunk all the time-- that the President would be within his or her faculties and wouldn't just pick up the phone and say, I'm going to have fun today-- right? Other systems are designed-- like, the Chinese, Indian, and I think the Pakistani system also-- they have very different peacetime and wartime postures. Whereas the US, and especially ICBM force-- as the episode points out-- is almost always on wartime posture-- always alerted.

And so is there a better system? Senator Warren is proposing no first-use. Now, for me, no first-use, in and of itself, doesn't-- you can say, no first-use. But your adversaries won't believe it. And your allies will, which is the worst possible world. So without an attendant change to your posture, you need-- if you're going to do no first-use, you have to de-alert. It's the only way to make it credible.

You may have to take other changes. But this is a debate we should have. I don't have the answers. I have personal beliefs, but I don't have the answers to this. There are other ways to do this. You could network footballs. We could do what the Russians do and have two votes, two out of three-- the chance-- or three out of four or two-- whatever you want.

There are ways to get out of the sole authority system, if you think that's a concern. So far, it really wasn't an issue. And I think, a lot of this is there is general unease with President Trump. But we gave President Obama-- we gave President George W. Bush-- we gave President Clinton the same authority.

So this has long-existed. And now, I think a lot of people are worried-- is it actually a feature and not a bug? And do we want to change it? But I think it's just important to know what the process is. And then absent a viable alternative, this is what we've got. And it wouldn't be the easiest thing to change it.

So I think the most important thing is public debate about it, right? Is this something that we want empower one person with? Because the downside is something crazy. The upside is, if the US ever had to respond quickly, we're in a position to do it. But that may not be the world we're in anymore.

AUDIENCE: Thank you.


AUDIENCE: Hi, my name is Martin. My question is a little bit more-- political incentives, generally, around this area. And my understanding-- maybe limited-- was that the upgrading of the nuclear system-- the $1.3 trillion whatever-- was the political price that Obama paid in order to get NuSTART approved.

And so if you look at something like that, you could say, OK, with the US withdrawing from INF today and NuSTART will expire-- there isn't another necessarily $1.4 trillion-- something political-- to give to even incentivize, perhaps, a new INF treaty-- maybe broader-- but any sort of nuclear arms control. So anyway, we talked about the military industrial complex. I've heard it referred to as the military industrial congressional comp-- and you talk to this--

VIPIN NARANG: Build in all 435--

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: Yeah, we reference the ICBM Caucus in this episode.

AUDIENCE: Yeah-- so anyway, where does the political will necessarily-- or incentive-- come from to even take a next step, even if the next step is doing things we've done in the past, which is reach agreements?

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: I could talk about what we did in this episode. I didn't really show you the full solution element. But it was through public demand. Our fictional aspirational president decided to declassify a whole series of nuclear near misses and problems that had happened, in order to motivate the public to tell the representatives that they wanted to de-alert and support the idea of a treaty with Russia that would de-alert.

That's how we did it on our show. Again-- very aspirational. It's this classic TV thing of-- tell the people, and they'll do the right thing! And they did, in our fictional world. But it certainly seemed to us, when we were researching, that you'd really need a very strong populist wave of demands doing this. Because otherwise, it seems like the only people who are politically engaged in it-- at least on a lower average citizen level-- are the ones who are stakeholders.

VIPIN NARANG: Yeah, I wouldn't die on a hill for INF, because the Russians were violating it. It's a bilateral treaty. At some point, if the other party is violating it, you can say, we'll just ignore the violation and have the fiction of the treaty. Or we'll say, look, we're a country that operates under a legal edifice. We're going to withdraw, so that the treaty formally demise-- OK.

But NuSTART, for me-- if NuSTART expires, this will be the first time in 30, 40 years that we don't have a foundational arms-control agreement limiting the number of strategic deployments between Russia and the United States. I will die on a hill for that, because it has so far been-- there's been bipartisan support for it. Why?

Nobody likes to talk about it-- keeping the Russian force small is great if you're a counterforcer. You can go get that. So even for people who are on the hawkish side, NuSTART is good. And it's arms control. So you've got the arms controllers and the left on-- so there's been this, maybe, unholy marriage in support of arms control on both sides.

And then you ask yourself, who are the people who oppose the treaty? It's those that want an unlimited arms race, because they think the United States has an advantage in an unlimited arms race with Russia. And they may not be wrong. But it's going to be very expensive. And what is the purpose of that? It is to get Russia to cry uncle again, potentially.

The argument used yesterday about getting China in NuSTART is ridiculous. China is way under NuSTART limits now. And it's just an argument to poison pill the process. So I don't really understand the strategic argument against extending NuSTART. So I won't die on a hill for INF. But I will die on a hill for NuSTART, because I think it's good for everybody.

It's good for the Russians. It's good for us. It's good for the world-- and both sides of the aisle here too.

AUDIENCE: Yes, thank you, professor. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about-- well, in very simple terms, the current status of funding and money being spent in research on attempts to knock down incoming missiles and whether you think there is any feasibility to that and whether you think it would simply exacerbate the arms race if we were successful and it were known and publicized.

VIPIN NARANG: Do you want to-- so missile defense history question. The 2018 nuclear posture review didn't scare the Chinese or the Russians. The 2019 missile defense review did, because it threatens their ability to penetrate and retaliate against the United States. And it is not that our missile defense works today. It is the fear that it will work tomorrow that drives them to modernize their arsenals, work on countermeasures-- like hypersonic vehicles, decoys, MIRVs-- all of those, to saturate the system.

