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Playboy Interview: Tom Clancy
  • October 01, 2013 : 07:10
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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 over-all 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.

Playboy: How?

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.

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