Gen. Deptula (retired): Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Dave Deptula, AFA’s [Air Force Association’s] Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, and welcome to the next event in our Nuclear Deterrence Forum series.
We are extremely fortunate and pleased to have joining us today Adm. Charles “Chas” Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Before taking the helm at STRATCOM in November of 2019, Adm. Richard held a number of key leadership roles. He was commander of Submarine Forces in Norfolk, Virginia; deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command; director of Undersea Warfare at the Pentagon; and deputy commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Global Strike at U.S. Strategic Command. He's also worked in the offices of the Under Secretary of the Navy and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.
I think as most of you recognize, at STRATCOM Adm. Richard is responsible for overseeing the global command and control of all U.S. strategic forces to meet our national security objective by providing a broad range of capabilities and options for the President and the Secretary of Defense.
So welcome, Admiral. It’s really a pleasure to have you with us today.
I’d like to start our session by giving you the opportunity to make some opening remarks on the current priorities and issues that are confronting you at U.S. Strategic Command. So with that, over to you, Admiral.
Adm. Richard: General, thank you sir. And good morning to you, everyone else on the net, and thanks to the Mitchell Institute for providing me an opportunity to have what I think is a very important conversation here.
I want to start off with an assertion and you all keep a clock on me. I may run a bit long and I don’t want to –
Deptula: Take all the time you want.
Richard: I assert that the United States and the Department of Defense have not had to consider the full implications of competition through possible crisis and possible armed conflict with a nuclear capable peer adversary in close to 30 years. And when you think about that, the implications to every single thing we do in the department are profound. We have a good strategy to go address that situation. We have fabulous leadership from the Secretary of Defense, Secretary Esper and Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen.] Milley. They have made it quite clear to us in the department how they want us to go attack that and we are moving out at flank speed to go do that.
But it is important to recognize things have changed. Part of that, there are a couple of defining characteristics. You can write “I am in great power competition” six times on your War College paper and you’re probably going to get a B, but you have to do the work in terms of what does that mean? One thing it means is it all starts with the threat.
We used to know how to operate in a threat-based world. That was the Cold War. And we did business very differently back then. We’re not in that again, but we’re coming out of a capabilities-based world. So we have to get back to the idea that all domains are going to be challenged. That strategic deterrence, which has always been fundamental, foundational, to the rest of the defense strategy and what the department does, is going to get tested in ways that it hasn’t been tested before. We need to be ready to answer that bell.
Look, I went through this pretty quickly. I think we’ll get into it some more in the Q&A. But the threat is significant. I’m only going to highlight the strategic forces piece of this.
But remember, strategic deterrence is more than just nuclear deterrence particularly now, today. It is non-kinetic, space, cyber, it is your conventional piece of this. All of this has to be integrated together. It’s not just a STRATCOM job, it is all combatant commands and we have to be able to rethink the way we do business.
Real quick. Russia. The bottom line is, it’s easier for me to tell you what they’re not modernizing than to tell you what they are. It’s basically everything. They’ve been at it now well over 15 years. They’re 70-something percent complete. It’s every element of their forces. But it’s more than that. It is their command and control, it is their warning, it is their doctrine, it is their exercises, it is their readiness, it is an across-the-board step change in the ability of their capabilities and what they can threaten us with.
Let me talk about China maybe a little bit more than I have in the past. With China, it is very important, I think, to look at what they do, not what they say. I think Secretary Pompeo, [Secretary of the Department of State] just said that recently. I think he’s spot on target. We have come to the same conclusion.
Again, I’m going to talk strategic but it starts with actually their breathtaking expansion in all other military capabilities. It has been near stunning. They always go faster than we do.
One of my favorite kind of recent examples is they didn’t have Coast Guard until like 2013 or something. They’re not exactly like us, but they decided in 2013 we need a Coast Guard. Today they have 255 Coast Guard ships. It is just stunning what they did. By the way, that is a perfect instrument when you’re engaged in competition below the threshold of armed conflict sometimes known as the gray zone.
But now nuclear, strategic, is just the next thing on China’s to-do list. So they are about to finish building out for the first time an actual triad by adding a strategic capability to their air leg. They too have new road mobile, new silo based, much better capabilities – I can’t go into a lot of detail. They have new command and control. They have new warning. They have better readiness. And while they espouse a minimum deterrence strategy they have a number of capabilities that seem inconsistent with that and irregardless of what they say, they certainly have the capability to execute any number of strategic employment strategies, not just a minimum deterrence thing.
So in the face of that, we’re going to have to change the way we think about deterrence. Right? The basic equation in deterrence has not changed. Go back, read your Khan, read your Schilling. “Can I credibly deny benefit or impose a cost, which is greater than what the competitor seeks to gain?” It’s just how you apply that has changed.
