Sustaining the Triad: The Enduring Requirements of Deterrence Conference

By General C. Robert Kehler | Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, St. Marys GA | Nov. 8, 2013

General Kehler: Thank you, Peter. Good morning everybody.

My objective is to not become more famous in the last week of my tenure as the Commander of Strategic Command. [Laughter]. But I must say, it's a pleasure and a delight to be here.

To Admiral Tofalo and Admiral Breckenridge, thanks for taking an active leadership role in sponsoring this. There are lots of folks in the room that made this happen, and many of you have traveled here from around the country to include communities that are located adjacent to the bases that form the bulk of the strategic deterrent force support network today.

Let me just say to all of you, thank you for what you do. The young men and women who serve our country, wearing the country's uniform, directly sense the support of the American people through you. So thank you for what you do, especially around bases like this. I know, I talked to some of you last night. You make a great investment in your own time and energy to make sure that in this case the United States Navy feels welcome in Georgia and I can tell you, it works. Because, we see that direct support translates into a young sailor being able to go into the community here and feel comfortable and feel like they're welcome and appreciated. So thank you for all of that.

I also have to say, Peter mentioned when we started to work together and I'll say something a little bit more about that era here as I go on. If all of you listened carefully to General Welsh last evening and to Frank Miller this morning, you've heard the bulk of my speech. All I can do is stand here right now and say what they said. [Laughter]. However, that would leave us 29.5 minutes for questions and answers and I have Captain Pam Kunze who is my new public affairs officer sitting over here, it's her job to explain later what the general meant to say. [Laughter]. So I'm not going to burden her with that. I'm going to go ahead and give a speech anyway. Then I'll go ahead and take some questions.

The only rule that I have about questions and answers is ask whatever you want, but be prepared for the answer. So it's an interesting give and take. Sometimes the questionee asks back, so just so you have that warning ahead of time.

The United States of America has some enduring military advantages. Obviously our ability to project power around the world is a tremendous enduring advantage for the United States military, whether or not it's projected through a Marine Expeditionary Force, whether that's projected with C-17s that can carry the ready brigade of the 82nd Airborne, whether that's our ability to strike in a precise way over global distances with conventional forces, whether that's an aircraft carrier battle group, you name it, an enduring military advantage of the United States of America is our ability to project power. We are the only military on the face of the planet who can do it in the way that we do it.

Another enduring advantage of the United States military is our ability to maintain global awareness. It isn't perfect, but we alone are capable through various means of providing ourselves pretty good indications and warning in every part of the world.

Another enduring advantage of the United States military is our ability to command, control and communicate at global distances. There's a reason for why we can project power. There's a reason for why we can operate far flung forces in a way that leverages their individual power and makes them behave like a larger force. There's a reason why we can do that. An enduring advantage of the United States of America.

And I would add to that, our strategic nuclear deterrent is an enduring advantage of the United States of America.

So I'm going to talk to you today about that deterrent force, but before I comment specifically on the triad let me take a minute to try and place that deterrent force in the context of today's global strategic environment.

Our nuclear deterrent was originally designed, fielded, sized and postured for the Cold War. The deterrence concepts that formed the basis of the force were developed and refined in the Cold War.

Now I just said a mouthful right there but I think it's important for us to be able to describe the relevance of our nuclear forces in today's terms. Not the terms that originally conceived them.

During the Cold War we knew much about the adversary and we understood we thought fairly clearly, I think hindsight proves that we understood fairly clearly how a conflict was most likely to erupt and how it was going to play out. But the Cold War ended 20 years ago. It's interesting when I go around and talk to the younger troops today that are serving in the Air Force and the Navy in particular, and I say back in the Cold War such and such, and they look at me like hey, gramps. You know? I don't even know what that is. I wasn't there then. Some of them weren't even born then, which really pains me. [Laughter]. But it's true. That's not the environment that today's military understands.

When we start pining away about the good old days when we understood who the bad guys were and how we were in a three point stance, instantly ready to start the play, I think they look at us like okay, that's interesting, but what does that have to do with anything? Kind of like all your kids look at you. Like, so what?

I think it's important to be able to describe in today's terms why it is that we still need a nuclear deterrent force and what it needs to look like to meet today's threats.

