On Tuesday, best-selling novelist Tom Clancy died at the age of 66. Playboy interviewed the author for the April 1988 issue about his military thrillers, his fan in the White House and his love of technology. This article also appears in The Playboy Interview: Men of Action, an ebook anthology that includes conversations with The Rock, John Wayne, Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood. Buy it today on Amazon.
Ronald Reagan reads his novels, then invites him to the White House. Cap Weinberger reviews his newest book and gives it a rave. The Secretary of the Navy debriefs him. Our top war colleges cede him the lectern. The CIA has him over for lunch for a “chat.” From the Pentagon to the Kremlin, men in uniforms hung heavy with brass ask one another, Who is this author who’s selling millions of books by popularizing the technosecrets of modern warfare ? More than that, they want to know, who is his source? Who’s feeding him the latest dope on both sides’ subs, satellites, tanks and lasers? Isn’t that stuff supposed to be…classified?
The subject of all this celebrity and suspicion was, just four years ago, an obscure Maryland insurance broker who had a thing about the U.S. Navy and turned his hand to writing novels. Tom Clancy’s “Hunt for Red October,” which surfaced from uncharted publishing depths in 1984 to float to the top of the best-seller lists, invented a literary genre: the technomilitary thriller. The story of a Soviet submarine crew racing to defect to the West before being cornered by the pursuing Russian fleet, Clancy’s first novel was a huge success. While at first glance “Hunt” reads like a standard C.S. Forester submarine adventure, it soon becomes clear that it is not the psyche of the battle-stressed commander Clancy is interested in laying bare as much as the inner workings of the submarine’s tracking and firing systems. The machine as hero.
Conjuring up a superpower war scenario and describing in real, accessible detail the complexities of the world’s most sophisticated combat weaponry, Clancy, at the age of 40, has come upon a winning formula. He has mined the ethos of the Reagan era and struck the commercial mother lode with two other best sellers, “Red Storm Rising” and “Patriot Games.” In an era when the U.S. and the USSR have built so many weapons that it has taken a summit just to discard a few, a popular writer has found a compelling way to explain what all that hardware is about—and manages to show both the glittering menace in a nuclear submarine and its high-tech steel-hulled sexiness.
Not that Tom Clancy takes all of this quite so seriously. It’s also fun and games. Inside his cramped book-lined study in southern Maryland, Clancy sits five or six hours a day, tapping at his Macintosh word processor. As he rolls his mouse over the desk pad, another Soviet regiment rumbles over the German border. A tap on the keyboard and the invaders are crushed by a surprise NATO counterthrust. And while Clancy’s troops conquer the Soviets, his hardcovers and paperbacks are mass marched right to the cash register. Not only does he get to play war all day but he’s making millions doing so.
For a guy who spent his childhood in Baltimore’s Jesuit schools—and then couldn’t make it past Loyola College’s ROTC because he was so nearsighted—this is quite an advance. A long way to come for a salesman of homeowner policies who dreamed of writing but had published only one article—something technical on a new system for basing the MX missile—and one letter to the editor. It wasn’t till just last year, long after Clancy had been catapulted to wealth and notoriety, that he finally stopped “going into the office” of the insurance business he had run with his wife, Wanda.
In 1982, Clancy started writing a novel, loosely based on the real-life attempt of a Soviet frigate crew to defect to Sweden in 1975, using a research paper, some newspaper clippings and technical data gleaned, in part, from a $15 software strategy game. Six months later, he lunched with an editor at the U.S. Naval Academy’s Naval Institute Press. So impressed was the editor with Clancy’s manuscript that he offered to buy it, even though his press had never before published any fiction. The agreed-upon advance was a meager $5000. When the book appeared in 1984, ecstatic reviews soon depleted the initial 14,000-copy press run. After climbing the New York Times best-seller list, “Red October” sold 250,000 hardcover copies and more than 4,000,000 paperbacks, becoming that rare item—a book that is a simultaneous soft- and hardcover best seller.
His next book, “Red Storm Rising,” appeared in 1986 and sold an astounding 1,000,000 in hardcover and more than 3,000,000 paperbacks, lodging itself on the national best-seller lists for more than 80 weeks. His third, “Patriot Games,” with 900,000 copies in print, has inhabited the best-seller list for 24 weeks as we go to press. Apart from the $3,000,000 guaranteed book deal he has with Putnam, Clancy has further advances from Paramount Pictures for the film rights to “Red October”
This past winter, as Clancy was completing his most recent book, as yet unreleased, “The Cardinal of the Kremlin,” Playboy asked freelancer Marc Cooper to interview the author. Cooper conducted several long sessions with Clancy at his home in Prince Frederick, Maryland. Cooper’s report:
“It was only natural that this man who makes his living idealizing the soldier’s life should greet me during our first interview wearing a sort of uniform: sharply pressed khaki pants, a dark-blue shirt emblazoned with the insignia of the U.S. Naval War College, an officer’s parka over that and a gold-braided cap inscribed with U.S.S. Pharris riding low over extra-dark aviator shades.
“And given his unabashed fascination with all that is gadgetry, it was appropriate enough that the first session began as Clancy drove to pick up a new computer keyboard, answering my questions as he piloted his new Mercedes 420 through a Maryland rainstorm. ‘Don’t worry about tape-recording me in here,’ he boasted. ‘This is the world’s quietest car. Perfect for an interview.’
“And while the soundproofing of the car was remarkable, our first couple of hours together were awkward, if not tense. Clancy stared straight ahead at the road and spoke in precise, clipped, dispassionate phrases. I thought he simply distrusted me and Playboy, which he perceived as a military-bashing pacifist rag. And I had a good reason to believe so.
“A few weeks earlier, when I had first phoned Clancy to set up the interview, he told me he was surprised by the request. ‘You caught me at a weird time,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t but a couple of days ago that I had come across the Playboy Interview with Daniel Ortega [November 1987] and I shook my head and said, “When is Playboy gonna stop giving so much space to all the bad guys and start doing some good guys?” And now you call. It’s spooky.’
“But by our second meeting—this time in his study jammed with reference books, a couple of empty tank shells and framed pictures of carriers, subs and combat jets—I realized I had misjudged the man. Clancy was no stiff. He was simply an enormously unpretentious, humble and shy father of four who had been thrust into a prominence that he enjoyed but did not altogether know how to handle. He graciously answered every question put to him, spared no time in explaining the most arcane of technical contraptions and kept our discussion percolating with his disarming sense of humor.
“I didn’t share his unshakable faith in technology in general and in U.S. military preparedness in particular. But interviewing Tom Clancy was an opportunity to strip away the political mystifications that shroud our national defense apparatus and take a sober—and entertaining—look at the nuts and bolts underneath.”
Playboy: Through your best-selling novels, you’ve become a popular authority on what the U.S. and the Soviets really have in their military arsenals and on how war may be fought today. You’ve described American and Soviet military technology in such realistic detail that experts wonder how you do it. President Reagan is supposedly a big fan of yours. You do have sources at the CIA, don’t you?
