Air Force Association, Reserve Officers Association and National Defense Industrial Association Capitol Hill Forum

By Lieutenant General James M. Kowalski | Washington, D.C. | Sept. 25, 2014

GEN. JAMES KOWALSKI: Well thank you. Thanks to all of you for braving the weather and coming out here. I was told it might be a smaller crowd because of the weather. You must have thought Admiral Haney was coming because the room is pretty full.


I've been at Strategic Command for about a year, and in many ways it might fit the stereotype that some of you may have about the command that began as Strategic Air Command in 1946. I work in a building named after General Curtis Lemay. Outside my window are two missiles, one a Minuteman, the other a Trident. The portraits in the hallway are mostly those of stern Air Force generals staring down the Soviet Union.

But I discovered that the nuclear mission, while clearly front and center as it should be, is now just one part of a mosaic that makes up strategic deterrence. And the other key parts of that picture are space and cyberspace. Admiral Haney was here a few months ago and went into detail on our nuclear mission. I'd like to expand that deterrence discussion beyond nuclear, talk a little bit about strategic attack, touch on a couple of challenges to our forces, bring space and cyberspace into this conversation. I'll try to keep this as a wave top overview because I want to ensure that we have time for questions and some conversation.

Many of you familiar with Strategic Command know we have nine responsibilities. I can hardly remember all of them. I've got nine brothers and sisters and I can barely remember their names. I'm going to read them here for you, because it is a lot on our plate.

We execute operations in nuclear, space, cyber and global strike, have a lead role in missile defense, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, combating weapons of mass destruction, electronic warfare, and analysis and targeting. Most of the attention directed towards Strategic Command is understandably related to our nuclear mission. But often overlooked are those other mission areas, and in particular how having this broad set of global missions under one commander, missions that cross geographic and functional boundaries, shapes the work that Strategic Command does today.

As assigned by the president, Strategic Command's mission is to deter and detect attacks against the United States and our allies, and defeat those attacks if deterrence fails. Strategic Command's specific responsibilities for nuclear operations, space, cyberspace, and weapons of mass destruction, make deterring strategic attack our number one priority. It's important to note that strategic attack is not limited to nuclear weapons. It can be any attack that does grave damage to our interests or objectives. While nuclear weapons are unique in their real and imagined power, a modern strategic attack could occur through other domains, including space or cyberspace, and by other means, such as chemical, biological or radiological.

With our primary focus on strategic deterrence, we're sensitive to trends that complicate our ability to field a flexible and ready force. Two trends creating risk for strategic deterrence today are global instability and declining defense spending. When Admiral Haney last testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he gave a concise description of the global security environment, quote, "More complex, dynamic and uncertain than at any time in recent history," unquote.

I think that's a pretty good description of the unease that most senior military leaders are feeling today. I'm not going to rehash and detail the world events of the past year. But as all of you have witnessed, it has been a series of headlines that can almost numb us into inaction: North Korea threatening to use nuclear weapons; Syria using chemical weapons; China laying claim to vast tracts of the South China Sea; Russia violating treaties and borders; the so-called Islamic State giving vicious video testimony to how horrible humans can behave.

There is no shortage of bad actors on the world stage, and many are clearly demonstrating the will to disrupt the global order. I would also note the number of states making significant investments in strategic nuclear systems, space and counter-space capabilities, all the while the proliferation of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons technologies continues, further serving to increase the risk of nuclear coercion in regional crises. We must be keenly aware of the danger when those with the intent to disrupt the world order are also gaining the strategic capability to exert their will on their neighbors.

Faced with a growing array of challenges, Strategic Command must execute operations and prioritize for the future, and do both with the flexibility to quickly adapt to new threats and opportunities. But ensuring flexibility through force size, readiness and modernization, will be stressed by near- and long-term budget cuts and budget uncertainty. While the reduced defense budget is often characterized as a normal post-war budget cycle, easy comparisons to draw-downs after World War II, Vietnam or the Cold War don't stand up to scrutiny.

Chief among those differences is that past draw-downs were directly related to the associated reduction in mission. In the case of the current base budget reductions, we aren't seeing missions go away. In fact, we must continue to grow in modern mission areas such as cyber, space and missile defense, while we simultaneously sustain the readiness of our conventional forces as demonstrated by events in the Ukraine, Iraq and Syria.

This budget tension is further complicated by the growing realization that long delayed recapitalization of our nuclear forces has created an acquisition bow-wave over the next 15 years, while we also must cope with the inevitable sustainment costs and challenges of aging strategic weapons systems. What we're left with is a gap between declining resources and growing national security requirements. At risk are the very strategic advantages that underpin the freedom of action of our conventional forces, that contribute to strategic stability by deterring adversaries and assuring allies, and that enable modern society.

