Transcript

PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite
Style:MLAAPAChicagoClose

loading...

A Conversation with General C. Robert Kehler

Speaker: General C. Robert Kehler, U.S. Air Force, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM)
Presider: Franklin C. Miller, Principal, Scowcroft Group
May 30, 2012, Washington D.C.
Council on Foreign Relations

Media

Share

FRANKLIN MILLER: Good afternoon. Good afternoon. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting. I've been asked to issue the standard advisory to have you please turn off, not simply mute, your cellphones, BlackBerrys, pagers and other wireless devices, lest they interfere with the sound system.

This meeting with General Kehler is on the record. And General Kehler will speak first, then he and I will have a bit of a colloquy, and then we will open it to questions. And we will end promptly at 1:30. And if you could, because the general has to leave, clear some space and let him get out first.

So I thank you for coming. I'm not going to read the general's biography. It is in your handout. The general and I have been friends and colleagues for a very long time. And with that, General Bob Kehler, commander, U.S. Strategic Command.

GENERAL C. ROBERT 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 the back of the room, 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 are 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 deterrence focused solely on leveraging U.S. nuclear capabilities to deter a massive nuclear or conventional attack on the U.S. or our allies. I would argue that the era of one-size-fits-all deterrence, 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 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 understanding of the threats they pose, and more flexibility and speed in our strategy development and in our planning.

To be sure, deterrence is still fundamentally 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 a military and a nonmilitary sense. Its practice encompasses a wider range of complementary tools today, both nuclear and strong conventional forces, nonkinetic 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, the 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 counterproliferation and nuclear terrorism move to the top of the 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 partners of our security commitments to them."

This year the president and secretary of defense released the 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, at 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 the 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 bomber's non-nuclear role, removed all dual-capable heavy bombers from nuclear day-to-day duty, eliminated the Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile, substantially reduced the Minuteman ICBM force and are in the process of de-MIRVing the rest.

We also withdrew numerous weapons 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. A 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, crises, 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 face 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 the 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, the Nuclear Posture Review elevated the prevention of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism to the top of the policy agenda. We have unique responsibilities for combatting 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 and field capabilities like standoff detection, better nuclear forensics and improved 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 Joint Staff and the services -- (clears his throat) -- excuse me -- top 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 5th, 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 of 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. STRATCOM 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. (Applause.)

MILLER: Thanks, Bob, for giving us those insights into what you do every day and what we look at from time to time here in town.

I thought I might ask you, if you can, to begin by expanding a bit on what you were alluding to in your closing remarks, the NPR implementation study. We've had a lot of press speculation on that study over the past couple of months and some reports even suggesting that options as low as 300 to 400 total weapons in a stockpile are being looked at. Notwithstanding that there are things that you can't say publicly, are there things that you can say publicly about that?

KEHLER: Yeah. Let me just start by saying, following up to the Nuclear Posture Review, we really came out of the Nuclear Posture Review -- which closed right before I took command of Strategic Command -- we came out with three major tasks to perform.

One task was to work the implementation details of New START. And as I said in my remarks, that task is under way. I think that all those pieces are going well, and I fully expect that we'll be complete with our actions well before the final date that we have to meet in February of 2018.

The second task that was taken out of the Nuclear Posture Review was to begin reviewing our nuclear employment guidance. That task is no different than really any administration's task after all the previous nuclear posture reviews, where they went back and took a hard look at the existing nuclear employment guidance and matched it to what had been -- come out -- what had come out in the Nuclear Posture Review.

That work is still under way. And it is a part of what has been called this follow-on study, but not the exclusive part of the follow- on study. As I say, those activities are still under way, with the final reviews ongoing.

The final task that was taken was to begin to assess what, if any, reductions should occur beyond New START.

That also is still a piece of the follow-on study that's in work, and the final details are being reviewed -- or the final products are being reviewed. I believe we've had a full participation in that. I'm not at liberty to divulge any of the results of any of that; that won't be for me to release. But I've been very comfortable that our participation has been complete, and I believe that our advice has been sought.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

MILLER: Following from that in talking about reductions, indeed about nuclear posture, a study was recently released -- say, within the last couple of weeks -- by the Global Zero organization, which, in addition to calling for reductions to 900 weapons, made some other proposals which I'd like you, to the degree you can, to comment on. One was to eliminate the ICBM force; you've addressed that in your comments about the triad. More interestingly, it suggests that, of the 900 weapons, only 450 should be deployed, and those that are deployed should be in a position that they are only ready to fire after, say, 72 hours. And that raises the question of why the need to have weapons on alert today in the post-Cold War world.

KEHLER: So let me say a little bit about the overall thrust of what I read anyway in the report that was released recently, and then I'll address our own strategic posture.

First of all, I think, as I sit here and look at this, certainly I believe we all share the same vision of an end state out there, which is a world without nuclear weapons.

I support that goal. I think that that is the appropriate goal for us to have. I think we would probably disagree over when you could get there. And my view on this is that at this point in time, I still maintain, as we have seen in the NPR and the follow-on activity that's gone on, that we are not at the place where we can go to zero today.

We have the one number -- and you asked me about numbers -- the one number that concerns me the most today is 1,550. That's the New START number, and we're above it. And so we need to get down to it. And we are working hard to put the plans in place -- to finalize the plans, if you will, to make sure we get to that in a timely way. So that's the number-one number that does concern me.

Beyond that, I think the question for us is, are there opportunities? The Nuclear Posture Review, again, said that it was the intent to go back, following a New START agreement, and work with the Russians to see if further reductions were possible and to take a look at including additional categories, if you will, of weapons in those potential future talks.