Just very quickly, it’s the dynamics associated with the use or potential use of force. Those are changing and we’re working very hard to understand that.
A good example is China is on a trajectory to be a strategic peer to us by the end of the decade. So, for the first time ever the U.S. is going to face two peer-capable nuclear competitors who are different, who you have to deter differently. We have never faced that situation before. We are working very hard at STRATCOM along with the broader Joint Force to understand that.
This all couples, and this would be my biggest point, right? What you’re doing strategically is influenced by what you’re doing conventionally and it walks all the way down into the gray zone, the level below the threshold of armed conflict. It is not linear. The idea that there is a ladder here I think is flawed. It is non-linear, there are discontinuities, and there are points where a competitor’s decision calculus may flip very rapidly on you based on the events, particularly inside a crisis. We’re working to understand that and be able to have a shared vision of it inside the Joint Force.
Just a couple more points sir, and the rest of the audience, then we can get into some of the questions.
What do you do about that? One, you’ve got to have a triad, a number of modest supplemental capabilities that were requested to give me the capability and the flexibility to address the situation that I just described. I think you’d be proud of us that throughout COVID-19 and all the impacts of the worldwide pandemic STRATCOM did not miss a beat. We remained fully mission capable throughout. A real credit to Gen. Ray, Adm. Grady, [Lt.] Gen. Karbler and others who saw the threat, executed and updated plans that we had, and were able to operate straight through.
I’ll make one more point and move into some questions.
We have a triad and the capabilities that we have in part because of the flexibility it provides. The ability to hedge inside of it, so that for an issue in one piece we are able to compensate with the others, part of the original brilliance in the design. But what it also enables you to do is address the threat or the risk you didn’t see coming. We have to be very humble when we look over long term in terms of what we think we’re going to need to defend ourselves, that we can accurately predict every single situation or contingency that we’re going to be faced with. We always built margin into our strategic forces to make sure that we could account for the unknown risk that may be out there alongside the risk that we could reasonably see coming. I think COVID-19 is a great example of where things can manifest that you don’t see coming, and with this mission set, because of the consequences, it is important to have margin ready to handle that.
My predecessors gave me that margin that enabled me to work through COVID-19. I think we as a nation should learn from that wise lesson in terms of our decisions going forward.
Dave, I’ve got a lot more stuff to talk about but I’ll just stop there in the interest of time and we can start getting into some questions.
Deptula: Thanks very much, Admiral, for that great overview of where STRATCOM is today and some of your concerns. Let’s jump right into these issues in a bit more detail.
You laid out very nicely, very succinctly both Russia and China’s efforts, not efforts but accomplishments in modernizing, diversifying and expanding both their conventional and nuclear forces. Amongst those, could you share with us a bit what aspects of their modernization programs that you find most concerning?
Richard: What I would offer for both of them is not any one aspect of it. It’s the comprehensive nature of what they’re doing. It is the totality of what they’re doing.
So when you add it all up and then couple it with their actions. We see aggressive action around the world by both of them that concerns me that we are not converging on a path that I think is beneficial to the world. So it is a combination.
And I would go back to, we have to broaden our thinking between a simple weapons count. It is much more complicated in that in terms of what someone can do.
I think another key piece here is that with strategic, with the weapon systems that we’re talking about, it is merely the threat of their use that will accomplish a political aim. It is a characteristic that is really not matched by conventional forces, at least not to the same magnitude. And I don’t think we respect what could be done simply by merely threatening the use of these weapon systems, and are we fluent in our ability to deter and respond to that.
Deptula: Very good. One of the other points that you made that I think probably got a lot of people’s attention is sort of that it’s not the changing nature of deterrence because it continues to serve as a bedrock of our national security architecture. However, in many respects nuclear deterrence in the 21st century is a big difference than it was in the previous century. I mean you highlighted one of the principle challenges, that the Chinese are going to come up to speed here real quickly, and by 2030 we’re going to be facing two peer competitors in the nuclear regime.
Are there some other key differences out there that concern you? And what should the United States do to adapt to these changing circumstances?
Richard: You hit on a big one, and even in my own explanation sometimes it is tempting to simplify this to a two-party problem and it is not. It is a three, and actually broader than that piece.
Another one that I’m under-emphasizing here a little bit is I’m very proud of this nation’s extended deterrence and assurance commitments that we have made, and how we will handle honoring those against this type of future that we’re in. I think is something that we need to continue to work.
Understanding in great detail the relationships and how do you bring in space? How do you bring in cyber? What would constitute a strategic attack in space or cyber? Thinking through all of the dimensions of this, how does this all couple back down into the gray zone?
I’m giving you a bunch of the theoretical pieces of this. That’s the foundation piece and then we move on from there.
