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SPEECH | July 29, 2015

Keynote, 2015 USSTRATCOM Deterrence Symposium

Honor to be here etc.  Thanks to Admiral Haney and the Strategic Command staff and to the Conference organizers for inviting me to speak.

It has been a while since I delivered a “keynote speech”….   This morning, I am going to take that tasking seriously, and, instead of launching off on a topic of great interest to me (but perhaps no one else here) I am going to give a real keynote speech.  The dictionary defines a keynote speech as one “delivered to set the underlying tone and summarize the core message or most important revelation of the event”.    Since my remarks were originally intended to follow Admiral Haney’s presentation this morning, some of the topics I will address have already been raised…but they are important enough to hit again.  So here we go…

We are gathered here to discuss “deterrence”.  “Deterrence” is not a new concept.  The Romans wrote about it.  George Washington wrote about it.  Essentially it’s about raising the barrier to aggression to the point that would-be or real enemies are convinced they would not succeed in an attack, and therefore pursue other policies.  The fundamental problem with using only conventional forces to provide a deterrent shield, however, has been that throughout history leaders bent on aggression have come to believe that their military genius can overcome seemingly impregnable defenses. The Nazi thrust into the Ardennes, thereby nullifying the Maginot Line, is the poster child in this regard.  Margaret Thatcher is famously (if apocryphally) quoted as saying, in reference to memorials honoring the dead of World War 1, “there are monuments to the failure of conventional deterrence in every European village”. 

The creation of nuclear weapons changed all of that.  No longer could aggressors count on their military genius to deliver victory:  nuclear weapons gave a nation on the brink of battlefield defeat the ability to destroy the opponent’s homeland, turning the fruits of victory into the ashes of defeat.  War against each other became too dangerous for the great powers to indulge in.  That is not to say that our nuclear weapons are an all-purpose deterrent.  Their role is to deter, to forestall, to prevent direct attacks, including massive conventional attacks, against our vital interests and those of our allies.  They are not and were never intended to fill an “all purpose” role.  And although they may be useful affecting the leaders of states sponsoring terrorism, they are indeed not useful for deterring terrorists, or piracy, or cross-border drug trafficking, or even low-level insurgencies . They are arguably of marginal use in deterring all but the most catastrophic cyberattacks or attacks against our space assets.  They were not designed to do so. And it’s just a cheap rhetorical trick, as Global Zero and organizations of their ilk are wont to do, to suggest that nuclear weapons have outlived their usefulness by pointing to attacks such as 9/11, or 7/7, or cyber intrusions they “failed” to deter when they were not intended or deployed to prevent such attacks.  Other tools need to be used to deter and defeat such threats, and I urge you to consider that in your deliberations here.

But back to nuclear deterrence.  Once upon a time we were, as a nation, very sophisticated in our thinking in this area. I fear, however, in the twenty five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the USSR, that we have, collectively, grown sloppy in our thinking, our analysis, and our approach to nuclear deterrence.  I hope that you will correct some of that over the next day.   

First of all, as a former Secretary of Defense wrote some time ago, “deterrence is dynamic, not static. Our capabilities must changes as the threat changes and as our knowledge of what is necessary to deter improves.”   Unpacking this a bit, we discern the following truths:

  • We need to understand our potential enemies and how they think.  Deterrence is mostly about what goes on in their heads, not in ours.  We need to be certain they understand what we will fight for and what we consider our vital interests to be.  They must understand we have the capability to destroy the things and assets they value most, and that we have the will to do so if we are attacked.  This principle applies not only to potential nuclear-armed adversaries such as Russia or China but equally to possible enemies who are potential proliferants or threshold nuclear states.  I fear that our – and I include the Intelligence Community in “our” -- scholarship on and understanding of what foreign leaders’ consider to be their most valuable assets is generally poor and un-informed across the board – and in some cases it is wholly speculative.  This affects our declaratory policy (which is almost invisible today) and other signals which we send, advertently or inadvertently.  And the combination of this is that we may appear weak or indecisive to some foreign leaders.  Remember that weakness is provocative. Weakness and indecision can cause potential enemies to calculate that we really do not mean to stand by our commitments or protect our vital interests.


