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SPEECH | July 30, 2015

Keynote, 2015 USSTRATCOM Deterrence Symposium

DR. ROBERTS:  Thank you, everybody.  I’d like to add my thanks to all of the speakers at STRATCOM and the team that’s put this together for us.  I’d like to paint a slightly different context for my remarks, and that’s to remind the room of the repeated findings about the loss of leadership focus, the commitment to excellence for nuclear deterrence – and I take this annual gathering of this tribe as a testament to STRATCOM’s leadership community to ensuring that we remain focused on this area.  All of us, not just the Commander.

And we pursue our own commitment to excellence in the work we do to support deterrence and I think this is a timely, important, reminder to us of this continuing need.

And I want to thank you all for publishing my book.  I hear it will be out December first, a perfect kind of stocking stuffer.


DR. ROBERTS:  So, I’m counting on all of you to buy at least 15 copies.


DR. ROBERTS:  At the discount price of $29.95.


DR. ROBERTS:  The book, it examines the experience of the Obama administration in trying to create conditions that would allow us to further reduce the number and roll of nuclear weapons in US security strategy.

But, it concludes that we’ve had very little success, as an administration, in creating those conditions.  But that doesn’t quite answer the question of what the US nuclear weapons are good for you.  It’s one thing to argue that we don’t live in a world where we can safely relinquish them, but it’s another thing to say, “Well, what are they good for if you’re not relinquishing them?”

So, the arguments I am going to bring to you for the next few minutes are drawn from that portion of the analysis.

My point of departure here is a quotation from Deputy Secretary Work, from the January of this year, who said that, “Since 9/11, while we and our allies have been at war, others have studied our strengths and weaknesses and have put together concepts and capabilities aimed at negating our strengths in in conventional power projection.”

My focus is, “So what are those adversary concepts?  What does it mean to think red?”  And, thinking red, what can that tell us about how to think blue and to make blue effective, deterring and defeat those states that have thought about this problem?

My sense is that Secretary Work misses the starting point of this story by about a decade.  Our reactions to 9/11 aren’t really the starting point.  The starting point, I believe is the Persian Gulf War, and I remember a gathering somewhat like this, of the Defense Nuclear Agency used to be the entity that brought together the tribe for an annual discussion, and used to be a DNA Annual Conference.  And, in 1992, a timely topic for one of the panels was, “What are the Lessons of the Persian Gulf War?”

And one of the speakers was the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, and he had a very short presentation.  He said, “Look, the lesson is very simple.  Don’t mess with America without nuclear weapons.”

(Light laughter.)

DR. ROBERTS:  And, it seems to me that since then at least three countries have been focused on the question of how America might mess with them and how they’re going to have to mess with us in some fashion with nuclear weapons in the mess.  And, from my reading of the history, the first country to really get seized with this question was China, first with its shifting to focus to the problem of local wars under high-tech conditions in the early 1990s, and then what it took as the revelation, with the dispatch of the second carrier battle group, in the “Missile Straits” crisis, in the mid-1990s.

The first was the expected display of American resolve, but the second was the signal that America was really prepared to go to war, over Taiwan.  This was a wakeup call for the People’s Liberation Army and for the Communist Party, that China needed to be really ready for war with America over Taiwan.

And, not having many capabilities in place that then put a lot of effort to get their intellectual house in order on this particular problem.  And it’s set out a body of work on the general topic of deterring and defeating a conventionally-armed – conventionally superior – nuclear-armed major power and its allies.

And, at the time, that catechism was about two countries, Russia and the United States.  And over the period, over the decades, since it’s become just about one country, us.

I think the second country to get seized with this problem was Russia.  More precisely, it was the Russian military first.  I think there was a lag between military leadership engagement and political leadership.  And that came – their kick in the pants wasn’t the Taiwan Straits crisis; it was the Kosovo War.  Here was America being very effective, with its allies, and just the kind of war the Soviets had envisaged before the Soviet Union collapsed.

And here we were, messing with one of their former allies.  And, thus, Russia began to generate, the Russian military began to generate, operational concepts for deterring and defeating a conventionally superior, nuclear-armed, major power and its allies, the identical formulation you can find in Russian military literature.