Let me now turn to discussing space and cyberspace. Space capabilities, and ensuring freedom of action in space, are key components of strategic deterrence. Nations around the globe rely on space for military, civil, scientific and economic benefits. Space systems provide precise navigation and timing. Persistent infrared systems provide early warning of potential threats. Radars and tracking networks give time sensitive data that help prevent collisions and new debris, data we're now sharing openly with foreign and commercial partners.

Other space assets give us unique insight to adversary intentions and operations, including terrorist activities. Our space systems and space situational awareness support our deployed nuclear forces, the national decision-making architecture, and the geographic combatant commands. We anticipate determined adversaries will challenge us in space, and we are alert to the dangers posed as some states aggressively develop counter-space capabilities.

We'll advocate for the investments to protect our space infrastructure and improve its resiliency. These include both active and passive protection measures and designing resiliency and affordability into space system architectures. Cyberspace is also a component of strategic deterrence. We have improved our own cyberspace capacity and capability, but we're challenged by the pace of the global threat.

The scale and sophistication of an increasing number of state and non-state actors test our network defenses daily. We face a broad range of cyberspace threats, from state sponsored espionage and offensive military operations to terrorist organizations and criminals. We're working through near-term challenges, particularly in manpower and training, as we build a cadre of cyber professionals.

The cyber mission force construct will address significant challenges of recruiting, training and retaining the people, facilities and equipment necessary for successful cyber operations. Our plans call for a force of over 6,000 highly trained personnel. Most of this force will support the geographic combatant commands. The remainder will support national missions. Budget stability is needed to achieve this vision, as every training day we lose to fiscal constraints will cause further delays in fielding this force.

The unique perspective that Strategic Command gives our nine missions, allows us to develop depth in each one of those missions, and more importantly, to work between and across those mission areas. We're the combatant command who thinks about the nexus of space and nuclear, of the strategic relationship between cyber and space, about how our array of global functional mission areas, more than just space, cyber and nuclear, can be integrated into a campaign plan to detect and deter every day, and to do so in a manner that brings strategic deterrence into our relationships with the geographic commanders.

We mature this campaign plan through war games and exercise against a range of potential adversaries to understand the integration of these missions and to improve our relationships with COCOMs and other government agencies. We've been able to explore issues such as the unintended consequences of military action, the effects U.S. conventional superiority might have on adversary escalation calculus, and how our deterrence activities in different domains might be useful against a wide range of potential adversaries.

In closing, strategic deterrence is provided every day by a safe, secure and effective nuclear force, supported by hardened threat warning systems and nuclear command and control. But we must now acknowledge that space and cyberspace require the same national attention our nuclear forces have needed in the past. Thanks for inviting me and thanks for your attention, and I'll open it up for questions.


MS. RACHEL OSWALD: Rachel Oswald, CQ Roll Call, two questions. One, there has been movement in the House and the Senate to create a special fund to pay for the new class of bombers. And there's also been talk about the Air Force wanting a similar mechanism set up for its missile and bomber programs. Do you have an opinion on that?

And the second question is, can you characterize the capability of the Islamic State to carry out chemical and biological weapons attacks. There have been rumors that documents have been discovered on one of their computers that was abandoned, that detailed their research into ricin. I understand that they occupy territory in Syria where some chemical weapon precursors might be left.

GEN. KOWALSKI I should have been writing all that down.


Okay, first on the budget strategies. Frankly, I can understand the logic why the Navy and now the Air Force might try to look at another mechanism so that we could get some separation between these strategic weapons systems and the standard conventional things that our forces require, and not put them in competition with each other. And that might make it easier to have, for the nation, to have this discussion about nuclear forces and strategic and nuclear deterrence. But I don't have an opinion on whether that's the right way to do it or not.

But I think it's worth having the discussion about that bow-wave that is coming on recapitalization. We had a recapitalization where they had large initial capitalization in the early '60s. And that's when we fielded the Minuteman force. We actually retired a number of systems, but we brought on B-52s and the Polaris submarine.

The next recapitalization of that force happened in the early '80s, so we went about 20 years. And when you add another 20 years, you're talking about just after 9/11. So the next recapitalization never happened. We've delayed that recapitalization for almost another 20 years.

When we look at the Ohio replacement, no submarines have ever been fielded for as long as the Ohio-class submarine will have been fielded. So we're in un-chartered waters with the submarine. We're in un-chartered waters with a lot of our other weapons systems: our air-launched cruise missile, our Minuteman III, the Minuteman launch facilities. So there's a recapitalization that has to happen here.