Deptula: Thank you. Getting down in a little bit of detail about some program specifics, both the House and the Senate Armed Services Committee markups of the 21 NDAA, fully funded the ground-based strategic deterrence program which is intended to replace the Minuteman III ICBM. Why is this program critical? And what are the potential implications of any further delays or even a cancellation as some have advocated for? Both in terms of cost and our overall nuclear deterrence posture?
Admiral Richard: Well, sir, one, I almost wish we didn’t describe the triad by the weapon systems that it is made of. We describe it in terms of the attributes. So if you take away the IC [inter-continental] leg; in fact if you take away any leg, I can give you a different version of this: you just took away a stack of attributes that we have found useful in the past and see being useful in the future. Can I compensate in some respects by coming across and using other elements of the triad? Yes. But not with those same attributes. Which means you’ve just narrowed the range of situations that we’re able to effectively deter. You just took away a future hedging capability. And on top of it, you were talking about the IC specifically, one of the best things I think you could do if you want to accelerate China becoming a peer with us strategically is to take away the IC leg because you just made their problem a lot easier.
So I can kind of go piece by piece down the triad and show you that if you take a piece of it away that’s a stack of capabilities and attributes that I don’t have. That’s going to make it that much harder for me to execute the policy of this nation as documented in the Nuclear Posture Review, and if you go far enough I’m going to have to ask for a new policy.
Deptula: Very good. It is a complex subject on one hand. On the other hand it’s pretty simple. The triad has put us in good stead since it came into existence.
When I had the opportunity to speak to Gen. Ray on this series a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned that the Long Range Standoff Weapon, or LRSO for short, is critical to maintain tailored deterrence to reach any target around the globe, and that there’s a point in time when legacy weapons simply won’t be survivable against modern air defenses.
What’s your perspective on the implications of any delays or truncations of the LRSO program? And are there any benefits from accelerating the program?
Admiral Richard: T. Ray is spot on target in terms of the implications of not having that weapon system, and then fundamentally it will start to call in, it will limit the flexibility and the viability of your air leg, right? Which is a key component inside the triad.
I think if you go back, and we have repeatedly shown in history that when you’re in great power competition what you want are bombers. You want the range, you want the payload. They’re incredibly flexible for you. Today’s world is no different. You have to honor the threat. That’s why you get into the need for the LRSO, that specific piece of technology. If I don’t have an LRSO then the B-52s are just not very useful at that point and we’re counting on them for a while.
Now as to acceleration on LRSO, look, I’d take it all tomorrow if you could get it to me. And I say that not really being flippantly, remember, I am responsible to the people of this nation for their defense. I take that and my command takes that very seriously. The better capability I have to do that, the better job I can do of that. But I would phrase that question in terms of at what cost, right? If there was a tradeoff that had to be made I would want to make sure I understood what I was giving up for that.
So LRSO, just keep it on time. If we just keep it on time that will work.
Deptula: Very good. Moving on to the other leg, our nuclear-capable submarine leg, SSBNs [ballistic missile submarines] are often perceived as invulnerable. However, both China and Russia have invested significant resources in improving their submarine hunting capabilities. And some would say the submarine force remains relatively brittle, meaning that since there’s such a large percentage of available weapons out in a single platform, that tends to provide a small number of nodes that can be affected to great effect. So how do these factors play into your thinking about the requirements for our SSBN force?
Richard: I’ll start with, and this is true of any stealth platform although the submarines are probably the best example; is that when we say the submarine leg is survivable, that’s not based on just individual platform survivability. Submarines are very difficult to find. There’s always a classic hider/finder competition going on. It’s no different than in any other domain. I’m trying to be very serious and formal. They don’t have Romulan cloaking devices on them. They’re not impossible to find. They have to be operated correctly just like any stealth platform. But you derive that from force survivability, right? It is the combination of the number and location and the way you’re operating the force is what gives you that very high confidence that that leg is going to survive.
So I’m very confident that the Navy’s taking the right steps to ensure that we’re able to maintain force survivability.
General, you are quite correct. I think it’s important that when we set the requirements, particularly the numbers for the platforms that we were talking about, that was based on a specific threat. If you change the threat on me then we have to come back and then rethink what the right number is. That’s going up.
I think it’s also important to understand, submarines are just the easiest example. This is true on all the rest of the legs. Going down, it’s not just what the threat looks like but it’s what it takes to maintain it. That attribute of the leg. There’s a minimum number of submarines you can get to. It doesn’t matter what their number of weapons or missiles on them, it’s the number of platforms I have to have to make my statement remain true on force survivability. But that is why the Navy, and STRATCOM will say at least 12. We need to see what the threat looks like.
Deptula: Let’s turn to the final leg of the triad, although you’ve already mentioned it, that’s the air-breathing segment. Until the first B-21s become operationally available, the current airborne leg is dependent on fewer than 100 B-52s. By the way, the youngest being 58 years old. And the B-2 aircraft, of which we only have 20, that are capable of penetrating modern air defenses.
