Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks on "Sustaining Nuclear Deterrence"


Thank you.  Please sit down, guys.  Please sit down.  Great to be with you.  Look at what a fabulous, what a magnificent-looking crowd.  Really appreciate it.  And you know, hey, thank you Colonel Brooks.  And is Colonel Conner still here?  There you are – thank you.  Thanks, both of you, for hosting me.

It’s great to be at Minot again.  For me, by the way, I’ll just tell you this right now, I first came here – and I’m embarrassed to say this because this is probably before some of you were even born, but – in 1983.  Long time ago.  So I’ve known this place for a long time, and more on that shortly, because it is a place of central importance to our security – past, present, and long into the future.

I want to acknowledge also – very, very appreciatively – the presence here of North Dakota’s two senators here today, Senator Hoeven and Senator Heitkamp.  Thank you.  Thanks for joining us.  Appreciate it.  I know they need to go back to Washington shortly.  I’m sorry about that, but I do appreciate that as well because they’re going to keep our government going in the meantime, and that’s an essential thing for all of us.  But thank you.  Thanks for being here.  Much appreciated.

And although they couldn’t be here today, I want to thank all the rest of the leadership of the Department of Defense that’s been out here – the Air Force, OSD, the Joint Staff and so forth.

And also, I want to mention, though they’re not here today, my good friends and great colleagues, the Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz and the Deputy Secretary of Energy Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall – superb leaders of that department and essential partners of ours in the nuclear deterrence enterprise. 

And this week, I’m visiting a number of parts of the enterprise.  Tomorrow and Wednesday, I’ll be at Kirtland, and also at the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons laboratories at Sandia and Los Alamos.  But I wanted to start here, with the airmen of Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing and 91st Missile Wing, because of how much you, our people, matter to this mission, and how much this mission matters to our country.

I know you’re only a few of the thousands of men and women, military and civilian, who contribute to the nuclear deterrence mission.  And while I’m saying this here to you at Minot, I want all of them to know in the nuclear enterprise – to the operators, to the enablers, to the maintainers, to the planners, to the communicators, to the security forces, the engineers and facilities personnel on DoD bases and installations; the scientists and engineers and technicians in the DoE weapons labs; and everyone else, including those in industry, who help keep our nuclear enterprise safe, secure, and effective – all day, every day.  We’re so grateful to all of them, all of you, for that.

All together, you’re part of something vital, something special.  After all, there’s a lot that goes into this mission – because while deterrence may seem like a simple concept, even an elegant concept, it rests on a complicated, human-intensive and technology-intensive system.

There are a lot of different pieces, starting with the hardware of the triad – the ICBMs, the bombers, and sea-launched ballistic missiles.  There’s also our fleet of dual-capable aircraft, those select fighter jets that extend a nuclear umbrella over our allies.  And then, just as critical, is the network of capabilities that enable nuclear command control, communications and intelligence – satellites, radar systems, ground stations, command posts, control nodes, communications links, and more.  These not only assure command and control, but also help provide us with integrated tactical warning and attack assessment.

As you know, everyone has their role to play.  And while each physical piece is important it’s really the people who make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.  Together, all of this – all of you and all of these capabilities – comprise a system of systems that enables us to see what’s happening in the world, understand what it means, so we’re able to give the one person whom our nation has entrusted with this immense responsibility – our Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States, President Obama – with the best possible picture of information, so that he can make the most well-informed decision possible to keep our country safe, and so that we can carry out that decision with precision, excellence, and reliability.

And the knowledge that every part of this enterprise is working as smoothly as it should be is, what makes you effective – for it’s that which deters.  The confidence that you’re ready to respond is what stops potential adversaries from using nuclear weapons against the United States or our allies in the first place.  It’s the whole point.  So everyone playing their part is tremendously important.  It’s a mission that demands unparalleled excellence – excellence that you define. 

We count on you for that:  America’s nuclear deterrence is the bedrock of our security, and the highest priority mission of the Department of Defense.  Because while it’s a remarkable achievement that in the more than seven decades since 1945, nuclear weapons have not again been used in war, that’s not something we can ever take for granted.  And that’s why today, I want to talk to you about how we’re innovating and investing to sustain that bedrock.

I realize it feels at times that most people don’t often think about your mission – which I know can be frustrating, even though in a way it’s a good thing, because it means you’re doing your job.  It’s a paradox that’s not easily reconciled, but one that I see and I understand.  Because whether they recognize it or not, our entire country, and more depends on you – since we’ve never found a perfect defense against nuclear weapons, only you can truly deter nuclear attacks that would result in enormous devastation. 