Uncertainty and complexity dominate the national security landscape today. The 21st Century operating environment is increasingly characterized by the potential for conflict across all domains -- air, land, sea, space and cyberspace, where state and non-state actors alike employ highly adaptive hybrid combinations of strategies, tactics, and capabilities to simultaneously and quickly exploit and transit political, geographic and domain boundaries. Violent extremists remain our most likely enemies, and the possibility that such extremists will get and use a nuclear device remains the number one threat that we face.

Today's threats are challenging our earlier assumptions; stressing our plans, our practices and our organizations; compelling unity of effort and demanding flexible and innovative approaches to create effects tailored to the unique actors, circumstances and scenarios we might face. As a result, because of your hard work many of you in this room, and certainly many of our predecessors, have put us in a place today where the threat of a sudden massive nuclear war has receded by almost every measure and the most likely use of nuclear weapons may occur in scenarios associated with regional conflicts.

In addition, U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals have declined from Cold War levels. Reductions to reach New START levels are underway. The President recently announced his desire to engage Russia to further reduce deployed arsenals below New START levels as another step toward the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. Although he's been clear to state that such a goal may not be achievable in our lifetimes.

The Nuclear Posture Review stated that it is U.S. policy to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.

So as the military leader responsible for the plans and operations of our nuclear force, I ask myself in this environment what is the purpose of a nuclear deterrent? And specifically, why do we need a triad?

So let me begin to answer that question by reminding everyone that numerous policy statements from the Nuclear Posture Review through the Defense Strategic Guidance through recent statements by senior leaders have all been cleared. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent. Nuclear weapons are unique in their physical and psychological effect. No other weapons are like nuclear weapons and no other weapons can threaten the United States like nuclear weapons.

Part of my portfolio responsibilities include defending our defense networks against cyber attack, and sometimes I hear the phrase Cyber Pearl Harbor and I hear people equate that to a nuclear attack. Now I would agree that an attack, a deliberate attack against the United States through cyberspace is a strategic attack, but it is not a nuclear attack. It would not create the same kind of effects as a nuclear attack would create.

I don't believe the Russians intend to attack the United States today with nuclear or any other type of weapon. The Russians, and to a lesser extent the Chinese, however, have the capability to destroy the United States over the course of an afternoon with nuclear weapons. They have the capability to do the same to our allies. Nuclear weapons also exist in other parts of the world that aren't exactly friendly to the U.S. or our allies. Russia and China both continue to modernize their strategic nuclear forces. Others continue to pursue nuclear programs.

So the fundamental purpose of our nuclear force remains to deter potential adversaries from using nuclear weapons by holding at risk that which they value most, and to assure our allies of U.S. security commitments to them. An adversary leader in some future crisis or some future conflict must clearly understand that they cannot achieve their objectives and that the cost of trying to do so will be unacceptably high. That's classic Cold War deterrence. But deterrence and assurance are not concepts that went away at the end of the Cold War. They remain relevant today with the same basic understanding of what they're intended to do. How we go about it must change.

Those concepts are relevant today, but the variety of actors that we have today, the variety of scenarios that we have today means that we have to apply them differently now than we did then. Essentially we have to tailor those concepts to specific actors and to specific allies. As we say at STRATCOM, regarding deterrence, the adversary gets a vote. Regarding assurance, the ally gets a vote. One size does not fit all

So what kind of a force do we need if deterrence and assurance remain the objective of our nuclear force? In June President Obama issued new nuclear guidance that said the United States will maintain a triad. In my view that means the discussion is over. We will maintain a triad. The triad continues to provide the best mixture of attributes we need to both provide the President with the range of options he might need, and to present an adversary with insurmountable challenges that he cannot overcome by attacking us.

Today those attributes are survivability, flexibility, and responsiveness.

The SSBN force represents the most survivable leg of the triad. SSBNs that are underway in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans remain undetected and increasingly comprise the largest concentration of our deployed warheads.

Manned bombers are flexible. No bombers are on nuclear alert today but at any time the President can use them to signal concern, determination and intent to both adversaries and allies.

A perfect example of this was the use of the B-2 during the North Korean threat crisis where Kim Jong-un was very vocal about his intent with nuclear weapons. Very specific about being perfectly willing to use nuclear weapons against the United States and our allies in the region. In fact pretty strongly stated that he intended to do that.

