Council on Foreign Relations. Discussion on the Future of U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces

By General C. Robert Kehler | Washington, D.C. | May 30, 2012

General Kehler: Well, Frank, thanks a lot for that introduction. Thanks to the council for inviting me to come and speak today. And, of course, I also need to recognize my old friend and comrade-in-arms, Frank Klotz, who is sitting in the back of the room and was key to getting me here today.

So, Frank, thanks for doing that as well.

I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about the future of our nuclear deterrent force, especially in light of today's global security environment, budget pressures and all the other challenges that we're facing.

So I'll talk for a few moments and, then, we'll have an opportunity to do some questions and answers.

Really of all the important mission responsibilities assigned to United States Strategic Command by the president, none is more important than our responsibility to deter a strategic attack on the United States and our allies and partners.

Now, I could probably stop my remarks right there and many of you would leave the room thinking that you could have heard those same words from my predecessors, probably all the way back to Curtis LeMay. And you would probably be right.

But I think you would be wrong to think that we view this mission responsibility or that we're going about it the same 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 deterrents focused solely on leveraging U.S. nuclear capabilities to deter a massive nuclear or conventional attack on the U.S. or our rallies.

I would argue that the era of "one size fits all" deterrents though passed with the end of the Cold War. Strategic deterrence and assurance remain relevant concepts today, but we are shaping those concepts toward a broader array of individual actors, each with their own unique context.

Shaping our strategic deterrence approaches, some of this would call this "tailored" deterrence, is not an easy task. It requires a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of these actors and their decision processes, a robust understand of the threats they pose and more flexibility and speed in our strategy development and in our planning.

To be sure, deterrence is still about influencing an actor's decisions. It is about a solid policy foundation. It is about credible capabilities. It is about what the U.S. and our allies as a whole can bring to bear in both as military and a nonmilitary sense.

Its practice encompasses a wider range of complimentary tools today, both nuclear and strong conventional forces, non-kinetic force perhaps, limited missile defenses, unfettered access and use of space and cyberspace and, in all warfare areas, 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 those nuclear-armed states are modernizing both their arsenals and their delivery systems, the threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, a growing potential for disruption or attack through cyberspace and the danger of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of violent extremists.

This is the context for today's nuclear deterrence force. The force that continues to play a critically important, but not an exclusive role in our deterrence posture and planning. A force that must remain safe, secure and effective.

A force that must be backed by a solid industrial base for both delivery systems and weapons. And a force that must continue to be staffed with highly trained 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 exist even as counter-proliferation and nuclear terrorism move to the top of 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 major nuclear powers, deter potential adversaries and reassure our allies and our partners of our security commitments to them."

This year, the president and Secretary of Defense released a new national defense strategy titled Priorities for the 21st Century. This document also maintains that the existence of nuclear weapons anywhere means the United States must have the ability to deter with nuclear weapons.

This new strategy sounds a similar theme to the NPR. Here's another quote, "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 to assure U.S. allies and other security partners that they can count on America's security commitments."

Nuclear forces continue to play an important role in the NATO Alliance as well. In both the Deterrence and Posture Review and 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 that each of these milestones that I just cited, the United States and, in turn, recently the NATO Alliance committed to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons and all three raised the prospect for further reductions to nuclear arsenals beyond the New START ceilings.

But the deterrence message has been clear. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. will maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent force. This is United States Strategic Command's charter.

So, for my remaining few minutes, let me offer my perspectives on our nuclear deterrent force and where we're headed. First, while nuclear weapons will always continue to represent a unique, relevant and powerful deterrent capability, this is not your father's nuclear deterrent force.

We've witnessed an impressive 67-year period with neither nuclear use nor a great power war. During that time, we regularly adjusted our nuclear capabilities to match the global environment.

Since the end of the Cold War, we significantly altered our own nuclear force structure and posture and we continue to review force structure and posture to ensure they match our national security needs.

At the height of the nuclear build-up, we had more than 30,000 nuclear weapons of all kinds. We believe and, certainly, the Russians in their subsequent statements have confirmed that the Soviets had similar numbers.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1992, we reduced the total number of ballistic missile submarines, converted four Ohio class submarines to carry conventional cruise-missiles, affirmed the B-1 bombers nonnuclear role, removed all dual-capable heavy bombers from nuclear day-to-day duty, eliminated the Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile, substantially reduced the Minutemen ICBM force and are in the process of deMIRVing the rest.