Clancy: Not true. I’ve never had any official help from the intelligence community. Nor unofficial help.
Playboy: How about help from the manufacturers of your favorite characters—submarines?
Clancy: No, I never talked with anybody from General Dynamics. I didn’t ever get aboard one of their submarines until after The Hunt for Red October was finished.
Playboy: Where did you get your technical data?
Clancy: [Laughs] From three books right here on my shelves: Ships and Air Craft of the U.S. Fleet, Guide to the Soviet Navy, Combat Fleets of the World, all from the Naval Institute Press. My current net investment is about $150. OK? And, you know, the Russians are asking the same questions as you are.
Playboy: Pravda slammed you in a review titled “Caution: Poison” and warned that you were a mouthpiece for the Pentagon.
Clancy: Yeah, but mainly, they wanted to know, “Who is that masked man?” They think I was elevated to my current affluence by the military-industrial complex; that General Dynamics needed an official minstrel, so they hired me instead of James Michener or something. There is no way a Russian could come to grips with the concept that I’m just a small businessman who reads a lot.
Playboy: Maybe, maybe not. Our readers should know that this interview has already been interrupted by a call from a CIA agent.
Clancy: That call? That was a guy whose department sponsored me when I gave a talk over at the CIA, that’s all. I repeat: No one, but no one, has ever given me classified information of any kind. I’ve been told, however, that I made up material that turned out to be correct and very, very highly classified—but I don’t know what it is. They tell me it’s right but not what it is. Security spooks are very humorless people who have trouble believing that somebody can make a good guess. So do you guys in the media. Why can’t you just give me credit for being smart?
Playboy: We’ll take your word for it, then. All your research is there on your shelf.
Clancy: Yes. And for The Hunt for Red October, about nuclear subs, I also relied on a software war game called Harpoon. That’s how I got my information on how weapons and ships and military lanes operate: how you maneuver a ship, how the radars work. There’s a useful appendix in the manual; so it was easy. If you buy that game—and I guess it now costs $20 or so—you can spend maybe two hours a day with it for two weeks and you’ll know as much about the Navy as some admirals.
Playboy: That’s a chilling thought.
Clancy: And for sure you’ll know more than anybody in Congress.
Playboy: Shouldn’t we be a little terrified that your fictional stories are being used as texts in our war colleges?
Clancy: Not exactly as texts, but as case studies. What I do is paint in very broad strokes. I call it connect the dots: If you know this fact and that fact and that fact, you can figure out how they’re connected. Evidently, I’m pretty good at that, or so a few generals and admirals tell me.
Playboy: This has been an important year for summit talks and arms reduction, so let’s get your thoughts on the current state of the military in our country and in the Soviet Union. As an avowed naval chauvinist, do you believe that a powerful navy is as crucial to the Soviets as to the U.S.?
Clancy: America is primarily a maritime power. The Navy has always been our first line of defense. The Soviets are a continental power, going right back to the czars. The main threat to the Russians has always been invasion by land. To get to us, on the other hand, you’ve got to cross the ocean. For this simple reason, the Soviet navy doesn’t have the primacy ours does.
Playboy: Give us a thumbnail sketch of the size and power of the U.S. submarine fleet.
Clancy: There are about 100 of the fast attack subs of the Red October kind—they run about a half billion dollars each, but they’re the best subs in history.
Playboy: What sort of weaponry do those attack subs carry?
Clancy: Considering their cost, each could carry a heck of a lot more weapons than it does. Normal weapons load-out is 22 Mark 48 torpedoes and six Harpoon surface-to-surface missiles. Anyway, it’s an awfully expensive submarine to carry only 28 weapons.
Playboy: The U.S. also has subs that carry long-range nuclear missiles.
Clancy: We’ve got about three dozen boomers—those are the Trident-type Ohio-class subs equipped with ballistic nuclear missiles. The boomer’s mission is hopefully to deter war. Or to just sail around and say, OK, Ivan, if you blow up America, we’ll blow up the Soviet Union. If anything gets close to them, they go the other way.
Playboy: What’s your overall assessment of Soviet military power?
Clancy: It’s less than what it seems. The biggest problem the Soviets have is not their hardware, it’s their software, their people. In the navy, they don’t have professional sailors, the way we do. Same thing with the Soviet army. A guy goes into the Russian army, he’s in for two years and he goes home. In the navy, it’s three years and he goes home. Nobody re-enlists.
Playboy: Not even the officers?
Clancy: The officers do. The officers are professionals, but there’s a big difference between us and them. Look, on a U.S. 688-class submarine, you’ve got a crew of 120, only about 18 or 20 of them are officers, the rest are enlisted men. Chief petty officers, petty officers, that sort of thing. If a machine breaks, an officer doesn’t fix it, some 21-year-old kid fixes it. On a Russian sub, an officer has to fix it, because the kids don’t know how. They’re not around long enough to learn. And there isn’t a chief petty officer to teach him. As a result, the Soviet navy simply is not as proficient in using the equipment it has, because it’s afraid to use it. So their philosophy, very often, is to use it once to make sure it works, and then turn it off and save it for a rainy day. Well, the problem is that when it starts raining, if nobody knows how to open the umbrella, you’re going to get wet.
Playboy: And when you get wet—
Clancy: When you get wet in a sub, mister, you’re in big trouble!
Playboy: Yet those are the guys whose subs we chase and whose subs chase us around the world in a perpetual war game.
Clancy: No, we’re chasing them, they’re not chasing us.
Playboy: Why so one-sided?
Clancy: Because they can’t find us; we can find them. We have better submarines, we have better drivers.
Playboy: What makes a good nuclear-submarine driver?
Clancy: They are guys who like adventure, a challenge.… I’m sure most subscribe to Playboy! [laughs]
Playboy: Thanks. But what’s special about the submarine corps?
Clancy: They are very intelligent, very disciplined people. But considering the fact that they like living inside a steel pipe for two months at a time, they also do some crazy things. Mainly, they are out there, operating against the Soviet navy. I mean, officially, the U.S. Navy says our subs are supposedly out conducting “oceanographic research”—like, they’re out counting whales for Greenpeace. Sure. In fact, they’re really following Soviet submarines and surface ships, gathering intelligence and generally doing everything they do in war, except pulling the trigger.
Playboy: And you believe that submarines are the crucial weapons of modern warfare. How do the subs—or boats, as you’ve taught us in your books to call them—of each country compare with each other?
Clancy: American boats are quieter. They’re mechanically far more reliable. Part of that comes from the fact that we have an overly conservative design philosophy. The Russians are willing to take a lot more design risks than we are. But because they have poor quality control, their good designs are poorly executed. And, therefore, they’re mechanically unsafe, in many cases. There are a lot of nasty jokes in the Soviet navy about their nuclear submariners.
Playboy: For example?
Clancy: “How do you tell a sailor from the northern fleet? He glows in the dark.” That sort of thing.