And it's pretty clear that the rest of the world continues their modernization and recapitalization. And this threat and the need to have this nuclear deterrent is not going away anytime soon. And I don't think it is contrary to say that we are on a path to a world without nuclear weapons, but at the same time we must have a force that is safe, secure and effective. To achieve that, we have to recapitalize this force.

On the question on ISIS, what we know from having tracked this in the past is that the violent extremist organizations have consistently shown an interest in other means. And frankly, just about any means to create havoc and destruction. So I don't think we're particularly surprised by the findings. But I can't speak on behalf of the intelligence community or Central Command.

MR. JIM DREW (ph): Jim Drew from "Inside the Air Force." Some of the Air Force leaders have talked about the Pentagon possibly contributing more funds to help this recapitalization effort, of the nuclear forces, especially the ground-based strategic deterrent. (Is the material solution identified ?). Could you talk about how you're going to pay for all this and what the strategy is?

GEN. KOWALSKI: I think those discussions are ongoing, so I really can't comment on the strategy or where the department will end up on this. As you know, there have been a couple of reviews that have gone on. There has been a lot of conversation. - We did a fair amount of investment in organizational changes and in focus of our nuclear enterprise over the last six or seven years.

What we have not really done is made that fiscal plus-up that's required. And I think to some extent our folks are still looking for that financial commitment beyond just the words. As Secretary of the Air Force James has called it, it's that gap between what we say and the gap between what we do.

MR. DREW: Are you worried that some of the other Air Force missions might crowd out funding for the recapitalization?

GEN. KOWALSKI: I'm frankly probably more concerned about the opposite, that if we put money into nuclear that crowds out some of our other missions. We have -- as I spoke to -- there is an array of threats and they range from the conventional all the way up to the high end. And what we have seen and is successful in the deterrence architecture is a deterrence architecture that is able to apply pressure on an adversary. That creates uncertainty in their mind on every step in the escalation ladder. So if you can only dominate the high end, and you leave a gap there, then power fills a vacuum.

MS. : You talked about the challenge of recruiting and retaining 6,000 cyber experts. How are you meeting those challenges?

GEN. KOWALSKI: Right now, we're about one-third of the way to that 6,000 force. We have gone through, with the budget uncertainty and some other issues we had with sequestration, etcetera, we've had to do some stopping and starting of training forces as we rolled back on TDYs. We think we have it back on track now and we're climbing back up to the numbers that we need. But we continue to be concerned about another round of budget crisis and budget uncertainty that then impacts our ability to continue the flow of personnel into the training program.

MR. BILL SWEETMAN: Bill Sweetman with Aviation Week. Going off of that question, one thing we've heard routinely in discussions of cyber over the last few years is the defense industry has trouble competing with the commercial industry to hire the right people. And quite frankly, the services have a challenge beyond that. Are there cultural organizational ways or approaches to address that problem?

GEN. KOWALSKI: I'm not sure I captured the problem in terms -- are you talking about cyber?

MR. SWEETMAN: Cyber, yes.

GEN. KOWALSKI: Yes, that's a good question. I hate to beg off of it, but it's probably a question best answered by Cyber Command. I can talk to a few years ago when we worked through this problem when I was on the Joint Staff, that was a concern. And the services and the department have mechanisms to work that through different levels of pay, whether those are re-enlistment bonuses or initial sign-on bonuses.

But at the end of the day, it continues to be a problem and we expect that it will always be a challenge for us. I think what we do offer in our cyber force is we offer the unique ability, the unique opportunity, to be able to develop and apply those cutting edge skills in the service of the nation. And nobody else can really offer that.

MR. TODD JACOBSON: Todd Jacobson, Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor. There seems to be a recognition that the modernization and recapitalization of the Navy and Air Force and DOE -- I'm curious, I know you've had questions about this before -- but can you do what's needed without an increase to the topline? There's a fear that nuclear modernization can crowd out some of the other conventional missions. So do you have to increase the topline of the defense budget to pay for all that's needed?

GEN. KOWALSKI: You put me in a box here, and that's okay, because that is a fair question. And the answer is it requires the possible revisit of our strategy. But the biggest concern for us is that it requires us to take more risk within the current strategy. And at the end of the day, risk is a probability -- it's a game of probabilities.

So if I'm going to take risks in 20 or 30 different areas, then I have to rely on my ability to perfectly predict the future. Secretary Gates said, before he left office, that the Department of Defense has a perfect record on predicting the future. We always get it wrong.