And, a little later in the story line, I think, is North Korea which, from my perspective, kind of dabbled in the nuclear domain, until the war to capture Saddam.  And, at the same time, according to the newspaper reports that gained, through cyber means, access to classified war plans, which revealed regime removal as a potential objective of war by the US-ROK alliance.  They, then, turned the knob back up on preparing their capabilities and “doing their homework” on operational concepts.  For what?  Deterring and defeating a conventionally superior, nuclear-armed, major power and its allies.

Now, there are – I don’t want to over-sell the similarities in their concepts, but they’re seized with the same basic problem, so it shouldn’t surprise us that they’ve reached for more or less the same set of solutions in their operational concepts.  And let me run through a short catalogue of them.

I think their first concept is that they can accomplish, conventionally, a fait accompli before we are able to gather our wits to act.  Russia clearly talks about quashing and suppressing “color revolutions” before the NATO NAC is able to be convened to discuss what to do. 

China’s strategy about Taiwan is all about creating a fait accompli at the conventional level before the fleet can arrive from Pearl Harbor.

And, for North Korea, the fait accompli is not a grab of the entire Peninsula; it’s the grab of Seoul, and a part of the DMZ, a part of the south, and then sue for peace, or, “We’ll pummel away at Seoul with conventional artillery.”  So, the fait accompli, at the conventional level, is very much a part of their thinking about how to deter and defeat.

And what we’ve learned, in part from this discussion, and in generally, is the great emphasis they put on information operations and psychological warfare as tools for impeding our ability to act decisively in that mounting crisis.

A second key aspect of their theory for deterring and defeating a conventionally superior, nuclear-armed, major power is to split the allies away from the United States.  We’ve heard a lot of discussion on that this morning.  But using, in Northeast Asia, a clear, strategic, objective of Pyongyang would be to persuade the leader of Japan not to allow dispatch of conventional forces in Japan that are there stationed under the United Nations flag, that would be doing the conventional defense of South Korea.

And we’ve heard many other illustrations of the ways in which these three countries, the leaders of these three countries, think about disincentivizing allies from participating in and politically supporting, and operationally supporting, the actions of the United States to try to reverse or address the fait accompli.

These strategies emphasize, primarily, making our allies feel vulnerable, to feel themselves to be the object of coercion, but of course leaving them something to lose, so there’s something about being resolved but also restrained, for them.

And I think there is good evidence to suggest that cyber means are an important point in this operational concept, separating us from our allies, as a way to demonstrate who’s going to have the initiative as this conflict unfolds.  Taking the initiative, who’s going to have the initiative?  Who’s got strike?  Who’s got kinetic strike?  Who’s got non-kinetic strike?  Who can really punish your allies?  This is a part of, I think, these three countries have thought a lot about, integrated effects in these areas.

The third operational concept is to resort to, quote, “pre-nuclear deterrence,” if the strategy so far has failed.  If, despite the fait accompli and threats to allies, the United States and its allies are still prepared to act, then each of these three countries has created the means for itself to escalate to ballistic missile attack or Cruise missile attack, with non-nuclear warheads.

The Russians have various names for this, but refer to it explicitly as “pre-nuclear deterrence.”  And, clearly, the Chinese have invested heavily in this, and we tend to, because we’re so focused on the North Korean nuclear question, we tend not to focus on the fact that they have deployed a significant number of non-nuclear missiles, capable of reaching South Korea and Japan.

Fourthly, a key operational concept for these countries is to attack arriving US conventional forces.  Now, the tools of the attack vary.  It appears to be the case that the North Koreans put a lot of stock and value on chemical and biological weapons in this mission, gumming up the ports and airfields, so that we’re not able to flow forces quickly through them.  And I think that there are Russian and Chinese analogs.  Clearly, this is the realm of A2AD.

Fifthly, I think this is a point where they, these three countries, talk about reminding the United States of its vulnerability and doing so visibly, in a way that impresses our allies with the possibility that we might just “fink out.”  We’re geared up for big action, but by opening up the picture for all of our publics of the possibility of attacks on our homeland, maybe our allies will then opt out, or maybe we’ll opt out.  But, this goes back to the Cold War concept of decoupling the United States from the defense of its allies.