Playboy: Are American subs so much quieter and harder to detect than Soviet subs?
Clancy: The amount of noise you make is a function of more than one thing. It’s not just the speed or the power output of your reactor. It’s also the configuration of the ship, because the ship itself makes noise as it goes through the water. And since the Soviets have more flooding holes in their hulls for the ballast tanks, their hulls are inherently noisier than ours.
Playboy: This is what you have described as “hull-popping sounds”?
Clancy: Right. It’s more of a groan and a creak—a pop…snap, crackle and pop, like Rice Krispies. Ours don’t do that as much, because we have fewer compartments. The bad news on our side is that their submarines are more survivable, because they’re compartmented more closely and they can probably withstand more flooding than ours can. On the other hand, our design philosophy is that if they can’t hear you, they ain’t going to hit ya. Our props are quieter—or they were until some bastards in Japan and Norway gave the Russians the technology to duplicate them.
Playboy: You’re talking about the recent Toshiba scandal?
Clancy: It wasn’t just Toshiba; they had help. From Kongsberg, a Norwegian outfit that makes various technological devices and quite a few weapons systems.
Playboy: And what is it, exactly, that Toshiba sold the Russians?
Clancy: A computer-controlled milling machine that, with proper software, can be programmed to design this particular type of screw; they’re very difficult to make. The Soviets had been trying to make them for some time; the ones they had were hand-lathed and not terribly well done. Now they’ll be able to make them the same way we do. And I’m really pissed at those bastards!
Playboy: Why so personal?
Clancy: Toshiba helped make Russian submarines quieter. As a result of that, the lives of friends of mine who drive submarines for the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy are very much more at risk now than they were before.
Playboy: What do you think of the response from Congress?
Clancy: What response? Congress is going to wimp out on this like they do on everything else. They see 4000 American jobs at risk if we come down hard on Toshiba. What about the 10,000 people we have out on submarines right now? What’s more important, the job or somebody’s life?
Playboy: In your books, you write that if you can hear a sub, you can torpedo it. Are today’s torpedoes like the things we grew up watching in World War Two movies?
Clancy: No, those were straight runners. You send them out on a path and they just go on a straight line until they hit something. Though the Germans had some torpedoes that circled. But modern “fish” have an ultrasonic sonar in the nose that sends out a very high-frequency ping. The ping hits something and gets an echo back, and the sonar simply turns the torpedo in the direction of the returning ping. It’s like a kamikaze with an I.Q. of three.
Playboy: What do you do if you are in a sub and all of a sudden you hear yourself getting pinged? Put your affairs in order and wait for the end?
Clancy: No. First you might send out a noisemaker, a decoy that makes noise in the frequency that this torpedo is listening to. Or you might have a rubber coating on the submarine called an anechoic coating, which is tuned to absorb that specific sonar frequency; at long range, the torpedo won’t hear you and won’t even home in. Or you turn your tail on the fish—the torpedo—and just try to outrun it.
Playboy: Is that possible? Are modern subs that fast?
Clancy: Well, it’s more a function of distance than of speed. If you do the mathematics, if somebody’s a mile behind you, going twice as fast as you, he may still run out of range before he gets to you.
Playboy: What can the missiles on the boomer subs do?
Clancy: They can, for all practical purposes, end the world. They can kill off most of the citizens in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet subs can kill off most of the citizens of the United States.
Playboy: And how does the Soviet sub fleet shape up in that respect?
Clancy: They’ve got more of everything. At least in submarines, they certainly do. They have 385 submarines, that’s boomers and fast-attack combined. That means 78 ballistic-missile submarines, the rest, attack subs—so they have us rather heavily outnumbered.
Playboy: But you’ve said that numbers don’t tell the whole story when it comes to new military realities.
Clancy: Not even remotely.
Playboy: So you don’t see the Soviet navy as an ultimate threat.
Clancy: It represents a considerable threat, but a threat with which we can deal if we have to. Our real problem is at home—in Washington. The Congressional process almost demands that people lie. If you tell Congress, “Yeah, we can deal with the Soviet threat,” Congress will say, “OK, you don’t need any more ships this year.” What that means is that 20 years from now, we’re going to need more ships than we can afford to build. So the defense community very often has to say to Congress, “Look, the Russians have us so badly outnumbered, we have to have 12 more ships.” Congress will say, “Well, we can’t afford 12, we’ll give you six.” And the Navy will say, “OK, we’ll take six,” knowing that six is all it needed all along. It’s an absurd, stupid, wasteful process, but it’s part of this idiot adversarial system we have in Washington. The real problem is that there are a lot of people in Congress who, frankly, would rather trash the military than hug their own kids.
Playboy: It’s not hard to guess your politics on this subject. Some of us think that Congress is too eager to support the Pentagon.
Clancy: Oh, yeah? The day we went into Grenada, I think it was Jim Shannon, the former Congressman from Massachusetts, who got on the floor of the House, for all the C-Span cameras, and recited, “Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto, Grenada, Grenahda, let’s call the whole thing off.” While that arrogant little bastard was saying that, real guns were firing real bullets at a friend of mine. A Navy helicopter pilot I knew was being shot at and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving 11 lives. He risked his life and some little prick of a Congressman was making jokes about it. That’s wrong. That is just plain wrong.
Playboy: You think Congress basically undermines the military?
Clancy: What I’m saying is that it’s Congress’ job to help run the military, yet it doesn’t keep up with what it’s supposed to. When I spoke at the CIA last year, the talk was sponsored by the Office of Strategic Weapons Research. Over lunch, they had a good chuckle from saying that since Red October had been published, they’d had between 15 and 20 inquiries from Congress asking CIA how it was that the Soviets developed a submarine caterpillar drive before we did.
Clancy: So? So the caterpillar drive was totally fictional! I made it up out of whole cloth! Fifteen or 20 people on Capitol Hill could not tell the difference between a novel and an intelligence briefing. Don’t you find that disturbing? Quite a few members of Congress lack either the time or the inclination to know what they’re voting for. Decisions are made on an ideological rather than a factual basis. There’s an old saying that the person who does not know how to ask the right question always hears the wrong answer.
As for my overall views on this, the percentage of military expenditure as part of the Federal budget is still well below what it was under John F. Kennedy. And Jack Kennedy was not exactly a Nazi, OK?
Playboy: The question is, Do we really need more planes and boats?
Clancy: That’s the wrong question. The question is one of developing a consensus on defense policy. Do we need a military? If you answer that question yes, ask why. What do we need it for? What is its mission? Once you define the mission, you buy all the hardware you need to fulfill that mission. You don’t buy hammers because you like hammers, you buy hammers because you have to drive nails to build a house.
Playboy: Do you think there is no such consensus in the U.S.?
Clancy: There is a national consensus that we should avoid nuclear war. But beyond that, things get screwed up. And it’s not just the political left that screws things up. The political right is just as bad.
Playboy: Some of what you say sounds right-wing and hard-line; but some doesn’t. What do you call yourself?
