An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.


SPEECH | July 12, 2012

Congressional Breakfast

General Kehler: Thanks, Peter. I appreciate that very, very gracious introduction. Good morning, everyone. It's a good thing I wasn't driving myself to the venue this morning because I would have been in the wrong place. I was prepared to go across to the other side of the Capitol here to the Capitol Hill Club. And when we pulled up out front I got my head out of my Blackberry and looked around and the first thing I thought was we're in the wrong spot. And so I was about to launch into one of those General things when fortunately Peter walked up.


And so I got out of the car and pretended like there was nothing wrong. It was great.


It's a beautiful venue, by the way. This is very good. And as I look around the room I see a lot of friends and colleagues. I didn't have a chance to come over, Terry, and say hello - and the rest of the folks in here - but a number of the people who are sitting in here are attached to the deterrence enterprise, for sure many of you, the Strategic Command, as part of the immediate or extended family.

And so I do, in fact, stand up this morning to talk in a room full of experts. And that's where I would prefer to be because I think that we can have a good conversation. Hopefully we can have a good conversation at the end of my prepared remarks.

It's about a year since I have spoken in front of this breakfast series, in fact almost exactly a year. And last year I talked about a number of issues that I thought were pending over the following year. I turns out that, as with many years that go by these days, I think I had it about half right about what we thought was going to come forward. And so an awful lot has gone on since I spoke last time at this great breakfast series.

In particular, of course, we've had some interesting times in the fiscal part of our business. And, of course, we have a new defense strategy. I could talk about a lot of different things this morning given StratCom's broad range of mission responsibilities.

But I thought what I would really do, especially with this audience, is focus on deterrence and assurance and the nuclear enterprise. This is a talk that I've been giving in other venues as well. So let me spend my time talking about that, and then I'm happy to take some questions.

I think everybody in this room knows of all the important mission responsibilities assigned to Strategic Command by the president, none is more important than to deter strategic attack on the United States and our allies and our partners. I could stop my talk right there and many of you would walk out the door saying that you would have heard those same words from my predecessors going all the way back to Curtis LeMay. And you would be right.

But you would be wrong to think that we view this mission responsibility the same way today as they did back then. Deterrence and assurance have been part of the national lexicon for well over half a century. And for many of those decades, strategic deterrence really meant nuclear deterrence. That's because strategic attack really meant nuclear attack on the U.S. or our allies.

In those days, our predecessors envisioned that a nuclear attack could be a sudden surprise or could arise in the course of a large conventional conflict. In either case, a nuclear attack would probably be massive. It was an era of, my words, one size fits all deterrence.

So I would argue that the one size fits all era passed with the end of the Cold War in 1992. Strategic deterrence and assurance remain relevant concepts today. But today we are shaping these concepts toward a broader array of individual actors, each with their own unique context shaping our deterrence approaches. Some would call this tailored deterrence, and we could argue for a long time today whether those are apt terms, but I think it's a helpful way to think about it.

Tailored deterrence is not an easy task. It requires deeper and more comprehensive understanding of these actors and their decision processes. It requires a robust understanding of the threats they pose. It requires more flexibility and speed in our strategy development and in our planning.

To be sure, 21st century strategic deterrence is still fundamentally about influencing an actor's decisions. It's based on a solid policy foundation. It's about credible capabilities. It's about what the U.S. and our allies as a whole can bring to bear in both a military and a non-military sense. Its practice encompasses a wider range of tools today, both nuclear and strong conventional offensive forces, non-kinetic capabilities, limited missile defenses, theater missile defenses, unfettered access and use of space and cyber-space; and in all cases, modern capabilities that are both resilient and sustained.

Deterrence planning and forces must fit today's unique global security environment, an enormously complex and uncertain world that includes nuclear weapons and nuclear armed states, and where several of the nuclear armed states are modernizing both their weapons and their delivery systems. Today's world also includes the threat of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, a growing potential for disruption or destructive attack through cyber-space, and the danger of weapons of mass destruction in hands of violent extremists. This is the context for strategic deterrence in the 21st century.

In this context, our nuclear deterrent force continues to play a critically important but not an exclusive role in the nation's deterrence posture and planning. Nevertheless, the nuclear deterrent force must remain safe, secure and effective. This force must be backed by a solid industrial base for both systems and weapons. And this force and the supporting industrial enterprise must continue to be staffed and led by highly qualified and experienced men and women with perfection as their standard.

The Nuclear Posture Review recognized the need to maintain such a capable force and modern infrastructure as long as nuclear weapons exit, even as counterproliferation and nuclear terrorism rightfully moved to the top of the policy agenda. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates summed it up when he said, and I'll quote, "As long as nuclear weapons exist the United States must maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal to maintain strategic stability with other nuclear powers, deter potential adversaries and reassure our allies and partners of our commitment to them." The new national defense strategy sounds a similar theme to the NPR, and here's another quote from the national defense strategy. "We will field nuclear forces that can, under any circumstances, confront an adversary with the prospect of unacceptable damage, both to deter potential adversaries and assure U.S. allies and other security partners, that they can count on America's security commitments."

Nuclear deterrence continues to play an important role in the NATO alliance as well. In both the deterrence and posture review, and at the recent summit, NATO affirmed that nuclear weapons remain a core component of NATO's overall capabilities for deterrence and defense, alongside conventional and missile defense forces.