  • Part of demonstrating resolve is to recognize when one’s policies have failed and then to change course. In 2009 the President famously called on the world’s nuclear weapons states to reduce the role nuclear weapons played in their national security postures.  Only the US and UK did so. Russia and China, and indeed other nuclear weapons states, moved in exactly the opposite direction: they increased the prominence of nuclear weaponry in their policies.  Continuing to reassert our moral rectitude in light of other capitals regarding it with contempt is not a successful path forward in maintaining global peace and stability.  Accordingly, we need to stop talking about “nuclear zero” and nuclear disarmament and begin talking about the importance of nuclear deterrence and the need to prevent major war between the great powers.  It is important because we need to make certain potential enemies understand we take their threats seriously.   And it is important because unless we talk about these subjects it is difficult to get Congress and the American people to understand why nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence are critical to global stability
  • Demonstrating resolve also involves carrying through on promises to use our precious tax dollars to rebuild and modernize our strategic deterrent forces -- both because those forces are aging and because Moscow and Beijing are embarked upon massive nuclear force modernization programs regardless of our restraint.  If we fail to modernize our own forces, our determination to protect ourselves and our allies from nuclear threats and intimidation will on be called into question.  Mr. Putin and his cronies place great stock in nuclear weapons and therefore our deterrent must be credible in his eyes to prevent him from miscalculating.     I trust Panel 4 will be in the same place I am on this.


  • In a similar vein, we need to put an end to the silly idea, still active in some parts of the Department of State and in the non-governmental arms control community, that we need to begin negotiations with Moscow on a new round of strategic arms reductions.   I assume this sophisticated audience is well aware of the long list of treaty commitments which Moscow has violated.  There should be no future arms control negotiations with Russia until Moscow decides to respect the agreements it has signed previously and return to compliance with them.  And we must continue , in public and in private, to press Moscow to return to compliance in those instances where it is now in violation.  It should be obvious that offering to enter new negotiations while the Russians are violating existing agreements sends the signal that we are not really serious about having them carry out their existing obligations; again, it is perceived in Moscow as a sign of American weakness and lack of resolve. 
    • Also, and heretically, I would make the following point for your consideration today and tomorrow:  the 2010 NPR, and the New START treaty which is based upon its conclusions, [and for good measure the British Government’s 2006 “White Paper on the Future of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent” and the subsequent 2010 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review] envisioned a wholly different and far less threatening international security environment than the one we now face. As the Putin Administration continues to rattle its nuclear saber, seeking to intimidate us and our allies, and as Beijing continues to demonstrate aggressively its designs on the sovereign territory of our friends and allies in the South China Sea and the Pacific, we need to ask ourselves “are the weapons limits imposed by New START still consistent with our own and our allies national security requirements?”  Is it prudent from the standpoint of our own and our allies national security to believe that nuclear reductions should proceed inexorably in spite of military requirements, and that there is no possibility of ever reversing this trend?  I am not suggesting, and do not impute to me and call your friends in the arms control community to tell them that I am suggesting, withdrawing from New START; I am suggesting, however, as we look to the treaty’s eventual expiration, we undertake a long and serious examination – one which is not dominated by the dogma and high priests of the nuclear reductionists -- as to whether our security can afford a strategic arsenal capped at limits which were based on an alternate reality.  I would expect Strategic Command to play a major role in such a review.
  • A critical, indeed perhaps the most critical, element of a deterrent is the threat to destroy things of immense value to the enemy.  This cannot and must not be based on mirror-imaging.  There was a time several decades ago when the US Navy’s proposed response to a Soviet nuclear attack on a US aircraft carrier would be to retaliate in against a Soviet carrier.  But the Soviets would have gladly traded their surface fleet for ours in a nuclear war at sea, because our navy was vastly more important to us than theirs was to them.  As a result, US policy made clear that Soviet nuclear strikes at sea would draw nuclear responses against land-based assets of high value to Moscow.  Deterrence works when the enemy leadership understands it will lose more as a result of our retaliation than it would gain through its aggression. This must always guide our deterrent policy and planning.  Where this gets really tricky is when we place higher value on certain types of assets, for example the surface navy, than the adversary places on similar assets. Retaliation in kind becomes counterproductive in such situations and we may need to consider “cross domain deterrence”.  Again, this also returns to the point that it is vital we understand the value structure and hierarchy of potential enemy leaderships.  Panel 5: I wish you the best of luck in grappling with that verity as you address your stated task.


I’d like to turn now to what we have called for decades “the flip side of deterrence”, that is to say “assurance”.  Assurance is all about providing allies credible guarantees we will protect them against threats of nuclear intimidation, blackmail, and attack, all of which have re-entered the Russian lexicon in a manner unseen or unheard since the Khrushchev era.  Assurance begins by listening to our allies.  It’s all about what’s in allies’ heads and what they fear.  It’s not about telling them that there is no threat or that if one of their neighbors has offensive capabilities and has made intimidating threats “not to worry” because that neighbor  has no intention to attack. It is about having genuine consultations about potential threats and potential responses and how we can best both deter and assure.  In practice, it means keeping deterrent systems in place in Europe as long as allies find their forward presence vital even if we have other means of carrying out retaliatory strikes using central strategic systems – even while those same central systems play a key role in underpinning NATO’s deterrent. And it means consulting with allies in those regions where we do not base nuclear forces about how we can assure them that they are covered by our extended nuclear deterrent.  Strategic Command already plays an important role in this regard and, I predict, it will increasingly get drawn into that discussion.