Clancy: People call me a hawk. Actually, I find myself to be fairly reasonable, pragmatic. The political right consistently overestimates the threat of the Soviet Union to the United States. There is a real threat, it is a threat that we should be very concerned about, but if you distort the threat, if you overestimate the nature of your enemy, if you say he’s a lot more formidable than he really is, all you’re doing is robbing credibility from the threat that actually exists, and that’s just stupid.
Playboy: How do you assess the administration’s overall perception of the Soviets?
Clancy: Better than most, though I never bought the window-of-vulnerability thing. I don’t think the Russians, objectively, have the ability to eliminate our land-based weapons with a first strike of their nuclear ballistic weapons. But that doesn’t matter. In the political world, reality is what you perceive it to be. But we mirror-image a lot. And that’s a mistake, because we are very different societies. Kissinger says the Soviets can be counted on to act in a certain way because it is in their self-interest to do so. But sometimes the Soviets don’t because their political system won’t allow them to.
Playboy: In what sense?
Clancy: Well, we know it would be in their self-interest to feed themselves, but they have designed a system that won’t allow them to. Despite glasnost, the Soviet system lies to itself in all fields, in all categories.
Clancy: Whether you’re a factory manager or a battalion commander or a railroad dispatcher, if you don’t meet the norms that are dictated to you by Gosplan, the state planning agency, then somebody’s going to come down on you. So, if you fall short, you’re going to lie, and nobody will know the difference, because everybody over there lies. So, you know, when Gorbachev gets numbers on how well the Soviet economy is performing, he knows that he can’t trust them. And the same thing is true of the Soviet military. Nobody really knows how effective the Soviet military is—including the general officers in command.
Playboy: Does that mean the two countries have very different goals for their respective military establishments?
Clancy: In part. Ours is the prevention of war. If our military does its job properly, the other side will not start a war, for fear of losing it. The Soviet military views the world as something that potentially threatens the Soviet Union. Russian history shows that they’ve been invaded from just about every possible direction, and they’ve lost a lot of people—millions in World War One, another 20,000,000 in World War Two. Rather sensibly, they think that’s enough for one century. And it’s kind of hard to disagree with them on that. So Soviet military strategy can best be summarized in two words: damage limitation. They don’t want anybody else stomping on their country and killing their citizens, which strikes me as entirely reasonable.
Playboy: There you go again, tarnishing your hawkish image. Are you discounting the notion that Soviet military strategy is fundamentally expansionist?
Clancy: The best simile I’ve seen for the Soviets in military and political terms comes from Senator Pat Moynihan, who said the Soviets are like a hotel burglar; they’ll go down a corridor and rattle knobs, and if the door is unlocked, they’ll go in and take their shot. Yeah, the only way they’re going to come over here is if we let them. But we’re practically going to have to invite them. So I have surprised you, haven’t I?
Playboy: What about U.S. military preparedness? Critics contend that we have not won a war in 30 years, that all our technology couldn’t prevent 37 sailors from being killed on the U.S.S. Stark and that all we have been able to do is overrun a postage-stamp country such as Grenada and shoot up a few Iranian oil platforms.
Clancy: All right. Take a guy who is trying to run the 100-meter dash in the Olympics—then make him wear lead boots. He’s not going to win. Then point to him and say, “You lousy runner!” Well, whoever put the boots on his feet was responsible for his failure. The military does not choose its missions.
Playboy: So, again, you see the problem as political.
Clancy: Yes. Political leadership says, “We have a job for you; here it is, go do it.” And the military salutes, says “Yes, sir” and goes off and does its best. In the case of Vietnam, the Army was sent to do something for which it had no clear mission description. President Johnson said, “It is necessary for the United States to go fight in Vietnam.” The military said “Yes, sir” and put its plans and recommendations together and went back to President Johnson and he read them over and said, “No, you can’t do it that way. You have to do it this way. It’s politically necessary.” And the military did its best and it failed.
Playboy: You’ve written about how the West would fare in a military confrontation in Europe with the Soviet Union. For starters, aren’t NATO forces outnumbered by the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces? Isn’t the outcome of a conflict in Europe a foregone conclusion?
Clancy: As I’ve said, numbers are not the decisive factor on the battlefield. The decisive factor is who’s got the most brains. If you don’t believe me, ask the Israelis. They’re always outnumbered and they always kick ass. The side with the brains is going to win. And the reason I don’t sweat the Russians as much as some people do—even though they do have us heavily outnumbered—is that they don’t train their people to think.
Soviet artillery doctrine is a lot more formalized and a lot less flexible than ours is. We can start putting bullets on target 30 seconds after somebody yells “Fire mission” into the radio. We can engage multiple targets at one time. The Russians don’t know how to do that. We have smart munitions, we have laser-guided artillery shells; the Russians don’t. We have artillery-deployed mines; the Russians don’t. We’re bringing stuff into the inventory right now such as SADARM, which is an artillery shell that breaks into four pieces, and each piece goes looking for a tank to kill all by itself. It can tell the difference between a tank and a tree. That’s a big equalizer. Essentially, we fight smart and the Russians fight dumb.
Playboy: Let’s play one of your war scenarios: What could actually trigger an East-West conflict in Europe?
Clancy: A likely one these days? OK. As in Red Storm Rising, Moslem dissidents in the Soviet Union—and they have a lot of Moslems—sabotage the major domestic Soviet oil fields. Faced with a crippling energy crunch, and lacking hard-currency reserves to import the oil, the Soviets are forced to seize the Middle Eastern oil fields. To clear the way for such an adventure, they must first take out the Western military alliance, NATO.
Playboy: So the Soviets begin a land war in Europe.
Clancy: Precisely. They launch a massive surprise attack against West Germany and try to overwhelm us with sheer force of numbers and armor. Those are their strong points: size and proximity.
Playboy: What would the West do in the first days?
Clancy: Throw everything we’ve got against them to prevent a breakthrough in our lines. Concentrate as many troops as possible on the front. And now comes the tricky part: Resupplying our troops in Europe means sending convoys of freighters across 3000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean.
Playboy: The Russians are going to try to sink those ships.
Clancy: That’s why they have 300 fast-attack subs! Their ability to choke off our resupply hinges on getting enough submarines away from their coast and into the middle of the Atlantic to attack our convoys.
Playboy: So from a planned Soviet attack on the Middle East, fighting first moves to the land in Europe and ultimately to a battle for the Atlantic.
Clancy: Yes, because if we’re able to freely resupply our troops in Europe, we can probably win the war. If not, we can lose.
Playboy: How does the U.S. keep the Atlantic free from Soviet attack forces?
Clancy: OK, you have to picture the Soviet fleet concentrated up in the northern corner of Europe. The Soviets have to take their fleet down into the main Atlantic through a relatively narrow corridor. On the northern border of that passage is Greenland. On the southern extreme is England. In the middle of this channel is Iceland.