So at the end of the day we are going to be taking more risk than clearly the military is comfortable in taking, because we aren't going to get it right. And then it becomes where have we taken too much risk or where did events unfold in a manner that our forces or our sustainment or our modernization or our support of our people were not structured in a manner to allow us to weather the storm without a rapid refocus of what we have? So, one of the things that we've been trying to stress is flexibility. The flexibility that you get when you have a larger force, and the flexibility that you get when you have a modern force. And that gives you the flexibility, the opportunity, to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

And what budget reductions do is they require us to become extremely efficient. And what that means is we take the flexibility out of the system because we have to figure out exactly what it is we're going to do, and then we can design ourselves very efficiently. That may not always be, and frankly is not always, the most effective force.

MR. BRAD HARRIS: Brad Harris with FCNL (Friends Committee on National Legislation). Considering the budget constraints, from the military perspective are you more concerned that the many programs will be under-funded so we'd have to buy, for example, less nuclear submarines; or that we'll end up with less programs, so instead of a triad, we'd have two systems?

GEN. KOWALSKI: I think you make an assumption that I don't make, and that is we're always going to have these kinds of levels of funding. I think there's room here to have the larger discussion about what the nation needs and what the nation wants. When you look at defense spending, and particularly the spending on strategic weapons systems, we are at an historic low based on our GDP. And when you look at it on a chart, and you're able to look at how much of our GDP we were willing to spend as a nation on strategic deterrence in the early '60s, how much we spent in the early '80s, and how much we spend in this bow-wave that's coming. You can't even see the bow-wave on the chart it's so small.

But because we've put it into such a small container, and we talk about it only within the Department of Defense, it becomes a larger part of it. However, right now we spend about five percent of our Department of Defense's budget on strategic systems. With that bow-wave, I think it goes up to seven or eight percent. So again, even within the Department of Defense budget, it will drive some hard choices, but it does not appear to me to be unaffordable. And clearly from the perspective of the nation, from the perspective of what does strategic deterrence mean and what risk are we willing to take, that is not an area that I'm willing to say that we ought to be taking a risk here.

MR. BRIAN BRADLEY: Hi, General, Brian Bradley, Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor. You mentioned that you were frankly concerned that the nuclear funding could cut into other areas of the larger defense budget. Have any areas -- have any current plans been identified as possibilities for scaling back from what was originally planned?

GEN. KOWALSKI: I'm not aware of where we're at with those discussions. And frankly, I think that as we move forward with the recapitalization of the nuclear enterprise, and with the concern that we understand what's truly required out there for sustainment at the same time that we look for ways to do it more effectively, and I've spoken in the past about our initiatives with the Navy on strategic systems where we're going to be able to share a lot of components, we're looking at other ways to save costs in the future related to the recapitalization of the Minuteman III system, as we go down that path what we have to keep in mind is that, as I said before, that deterrence is this latter and we have to be careful about the tradeoffs that we make in there. There are always tradeoffs within the department, and I can't get into any specific ones because we're just not revealing those plans yet.

MR. PETER HUESSY: General, there have been proposals to cut the submarine force from 12 to eight and delay the strategic bomber until the mid-20s, another 10 years. Could you address the consequences of, if we hypothetically did this, what would be the impact on our deterrent capability?

GEN. KOWALSKI: Again, these are things that folks have brought up and are part of the conversation. We are already reducing our force of submarines to 12, and reducing the number of missile tubes on each one of those submarines to 16. So we're sizing this force in a very constrained manner that is compliant with the New START Treaty and compliant with the guidance that we have under the new presidential guidance, and frankly as we go forward and look at our ability to continue to deter adversaries long-term into the future. Going off of that number requires assumptions that frankly we can't make in terms of our ability to keep a ready force (active/at sea?). And that impact means that U.S. Strategic Command supports a force of 12 SSBNs in the future.

MR. HUESSY: Could you mention the bomber issue?

GEN. KOWALSKI: The bomber issue, right now we're satisfied that the Air Force has the bomber program on track. It will clearly come under more scrutiny as its share of the budget continues to grow. The bomber is interesting because it's often brought up in the perspective of this nuclear conversation and this conversation about strategic deterrence. But the bomber is going to be critical to our geographic combatant commanders, even in just a conventional role, because of its ability to respond very quickly to a crisis.

I'm a perfect communicator and I've resolved all your issues.


MS. OSWALD: Speaking of the Long-Range Strike Bomber, there was an interesting piece in the Daily Beast yesterday, maybe you saw it, about the perils of keeping so many details of the program secret that it could jeopardize its viability if it does come into competition with other air programs. Can you talk about that? Did you see the article?