That’s one reason why you, and your mission, are never far from my mind – and you never have been, because I’ve been involved in nuclear deterrence issues for over 35 years.  In fact, I was telling the senators on the way out there what I just told you – 1983, first time I came here.  In fact, one of my first defense-related jobs was working on basing options for the MX missile – the one that became the Peacekeeper, and upon which the MK-12A sat – the same missile, that is, whose reentry system now sits atop the Minuteman III here.

Today, you and your mission matter on so many levels.

At a strategic level, of course, you deter large-scale nuclear attack against the United States and our allies.  You help convince potential adversaries that they can’t escalate their way out of a failed conventional aggression.  You assure allies that our extended deterrence guarantees are credible – enabling many of them to forgo developing nuclear weapons themselves, despite the tough strategic environment they find themselves in and the technological ease with which they could develop nuclear weapons.  And if deterrence fails, you provide the President with options to achieve U.S. and allied objectives – a responsibility that I know President Obama takes with the utmost seriousness, as do you – all to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons ever being used in the first place.

And in a broader operational level and a more day-to-day basis, you enable American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to accomplish their conventional missions around the world.  As you know, they’re standing with our NATO allies and standing up to Russia’s aggression in Europe, managing change in the vital Asia-Pacific region, deterring North Korea’s provocations, countering Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East, and helping accelerate ISIL’s certain and lasting defeat.  As they do, you give them confidence that a nuclear attack against our homeland is being deterred – confidence drawn in part from the vigilance you display every day.

And for all Americans, and for that matter, all people all over the world, the bedrock of security you provide has enabled millions and millions to get up in the morning, to go to school, to go to work, to live their lives, to dream their dreams, and to give their children a better future.

I know you’re all aware of how important this mission is.  And your leaders in Washington know it, too – not only me, but also the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, the Secretary of the Air Force, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Obama – you are all on all of our minds.

That’s important, because in today’s security environment – one that’s dramatically different from the last generation, and certainly the generation before that – we face a nuclear landscape that continues to pose challenges, and that continues to evolve – in some ways less predictably than during the Cold War – even though many around the world, and even some in the United States, are stuck in the Cold War in their thinking.

One way the nuclear landscape has changed:  we didn’t build new types of nuclear weapons or delivery systems for the last 25 years, but others did.  At the same time, in another part of the landscape, our allies in Asia, the Middle East, and NATO did not.  And so we must continue to sustain our deterrence.

Now, Russia has long been a nuclear power, but Moscow’s recent saber-rattling and building of new nuclear weapons systems raises serious questions about its leader’s commitment to strategic stability, their regard for long-established abhorrence of using nuclear weapons, and whether they respect the profound caution that Cold War-era leaders showed with respect to brandishing nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations underscore that a diverse and dynamic spectrum of nuclear threats still exists.  So our deterrence must be credible, and extended to our allies in the region.  It starts with the umbrella of deterrence you provide from Minot, supporting conventional forces like our air assets and our troops standing guard 24/7 on the Korean Peninsula to deter attack against our allies.  It’s also why we continue to build more robust ballistic missile defenses oriented toward the North Korean threat – deploying Ground-Based Interceptors in Alaska and California, and also agreeing with our Korean allies to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, in the Republic of Korea.  And we back all of that up with the commitment that any attack on America or our allies will not only be defeated, but that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with an overwhelming and effective response.

Russia and North Korea are just two countries – though very different ones – that stand out in this evolving nuclear landscape.  And there are others.  India, for example, has generally shown responsible behavior with its nuclear technology.  China also conducts itself professionally in the nuclear arena, despite growing its arsenal in both quality and quantity.  In Iran, their nuclear aspirations have been constrained and transparency over their activities increased by last year’s nuclear accord, which, as long as it continues to be implemented, will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  And the last example I’ll cite is Pakistan, where nuclear weapons are entangled in a history of tension, and while they’re not a threat to the United States directly, we work with Pakistan to ensure stability.

It’s also important to note where there are not nuclear weapons.  That is, where successful nuclear stability, stable alliances, and non-proliferation and arms control efforts – such as President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summits and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program that I worked on once upon a time in the 1990s – have prevented the spread of nuclear weapons, prevented dangers like loose nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union from becoming threats, and made the prospect of nuclear terrorism more remote, which is an agenda all great powers should embrace.  Because of these efforts, there are many places all around the world where nuclear weapons might have spread, but have not.