I think I know the answer to this question, but how important is it to keep this leg operationally viable?
Admiral Richard: It is absolutely important, and because of the signaling flexibility that you see in the air leg you get an almost daily demonstration of what the air leg can do for you.
I would point back to the way we’re executing, and talk to Gen. Ray about this, because he’s responsible for it. We’re executing the bomber task force missions as probably the iconic example of what dynamic force employment looks like.
So I am proud and thankful for the efforts the Air Force is going through to sustain this leg. I’ve had sorties now in B-52s, B-2s and I just flew a KC-10 to hit the first AR [air refueling] for a BTF [Bomber Task Force] mission. So the professionalism, the commitment of the service, they’re doing the right things to make sure that those platforms make it to their recapitalization points. And I need that.
Deptula: Very good. I was going to ask you if they gave you the opportunity when you were flying the B-52 to attempt to refuel it, because I’ve had the good fortune of flying the B-1, the B-2 and the B-52 and refueling each of them, and that’s a bear, trying to refuel behind that tanker in the B-52.
Richard: Sir, later I’ll tell you, I just tried to do a heading change. I did turn me over in the B-2 sim on the boom in the sim, in six seconds. That’s all I lasted. Much respect to the Airmen that know how to do that.
Deptula: Admiral, you’ve referred to STRATCOM as the parent of SPACECOM, which it is. How is that process of transitioning responsibilities and personnel over to SPACECOM gone? What’s worked well? What remains to be done? And how do you envision the two unified commands working together in the future?
Admiral Richard: Sir, it probably just couldn’t be going any better. Gen. Raymond was here just yesterday, and in fact we were having the first STRATCOM/SPACECOM Warfighter Talks. I probably shouldn’t characterize it anymore as the proud parent, it’s more you just went to visit the family business that you had turned over to one of your kids, right? So they are up, fully operational.
We have a peer relationship now. I think that’s a key piece. We’re still supporting them in a couple of areas. Bureaucracy has a long tail in some cases. But we see the world the same way.
I would really compliment Gen. Raymond and Space Command for some very good work in terms of thinking about architecture and strategy. We had a good back and forth. A number of things that they’re doing in space architecture I think has very direct applicability to the future NC3 [nuclear command, control and communications] architecture that I’m responsible for in my nuclear enterprise, or NC3 Enterprise Center hat. So it was a very good meeting.
And that idea that we are so closely coupled is something that we share with all of the other combatant commands. I can go through and give you a similar story with every other one of them, and that’s a key thing that we have to do in the future in terms of global integration. The ability for us as 11 combatant commands under the leadership of the Chairman and the Secretary, to have a shared understanding of what the nation expects us to do and then globally integrating fires, ops, messaging, integrated strategic deterrence, planning, so that we all function as one. That’s going to be a key advantage that we need to seize moving into the future.
Let’s turn to the subject of arms race dynamics. Just as you summarized, Russia and China are currently modernizing their nuclear forces and the United States is in the initial phases of a long-deferred modernization program. Beyond the price tag, critics of the nuclear modernization effort claim that the U.S. is spurring a renewed nuclear arms race. How would you respond to those criticisms?
Richard: Sir, I’ll tell you, we have been working to reignite a debate and better understanding. This meeting is a great example of that. About strategic deterrence. Part of that is a social media campaign where we’re addressing the kind of pervasive myths that are out there. And we love the conversation. We look very hard at every comment that we get back asking ourselves, did we miss something? Is there something in here that we need to seize on and take advantage of?
But I just confess, I don’t understand the criticism that we’re starting an arms race. I just went through that 15 years ago: Russia unilaterally starts to modernize their entire arsenal, 70 percent complete. China’s not too far behind. Our response to that, at the time, is to do nothing. We don’t do anything. No one has lowered the role of nuclear weapons in their strategy more than the United States. I’ve had my staff check on this. I think we are the only nation ever to do unilateral nuclear reductions. I think you can go back in our history and see where we did that. Ask yourself what we got in return for that.
We have extended these systems. The B-52s you were talking about, 100 years. We’re going to take Ohios designed for 30 years, we’re going to give them to 42. A whole class going longer than we’ve ever had any individual submarine go. Minuteman was a 10-year lifetime missile we’re going to take for 60. And then at the last possible moment, to avoid the beginnings of unilateral disarmament in the face of the greatest threat we’ve faced in 30 years, I’m accused of starting an arms race. I just don’t understand that.
Deptula: Well said, Admiral. Well said.
With respect to allies and the nonproliferation, I’ve heard you say that the United States policy of extended deterrence and assurance has played a pivotal role in promoting nonproliferation. Could you elaborate a bit on that point? And how does our nuclear modernization factor into that equation?