Now to be sure, each of the milestones I just mentioned, the United States, and in turn the NATO alliance, committed to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. And all three of those examples that I cited raise the prospect for further reductions to nuclear arsenals beyond the New START ceilings. But the enduring message has remained clear. As long as these weapons exist the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent force. And, of course, that is the United States Strategic Command's charge and it's our top priority.

So for my remaining couple of minutes, let me offer some perspectives on the nuclear deterrent force and where we're headed. First, while nuclear weapons represent a unique, relevant and powerful deterrent capability, this is not your father's nuclear force. We've witnessed an impressive 67 year period with neither nuclear use nor major power war.

During that time, we regularly adjusted our nuclear capabilities to match the global environment. Since the end of the Cold War, we've significantly reduced our nuclear force structure and revised our nuclear force posture. We continue to review our force structure and posture to make sure we're meeting the president's needs.

At the height of the nuclear buildup, the United States had more than 30,000 nuclear weapons of all kinds. We believe, and in post-Cold War statements the Russians have confirmed, that the Soviet Union had similar numbers. Since the end of the Cold War in 1992 we have reduced the total number of ballistic missile submarines, converted four Ohio-class submarines to carry cruise missiles, removed the B-1 bombers from the nuclear role, removed all dual-capable heavy bombers and supporting tankers from nuclear day-to-day alert, eliminated the Peacekeeper ICBM, cut the Minuteman ICBM force in half and are de-MIRVing those that remain, and removed our command and control aircraft from continuous airborne patrol. This is not your father's nuclear force.

We also withdrew numerous nuclear weapons from abroad. We deactivated whole classes of weapons, like the ground- and sea-launched cruise missiles that were nuclear capable, and the Pershing II ballistic missile. And we dramatically reduced the overall nuclear stockpile.

In total, the stockpile is down over 75 percent from the day the Berlin Wall fell. These are significant, and I would argue, very positive changes. At each decision point along the way, the United States carefully accounted for potential impacts on deterrent capability and strategic stability. The end result is a substantially smaller force, but one we're confident can deter adversaries, assure allies, and of equal importance, maintain strategic stability in some future crisis.

And that leads me to today's force. The triad of ballistic missile submarines, ICBMs and nuclear capable heavy bombers with their associated tankers continues to serve us well. It does so by providing unique and enduring attributes.

Now the obvious attributes are the ones we always cite: survivability, promptness and flexibility; because those attributes taken together create insurmountable problems for any would-be attacker, as well as providing for crisis stability. But just as importantly, the triad continues to provide the president with the flexibility to meet our deterrence needs and to respond to emerging threats, crises, surprise or conflict. The triad also forms the foundation of our strategy to hedge against technical failures or geopolitical change.

To sustain a strong nuclear deterrent force, I fully support the continued modernization and sustainment of the delivery systems, weapon life extension programs, stockpile surveillance activities, nuclear complex infrastructure recapitalization, naval reactor design activities and upgrades to our nuclear command, control and communications systems. That's a tall order at any time, no question. It's even a taller order when we are facing declining budgets.

However, even following the reductions associated with the Budget Control Act, the fiscal year '13 budget still continues to sustain the essential investment to keep the nuclear deterrent force ready and able to do its job. There is some increased risk, to be sure, but the essentials are all there. I need to mention, though, if further reductions occur I'm sure we're going to have to go back and completely review the entire program, assess what impacts there might be, and then make the appropriate recommendations to the Chairman and the Secretary of Defense.

So as I testified earlier this year, I remain concerned about the way ahead for the nuclear weapons complex itself. Our weapons are aging and we face issues in the physical industrial plant and the possibility of erosion of our intellectual capital. We must protect the important investments for stockpile certification, warhead life extension and infrastructure recapitalization. To that end, STRATCOM is working with the office of the Secretary of Defense and others to finalize plans for fiscal year '14 and beyond.

So let me make three more quick points before I close, and then I'll take questions. First, as I said earlier, the NPR elevated the prevention of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism to the top of the policy agenda. We have unique responsibilities for combating weapons of mass destruction at STRATCOM. We're working hard with all the combatant commands and others to ensure that our sense of urgency and pace of preparation matched the potential impact of this threat.

Second, we're working with the office of the Secretary of Defense, the joint staff and the services to finalize and synchronize New START implementation decisions. We have more work to do to eliminate the excess - or what we call the phantom launchers and the bombers - that are still counted under the treaty's provisions. We also have more work to do to finalize the force mixture we intend to retain under the central limits of the treaty. But all indications are that the treaty provisions are being met and we are on track to meet the treaty limits by February of 2018.

And third and finally, we have been working with OSD and the Joint Staff on the analysis of future deterrence requirements called for in the NPR. The results of that effort are still pending. STRATCOM has been a full participant in this analysis and we remain engaged, providing additional inputs and military operational advice as requested.

So let me close with a couple of final thoughts. The threat of a sudden nuclear war involving the U.S. and Russia has receded by almost every measure. Certainly, it's at the lowest level that I have seen in my 37 years in the United States Air Force and military.

Nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russian arsenals have declined dramatically, and those reductions have occurred deliberately and in a stable way. We do not view Russia or China as our enemies. And deployed U.S. nuclear weapons are not targeted on any country.

But those of us in Strategic Command are mindful that the capability still exists in the world to inflict enormous damage on the United States and our allies. In an extreme scenario, the capability still exists to virtually destroy this country over the course of the next two hours. As long as those capabilities exist, it's STRATCOM's job to offer the President a safe, secure, effective nuclear deterrent force as a vital component of the multifaceted strategic deterrent the country needs to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Thanks again for inviting me and I look forward to your questions.