The next step up, if that doesn’t disincentivize continued US and allied military action, it is, as we all know – they have written about – what the Russians call “nuclear de-escalation strikes.”  But, what they have all written about are limited and local deployment of nuclear weapons, in order to – they’ve all written about demonstrating their resolve and demonstrating their restraint.  And, of course, the Russians attach the words “de-escalation strikes” to this, but their analogs in the.  The Chinese way of writing about this is that once strategic conflict begins, they will continue attacks until we stop.

Seventh, and lastly, I think their concepts include their confidence in their ability to credibly threaten attacks on the American homeland with nuclear weapons if regime survival comes into question, or regime control.  And I think they believe – I mean, we have a couple of very clear statements from President Putin in this regard recently that a conflict with America would be – a conflict, in Europe, could “go nuclear” but would not engage in the strategic exchanges between the United States and Russia, because that’s now just out of the question, because they’ve “kept their powder dry.”

So, you heard Sugio talk a while about the stability/instability paradox arising from the confidence that these countries have in their nuclear strategic deterrence.  So, I find it useful to use the shorthand which you heard from John Warden yesterday, “Theory isn’t victory.”  And all the cold warriors tell me, “Don’t use that term, it’s got all this baggage.” You know, there was a big debate in the 1970s and eighties about, “Was it really possible that the Soviet Union could believe that they could fight and win an all-out nuclear war, or could fight and win an all-out conventional war in Europe that wouldn’t go nuclear?  Did they actually have a theory of victory? And, if they did, should we have one?”  And this debate raged along until the Cold War ended, and there we go.  We never settled it.

I think it’s important – I think these three countries do have theories of victory.  They are nuclear theories of victory, not theories of nuclear victory.  By that I mean I think, for them, they involve casting the nuclear shadow and engaging, if they have to, in limited nuclear acts, in order to demonstrate the credibility of their threat.

But this is in support of a strategy of blackmail, nuclear blackmail, nuclear brinksmanship, nuclear coercion, not nuclear war-fighting.  So, in that sense, if the Soviets had a theory of nuclear war-fighting that they can win, that’s not what I think any of these three countries have.  An important footnote is whether that’s true of Russia.  Right?  I mean, we don’t – there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that they think about extended nuclear war-fighting, but they certainly have the capability for extended nuclear war-fighting in Europe, if that were a strategy they chose to prosecute.

I think these are theories of victory in two senses.  Clausewitz.  Remember Clausewitz had a very precise definition of victory.  If your view of war is that it’s a continuation of politics by other means, then victory isn’t when you vanquish your enemy; it’s a, quote, “culminating point in the conflict when your enemy chooses to capitulate, to accept your terms of the political settlement rather than run the continued costs and risks of war.”  I think this is the Clausewitz-ian theory of victory for these three actors.

But it’s also, very clearly, a theory of victory in the spirit of Sun Tzu.  This is a theory of victory that they are applying every day.  They expect us to be able to do our math, do our homework, and assess the strategic landscape, and conclude that it’s not in our interest to contest their efforts to achieve political settlements that are favorable to their perceived interests and objectives, to subdue us without fighting.

These adversaries also need to convince themselves that their threats to escalating each of these steps will be credible to us, and that they also have to convince themselves that our threats to escalate won’t be credible to them.  How can they do that?

Well, we’ve heard some tidbits of discussion around this topic, in the last day.  Asymmetry of geography.  Remember Caitlyn’s map of the island of Taiwan, off of the military district on the PRC mainland.  For us to win in Taiwan, we have to attack the mainland.  And, for us to attack the mainland is to escalate the conflict in a pretty significant way.

For us to win in the Baltics, we have to attack Russian territory.  This lends a lot of credibility to their threats to escalate.

The other asymmetry of note, also mentioned by Caitlyn, was asymmetry at stake. These actors believe that any conflict with the United States, in their near abroad, their disputed sovereignty territory, would involve their vital interests.  They would be about the fate of the state, sovereignty, and regime.

How important would they perceive American interest to be, in this circumstance?  Well, as one Chinese expert put it to me, “Darned important, but not vital!”