So as a signal of U.S. commitment to our allies in the region we flew two B-2s from Whiteman Air Force Base to a range in South Korea and returned them non-stop, a 38 hour-plus mission that was flown such that those two B-2s did a low approach over Osan at noon. Not something we would necessarily do tactically, but there were lots of cell phone cameras there to observe the event. The event was picked up. It was done quietly, but it was done with malice aforethought. Part of a larger exercise, clearly intending to show the capability of a dual capable platform that could fly non-stop from the United States to the Korean Peninsula and return.

That's what we can do with bombers. We can adjust their posture from generation all the way to airborne alert or launch under positive control. The President can also recall bombers in a crisis should something change while they're in flight.

The ICBM force remains highly ready and highly responsive. ICBMs offer the President the ability to respond immediately to an attack if he chooses to do so, and as you've heard several times already, the widely disbursed ICBMs are only vulnerable to a massive unambiguous attack by the highest quality enemy weapons. When combined with updated adaptive planning capabilities and an assured nuclear command, control and communication system, the triad continues to provide us with the force we need to meet our deterrence and assurance objectives. If deterrence fails, that same force has the capabilities needed to achieve the national security objectives the President directs.

Retaining the triad ensures we are diversified and diversity helps mitigate risks such as geopolitical surprise, advance in technology, disruptions in capabilities or technical failures. In short, I believe our nuclear triad still represents an insurmountable challenge for any adversary to overcome. It provides us with the means to mitigate risk and it ensures that the possibility of an attack remains unlikely, even as we use that force to reassure our allies that they don't need to pursue their own nuclear programs.

But in order to be effective the nuclear deterrent must remain credible. First and foremost, the credibility of our deterrent depends on the credibility of the weapons and their delivery vehicles and on the people that operate them. I'm one hundred percent confident in the ability and dedication of our people and in the operational viability of today's nuclear force, but aging issues persist and I remain concerned that the force requires significant investment in the midst of a very difficult financial period.

Minuteman III missiles were first fielded in the early 1970s and although they've been subjected to many upgrades and modernization efforts, the fact is they are 40 years old and continue to age. The last time a major upgrade of the Minuteman III force occurred was in the 1980s. That upgrade, along with the current ongoing efforts, has kept the ICBMs reliable all these years. We now project that they can remain militarily effective through 2020, and with some additional sustainment into 2030. There is some time before we have to commit to designing and developing a new ICBM, but that day is approaching. We need to be prepared to make the appropriate decisions when that day arrives.

The bomber fleet's comprised of B-52s and B-2s. You heard General Welsh say last night the last remaining version of the B-52 is now more than 50 years old and could become a member of AARP. [Laughter]. Which gives them a 10 percent discount at Holiday Inn Express, but that's another story.

Tankers that are required to refuel them to reach any potential targets are even older.

I have to tell you a quick story. I had the opportunity to get over to the Middle East several years ago and flew all the way there and back on a tanker, a regular old tanker out of the pool. Not a fancy tanker, a regular old tanker. And if you've ever spent any time on a tanker, what you know is that from the ceiling to about here, the temperature in the tanker is about 107 degrees. From here down it's minus 170 degrees. [Laughter]. So I was roasting and freezing at the same time, and you would understand this if you've done much of that.

In the middle of the night we were coming back, we were somewhere over Eastern Europe and I decided to go up to the cockpit and do what it is that generals do, and that is I'm chatting up the crew. They were doing what they do. They were pretending like they were interested. [Laughter]. So I finally said to the captains, by the way O3s, not Navy captain O6, I said to one of them, how long have you been in the Air Force? We got to talking about this. It turns out that this young man is younger than the airplane that he's flying. I knew that was true ahead of time because I say that in speeches, but until you see it, it's a little disconcerting. I said to him there are human years, dog years, computer years, there are airplane years. I didn't feel unsafe, but the fact of the matter is that there are only so many times that we can take aircraft through maintenance and return them to the flight line and say it's okay for us to continue to fly these as front line equipment in a global military whose enduring advantage is our ability to project power.

So when we talk about investing in the bombers, that needs to be one word -- we need to invest in the bombers and tankers. It's bombers and tankers is kind of one word that goes together.