GEN. KOWALSKI: No, but I am familiar with the line of reasoning. And while there may be an appetite for more information, at the end of the day I think what is publicly available on the bomber is sufficient. And I don't think we need to be going into more details on a program of that importance at that level of classification.

MR. DREW: Could you expand on the ground/land-based strategic deterrent and what you're looking at as you look to replace the Minuteman missile system? Are you looking to keep the current system and upgrade it, or are you looking to replace it with a new capability?

GEN. KOWALSKI: Well the first work of the analysis of alternatives was completed by the Air Force. And what they're looking at right now is a hybrid -- is a system that will fundamentally be a land-based system the way the current Minuteman III is today. What we have today provides a responsiveness and provides strategic stability within the constraints of the New START Treaty. That 450 hardened, dispersed silos and 45 launch control centers that present any adversary with an insurmountable problem.

And when I had said in the past that we really don't have the fear today that we had in the Cold War of a bolt out of the blue first strike, one reason is because of that robust force out there. And that in turn requires an adversary to commit most of their -- in their planning they would have to commit most of their arsenal and that would leave them very vulnerable to our submarine and bomber forces. So I think that's a good path to proceed near-term.

I think long-term, how do you deal with uncertainty? So I think what we want to be able to do is develop a system that would give us an option later on to go back and revisit what is the right basing mode and do we need to move this missile to another basing mode? Can we do that and how do we do that? Certainly with the system we have today, you can't do that.

So if we need to replace the system, we should probably build into it the flexibility to do some other things in the future that the current Minuteman can't. There is clearly going to have to be some more studies and analysis done. While the concrete I think in the launch facilities and the launch control centers is pretty sound, the equipment in there is not and clearly needs to be replaced. That has been identified.

The communications systems need to be upgraded. The computers, all of that, needs to be rethought. And especially if we want to build in flexibility in the future, we need to do this from the ground up. So I think those are the things that Global Strike Command and the Air Force are looking at right now as they look downstream at what replaces Minuteman.

MR. DREW: Just to be clear, sir, are you talking about a one-for-one kind of module, a replacement, as opposed to keeping the Minuteman sustainable out to 2070 or something?

GEN. KOWALSKI: Well, yes. I think the path that we're on -- and again, all of this has not been, we've not completed all the analysis to give us exactly the path to go. The idea is to continue to use these current launch facilities and those current launch control centers. But this is an opportunity to revisit our concept of operations, how we communicate, what kind of flexibility do we build into it, and is it a good time to modernize. So what is the right way to do it, and then how do you implement that, for all the things that need to be thought about as we go forward.

But clearly, the land-based component of our triad remains important and it needs to be modernized. We can keep the Minuteman III viable out to 2030, but past that it becomes very problematic. And as you've seen in some of the reporting up to this point on how we do that operation up there, we have a lot of aggressive, young, committed people and we put them into pretty old facilities. And that's not just bad -- it's not just the human element, but it reflects on our commitment to their mission when we don't make the investments that are clearly necessary.

MR. JOHN SHELDON: John Sheldon of the George C. Marshall Institute. General Shelton before he retired, General Hyten now at Air Force Space Command, and Admiral Haney, have spoken quite vocally about grave threats to our space systems. Could you speak about how that threat affects the rest of the mission areas of Strategic Command in terms of ISR, in terms of cyber and missile defense and so on?

GEN. KOWALSKI: Well, your question pretty much captures all of our concerns because any threat to our space systems, and frankly we've taken our ability to operate in space for granted for a long time, but any threat to those systems can have an impact across our force, from the high end strategic as it could affect our missile warning systems, our nuclear command and control systems, all the way down to our ability to do precision navigation and timing. Not only do we in the military rely on our GPS constellation, all of you rely on that GPS constellation. The U.S. banking system relies on the timing of our GPS constellation system. So there are so many places that just underpin modern society, both here and globally, that to put that at risk implies a strategic impact of that system -- of all of those systems.

That's why we're continuing to work with other nations. That's why we're continuing to work within the current budget as we look at future architectures, and as we look at ways to manage the resilience of these systems. And when you have states that continue to take actions that are demonstrably destabilizing in space, for example the recent Chinese ASAT test in July, that will continue to concern us.

MR. HUESSY: General Kowalski, on behalf of ROA, AFA and NDIA and our guests here this morning, I want to thank you for an extraordinarily well done presentation and certainly during the Q&A you gave us an enormous amount of information. Thank you, General, on behalf of our sponsors and our guests here. Thank you and come again.