Richard: The bottom line is, and I am very proud of this nation and the decision-makers that established that policy. I think that has done more for nonproliferation than any other single act in history. I think it has been good for a free and open world. But to do that, you have to have capabilities such as to give your allies confidence that you're able to follow through on the commitment.
Again, we’re going to get tested in ways that we haven’t been tested before, so absent these capabilities it is going to be harder to give the allies the confidence in us that we have the capability to follow through on the very valuable commitments that we’ve made.
Deptula: One of the options that is sometimes discussed is this issue of the no first use policy. I presume that you're not in favor of the no first use policy, but could you explain to our audience what impact such a policy would have on our commitments to our allies?
Richard: My best military advice remains strongly that we should not have a no first use policy. There’s many reasons for that. The assurance to allies and others that we have extended that commitment to is at the top of the list. Second, is I just don’t think it has much credibility. The Soviet Union had a no first use policy and I don’t think that Gen. LeMay thought that we’re good.
And if I could, the problem with having me, I’m a Navy guy, I love telling sea stories. If you go back far enough in our history, this nation used to have a policy that said we would not execute unrestricted submarine warfare. If you go back in the early part of the century, unrestricted submarine warfare was held with – it’s not the same, but at the time it was considered barbaric that a civilized nation would consider doing that. They were very long debates between nations whether you should or shouldn’t, et cetera. And our policy for decades was that we would not execute unrestricted submarine warfare until that policy changed, and that happened to be on December 7, 1941, and in fact there’s some historical debate if a subordinate commander didn’t do it on his own before the President told him to do it. That question of date time news.
So I think we have to be very humble in terms of the credibility of policies like that, particularly when – just be humble.
Deptula: Speaking of limited use and different varying applications, Russia maintains a significant arsenal of small nuclear weapons. I know some people are firm they’re tactical nuclear weapons, I just, there’s nothing tactical about a nuclear weapon. But be that as it may, it’s been postulated that Russia might pursue early and limited first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict in Europe to end it on terms favorable to Russia. This is an approach that’s been described as escalate to deescalate, or what your predecessor Gen. Hyten referred to as escalate to win.
Is that an accurate portrayal of how Russia envisions the role of small nuclear weapons in its nuclear strategy and doctrine? And what kind of impact does this have on our requirements for deterrence?
Richard: Well, sir, for one, they certainly are capable of doing precisely the strategy that you just described, right? And that is a type of discontinuity or non-linearity in terms of deterrence theory.
I agree with you, by the way, there is no such thing as a non-strategic use of a nuclear weapon. In fact I think this distinction that we have between ‘these are strategic and these are not’ is actually very artificial. It’s at best dated and may have always been wrong. So I caution that we’re trying to put them in these two buckets. I can’t imagine that you would look up and go, “oh, that’s a non-strategic, it’s okay.” So we’ve got to be very humble about that.
My job is to make sure that given what they can do in any postulated use of this – the example we’re talking about here being a very good one – how do I ensure, in crisis, probably that the equation still holds that when they think about that I can either deny the benefit or impost a cost credibly, such that I deter the use.
I think the Nuclear Posture Review was wise in the supplemental capabilities that were added to the ones we already have. I think it’s important, the ones we have are very capable but they certainly didn’t deter Russia from developing the very capability that you’re talking about. Hence the need for a more comprehensive approach.
I want to add on just one other point: in terms of the fact that they have several thousand non-treaty-accountable weapons actually concerns me; in terms of why do you have those? I’m somewhat surprised sometimes that in our conversations there’s not more about, “why do you have those things?” right? That wasn’t free. And my deputy commander, I’m glad we’re having the New START discussions. This is a place where we can get into that type of conversation. I applaud both the United States and Russia for at least being able to sit down at the table and discuss what we have to do to improve confidence, safety, security and head to a mutually beneficial world. I sure wish China would sit down. A responsible power has those conversations. But that’s so important to me that I have dedicated my deputy commander as a part of that team. I have Gen. Bussiere as a part of those conversations, to go after and really bring that piece into the conversation of what is the purpose of those and how can we account for them?
Deptula: Very insightful, thank you.
As a bit of a follow-up, is the W76-2 low-yield Trident submarine warhead sufficient to counter the perception of an exploitable gap in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities? And are there other options out there that you’re considering?
Richard: Sir, it is a very welcome addition. It is doing exactly what it was designed to do. But it’s important to remember it added into an already existing stack of capabilities that is designed to also address that, including low-yield ALCM [air-launched cruise missile], the dual capable aircraft capabilities that we have. I need those to complement. The W76-2 is just a part of that stack of capabilities.
Then the NPR also wisely talked about the need for a sea-launched cruise missile. Again, that has utility in that area that I’m responsible for, as well as a very good beginning to offset the numbers of nontreaty accountable weapons, it has great benefit in the assurance of our allies.