We know you have reputational interests at stake, but – and your safety and sovereignty, and your allies’, but wars like these would not raise vital questions for America about sovereignty, continuity of government, and regime control, that it would for the others.  So, asymmetry of geography and asymmetry of stake, lending them confidence that their threats are going to be potent and ours are not.

So…if you take my argument that there is something called a “red theory of victory,” that they’ve thought this problem through – I don’t think they’ve thought it through all that well, really, but they’ve been pretty thorough and they’ve had a long time.  They’ve certainly put a lot of resources against it.  And, mostly this isn’t a mystery, nor a secret, because it’s in their interest that we understand all of this.

The Chinese have been exquisitely clear in their campaign documents.  The Russian military, a little less so.  But that’s largely because we haven’t really paid attention to developments in the Russian military.

The North Koreans, of course, are the least clear of the three.  On the other hand, they have passed two laws on being a nuclear weapons state, that state very explicitly some of the key elements of their strategic bargain.

So, what’s our response?  Well, at a high political level, the response has been, “Let’s get focused on this.”  It’s Bob Work’s question.  With 15 years of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, quote, “now behind us” – fat chance, but “now behind us” – we’ve got to get focused on this problem.

I think this administration is quite clearly focused on this problem.  The arguments yesterday notwithstanding, the presidential guidance, as summarized in the unclassified report to Congress, clearly says that the problem in front of us is not global war but regional war, regional wars in which adversaries may try to escalate their ways out of failed conventional aggression.  And we need a deterrence and defense strategy that’s going to be effective in countering their deterrence and defense strategy with us.

A second response is to get our capability toolkit together.  I think, actually, we’ve got a long and good story to tell about this, because we’ve been adjusting our strategic military toolkit since the Persian Gulf War, trying to introduce ballistic missile defense, both in the homeland and in the region, trying to introduce non-nuclear strike capabilities because those are more credible and threatening, preemptive strikes, trying to strengthen our resilience against cyber and space attacks, et cetera.

But, what is our theory of victory?  How do we knit together a set of ideas that at least persuade us, if not red, at least persuade us that, in a confrontation like this, their blackmail and brinksmanship is going to end up very badly for them, isn’t going to break our coalitions, isn’t going to lead us to make choices we don’t want to make.

And, here, I think we do have the makings of a theory of victory.  I think it’s embodied in the work that STRATCOM has done, together with their regional and geographic combatant commanders, to plan – I think it’s embedded in the guidance.  But I don’t think it’s generally understood or debated, and I think we have varied ideas as a community.  So, let me give you mine.


DR. ROBERTS:  Now that I’ve returned to my notes, let me make one other comment, before I…


DR. ROBERTS:  For many of the people we interact with, the answer to the blue theory is perfectly obvious.  If the strategic problem for these actors is our strength, then that’s our answer.  If their problem is that we can dominate them at any level of escalation of our choosing, then all we need to do in answer to this problem is to dominate them at any level of their choosing.

If only it were that tidy.  That could lead us to make some choices in war that would shape the peace afterwards in ways that we would very much regret.  And, it’s not clear that it’s credible or effective as a strategy. 

China, frankly, doesn’t care that we’re superior in many different areas, because it’s perfectly confident that we’re also vulnerable at all of those levels.  So, we can escalate there and they can make us vulnerable there.  And who’s going to be restrained, in the end?

So I think we need a better theory than just relying on our strength.  And, briefly, I think it encompasses the following main elements.  It has to start with our confidence that we can deny them their confidence in the fait accompli.  We don’t necessarily have to deny them the confidence that they could accumulate a lot of force, over time, and defeat us somehow.  It’s the fait accompli problem that we have to defeat.

And we may not be able to fully erode their confidence, but maybe we can also affect their ability to calculate the risk, calibrate carefully.  I take this – there’s – by way of illustration, there has been some Chinese discussion of whether a short little war against Japan wouldn’t be a tidy, helpful, thing.   Sink the Japanese Navy and Coast Guard, teach them a lesson, and the next question for the Chinese leadership, to the PLA, is, “So, what would the economic consequence be for our job development program?”