Playboy: And NATO’s goal would be to block that passage.
Clancy: Right. That’s why we have what is called the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. line, G./I./U.K. It’s like a fence across the northern Atlantic.
Playboy: And that’s why you ascribe such importance to the island nation of Iceland.
Clancy: What most people don’t understand is that Iceland is the key to Europe. If we hold Iceland, the Russian job of closing the North Atlantic goes from difficult to damn near impossible. That’s why, in Red Storm Rising, we let the Soviets neutralize Iceland.
Playboy: We let them?
Clancy: Well, I let them. I came up with a very good plan for them, didn’t I? Some papers have been written about it at the Naval War College, as a matter of fact.
Playboy: How heavily does NATO patrol that fence?
Clancy: We keep a pretty close eye on their subs at all times. In a war, we would essentially set up a toll-booth operation and try to clobber each sub as it tried to squeeze through. It would cost them a lot to get their submarines out.
Playboy: There is also a sort of electronic barrier along this fence, isn’t there?
Clancy: Yes. The SOSUS line—that’s an acronym for Sound Surveillance System. Hydrophones. Underwater listening devices deployed all over the area. There’s a line from Greenland to Iceland to the U.K. And probably a number of similar lines up in the Barents Sea, north of the Soviet Union. And I daresay the Norwegian Sea is also wired like a pinball machine.
Playboy: Does all of this mean that the Soviet sub fleet is always bottled up in its own northern waters and that the Atlantic is an American lake?
Clancy: No way. As we talk here in Maryland, in peacetime, there may be Russian subs—even some of the boomers with nuclear missiles—just 12 miles off our coast. But not many. What I’ve been talking about is a surge of 100 or more subs across the line.
Playboy: Does the U.S. have enough subs and aircraft to kill the Russian subs if they surged across the line after taking Iceland?
Clancy: Not all, but a lot of them.
Playboy: But they need only one sub to nuke us and end the world, right?
Clancy: If they decide to start a nuclear war, there are ways a lot easier to do it than to try to sneak a submarine up on our coast. The Russians know if they deploy a submarine in the North Atlantic, we could make that submarine disappear and they’d never know why. All they’d know was that it didn’t come home. So the Soviet strategy for their missile submarines is not to deploy them forward but to put them in a bastion, in a sanctuary.
Playboy: Then U.S. naval strategy is aggressive, while the Soviets’ is defensive.
Clancy: Yeah, that’s a fair observation. The Soviet navy is more defensive than offensive; the U.S. Navy is—we don’t say offensive, we say it’s in the business of power projection.
Playboy: So in our war scenario, the Soviets surge their attack subs, looking for ships to sink. How vulnerable are U.S. attack carriers?
Clancy: We’d probably lose a few. But the Russians would probably lose all of their naval aviation—all of their Backfires.
Clancy: Going after a carrier battle group is like trying to strangle a porcupine—you’re going to get hurt when you try. Our fighter planes based on the carriers are going to start engaging you 500 miles out and fight you all the way in.
Playboy: Then you don’t think the NATO forces have much to worry about in the air?
Clancy: No. Their aircraft—mostly clumsy Bear bombers—are going to run into our Tomcat F-14 Interceptors, 24 from each carrier. And they all carry missiles and 20-millimeter cannon shells.
Playboy: How do you compare the F-14 with the Bear and the Backfire?
Clancy: How do you compare a Ferrari with a Kenworth 18-wheeler?
Playboy: That much of a difference?
Clancy: Hey, a bomber is not supposed to be a fighter. A bomber drops bombs, a fighter fights. The Russians can’t fly fighters that far. Neither can we. We don’t have a fighter that will fly 8000 miles. That’s why we put them on carriers.
Playboy: Why don’t the Russians use their aircraft carriers to carry fighter planes?
Clancy: What aircraft carriers?
Playboy: Well, we’ve heard a lot about the feared Kiev—isn’t that a Soviet carrier?
Clancy: Carrier? Hey, man. The Kiev’s not a carrier; it’s a target! One Navy guy I know calls it a “Navy Cross waiting to happen.” I love it! It carries VTOL planes, those dinky little vertical-take-off-and-landing things called Forgers. Real dogs.
Playboy: And those planes can’t do anything against the U.S. fleet?
Clancy: They’re defensive in nature. But, the Kiev wouldn’t get far enough. It would die before it got to the coast of Norway.
Playboy: You didn’t say whether it really was a carrier.
Clancy: It is one of four glorified antisub cruisers the Russians have. I’m telling you, they don’t have any aircraft carriers.
Playboy: Then if the U.S. has 15 carriers and superior air cover, doesn’t that mean that America maintains dominance on the high seas?
Clancy: If we play our cards right, we should. Really, the Soviet navy on the open seas is what you might call a “target-rich environment!”
Playboy: How could the U.S. play its cards wrong?
Clancy: In a chapter in Red Storm Rising, I proposed one way: The Russians do something smart. They use half their attack force to launch decoys, and we go for the decoys while the actual strike force comes in from a different direction. Any army—or navy—can be done in by a stupid commander. As I said earlier, usually, the side with brains is the side that wins.
Playboy: But in our scenario, the one you think is most likely today, if the Soviets were to attack in Europe but failed to take Iceland—
Clancy: Then we’d run the ships across the Atlantic and resupply our troops in Europe. And we’d probably win.
Playboy: Wait. The U.S. has all those Soviet submarines bottled up in their sanctuaries. Do we just go in and kill their subs?
Clancy: You said it! You think that’s unsporting?
Playboy: No, just dangerous.
Clancy: Hey, that’s their job, to kill everything they find. That’s how you get promoted—in peacetime, you get promoted by pushing paper better than anybody else. In wartime, you get promoted for killing people. It’s called sanitizing the area.
Playboy: There you are, off the Soviet coast, destroying all their nuclear subs. You really don’t think the Russians just might consider the nuclear option at that point?
Clancy: No. The Russians are more realistic on nuclear issues than we are. They know that if they have ships out there, some of them are going to get lost.
Playboy: OK. We win in that scenario. Since most war scenarios begin with a Soviet land invasion of Europe, just how likely is an invasion to happen in real life?
Clancy: Not very. In Red Storm Rising, I was very careful to force the decision upon the Soviets. I don’t think they have any particular intention to go off and conquer the world—overtly.
Playboy: You don’t agree with those who say communism is inherently expansionist?
Clancy: Their political beliefs militate against that, not in favor of it. The Soviets believe, and Marxism-Leninism teaches them, that sooner or later, the whole world is going to go Communist, because communism is the ultimate expression of human society. They really believe that, in the same sense that a born-again Christian believes in the Epistles of Saint Paul. Consequently, if everything you believe tells you that you’re ultimately going to win—why risk everything on one throw of the dice? It simply is not a logical thing to do.
Playboy: Are you a supporter of the treaty Gorbachev and Reagan signed banning intermediate missiles?
Clancy: I thought it was a good agreement for everybody. Good for them, good for us, good for the whole world.