Deptula: One more sort of broad question before we open it up to our audience. In your view, what are the most serious misunderstandings among nuclear critics out there? Especially Members of Congress?
Richard: I’m going to answer that question, but if I get two more minutes, I want to talk about NC3 for a second as well.
Richard: I have a touch of good news in that area.
The biggest misconception I think, and I won’t call it a misconception, it’s almost an absence, is we never seem to acknowledge that there’s a threat out there, that most of these conversations are almost on this frictionless plain and we’re only talking about us. When in fact everything that this nation does is in an effort to defend itself. It’s in an effort to address threats that we have out there.
I’ll tell you, I think a sign of that is – I’m a Cold War guy. When I was younger I’ve actually done a duck and cover drill. I suspect you have a piece of your audience that actually knows what I’m talking about. Then there’s a ton of them that have no idea what I just said.
I was in elementary school, by the way, not high school.
The point being here is we palpably could feel the threat back then. We knew it was something we had to defend ourselves against. And this is what I think is the great accomplishment of the United States, not only did it not happen. We have 70 years of nuclear non-use, we don’t even worry about it anymore. The threat’s still there. My kids have not spent one moment worried about the fact that there could be nuclear use. That’s victory. That is victory in strategic deterrence, to not only prevent it or deter it, but take it out of the American psyche.
So I worry we forgot how we got here. That wasn’t free. That required wise investments in the capabilities needed. That is hundreds of thousands of men and women who dedicated their professional lives in this mission. You’re never going to know their names, right? But they took the fear out. And realize that this was not free. The future’s going to require these capabilities. We have to have men and women who are also willing to go do that, such that we don’t have to live inside that world. That’s my biggest fear.
The second thing I wanted to mention on NC3, because I am proud to say, of course, that the great leadership by the department, Congress, the recapitalization systems are fully funded including NC3, and this is the first time you may have heard us start talking about it. There’s some cats and dogs inside the normal Pentagon budget process that we have to get through, but the NC3 Enterprise Center, and great leadership by then-Secretary Mattis and his successors have followed that, we now have a responsible commander – me, an organization. We understand this in a way we haven’t in a long time.
It's always been good. I would not want to imply that we’ve ever had any issue of incompetence in NC3, but I can put it all down on a piece of paper. I can show you how it all interrelates. I can show you how its funding status is. I can show you the operational implications of that. That’s in the future. I can do the same thing day to day. And I’ll stop because it’s a much longer conversation, but we have come a long way in just one year in terms of understanding and strengthening our nuclear command and control capabilities.
Deptula: Admiral, thanks very much for those really insightful comments. On the subject of NC3, one of the concerns at Mitchell Institute for a while has been the fact that as you mentioned early on, people tend to focus on the weapon systems themselves and they don’t think about the glue that puts that all together.
About a year ago we put out a study on modernizing U.S. nuclear command and control and communications and I’ll send your staff a copy afterwards, but just to highlight the point that you made. Now obviously it’s a difficult topic to follow because it’s so highly classified, but that’s one of the reasons that we did it was to try to make people aware of the significance of it’s not just the weapons themselves that need to be modernized, but it’s the command and control process too.
There are a lot of people out there that don’t even know that there’s such a thing as an eight inch floppy disc. I don’t know whether all those are gone yet or not, but it’s something that needs to be paid attention to.
So again, on behalf of the Mitchell Institute, we really wish you the very best in these ever-increasing challenges, and a reminder to our listeners, our next event’s going to be with members of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability Group next Wednesday, August 5th as we take a deeper look at their recent Global Futures Report.
Now we’re going to open up the session to our audience. Those of you who have been on, please use the raised hand feature and when I call on you please identify who you are and your organization.
Let’s start with Theresa Hitchens.
Question: Hi, sir. Theresa Hitchens from Breaking Defense. Thank you for doing this.
My question is with regard to how STRATCOM is integrating with the efforts to create a Joint All Domain Command and Control System [JADC2] given that the networks that are used for NC3, for example, but also for providing commanders with missile warning et cetera, tend to be in closed, highly classified networks. And that makes it difficult to integrate that information with networks that also provide tactical, for example, information to soldiers on the ground. And yet that’s the goal of JADC2.
So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how STRATCOM sees itself and those networks being integrated with JADC2. Thank you.
Richard: Yes, ma’am. One, the bottom line is a high degree of integration between JADC2 and NC3 Next. Not 100 percent. The consequence of failure on the NC3 mission is so high that it warrants its own dedicated stack of capabilities to guard against it. The example I like using is most ships in the Navy are multi-mission, multi-role. The strategic deterrence is so important we dedicate 14 solely to that function. You’re going to see a similar degree or overlap.
Strategic platforms are still platforms. They’re part of the Joint Force and I need them integrated into the broader department’s command and control system. You will see us doing conventional nuclear integration in a way that we have never done before. This is what is required for us to do complementary effects inside the battle space.