Now, despite what has changed since the end of the Cold War, the nature of nuclear deterrence has not changed.  Even in 2016, deterrence still depends on perception – what potential adversaries see, and therefore believe, about our will and ability to act.  This means that as their perceptions shift, so must our strategy and our actions.  Indeed, how we deter cannot be static; rather, it must adapt as threats evolve, while continuing to preserve strategic stability – reinforcing nuclear restraint, rather than inviting competition or attack.  That’s important, because it illustrates how strong deterrence doesn’t lower the threshold for nuclear war – instead, it raises it.

Today, however, it’s a sobering fact that the most likely use of nuclear weapons is not the massive ‘nuclear exchange’ of the classic Cold War-type, but rather the unwise resort to smaller but still unprecedentedly terrible attacks, for example by Russia or North Korea, to try to coerce a conventionally superior opponent to back off or abandon an ally during a crisis.  We cannot allow that to happen, which is why we’re working with our allies in both regions to innovate and operate in new ways that sustain deterrence, and continue to preserve strategic stability.

Across the Atlantic, we’re refreshing NATO’s nuclear playbook – to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence, to ensure we plan and train like we’d fight, and to deter Russia from thinking it can benefit from nuclear use in a conflict with NATO – from trying to “escalate to de-escalate,” as some there call it.  Now, obviously, we do not seek such a conflict to begin with; rather, we seek to prevent one.  And by having our dual-capable aircraft, B-61 bombs, and air-launched cruise missiles postured as credible response options – options intended to deter – we make limited use of nuclear weapons by others less likely.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific, we engage in formal deterrence dialogues with our allies in Japan and the Republic of Korea, to ensure we’re poised to address nuclear deterrence challenges in Asia.  And you should know that the work you do and the capabilities you provide are a common topic in these conversations, because they play a critical role in deterring a nuclear attack on these allies.  That’s also why our three countries together held a trilateral ballistic missile warning exercise this past June – to continue sustaining deterrence.

And here in the United States, we’re sustaining deterrence by taking steps to ensure that all three legs of our nuclear triad do not age into obsolescence.  This is part of our government’s policy, which President Obama made clear in Prague in 2009 when he said that, and I quote, “as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”  That commitment was reiterated when the President released his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, when he issued his 2013 Nuclear Employment Guidance, and it’s been reflected in every one of the defense budgets that the President has submitted to Congress over the last seven-and-a-half years – including his latest budget, for fiscal year 2017, which we announced in January – February.

In this respect we’re now beginning the process of correcting decades of underinvestment in nuclear deterrence – and I do mean decades, because it dates back to the end of the Cold War, when funding for the nuclear enterprise dropped dramatically.  Over the last 25 years since then, we only made modest investments in basic sustainment and operations.  And it turned out that wasn’t enough, because ,as we now know too well, it meant that we had to rely unreasonably on talented people like you – and around DoD and the Department of Energy, for that matter – to help keep it going as it aged.  So that’s why we’re investing now not only to sustain the triad, but also to ensure you have the resources you need, the opportunities to advance your career, and the management structure and climate to empower you for success.

For 2017, our budget invests a total of $19 billion in the nuclear enterprise.  That’s part of $108 billion we plan to invest over the next five years to sustain and recapitalize the nuclear force and associated strategic command, control communications and intelligence systems – ranging from increased funding for manpower, equipment, vehicles, and maintenance to technological efforts that will help sustain our bomber fleet, and more.

As you know, these investments reflect how we’re continuing to implement recommendations from the 2014 Nuclear Enterprise Reviews, which recognize that our country had underinvested in an aging force.  As a result, we’ve invested about $10 billion over the last two years to make improvements.  Here at Minot, I know that’s most recently meant a newly repaired runway, expanded childcare options, and fitness centers open 24/7.  It’s created new assignment incentive pay and special assignment duty pay for military personnel.  It’s helped increase locality pay rates for civilians.  And, importantly, it reflects how we’re taking steps to replace the helicopters that help ensure that our ICBMs are secure.

Additionally, the President’s budget also fully funds the first stages of our plans to ensure that the capabilities required to sustain nuclear deterrence don’t become obsolete.  This includes: replacing old ICBMs with new ones that will be less expensive to maintain; keeping our strategic bombers effective in the face of more advanced air defense systems, in part by replacing our aging air-launched cruise missile with a more effective long-range standoff weapon; replacing the F-16s in our dual-capable aircraft fleet with F-35s and the B61-12 gravity bomb; and building replacements for our Ohio class ballistic missile submarines.