Our regional missile defenses-- so often, you'll hear the conventional wisdom-- missile defenses don't work. That's not true. Our terminal missile defenses-- Patriot-- our theater missile defenses, like THAAD and Aegis Ashore, are actually pretty good. Our midcourse system against ICBM targets is not great. It's actually pretty poor-- 55%, 57%, I think, is the empirical intercept rate. But that doesn't mean it's not going to get better.

The problem is-- you can integrate all of these systems to track and improve your kill accuracy. And there are ways to do it. But the question is whether the adversary always has the advantage? The interceptors are so expensive that you can saturate the system pretty easily. Hypersonics will be a big problem for missile defenses.

Every time we think we are about to solve it, the adversary can develop a countermeasure against it. So the question is whether you're just fundamentally on the losing side of that balance. And I personally believe we are. And you can't do it with the Russians. No matter how good your first-strike might be, the Russians will have enough that survive, probably, to saturate the system.

Maybe against the Chinese-- you can tell yourself a story. But I even have a hard time believing you can do that against the Chinese. And there are advantages. The academics have always believed that there are advantages to mutually-assured destruction and mutual vulnerability. But Washington is allergic to that concept.

The US-- we don't want to be vulnerable to anybody. It's un-American to be vulnerable. And that has driven a lot of our strategy over the years. And there's a lot of money into it. But there's also-- you can sell it politically, because they're just defenses. And you want them against North Korea and Iran, where you're worried about a rogue state launching a missile. But the fear that Russia and China have is, well, one day we can make their forces look like North Korea and Iran and then use missile defenses to pick up the residuals.

And so it does have a very significant impact on the strategic balance against major powers and our major power adversaries. So I think, we're spending a lot of money. And it does have destabilizing effects. And we should be having this public debate about whether we can ever get on the right side of that balance to make it even worth pursuing national missile defense against major power targets going forward.

AUDIENCE: Hi, thank you. I'm Jonathan King, from Mass Peace Action. I actually chair the Nuclear Disarmament working group that brought Mr. Maggio here. Many of us think that the major force in the United States pushing for increased nuclear weapons is the industry who manufactures the weapons-- enormously profitable-- hidden cost-plus contracts. You can't give the contracts to the Chinese, according to the Congress. You can't audit them, because of national security.

So many of us think that a lot of the discussion about counterforce and the Russians or the US is just the fog that protects the enormous profitability of these industries, which is our tax dollars, right? So we're very active in supporting the no first-use legislation and played a key role in actually getting that launched.

But we have a more creative thing coming forward. We worked with a group of state legislators filing legislation in Massachusetts, which requires the state to disinvest in-- that prevents the pension fund from being invested in stocks and corporations that manufacture nuclear weapons, as a way to having people learn that it's a for-profit business-- nuclear weapons. It's not just about the US versus the Russians.

So there are some petitions going around. They're the no first-strike petitions. But if you sign it, you get on our mailing list. And when the hearing occurs in the state legislature as to whether the state should divest from corporations investing in nuclear weapons, we'll want all kinds of folks to come and give their three minutes testifying that you think that's a good idea. Thanks.

VIPIN NARANG: I didn't hear a question there-- so--

AUDIENCE: I'm not very good at talking in front of groups, but I'll try. It was mentioned that, if there was a strike coming from a foreign power, they'd be angry at us. And they might be pissed off and send a missile our way. And I thought of Donald Trump, this past summer and fall, being very angry at Kim and thinking of bombing him with a few limited missile strikes.

And at the same time, I was in Asia. I was in North Africa. And people-- as soon as they found out I was American, they came looking for me. And they said, is Donald Trump going to end the world? So we're talking about foreign powers maybe getting mad at us. But he was the guy that was the most angry, I think, this year and kind of crazy. And so that's what I told people-- that he was a mental case.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: I'm sure there's a lot of agreement there. In terms of the scenario that we concocted on our show-- like I think I mentioned before-- we wanted to really get into the situation of-- what would it be like for a rational, reasonable, intelligent president to be faced with that choice-- and show this whole thing unfolding. Like, best case scenario is you have a person like that in power.

And even then, our president in the show, who's a pretty immaculate character, I think, overall, kind of bowed to the pressure of his military advisors and ordered the massive retaliation. Of course, in the writers room, what we're all talking about though was-- we're hoping that, when someone sees how a rational reasonable person reacts, they're going to start thinking about how a less-than-rational, possibly upset, maybe not clear thinking or consulting other people type of person might respond.

And so I think we're all wondering that.

VIPIN NARANG: Can I ask you, is President Dalton modeled on George H.W. Bush?


VIPIN NARANG: Is that the model you have in mind?

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: Yes-- I mean, he's one of the models. But generally speaking, that's the model.

VIPIN NARANG: I always think of Poppy Bush when I--


AUDIENCE: We actually have a question from one of our Facebook viewers. Carol wants to know, Alex, was it intentional that it took a female with emotions to point out the problems of the policy?

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: I would say, not specifically. What our intention was-- when we were having that argument really-- was to show how a female-- basically, how I think, in a lot of ways, it's harder for a female politician or female political leader to push back on the military, because they're a little bit-- probably more subject to sexist arguments. But I think, what we all believed in the room when we were talking through it, is actually an emotional response to something like that is a rational response. There's no distinction between those two things. And hopefully, you found it effective in the scene.

VIPIN NARANG: OK, I think we've actually reached the end of time. And please, join me in thanking Alex for joining us today. We had a really great time. Thanks for coming today.

ALEXANDER MAGGIO: Thanks for having me.

VIPIN NARANG: It was really nice. A lot of fun.