Clancy: Because you’re eliminating weapons that in my view simply were not militarily useful. They were more dangerous than useful. And therefore, the world’s a safer place without them.
Playboy: Yet in Red Storm, you have a slick Russian leader who fools the U.S. with arms-reduction proposals, only to mask his intent to invade. Is he supposed to sound like Gorbachev?
Clancy: No, not at all. That scenario was put together before Gorbachev was elevated at the Politburo. The fact that my premier came out of a background of agriculture, as did Gorbachev, is another one of those coincidences.
Playboy: You don’t hold with the right-wingers who think we’re being suckered by the Russians?
Clancy: No. I think the Russians have an interest in reducing the likelihood of nuclear war, just as we do. And sincerity isn’t the issue, either. If you look at the way the N.F.L. players negotiate with the N.F.L. owners—is there really such a thing as good-faith negotiation over really important issues? Well, probably not. The question is: Do we have areas of common interests with the Soviets? Of course we do. Should we eliminate nuclear weapons? I can live with that. I think it’s a great idea. But I don’t think we’re going to do it the way we’re doing it now.
Playboy: Why not?
Clancy: Nuclear weapons are the only legitimacy the Soviet government has to be a world power. The Soviet Union is a third-world country in every real sense—but a third-world country with 10,000 deliverable nuclear warheads. The country cannot feed itself. You cannot drive from one side of the country to the other on a paved road. In America, we have superhighways. Even the crummy little road that you drove down to get here for this interview is better than any rural highway in the Soviet Union. Ivan’s not going to give up his missiles unless we give him a good reason to.
Playboy: But it’s the Soviets who proposed a 50 percent cut in the long-range strategic missiles.
Clancy: That would cut deliverable warheads from about 10,000 down to 5000. Does that actually mean anything?
Playboy: You don’t think it lessens the threat of a nuclear war?
Clancy: I want you to assume for a moment that I extend my hand to you. In this hand is a nine-mm Browning high-power automatic pistol. In fact, I own one of those. It has a 13-round magazine, you put one in the chamber, it’s got 14 rounds. I point it right at your chest at a range of about ten feet. And I promise you I will hit you from this range. Let’s say that I don’t really hate you as much today as I did last week. So I pop out the magazine. I take out seven rounds. I put the thing back in. I point it at you again and say, “OK, now there’re only seven rounds pointed at your chest from a range of ten feet.” Don’t you feel twice as safe now?
Playboy: We take your point.
Clancy: If the Russians can deliver 5000 nuclear warheads on U.S. soil, we’re just as dead as if they delivered 10,000. Now, if you were to reduce the deliverable number on both sides to 1000, you might actually start talking about saving some lives.
Playboy: If war ever broke out, and it began in Europe, whoever used nuclear weapons first would probably use the smaller, tactical weapons first, right?
Clancy: Probably. If the Soviet forces broke through NATO lines.
Playboy: What are tactical nuclear weapons, anyway?
Clancy: I have Nigel Calder’s book Nuclear Nightmares on the shelves here. And he has a particularly black joke that goes, “What is the definition of a tactical nuclear weapon?” Answer: “One that explodes in Germany.” As a joke, that’s really evil. Consider that the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima—it wasn’t really the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, it was the fire that resulted from it—was a 20-kiloton weapon. The warhead on a single Pershing missile—a so-called tactical weapon—that the INF agreement is going to remove from Europe is up to 400 kilotons. Twenty times greater than Hiroshima! So the difference between tactical and strategic weapons depends on how close to you it explodes.
Playboy: Yet U.S. nuclear policy makes a big distinction between the two types of weapons.
Clancy: We think there is an actual difference. We plan walls and firebreaks and other defenses against these so-called small nukes. But Soviet military doctrine regards all activity as part of a continuum. And I think they’re more correct than we are in that respect.
Playboy: One of your protagonists in Red Storm Rising is a Soviet general who says to the Politburo, when they are debating, that it’s madness to consider the use of even the smallest battlefield atomic weapon.
Clancy: Thank God, someone noticed! The best line in the whole book, for an insider, is when General Alekseyev says, “The Politburo is talking like those NATO idiots.” That’s the Soviet view of NATO tactical nuclear strategy—that it’s idiocy.
Playboy: So here we have one of President Reagan’s favorite novelists calling NATO’s nuclear strategy idiotic?
Clancy: Yep. Look, the Russians are right. Soviet nuclear strategy makes a hell of a lot more sense than Western nuclear strategy.
Playboy: Why, exactly?
Clancy: The NATO idea is that we can fight a limited nuclear war in Europe under gentlemen’s rules. OK? We’ll kill your soldiers and you’ll kill our soldiers, but we won’t nuke each other’s cities. It’s been part of NATO doctrine for 30 years that we can use nuclear weapons on the battlefield without eliminating large civilian or economic targets. They feel that we can limit the use of the nuclear weapons to military activities and not to strategic activities. That’s lunacy.
Clancy: Because, most likely, both sides would keep upping the ante until, all of a sudden, Paris isn’t there anymore. And the French are probably going to take great offense at that and take out Moscow. And the Russians are going to be a little bit peeved and, next thing, New York, London and Washington are gone. At which point the whole world goes slightly nuts.
Playboy: How do you know for sure that the Russians have a more logical view of the dangers of nuclear war?
Clancy: I know from their open source material. The way they write to each other in Red Star, the daily paper of the Soviet military. You can subscribe to it in the United States if you speak Russian. Their writings on nuclear war are very different from ours.
Playboy: Then do you think it more likely that a nuclear war in Europe would be started by the U.S. than by the Soviets?
Clancy: Probably, yes.
Playboy: That’s another surprise, coming from you. Even your novel Red Storm Rising assumes that the Soviets will use nukes before the U.S. does.
Clancy: In my book, NATO was holding a good hand. The use of nuclear weapons in the tactical environment would be an act of some desperation. If the Soviets do their job right, if they can achieve strategic surprise on the battlefield and get their breakthrough, the NATO countries are going to say, “We can’t let the Russians have Europe. We have to stop them somehow.” And the only choice they’re going to have is to go nuclear.
Which is why I’ve been saying for quite some time that the primary mission of the United States and the West in general is to make sure we have sufficient conventional arms to stop the Soviets cold. Because if we don’t, we’re risking a global nuclear war, and that is not something that I look upon with enthusiasm.
Playboy: Whose fault, then, is the West’s flawed nuclear strategy? We think we know.
Clancy: Right: politicians’. Armies do not start wars. Generals do not wake up in the morning and say, “Shit, let’s go kill somebody. I haven’t had a good killing rush for a while. Let’s go take out a regiment of Frenchies today.” That doesn’t happen. What happens is that the politician says, “The French have something I want. Or the Russians have something I want. Or the Nicaraguans, or the Cubans, or the Vietnamese have something I really want. They’re not going to give it to me, so I gotta go take it. And you, General Smith, go take that country.”