There are new ways to get after the classification differences and handling differences as opposed to building out completely separate circuits. So there’s an operational imperative to go do this.
The second thing, it just makes sense from a wise use of resources standpoint to have a high degree of overlap between the two, just not 100 percent.
Deptula: Thank you. How about Michael Gordon?
Question: Admiral, Michael Gordon from the Wall Street Journal.
Sir, you spoke about the Russian nuclear forces and their extensive modernization efforts. The question I have is right now we have verification means to do on-site inspection and other provisions under New START to keep tabs on what the Russians are doing, but there is a prospect New START may expire in February and not be extended and that there may be no other agreement to take its place at that juncture anyway.
My question is not about the politics of New START but how important are these verification and monitoring provisions for your efforts to keep tabs on what the Russians are doing and also to maintain stability in the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship.
Richard: In the end, any treaty between two nations is fundamentally a political agreement, so in the end this is a Department of State-led effort. I certainly support any agreement that enhances the security of this nation and there looks like ample opportunity to enhance the security of both the U.S., Russia and China by this mechanism.
Those verification mechanisms that you talk about, yes, they are very important. They are a prized attribute I would say from my standpoint in terms of what’s in New START. I’d be cautious, we’re only actually verifying less than half of the total number of nuclear weapons that they have. We do not have an equivalent verification mechanism on the non-treaty accountable weapons and I think we have to be cautious not to just dismiss that. So it’s not like we are operating in a world where we have a thorough for everything, that they can threaten us with verification mechanisms. But I do prize that. I would like to see us have that more broadly and that is a part of my advice that I provide to my department’s leadership.
Deptula: Amy McCullough?
Question: Thank you, sir. Amy McCullough with Air Force Magazine.
You mentioned China’s growing capabilities and the Air Force just recently put out an Arctic Strategy. Other than icebreaker missions in that region I’m wondering if you’ve seen any other type of flights like bomber flights or anything like that where they’re trying to exert influence there.
Richard: From memory, I can’t. I’m not sure. In other words, there wasn’t anything that completely got my attention. That question is better directed to INDO-PACOM. And it’s not like we don’t talk to them, but you’re right. China has made it clear that they intend to be an Arctic nation and whether I have seen it or not I’m certainly watching for their developments in that direction to make sure that I properly factor them into our strategic deterrence efforts.
Deptula: Bowen Ballard? Okay, we’ll come back to Bowen.
How about Pat Tucker?
It sounds like there’s some issues with mics. Let me go to the chatroom. Here’s a Pat Tucker question for you.
Question: Are you in discussion with DoD leadership on delaying nuclear modernization efforts due to the potential budget restraints of responding to the COVID-19 situation?
Richard: The answer is no. In fact I think it’s an important point for us to consider. Just because one threat manifested itself didn’t mean that any of the others went away. Russia did not give up a single nuclear weapon because of COVID-19. China did not, in fact their actions have been exactly the opposite. So I have a responsibility to defend us [regardless] of whether or not we have a worldwide pandemic or not, and I would offer I don’t think that there’s a choice. It’s kind of a false choice to say I can’t afford modernization because I have to do COVID.
This nation has many resources. We know our priorities. We can afford survival. The department is focused on assisting the nation in this great challenge. We do have to think our way through it. There will be implications. But we still have to defend ourselves because the threat is still there.
Deptula: Admiral, if I may. I like to remind people, I know folks argue about the balance between guns versus butter, but if you go to the Preamble of the Constitution and I daresay there aren’t too many people that will argue with that, although there are some out there, that it states that the fundamental reason or one of the fundamental reasons we stood up with this nation was to “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare,” not the other way around.
Anyway, let’s go back and --
Richard: One more point on that if I can.
Deptula: Go ahead.
Richard: We have a debate sometimes over COVID-19 versus modernization. There’s a cousin to that inside the department, right? I go back to the strategic deterrent is foundational and we can’t take that for granted. So if the foundation doesn’t have what it needs, then the viability of every other capability if the department gets called into question, something as simple as the other [packages] escalate right past you. So it’s not only relevant to COVID, but we have really thought through hard as a nation to put the minimum amount of resources against our most important mission. If optimized, any other thing that we do to that carries consequences in terms of assumptions that we make across the rest of the department and nation.
Deptula: Very good.
Here’s one from Paul Bernstein from National Defense University.
Question: Could you please discuss the work the command is doing with regional combatant commands to help them prepare for the possibility of limited nuclear attacks in their areas of operation?
Richard: There’s a number of things that we’re doing, but the one that I’ll probably start here with is that we have initiated in the last six months a new type of analysis called Risk of Strategic Deterrence Failure. So we are taking pieces of what’s been inside STRATCOM and the Joint Force more broadly. That’s where these other combatant commands come in. So that, on a daily basis, we are coming up with a formal estimate of the risk that deterrence is going to fail.