Speaking of NATO and extended deterrence raises another point.  It’s hard to think about where we should be going in the future if one is utterly ignorant as to how we arrived at where we are today.  I was recently in a meeting where an individual, who until only a short time ago was a very senior national security official in the Obama administration, remarked that the Russian “escalate to de-escalate” strategy was the silliest new idea he had heard in a long time.  What he meant was that he could not imagine a situation in which nuclear weapons might be used in a limited way. Well, there are two things wrong with such a world view.

  • First, this individual evidently was unfamiliar with flexible response, the guiding principle of NATO’s nuclear strategy from the mid-1960’s to the end of the Cold War.  All of us in the business during the Cold War at one time or another learned the catechism response that “NATO, if its conventional defenses were failing, would use nuclear weapons to indicate to the Soviet leadership that it had badly miscalculated NATO’s resolve, and that Moscow needed to cease its aggression and withdraw its forces lest the situation escalate out of control”.  In other words, escalating to de-escalate.  We need to study and understand our past policies, practices, and operational plans if we are to be able to think cogently about the future. This does not mean that we need to re-create or replicate them now; it does mean we need to understand why we did what we did in response to which deterrent threats and assurance challenges. 
  • Second, Moscow is using an entirely different definition of “escalating to de-escalate”, employing the threat of selective and limited use of nuclear weapons to forestall opposition to potential aggression.  What is important here, yet again, is not what we think, but whether the other side is thinking seriously about using nuclear weapons selectively and if so how do we deter such use.

This brings us to Panel 6, which has the provocative task of asking “are there more effective ways to achieve deterrence, assurance, and stability objectives?”  I am uncertain what this means.  If it means “are there better ways to operate inside the current nuclear deterrence construct?” the answer is almost certainly yes.  In fact, I provided a few ideas just now. If it means “can we create a safer world by eliminating nuclear weapons?” I have given you my view on that too.  We have since 1945 twice displayed rosy-eyed optimism that the great powers could work in peace and harmony.  That vision broke up on the rocks of Soviet behavior in the years immediately following World War II and again as Putinism arose in the early years of this century.  We have already discussed relying solely on conventional deterrence – a concept which has failed time and again throughout history.  That leaves nuclear deterrence.  It may be uncomfortable, but it has provided the longest sustained period of peace between the great powers since the treaty of Westphalia created the modern nation state in 1648.  

The longest sustained period of peace between the great powers since the treaty of Westphalia created the modern nation state in 1648.  Those of you who are a part of our strategic forces need to take a great deal of credit for that.  The motto “Peace is our Profession” however hackneyed and trite cynics consider it, remains accurate and honorable.  Our nuclear weapons prevent war.  And that is why I find it particularly galling to observe the activities and rhetoric of the self-proclaimed “Humanitarian Initiative” which seeks to develop an international treaty banning nuclear weapons.  Some 10 million combatants died in World War One, as did another 7 million non-combatants.     An estimated 20-25 million combatants perished in World War Two, along with an additional 50-55 million non-combatants.  Was that “humanitarian”?  Is it “humanitarian” to assert we should return to that world?  These activists and their governments, shamefully including some allies who seek shelter under our nuclear umbrella, have no role in assuring global stability or halting aggression.  They have no responsibility to deter war.  Their crusade could result in creating the conditions for war and for massive bloodshed. The real humanitarians, I offer, are here, and in our missile silos, our ssbns, and in our bombers.  And it’s about damn time that we have the courage to start saying that and exposing the current effort to delegitimize and ban nuclear weapons as the dangerous and destabilizing effort it is.


Let me begin to wrap up by making a few more controversial remarks, although given recent statements by senior leaders in the Defense Department they are somewhat less controversial than when I began making them months ago. 

Although largely unremarked upon and little recognized by the vast majority of Americans, Russia has been engaged in a new Cold War with the United States for almost seven years.  Indeed, we have not until recently acknowledged its existence or risen to the challenge of responding. 