Playboy: Don’t you think the policies of a man like Gorbachev can reduce the chance of a superpower confrontation?
Clancy: I spoke recently at Quantico, the FBI academy, to a bunch of counterespionage people. And I posed the question, “What if a nice guy took over the Soviet Union—how would we know? How do we tell the difference?” Because he still has to act within the context of his own society. He’s not going to change the Soviet Union into a liberal democracy overnight. He would probably be doing all the things that Gorbachev is doing now. And Gorby is moving forward quite rapidly in some areas. Now, the question emerges: “Is he a good guy or is he a guy who’s trying to act like a good guy?”
Playboy: And the answer is?
Clancy: You can’t know! Personally, I think that Mikhail Gorbachev is a good guy, within the context of his own society, of course. So you give him the benefit of the doubt. Yes, we should encourage him in every way. But not without a quid pro quo.
Playboy: In all of your books, but most notably in Patriot Games, there is constant reference to good guys and bad guys. Is the world really that simple?
Clancy: A lot of the good-guy, bad-guy stuff in Patriot Games is a technical designation. That’s the way cops talk. It is, nevertheless, the way I think in a lot of cases. The world is not so simple as to lend itself to people’s falling into one of two categories. But those two categories do exist and quite a few people do fall into them.
Playboy: Do you reject the notion of other writers, such as John Le Carré, that there might exist some moral symmetry between “our side” and “theirs”? That, ultimately, we’re all up to the same thing?
Clancy: That’s an absurd notion. Today, in Afghanistan, the Russians are deploying a munition, a bomb, that’s completely new, unique in the history of warfare. It is an antichild bomb. Dan Rather showed a clip of it on TV It has to be real. It’s a bomb that’s in the configuration of a toy—a truck or a doll. A kid picks it up and it blows his hand off. There is no moral symmetry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Certainly, we’ve never deployed anything like that. In our darkest hour—and some of the things we did in Vietnam we don’t have to be especially proud of—we never have done anything like that.
Playboy: Some would say that your faith in the good guys is wishful thinking. Like your faith in technology.
Clancy: Let me ask you a question. In what kind of airplane did you fly from Los Angeles to Washington to interview me?
Playboy: A 747.
Clancy: Did you feel safe?
Playboy: Most of the time. Not as much as some years ago.
Clancy: Well, the 747 is a pretty good bird. The only times they ever broke have been the crew’s fault. If it weren’t for technology—let’s say, for example, if you took away fertilizers, which are chemically manufactured, and just eliminated them worldwide—50 percent of the people alive today would be dead in 12 months.
That’s what technology does for us. It keeps us alive. I’m driving a car with German engineering. You’re using a Sony tape recorder, Japanese engineering. You couldn’t make a living without it. We get our information that way. Business could barely function today without computers. Technology is part of life, and always has been. Ever since we stopped using our muscles to poke holes in the ground to plant seeds, technology has been important. After it’s been around for 20 years or so, it just recedes into the woodwork. There was a time when nails were high-tech.
Playboy: When did your great romance with technology begin?
Clancy: I’ve always been a gadget freak. When I was back in first grade, I think it was the first year that the Walt Disney show was on TV. There was a one-hour show of how the space race was going to start. I saw that and I said, “Yeah, that’s the way to go.” And I’ve been a technology freak ever since. I supported the space program before there even was one! That’s where the future is. The future is in doing things that we don’t know how to do yet.
Playboy: Don’t you think an increasingly technological society undermines the human side of life?
Clancy: Why should it? I have two computers and a couple of VCRs, color TVs and all that neat stuff. I still like to talk with my family over dinner. Maybe they said the same thing when Gutenberg perfected the movable-type press. The real synonym for technology is tool. Any item of technology is simply a tool. If it’s used skillfully, it has a positive effect on the way life is lived. If it’s used unskillfully, or stupidly, as often happens, it can kill people.
Playboy: Yet a lot of people have begun asking questions about the role of technology—its impact on the environment, on who controls the technology and, most recently, about whether or not complex technology even works the way it’s supposed to. Do you have any second thoughts such as those?
Clancy: Absolutely not. Most of the people who say that are living off in never-never land. In past centuries, such people were called Luddites. Technology is part of life. It’s not going to go away. As far as its working, well, people are people, and they will continue to make mistakes, to screw up.
Playboy: But doesn’t technology sometimes amplify those mistakes? Screwing up with a nail is one thing; with a nuclear power plant, it’s quite another.
Clancy: Technology makes things safer. Let’s take Three Mile Island, for example. The people screwed up real bad. The technology built into the power plant saved them. There was enough safety built into the system itself to prevent anything really bad from happening. And, in fact, nothing really bad happened. Nobody was hurt. There may be one extra case of cancer 20 years from now; and if there is, it’ll probably be a jerk like me who smokes.
Playboy: You wouldn’t have any problem living next to a nuclear power plant?
Clancy: I do live next to one—15 miles from a nuclear power plant. The place we just bought on Chesapeake Bay is in a direct line of sight to it. Doesn’t concern me.
Playboy: What about the Soviet disaster at Chernobyl? Do you think it was a technological breakdown or just human error?
Clancy: It was probably both. Name one Soviet consumer product, aside from the AK-47 assault rifle, which was, in fact, stolen from the Germans; it was originally the German StG 44—that you can buy in the West. Cars? Television sets? Cameras? Maybe caviar—but the fish make that. Soviet technology is not terribly impressive. I’ve been inside Soviet military equipment. I’m not overwhelmed.
Playboy: Why do you think it’s so inferior?
Clancy: Politics. Their economy is screwed up. In America, either you turn out a quality product or nobody buys it. And if nobody buys it, you go broke. In the Soviet Union, they don’t have market forces to regulate anything. If a guy turns out a quality product and he’s the only one who makes it, the people have to buy it whether it’s good or not. You can make an argument that the best reflection of any society is to be found in its military, because all of its societal tendencies and all of its economic abilities will be crystallized at that level. Every time American gear has met Soviet gear on the battlefield, the Soviets have come off second best.
Playboy: Back to the future. Your next book is Cardinal of the Kremlin, and we understand that it focuses on Star Wars—
Clancy: Don’t call it that. Come on.
Playboy: Why not?
Clancy: It’s a pejorative name for something that can be of great benefit to the world. The Strategic Defense Initiative, SDI.
Playboy: Why are you such an ardent booster of such a controversial program?
Clancy: It offers us the only logical way out that I see of the nuclear conundrum that we’re in now. Nuclear deterrence, the situation that putatively keeps the peace in the world today, is fundamentally flawed. It’s like a bunch of crazed neighbors with loaded shotguns marching around their homes, yelling death threats at one another. Just because it happens to be nation-states that agree to keep the peace that way doesn’t make it any less crazy.
Playboy: Instead of coming up with new gadgets that may not work, why not try to take the shotguns away—in this case, the nuclear weapons?