“Oh, don’t know.”

“Well, is it small or big?  Is it going to produce social unrest in China?”

“Well, maybe.”

So, the inability to calibrate risk and consequence may be a significant factor for us, on this first element of our theory of victory.

The second is that, of course we can keep the allies in the fight.  One, because they’re under threat and they’ve got a lot at stake in the right outcome here.  And two, there’s a lot we can do to protect them and assist them to protect themselves.  And thirdly, there’s a lot we can do to take the initiative.  It’s not just a matter of leaving the initiative to Russia, China, or North Korea.

And, with these factors, we can keep them in the fight.  I would say that, for the Obama administration, a key early priority was to strengthen the political underpinnings of our relationships, our alliances, in both Europe and Northeast Asia, to reduce the perception that they were “easy pickings.”

A third element of our theory of victory is that if they want to compete in the realm of pre-nuclear escalation, we’ve got all sorts of assets that play to our advantages.  It’s a game not just of precision but also mass.  This is why we’re buying a new bomber and not buying lots of conventionally-armed ballistic missiles.  It’s not just precision; it’s also mass.  If they want to compete with us in the conventional strike game, we can compete very well.  This overlooks the gap that is known as “conventional prompt strike,” whether it’s a G or an R, global or regional.  This is a key missing element of our capabilities toolkit to underwrite our theory of victory that we have the ability to escalate confidently and in that dimension.

The next element, I think, is that we can adequately protect our arriving forces from the threats that are presented to them, whether chemical and biological, that we can detect and treat, or ballistic missile or cruise missile attack.

I’m not, also, making the case that our theory is any more credible than theirs.  But I think these are the elements of our theory of victory.

The next element is that, if they choose to cross the American threshold, this isn’t a pass here, go right on to victory, for them.  I think our theory of victory is that if they cross that threshold, we can act in a manner that they will understand to be a clear signal of our resolve to go further if they choose, but also a restraint, and that this will convince them that they have miscalculated our resolve and at this point will decide not to go further.

It’s very important that that phase, to our theory of victory, is that the resolve we are able to demonstrate – so, when an adversary has crossed the nuclear threshold with a local, limited, perhaps even non-lethal, attack, whose resolve do we need to demonstrate, at that point?  They’re still trying to split our allies from us, and so, in NATO, the answer has always been clear; we need to demonstrate our collective resolve.  The first deterrence value of NATO is to be able to demonstrate that an attack on one, really is an attack on all.

How about in Northeast Asia?  How do we demonstrate our collective resolve?  How do we demonstrate that in a moment of nuclear blackmail by North Korea, the Japanese government and the South Korean government aren’t going to be blackmailed out of supporting the war effort?  How do we demonstrate our collective nuclear resolve in a situation where we don’t have the sharing arrangements that NATO has?

The answer of the current administration is that they would do that with non-strategic, nuclear weapons on dual-capable aircraft, that are forward deployed into the theater in time of crisis, and that that is a function for which American bombers and American strategic systems are not well suited.

Next and last, our theory of victory is that if we have – if all of this has failed to de-escalate a conflict, and they then choose to conduct the threatened strikes on the American nuclear homeland, then our strategic force will be sufficiently resilient to the attacks they might have already made on command and control, whether by kinetic or non-kinetic means, will be sufficiently resilient to be able to compete at any level that they would choose to compete.

A final-vital element of our theory of victory is that all through this we and our allies will work in concert and, if this is a conflict in Europe, we and our nuclear allies will remain in close concert through all of this, that there will not be actions that significantly deviate from US preferences, either to escalate or de-escalate.

Now, if you listen to that carefully, you’re probably squirming a little bit at some of those assumptions, as I suspect the builders of the assumptions of the red theory of victory must often squirm, at certain points.  These are knitting together a set of ideas and hoped-for behaviors by your adversary that may prove to be unfounded, and there are some great “leaps of faith,” that things we would hope will happen in a scenario like this will, in fact, play out the way we had hoped.