Beginning in the middle of the last decade then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin began a series of policy initiatives to solidify his control at home and to enhance Russia’s power and prestige at the expense of his neighbors. His goal is to restore Russia’s greatness and, in the process, to fracture NATO.  Upon beginning his second term as President of the Russian Federation in 2012, he accelerated this process dramatically.  In doing so, he has fanned a combination of virulent anti-Americanism and messianic Russian nationalism, all the while fostering a cult of personality.   He has brutally crushed political dissent at home and has cynically violated both solemn treaty commitments and other countries’ sovereignty.

In this regard, in the fall of 2008, following a series of skirmishes between Georgian and Russian troops, the Putin regime seized the opportunity to invade portions of Georgia.  While Putin’s forces performed poorly, they nevertheless overwhelmed the Georgians.  Since then, Russian forces have occupied the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and have supported local pro-Russian governments which have announced their independence from Tblisi.  Russian troops still occupy the Moldovan province of Transdniestria, as they have since the breakup of the USSR.   The Russian military’s lack of competence in the Georgian campaign prompted Putin to begin a major rearmament campaign, the fruits of which were clearly visible last year in the lightening and unprovoked invasion of Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern provinces.  To this day, Russia continues to pour military units into the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, creating the concern that before long those forces will again roll into action, driving west to capture the city of Mariupol and establishing a corridor which reaches all the way to the Crimean peninsula.  Putin and his government continue to maintain, in a twenty-first century version of Hitler’s “the Big Lie”, that no Russian forces are in eastern Ukraine.  And, not content with fomenting unrest in Eastern Europe, Putin is taking steps to militarize the Arctic, having issued orders to the Russian military in late 2013 to reoccupy formerly abandoned bases, restore airfields in the region, and create a special task force for Arctic operations.

Nor have Putin’s efforts at military rearmament and intimidation been confined to conventional forces.  As I made clear when I spoke here a few years ago, Russia is engaged in a massive modernization of its nuclear forces.  While our strategic forces are approximately the same age as Russia’s, they are fielding replacements and we are talking about doing so.  Today, Russia is building and deploying:

  • Two new types of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) [Topol M and Yars]
  • Two new types of submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs)                [Sineva and Bulava]
  • A new class of SSBNs, two of which are in commission and the third of which will commission this year
  • A new long-range air launched cruise missile, along with upgrades to its TU-95 and Blackjack strategic bombers
  • Additionally, at least two new types of ICBMs are in development, including a heavy-ICBM follow-on to the highly destabilizing SS-18,  as is reportedly a new strategic bomber

Finally, there is the new treaty-shattering ground launched cruise missile.  This system will only add to the grotesquely large Russian arsenal of so-called theater nuclear weapons, which number between 2000-4000, dwarfing by a factor of at least 10 NATO’s theater-based deterrent arsenal. 

Sadly, Putin’s decision to violate the INF treaty is just the latest in his government’s actions demonstrating contempt of international agreements.  Today Moscow stands in violation of:

  • The Helsinki Final Act  [Russia is in violation of at least Articles 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6]
  • The Istanbul Commitments of 1999 [Russia is in violation of its commitment to remove its military forces from occupied parts of Moldova and Georgia]


  • The Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of 1991-92   [Russia is violation by continuing to deploy nuclear SRBMs and by continuing to deploy nuclear-tipped naval cruise missiles on general purpose submarines]
  • The Budapest Memorandum  [Russia has violated its commitments to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity] and also


  • The CWC  [Russia is in violation of the intent of the treaty by inventing and deploying “Fourth Generation” chemical agents which evade the Treaty’s specific restrictions but which are nevertheless chemical agents].

But it is important to recognize that Putin’s nuclear adventurism is not confined to building new systems and violating treaties.  The Putin Administration is guilty of nuclear saber-rattling in a manner that has not been seen since the days of Nikita Khrushchev. This saber-rattling has taken three forms:

  • first, the Russian military has engaged in a series of nuclear forces exercises which deliberately simulate nuclear strikes on Poland and the Baltic states
  • second, Russian nuclear bombers have been engaged in increasingly dangerous forays into airspace adjacent to Alaska, California, the UK, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Japan.  These flights, taking the form of attack formations, are now occurring on many occasions with the bombers’ safety of flight transponders turned off, thereby endangering civil aviation and causing near collisions on multiple occasions. 
  • Finally, listen to some of the outrageous statements the Russian leadership has been making:
    • “In a situation critical for national security, we don’t exclude a preventive nuclear strike at the aggressor.”  (Gen Nikolai Patryushev, head of Russia’s Security Council, June 2010)


    • “Let me remind you that Russia is one of the world’s leading nuclear powers.  ..It’s best not to mess with us”  (Putin, August 2014)
    • “Our nukes are always ready for action”. (Putin 2015)
    • “If Denmark joins the American-led missile defense shield…then Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles.” (Mikhail Vanin, Russian Ambassador to Denmark, March 2015)


    • In a retrospective this year on the invasion of Crimea, Putin stated  “We were ready to do this [put our nuclear forces on alert]”… It’s worth noting that Putin did put Russian nuclear forces on alert during the Georgian crisis of 2008.