Clancy: You’re never going to eliminate all nuclear weapons. You’re never going to eliminate manned bombers. You’re never going to eliminate cruise missiles.
Playboy: Why not?
Clancy: Because there simply is no way to verify their elimination. You want to bring a nuclear bomb into the U.S.? Don’t bring it in on a missile. Just disguise it as cocaine and bring it through the Miami airport. [laughs] However, we might be able to get rid of the scary missiles, the long-range ballistic weapons.
Playboy: So how would Star Wars, or SDI, do that?
Clancy: Even a fairly rudimentary system will make a successful disarming first strike, called counterforce, virtually impossible. Now, in all likelihood, you will never come up with a system that’s 100 percent effective. There are just too many warheads coming in. But say we could deploy a 99 percent effective system right now—would you be in favor of it?
Playboy: It’s hard to think of anything technological that’s 99 percent effective—and haven’t you made the point that it hardly matters if only 100 Soviet missiles come down on us instead of 10,000? These are nuclear weapons, right?
Clancy: Yeah, a lot of people would die. But my point is that virtually nothing, not even SDI, can stop a nuclear cruise missile or those fired from close in by a sub. What SDI can do is cut down—way down—on the effectiveness of the strategic counter-force, the threat of the ballistic missiles.
Now, what have you done? If you can make it statistically unlikely that these very expensive, very hard-to-maintain ballistic weapons are any longer militarily effective, then, just maybe, you have a rational basis for negotiating the bastards out of existence. And that’s the promise SDI holds.
This is actually an interesting point in military history. We’ve finally reached a point where the defense actually has a technical advantage over the offense. That happens very, very rarely. We’re coming into a whole new category of weapons, directed-energy weapons, which change the rules. SDI gives the Russians a basis for saying, “Yeah, why don’t we get rid of the damn things once and for all?”
Playboy: Or for building new ones.
Clancy: No. What the Russians would do if we deployed a defensive system—since countries’ military communities do tend to mirror-image each other’s technology—would probably be to deploy a defensive SDI system themselves. And that’s probably the best thing that could happen. I would rather blow up a missile than blow up a city any day.
Playboy: You seem to be banking a good deal on everybody’s best intentions.
Clancy: Everybody on both sides acknowledges that just busting each other’s cities is a completely irrational act. Nobody—not even a Joe Stalin—wants to be the guy in history who killed 100,000,000 human beings. Nobody wants to be remembered as another Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun.
What we’re trying to eliminate, therefore, is a way for one of those guys to say, “We don’t want to use nuclear weapons, but we have to, to prevent damage to our country.” If you can eliminate that, you’ve eliminated the most dangerous, most expensive, most destabilizing kind of weapon. You’re not eliminating the threat of nuclear war entirely. They’re simply too valuable for national strategy for both sides. What we are doing is reducing the likelihood that those weapons will be employed.
Playboy: Doesn’t it all come down to whether or not SDI could ever really work? A lot of experts think it can’t, it’s too complicated. You think it can. Since you make things easy to understand, tell us—how is this system supposed to work?
Clancy: You take a free-electron laser and base it on the ground.
Playboy: Not in space?
Clancy: Oh, no! You want the laser on the ground, so you can fix it when it breaks. That way, you don’t have any trouble getting power to it. This laser shoots up a single beam of light with a power on the order of 10,000,000 watts. That searing beam hits a mirror that is up in orbit. That mirror relays the beam to a second mirror, which then focuses the beam and aims it down at a Soviet rocket just as it is emerging from its ground silo.
Playboy: Sounds like a tough shot to make.
Clancy: Come on! You can’t miss the sucker! It’s a great big target with an enormous thermal signature. You zap it while it’s still in boost phase, and the eight to 12 warheads it’s carrying will drop down and burrow into the earth. They won’t even go off.
Playboy: Still, by your own count, the Russians have some 10,000 of those missiles to throw at us—
Clancy: Hold on. Ten thousand warheads—just 1400 missiles to carry them.
Playboy: Still not reassuring. That’s a lot of missiles for a few high-tech weapons to intercept.
Clancy: It’s more than a few! The system I’m talking about could fire 500 bursts per second, 1500 in three seconds. Ivan’s got only 1400 missiles.
Playboy: Somehow, we still don’t feel safe. If a submarine can send out decoys against a torpedo, couldn’t the Soviets fool our billion-dollar lasers with aluminum-foil planes?
Clancy: Target discrimination is not going to be terribly hard, because the lasers are going to be looking for large infrared targets. If you wanted a decoy to generate that sort of image, each one would have to cost almost as much as a missile, making it unfeasible. Even so, the SDI system can cycle through targets so quickly, at such a high rate, that it could probably take out both the missiles and the decoys, if such decoys were ever launched.
Playboy: Your faith in technology is greater than most people’s. Aren’t at least a few of those 1400 Soviet missiles going to get through?
Clancy: Hey, maybe more than a few. Maybe 100 or more. I’ve already said the SDI system may not be 100 percent effective. It merely gives the Soviets more of a rationale to sit down with us and negotiate the ICBMs away. And that makes it worth it.
Playboy: You obviously love this military stuff, yet you were kept out of the Service because of poor eyesight. Do you think you’d rather be doing it for real, instead of just writing about it?
Clancy: I’ve told all my friends in the military that I’d rather do what they do than what I do. The reason is, I’m just a minstrel, when you get down to it. OK, I may be a very smart minstrel, or a very lucky minstrel, or a very successful minstrel. But I’m just a minstrel. And people out there who do this work every day are more important than I am, and they do not get the recognition that I do.
Playboy: Is there a message you’re trying to get through in your novels?
Clancy: My feeling on messages comes from Sam Goldwyn: If you want to send a message, use Western Union. But if there is a message in what I write, it is that the people who serve in the U.S. military are in essentially the same kind of work as police officers and firemen. Their job is to risk their lives for people they don’t know. I don’t say they’re perfect, and they don’t claim to be perfect; but they are entitled to as much respect.
Playboy: When did you decide you were going to be a writer?
Clancy: It was always my dream. I wanted to see my name on the cover of a book.
Playboy: But you didn’t publish anything until you were an adult. And then it was a letter to the editor.
Clancy: Yeah. To the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, the monthly journal of the U.S. Naval Institute. I said that it wasn’t doing its job properly of explaining its role to the American people—that the United States needs a Navy. What the Navy people were mainly doing was communicating back and forth among themselves. Totally incestuous.
Playboy: Turns out that you’ve taken over that job for yourself.
Clancy: Never thought of it that way. Yeah.
Playboy: Was it your Jesuit education that instilled in you the discipline to sit in front of a word processor eight hours a day?
Clancy: Do I look like a very disciplined person? [waves at the cluttered study around him] I tend to be something of a slob. I fight against it, but it seems to be a losing battle. I tend to be lazy. Though my writing is the first disciplined thing that I’ve been able to do in my life. It took me 35 years, but I’ve finally found something I’m good at. I guess it just took me a long time to grow up.