There are many reasons why this is important, and for that reason I’m confident the nation will make the right investments in the coming years.

First, if we don’t replace these systems, quite simply they will age even more, and become unsafe, unreliable, and ineffective.  The fact is, most of our nuclear weapon delivery systems have already been extended decades beyond their original expected service lives.  So it’s not a choice between replacing these platforms or keeping them; it’s really a choice between replacing them or losing them.  That would mean losing confidence in our ability to deter, which we can’t afford in today’s volatile security environment.

Second, while these investments are usually referred to simply as nuclear “modernization,” that’s only true in the sense of sustaining deterrence.  None of these investments is intended to change the nature of deterrence or how it works; after all, no one can do that.  And not only are they not intended to stimulate competition from anyone else; we know they aren’t having that effect, because the evidence is to the contrary.  After all, as I said earlier, we didn’t build anything new for the last 25 years, but others did – including Russia, North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, and, for a period of time, Iran – while our allies around the world – in Asia, the Middle East, and NATO – did not.  And our allies are not creating new types of nuclear weapons, either; that, some nations are unfortunately doing.  So this is about maintaining deterrence in a world very different from the Cold War – as older systems become less effective, we’re making sure we continue to preserve strategic stability. 

Doing this will cost money, of course, but most people don’t realize that funding for the nuclear enterprise, even then, is a relatively small percentage of total defense funding – and even as we replace aging platforms, we don’t expect that fact to change.

In the end, though, this is about maintaining the bedrock of our security.  And after too many years of not investing enough, it’s an investment that we as a nation have to make, because it’s critical to sustaining nuclear deterrence in the 21st century.

Of course, even as we invest to ensure this mission has the capabilities to succeed, we’ll also keep investing to ensure it has to people to succeed, and to make sure you succeed.  Because our deterrence isn’t credible unless we have the right people – people like you, people we know we can count on – who’re manning, equipping, operating, securing, and supporting our nuclear enterprise – and not only today, but in the future as well.

Indeed, even as we all of course would wish to live in a world without nuclear weapons, it’s also true – something President Obama has noted many times – that we may not realize that goal within our lifetimes.  And unfortunately, given what we see in today’s security environment, it’s also likely that our children, and their children, will probably have to live in a world where nuclear weapons exist.  This means that what you do – ensuring safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrence for as long as nuclear weapons exist in the world – will continue to be important for the defense of our nation for a long time to come.  And it means that your career fields will continue to need to attract, and retain, the most talented men and women American will have to offer in future generations – people like you.  As you know, we don’t let just anybody do this job – and our force of the future, including our nuclear force of the future, will need people as excellent as you.

That’s why I have something very important to ask of you and your fellow servicemembers who make up the nuclear enterprise and make it work:  that you keep carrying out your mission with the excellence our nation has long been able to count on from those entrusted with these weapons – excellence that is unparalleled.  In turn, we, as your leaders, will ensure you have the support and the systems you need to do so.

I want to close by saying that you should be proud of what you do every day for our country – and do know how proud I am of you.  Because you’re doing one of the noblest things that a person can do with their life, which is to help defend our country and make a better world for our children.  And that’s what this enterprise is all about.

When I was coming up as a physicist, the generation that trained me had worked on the Manhattan Project.  Their legacy was one of ensuring effective capabilities and credible deterrence, but never recklessness – always having immense respect for the tremendous power that nuclear weapons can unleash, and therefore having the determination to deter, so that they will never be used.

As a young man, these were my mentors, and they helped me realize that I didn’t have to choose between strengthening nuclear deterrence or working toward a world where such deterrence would no longer be necessary – that instead, I could do both.  And ever since, even as I contributed to the advancement of weapons systems like the MX missile and other parts of our nuclear triad, I also participated in arms control efforts, non-proliferation initiatives, and helped lead the Nunn-Lugar program that secured nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union – Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus – preventing those potential dangers from becoming threats to our country, our world, and our fellow human beings.

Today, you are the heirs to that great legacy that my generation inherited.  And it’s your task to not only uphold that legacy, but also to pass it on to those who will come after you.

Your work here at Minot, your service, and your daily sacrifices – not to mention those of your families – are never lost on me.  And for what you do, and for the excellence and quiet professionalism with which you do it, you will forever have my, and our nation’s, profound gratitude.

Thanks again.