I fully support a new manned bomber and its companion standoff cruise missile. I also support the uninterrupted procurement of the new KC-46 tanker. It's imperative that we modernize those systems without delay.

Finally let me turn my attention to the submarine leg of the triad and address the Ohio Class replacement program. The CNO mentions it's his number one ship building modernization effort, and I commend him for it. I couldn't agree more. It's mine as well. So we have to continue with that program unabated.

Now, all of you, or many of you in this room are experts in this field, and I am not, but I take your word for it when you tell me that the stresses of the undersea environment where these boats spend the majority of their time, and you've heard this. The operationally ready rate of these boats has been phenomenal and they are at sea more than they are not. They spend the majority of their time in a unique environment.

I'm not a submariner, but they tell me that there are only so many times that they can go down and come back up and the come back up part is important. [Laughter]. That makes sense to me. They tell me that the number one objective when a submarine goes to sea is to keep the water out of the people compartment, and that eventually the stresses, the metallurgy of it, the science of it, means that it will not be without risk to put them to sea and expect that we can operate the same way, or that one time they won't come back up. That's not a risk we can take. So continuing that program is an essential part of our modernization efforts. Those submarines have served us for more than 30 years with the majority of their operating time at sea. The newest of those boats is only about 16 or so years of age, but that one will be expected to sail another 20 to 25 years. By the time the last Ohio Class boat is retired it will have sailed for 42 years -- far longer than its original design life of 30 years. That makes the Ohio class the oldest fleet we've ever put to sea in the submarine force.

So the time is approaching when all of these triad workhorses will no longer be able to perform their missions as we need them to perform them. We've assumed as much risk in planning for replacements as is prudent and I think in most cases there is no longer room for delay.

As we modernize the platforms, as you heard General Welsh say last night, we also need to invest in the weapons. Today's weapons are aging and life extensions are needed. The same for selected upgrades to the nuclear command, control and communications system. It's a system of systems that we have built, that together form the credibility of our nuclear deterrent.

I think this force has provided excellent return on investment over the years, but as I have mentioned during congressional hearings, from a financial perspective we find ourselves in a bad place at the worst possible time. Recapitalization is needed just as budgets are likely to decline dramatically. Sequestration threatens to impact readiness. As we heard last evening, this is clearly a question of national priorities, but I think it's also a question of fiscal reality. It's up to us to work to carefully structure and phase the modernization efforts to refine our requirements and to control our appetites. Quite frankly, all aspects of these programs are under discussion. The Secretary of Defense has very tough choices to make in the very near future. But the need to invest remains and in my role as advocate for the nuclear force, I intend to continue to speak to our needs as forcefully as I possibly can.

As I said at the outset, the Cold War has been over for 20 years. While STRATCOM's heritage is nuclear and we will not waiver from the highest levels of vigilance and standards of excellence as the nuclear mission demands, today's STRATCOM is far more diverse and versatile than ever before and is positioned to address the complexity, volatility and uncertainty which characterize today's unique operating environment. The nuclear deterrent force is a tool, a critical tool, but only one tool in a kit of capabilities which together we use to deter and assure.

The missions and forces assigned to STRATCOM allow us to gain a global perspective, to create synergy from a range of strategic capabilities, those that can create decisive impact, affect large physical areas, act across great distances, persist over long periods of time, change the status quo in a fundamental way, and provide the President a variety of ready military options for dealing with extreme circumstances to include, if he chooses, the use of nuclear weapons in some future conflict.

STRATCOM's nuclear and conventional strike, space, cyber and other capabilities remain foundational to confronting the challenges of the future. Simply put, our responsibilities and capabilities underwrite freedom of action for our nation and our allies and generate viable options for our national leaders.

Let me just conclude by saying it's my judgment that our nuclear forces today are safe, secure, effective and ready. They are an essential component of a broad 21st Century deterrent strategy, but they are only one of the components that make up that strategy. With many tools in our deterrence tool kit it's critical to the security of the nation that all of those tools remain available for use. That's the best way to ensure that they will never have to be used.

