Perry also called for the breaking of the nuclear triad by dismantling the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) stockpile.
"We're now at the precipice, maybe I should say the brink, of a new nuclear arms race," Perry said at an event hosted by the Defense Writer's Group. "This arms race will be at least as expensive as the arms race we had during the Cold War, which is a lot of money."
The Pentagon is starting a major overhaul of its nuclear triad, made up of bomber, submarine and ICBM nuclear options. The Air Force is starting work on its Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program, a conventional bomber that later could be nuclear-certified; it is also planning a new version of the ICBM. Meanwhile, the Navy is figuring out funding plans for the Ohio-class submarine nuclear replacement program.
In an August assessment, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments projects that it will cost more than $700 billion over the next 25 years to recapitalize the nuclear triad.
To Perry, who served in a number of Pentagon positions before becoming the 19th US secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, spending that money is foolish when the US is both short of cash for other programs and capable of a robust nuclear deterrence already.
The risk of nuclear war is exacerbated by the dismantling of the relationship between Russia and the US that had been formed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Without clear military-to-military communication between those two nations, the risk of an accidental conflict increases.
"Today, probably I would not have said this 10 years ago, but today we now face the kind of dangers of a nuclear event like we had during the Cold War, an accidental war," he said.
"I see an imperative," Perry added, "to stop this damn nuclear arms race from accelerating again."
The greatest source of that danger, to Perry's mind, are the ICBMs, which he said are simply too easy to launch on bad information and would be the most likely source of an accidental nuclear war. He referred to the ICBM as "destabilizing" in that it invites an attack from another power.
ICBMs "aren't necessary … they're not needed. Any reasonable definition of deterrence will not require that third leg," Perry concluded.
Perry did note that he supported the LRS-B and submarine programs as they can service non-nuclear missions as well.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.