We also withdrew numerous abroad, deactivated whole classes of weapons and dramatically reduced our overall nuclear stockpile. In total, our stockpile is down over 75 percent from the day the Berlin Wall fell. These are significant changes.

At each decision point along the way, the U.S. carefully accounted for potential impacts on deterrent capability and strategic stability. The end result is a substantially smaller force, but one in which our confidence remains to deter adversaries and assure allies and, equally importantly, to maintain strategic stability in some future crisis.

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

Now, the obvious ones are the ones we always cite, survivability, promptness and flexibility. And those attributes taken together create insurmountable problems for any would-be adversary as well as providing for crisis stability.

But, more importantly, the triad continues to provide the president with a flexible range of alternatives to meet our deterrence needs and respond to emerging threats, crisis, surprise or conflict. The triad also forms a key component of our strategy to hedge against technical failure or geopolitical change.

Moving forward and to sustain a strong nuclear deterrent force, we fully support the continued modernization and sustainment of delivery systems, weapon life extension programs, stockpile surveillance activities, nuclear complex infrastructure recapitalization, naval reactor design activities and upgrades for our nuclear command, control and communications capabilities.

That's a tall order and no question that's a tall order while we are facing significant budget reductions. However, at this level of reductions, the president's fiscal year '13 budget continues to sustain the essential investment to keep the nuclear deterrent force able and ready to do its job.

I also need to mention though that it is going to be interesting to see if further reductions are forthcoming and if so, then, of course, we will have to go back and do what we did with this round of reductions, completely review what those impacts could be and make the appropriate recommendations.

Of all the elements of the nuclear enterprise, I'm most concerned with the potential for declining or inadequate investment in the nuclear weapons enterprise itself, some declining investment that would result in our inability to sustain the deterrent force. Our weapons are aging and we faced the continued erosion of the nuclear enterprise's physical and intellectual capital. So, as I have testified before the Armed Services Committees this year, we must protect important investments for stockpile certification, warhead life extension and infrastructure recapitalization.

These investments are central to the new defense strategy and without them maintaining the long-term credibility and viability of the nation's nuclear deterrent will not be possible.

Now, let me make three more quick points before I close. First, as I said earlier, then Nuclear Posture Review 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. It is our job to synchronize global planning across the combatant commands to improve our interagency relationships and to advocate for essential combating weapons of mass destruction capabilities. That's a relatively new responsibility for us.

Our semi-annual Global Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction Synchronization Conferences have highlighted the need to improve coordination and to expand foundational intelligence and information sharing to deter and address emerging threats.

This includes accelerating the speed with which we develop the field capabilities like stand-off detection, better nuclear forensics and improve global situational awareness. This is a great challenge for us. We're working to ensure our sense of urgency and pace of preparation match the potential impact of this threat.

Second, we're working with the office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joints Staff and the Services to finalize and synchronize New START implementation decisions and we are on track, as I stand here today, to fully implement the central limits of New START by February 5, 2018.

We have more work to do to eliminate the excess or what we call the "phantom" launchers and bombers that are still counted in the treaty's provisions. We also have more to do to finalize the force mixture we intend to retain under the central limits and will work with the Services to do as much as possible in conjunction with routine operations and maintenance so we minimize the impact on the Services as we go forward.

And, then, third, we've been working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff on the analysis on future deterrence requirements called for in the Nuclear Posture Review. While our portion of the analysis is complete, the overall effort is still under review. STARTCOM has been a full participant in this analysis and we remain engaged providing additional inputs and military operational advice.

So let me close with a final thought. Nuclear weapons continue to occupy a unique place in global security affairs. No other weapons, in my opinion anyway, match their potential for prompt and long-term damage and their strategic impact.

Now, in my view, the good news is that the threat of a sudden nuclear war has receded by almost every measure, certainly at the lowest level today than it has been since I entered the United States Air Force over 37 years ago.

Nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russian arsenals have declined dramatically. We do not view the Russians or the Chinese as our enemies. U.S. nuclear weapons that are available for presidential use are targeted against broad ocean areas.

But those of us responsible for our national defense must still be mindful that the capabilities still exist in the world to inflict enormous damage on us or, in extreme cases, to virtually destroy the United States or our allies over the course of a few hours.

As long as that does exist, we must maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent force as a critical component of the multifaceted strategic deterrent we need to meet today's challenges.

Thanks again for inviting me and I'm looking forward to the discussion and your questions. Thank you very much.