Our current challenges and those coming tomorrow will test us. However, I stand here this morning very confident in our capabilities to defend the nation and our allies. I'm 100 percent confident in the readiness of our nation's nuclear forces. I'm also encouraged and impressed by the young men and women who maintain secure and operate those forces today. They are as good or better than any who have served before them. I'm positive that you too will be impressed when you meet them on your tour later this afternoon. I encourage you to take a moment to shake their hands, talk to them. They're great Americans. And show your appreciation to them for what they do for us every day. They're the ones who are able to handle whatever we send in their direction, and together with them our national security has a bright future.

Thanks again for inviting me, and for asking me to take part in this vitally important conference. Thank you very much.

With that I'm happy to take the easiest question you can give me.

Question: Todd Jacobson with Nuclear Weapons Materials Modern.

Near the end of your speech you were talking about the budget realities. You mentioned the need to control our appetites in terms of modernization. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that and where that might come into play in particular?

General Kehler: Yeah, that's about requirements, really. That's shorthand for requirements. I think that we need to make sure that just as how we apply the concepts of deterrence and assurance need to reflect the realities of the security situation that we face today, I think that the way we state our requirements needs to adjust to that same reality.

That doesn't mean that we back off any of the fundamental requirements that we have for the nuclear deterrent. I think the three great attributes still remain, the fundamental requirements. We need forces that are survivable, we need forces that are responsive, we need forces that are flexible. But what we've discovered in acquisition efforts over the last ten years is that sometimes we're not as precise in stating our requirements as we need to be. We can't have requirements that change, that drift. We need to be very focused, I think, on the things that we absolutely have to have and the way that we have to have it, and then we need to proceed with the efforts to produce it.

Question: I'm Maggie Kosal from Georgia Institute of Technology down here with three of my students. Thank you very much, first of all. I'd like to ask, what is the current thinking with respect to deterring threats from emerging technology beyond just cyber. Especially as they might intersect with cyber. So strategic thought or posture, what's the emerging dialogue on that?

General Kehler: Let me say two things. First of all, people ask me what keeps you awake at night, and someone asked me the other day, as you get ready to take the uniform off what do you think is the big unstated challenge, or what do you think the big challenge is? I think it's surprise. It's what we haven't thought about. Those things that we've thought about. Those things that we can foresee. I'm not as worried about those things. They're big challenges. But I'm not as worried about the things that we can anticipate. I'm very concerned about what we can't see. What will surprise us. Because I would offer in the future, I think surprise, especially where it's related to cyberspace and space and strategic level issues can be decisive. So it's about surprise, in my view, and preparing ourselves mentally to try to eliminate surprise as best we can. Or if you're confronted by it, not making it decisive, being able to contend with it as it occurs.

What does that mean for us? We used to say and use synonymously the phrase strategic attack and nuclear attack. It meant the same thing. I think today that's not so. I think that strategic attack can occur in many forms and can come through many domains. One of them is the nuclear attack, but not the only one. I would argue, for example, 9/11 was a strategic attack against the United States, and that at some level was a surprise. Afterwards people said I knew that, some people said I knew it was going to come, et cetera, but I think as a nation we were surprised. So I'm very concerned about that.

Technologies are advancing so fast and the cost of entry in some cases is so low that what we used to worry about only from peer or near-peer competitors I think is changing pretty dramatically.

So what do we do about it? Because I say in audiences, STRATCOM isn't paid to live in interesting times. Like that old saying, we're paid to try to deal with them.

So what do we do? I think one is we've got to think about alternative futures. I think that the likelihood that we've guessed correctly what's going to come our way is probably pretty low. Our track record isn't very good about coming up with thinking our way through what the likely scenarios are. So I think we have to think alternatives. Not what happens if Martians land, but what happens if something else occurs? I think that's one way you do it. And I think that our understanding about the applications of technologies, disruptive technologies in particular, needs to go up.

So your students from the Georgia Institute of Technology, I've got applications right out here if they'd like to come, because we need them in the enterprise, across the board. I didn't say this, but among those enormous military advantages the United States has, the number one advantage we have is the people that we have in the enterprise, and that's going to be important now.

Someone said to me last night, when they came to the reception last night they noted that most everybody in the room was my age, and not their age, and I hate that. But it happens to be true. So I think we need to get our best and brightest in this enterprise and help us to understand where disruptive change will occur and how we prevent that from becoming surprise and decisive.

With that, thank you very much.

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