I acknowledge this is an analytic process getting after something that is fundamentally subjective, but the assertion here is this risk carries so much consequence that I need to be able to describe to the Secretary and the Chairman, at all times, under all conditions, what risks we’re taking, with regard to deterrence failing and then inside that, nuclear deterrence failing. That’s a key way that we’re working with not only the regionals. A big chunk of that analysis requires you to understand what’s happening in space, what’s happening in cyberspace and some other areas, and we have some great formal mechanisms with all the combatant commands to pull in what they see and what they’re doing, put it into my best possible emulation of the other guy’s decision calculus, and then be able to provide the department here's where we sit, here’s the risk, here’s the margin.
It's currently low, I think you’d expect that. But we’re ready to go do that in crisis. We’re looking at it long term. Really focusing ourselves given the consequential nature of what we’re talking about.
Deptula: Here’s that question from Bowen Ballard.
Question: Would you please give a current update on the status of HF availability in the event of satellite denial?
Richard: One is that is an early conclusion that we have come to, when we think about what NC3 Next is going to look like. It’s probably worth a moment here. The difference between NC3 beyond what you just talked about, sir, in terms of its very hard to visualize, but its 204 systems that all have to operate together to go accomplish this.
When we talk about recapitalization of the triad, that’s actually a pretty straightforward thing to visualize. You have boomers, bombers, cruise missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and when you’re doing you have boomers, bombers, intercontinental, and supplemental capabilities. You will have them for a long time. They get modernized.
NC3 is not like that. You will see it iterate going into the future as we improve it incrementally. That’s the way that technology works. That’s the way that threat evolves.
But we know now that HF [high-frequency] will be a component to that. My HF availability is good right now. I have just placed renewed emphasis on basically everybody comes up on every circuit all the time if your tactical situation permits, to make sure that we’re taking advantage of that. I see a great role for relatively small cost to buy us a relatively less dependent on infrastructure path that complements the other work we’re doing in NC3 quite well.
Deptula: Very good. Let’s see if the mics are working again. How about Sara Sirota.
Question: Hi, thank you for doing this. I have a question about the LRSO program.
If the urgency for this weapon is so strong, I’m curious if you think that NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] is taking too risky of a schedule for the program, for delivering the production units, and if you have concerns that that could lead to delays for other warhead modernization programs that they’re overseeing.
And also if you think that the Air Force’s decision to end the competition early could lead to risks in terms of the designs of the final LRSO weapon.
Richard: A couple of points. Yes, there is urgency in LRSO just like there is urgency in every other piece of the triad. I wouldn’t want to single out LRSO as being special. I need them all moving with urgency like with what we’re going to have to have with LRSO, to pace the threat.
Look, we have a very good working relationship with NNSA via the Nuclear Weapons Council that has been very productive for both departments in terms of staying synchronized. While the fundamental responsibility for assessing the risk that you just talked about really belongs on the service and acquisition side of the house, we watch it very closely. No, I don’t have any concerns and in fact to your broader question of the acquisition strategy, I have full confidence that the Air Force has a good acquisition strategy. They understand the risk and that they’re going to be able to deliver that program on time.
Deptula: Here’s one from Frank Gallegos.
Question: Keeping to the theme of the breathtaking expansion of the threat from our near peers, what could we in industry do to help you the most? Where would you have us mass our intellectual resources to help improve our strategic deterrent?
Richard: Go faster. Whatever we have to do to sit down together to go faster. And I think Gen. Hyten has said this very eloquently in a number of cases, this is when operational risk gets back on par with programmatic and technical risk, right? You change the way that you run your processes.
I love the story about how we go from Thule, Greenland being a shack with a dirt runway and we go in something like three months to a 10,000 foot, reinforced concrete runway capable of handling strategically loaded B-52s, two hangars and accommodations for 4,000 Airmen when the nation had never built big runways on tundra before. Right? Because the operational risk of not having that base outweighed the risk that we were going to take sort of programmatically and technically.
So whatever the barrier is, let’s talk about that and figure out what we’re going to have to go do.
I’ll point to, going back to NC3, we’re establishing a Reach Center, and that is a building, but more so it is an idea that to move faster in NC3 I have to break down some of the barriers in terms of having communication with private industry with the government. Something as simple as – I’m putting it outside the fence line just so you don’t even have to go through here’s the how you get on the access list to get on the base type stuff. So knocking down these barriers while respecting security and government obligations, that’s where we need to go if we’re going to keep up with this threat.
Deptula: We’ve come to the end of our time. Thank you again, Admiral, for your insightful and candid remarks. And thanks everyone for joining us today. I wish you all a wonderful and prosperous aerospace power kind of day.
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