So, theory – the title of the talk, on the agenda, was “Perspectives on Deterrence.” And I wanted to give you two.  A perspective on deterring us that I think has coalesced us fairly clearly out of three – the thinking of three states over 25 years or so, that we’ve been focused on a common problem.  I think we can’t understand our deterrence, we can’t put together a credible deterrence strategy, without understanding red, and this is an iterative process.

I think we have a credible case for an effective and viable theory of victory.  I’m not sure that our capabilities fully align with it yet.  We’ve talked a good – talk about diversifying our strategic toolkit, but our investments in the non-nuclear elements have been disappointingly thin.  Our progress on developing prompt strike, conventional strike, capabilities, we’ve talked a good line for a long time, but have gotten nowhere with CPGS.  And I think we remain woefully reliant on the nuclear tool in our deterrence toolkit to deal with a series of problems for which it might not be relevant, if you take my red theory of victory.

May I just, in a couple of minutes left, ask for the slide to go up-- Admiral Haney’s slide – and leave you with just three thoughts here.

So, if you take my argument that the red theory of victory – it comes in the spirit of both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, the main competition, is over there left of boom.  I mean, Putin, Xi Jinping, and which leader is he now?  Dear or Great?


DR. ROBERTS:  Are pressing, with confidence, their theories of victory in phase zero, and they’re heavily using information strategies and propaganda strategies, to shape the information and decision environment.  That game is underway.

The common picture most people have, in my experience, of a regional nuclear conflict, is that it would escalate, escalate, and then come to the nuclear piece, which is the exclamation point at the end.  There is some crossing of our red line in our nuclear declaratory policy by the regional aggressor.  We bash them in an exchange with nuclear weapons, it’s messy, ugly, and over.

And, in the kind of scenarios I’m thinking about and that they are writing about, those nuclear acts may come much earlier in the game.  They may be single punctuation marks in a long story line.

We can’t gauge when North Korea might calculate that its survival -- when regime survival is in question.  Our picture suggests it’s at the end of the day.  But, what if the opening day of the war was, as they perceive, regime survival at stake?

I have tried to focus on how they think about getting us to take the off ramps. They have to have a theory for themselves that we’re going to take the off ramps, in an escalating conflict.

Two more points.  We closely associate, in our mental picture of this map, their nuclear deployment, our nuclear response, and end game.  What if, at the conventional level of war, we’re three days away from victory?  Their effort is a last-gasp effort to de-escalate, on their terms.  Is it clearly the case that we should retaliate with a nuclear weapon?  What if it’s six days?  What if it’s a week?  What if it’s a month?  Is it automatically in our interest to retaliate by nuclear means to a nuclear attack?

And I think there are cases where it is and I think there are cases where it clearly isn’t, and I think there are plenty in the middle.

The final point is that we’ve talked about this as a problem of extended deterrence, and I think, for most of the American nuclear community, central deterrence remains the main thing, and extended deterrence is the footnote.  In this world, extended deterrence is the main thing and simple deterrence is the footnote if it goes really bad.

And we have historically, simply extended the terms, provided they guaranteed for our allies, and then the associated capabilities.

In this world, we’re trying to build regional deterrence architectures, in which our allies contribute significantly to that capability toolkit.  They contribute missile defenses.  They contribute conventional strike.  They contribute resilience in cyber and space.  And they contribute, in Europe, to the nuclear posture of NATO, and to the hosting of American forces.

This lends credibility to our posture, but it invites many, many complications.  You have already heard a number of them this morning.  Allies are expressing concern that our extended nuclear deterrent lacks certain capabilities that they would value. Sugio mentioned one, a capacity to survive, despite China’s rapidly-growing conventional strike capability, and then there are others.

These are uncomfortable questions for us, because we, as a nuclear community, have largely written out the extended deterrent.  We wouldn’t have the capabilities uniquely associated with extended deterrence.

So, with that, let me hope I’ve given you some “food for thought.”  Theories of victory is a general way to think about this problem set.  A “red theory” that appears well developed and fairly confidently expressed today, a blue theory that’s coming together, a set of theories that we hope never get put to test in war, because some of them are built on some pretty flimsy assumptions, but that are being tested real time today in the regional settings in Europe and Asia.

With that, let me thank you for your attention.  Buy my book early and often and thank you all.