The intent of these actions is clear:  they are designed to intimidate and cow Russia’s neighbors, particularly those who are NATO members and whom we are bound by treaty commitments to defend.  There should be no place or tolerance for this kind of rhetoric and activity in the twenty-first century. 

A recent study by Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, summarizes situation we face quite neatly:

  • “Moscow and the West have competing, conflicting and entirely incompatible agendas.” 
  • “Putin is a fundamentally anti-Western leader whose serial disregard for the truth has destroyed his credibility as a negotiating partner.”

So the question is “what can and should we do about this?”

     The first step is to recognize, publicly and within government circles, that this problem exists and to alert the American people about it.  Recent statements by the Vice President, Secretaries Carter and Work and Generals Dunford and Selva represent excellent first steps.  But much more needs to be done.

The second step – really the most important step – is to realize that the United States must continue to be the leader of the world’s democracies.  We are the indispensable nation. No other government can fill our role.  Despite our many flaws and foibles, and despite the snide criticisms we sometimes hear from our allies, at the end of the day they understand that only the United States can provide the glue which holds the NATO Alliance together.  For our part, we must remind ourselves that keeping NATO, the most successful military alliance in history, strong and secure is vital to our national interest.  And we need to work with NATO headquarters and with the governments of all of our NATO allies to remind publics about why NATO is vital.  A significant portion of NATO’s population was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Most of them don’t understand why the Alliance is so important.  Finally, our continued involvement with our allies in Japan, South Korea, and the Antipodes, is vital to peace and stability in the Pacific.                          

Third, we, the United States, must continue to rebuild our deterrent strength in Europe.  I repeat: weakness is provocative.  Both the George W. Bush Administration and the current one have overseen a precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Europe; unfortunately these actions, coupled with the current Administration’s “Pivot to the Pacific” initiative, has inadvertently created an impression both in Moscow and in some allied capitals that we are no longer as committed to the defense of NATO Europe as we once were … and that is very dangerous.  Our red lines must be real and must be perceived by the Kremlin to be real.

Fortunately, in the past six-to-nine months the Administration has begun returning forces, particularly infantry and armored units, to Europe – placing rotational forces in the Baltic states and forward deploying some fighter units, also on a rotational basis, to Poland.  These deployments should continue as long as they are necessary, and be augmented if need be, … and obviously we need to halt further withdrawals of US forces.  We also need to continue to press our allies to meet their pledged contributions, financially as well as in terms of increased levels of readiness and capability.   Our goal must be twofold:  to ensure Putin and his cronies understand that NATO will defend itself successfully against any aggression, thereby deterring that aggression in the first place, and to reassure nervous allies that we are there for them.   Please remember:  NATO’s “Article V” commitment, our pledge to defend our allies if they are attacked, is only as strong a deterrent as Putin believes it is.

Fourth, we need to work with those same NATO allies to ensure that --  if Russia continues to fail to carry out fully the provisions of the Minsk accords setting forth the conditions for the cessation of hostilities in eastern Ukraine – the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union remain in force.  If the situation worsens, that is if Russian forces break out of the Donbass region and move on Mariupol and towards the Crimean peninsula, the US and the EU need to impose additional, harsher, sanctions to make clear that it is unacceptable to use military force to change existing international borders. 

Fifth, as I have already said, the United States must move forward to implement its plans to modernize our strategic forces.  The modernization program is easily affordable and would consume on average 6-7% of our defense budget over the next 20 years. The Administration and the Congress must work together to ensure that all three legs are renewed – which, incidentally, was part of the deal involved in the ratification of New START.

Lastly, we need to continue to press the Putin Administration to halt its nuclear saber-rattling.  The overblown rhetoric employed by Mr. Putin and his cronies has no place in the twenty-first century, and the dangerous activities undertaken by Russian bombers carry within them the seeds of crisis and tragedy.

  And so my friends and colleagues this is the world you confront as you begin your debate on how best to deter. There are some tough times ahead.  But history demonstrates that it costs far less in treasure and in blood to deter an aggressor than to defeat him on the battlefield.  And that is particularly true in the nuclear age.  This is a task we accomplished successfully for almost five decades a short while ago.  There is every reason to believe we can do it again.

I thank you for listening.