I think there are certainly, under certain conditions, opportunities to go back and engage in those conversations. And I think that's the appropriate way forward, and I believe that's the way forward that was already teed up in the Nuclear Posture Review and is to be refined as we go forward.

And the final question is really two parts. Number one, do we need a triad? And then second, what should our -- not only our force structure but our force posture be on a day-to-day basis? So let me take on the force structure question first.

I am not -- I do not support a triad out of theological reasons.

I do not believe that we need a triad because we've always had a triad. I do believe, though, that in the -- in the position we find ourselves today, that it is, in fact, the appropriate mixture of forces to meet our needs.

It may not always be so. And I think that there are other conditions as we will go forward where we will have to go back and take a hard look at whether those conditions remain so. But I believe today, for the mixture of attributes that I cited in my prepared remarks, as well as the ability that we have with the triad to hedge against technical failure, for example -- I think that it has served us well and continues to serve us well in this set of scenarios.

I also think that it's important that we offer to the president, as long as he believes he needs this kind of capability, the ability to respond to a full range of scenarios, to include the very, very unlikely but not zero possibility in a future crisis of a very short- notice attack of some kind.

At this point in time, I don't believe -- if I look at the capabilities inherent in other arsenals in the world, the capability to launch a short-notice attack continues to exist. As long as it does, my view is that we need to deter that. And part of our deterrence is a posture that allows the president, if he so chooses, to respond promptly if he -- if he needs to do that.

I think I would make one more point about this, though. It's important to remember that the weapons that we have in a ready-to-use condition are always under positive control. I am not concerned about the risk of some inadvertent launch of a nuclear device of some kind.

And ultimately we've provided, in our -- in our day-to-day targeting, for broad open-ocean area targeting to put, I believe, an exclamation point on that issue as well.

So, in summary, I believe that at this point in time the triad is in fact the right -- the right -- the force structure for us to have. I think that you will see of course additional adjustments to that force structure as we implement New START. Perhaps we will see further reductions as we go forward, and that becomes perhaps a follow-on conversation that we would have to have. But, for this time, I think that our force structure and our force position is the one that meets our needs.

MILLER: Thank you.

I want to take you just a bit farther afield from Omaha. I know you're not the European Command commander. But, in your remarks, you talked about NATO and the summit, and you just mentioned the possibility of additional arms reductions, which might be broadened to include short-range nuclear weapons. And so, as we have just seen in the NATO summit, we've seen the debate between those who believe the alliance doesn't need forward-deployed weapons anymore and clearly the fact that a majority of NATO governments believe we do and therefore the summit outcome. We have heard the weapons in Europe described almost derisively as political weapons, that these weapons are political. As a career military officer, as the nation's nuclear commander, does the fact that these are political weapons bother you?

KEHLER: No, actually, I would -- I would maybe identify myself as part of an old school cadre of folks who were trained that military weapons are political weapons, that that's why they exist.

I don't think that's unusual or unique with nuclear weapons. I do believe, as I said before, though, that they occupy a unique place in global security affairs because of their destructive potential. And as a result, I do understand that there is unique treatment that goes with them. I don't find that there's anything particularly wrong with that, given that I believe that the weapons still have tremendous value as deterrent weapons.

MILLER: Thank you.

We will now turn to questions from the audience. As I do so, I'll ask you to raise your hand. I'll call on you. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Stand up, please, state your name and your affiliation, and do ask a question. Don't make a statement or a counterspeech. (Laughter.) So if you'll raise your hands, I will -- I will recognize you as I -- as I am able, as we say.

Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: General, thank you for remarks -- for your remarks.

MILLER: Name and affiliation, please.

QUESTIONER: I'm Gardner Peckham. I'm with Prime Policy Group. I wanted to ask you if you had any concerns about the current or future condition of the national labs that support your mission: Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore.

My understanding is that there are some issues there -- at least two, one of which is personnel. The number of people that specialize in nuclear weapons as a -- as a field of expertise is declining and moving toward retirement these days, probably in some measure due to the fact that there isn't nuclear testing anymore, and perhaps because there's not much of a nuclear industry anymore -- that's growing, in any event.

But the second issue is also one of funding. The national labs don't fall under your department's purview in terms of funding; they're under the Department of Energy. But there is increasing concern among those who support the deterrent that that funding is under threat.

Can you comment on that, please?

KEHLER: The part of the budget in fiscal year '13 that concerns me the most is the part associated with the nuclear weapons complex -- the extended nuclear weapons complex. I would broaden your comment in one way. When I think about the nuclear weapons complex, it is not just the three national laboratories but it's the industrial complex that supports them -- the uranium processing facility, for example, in Tennessee, et cetera.

And when I took command of Strategic Command, I was committed to -- initially I told my staff, in the first 60 days, I want to visit the labs and the entire nuclear production complex. I had never done that before. I'd seen piece parts of it, but never all of it. And so -- (coughs) -- excuse me -- much like all ambitious things that new commanders want to do, I think it took 90 days to get through it all. And I've still -- I missed one. I will get there, though.

And what I found was a confirmation of what I had been reading, which is in some places the infrastructure is in really bad shape -- really bad shape. And my assessment -- my personal assessment as I came out of that quick trip through, was whether you are on the side of an issue here that says that weapons are the problem or whether you're on the side that says weapons are part of a solution to a problem, you have to have this enterprise to take care of them.

And so I am firmly committed, along with what you've heard out of the secretary of defense, for certain the chairman, for certain even out of the White House, that investment has to be made in the physical plant that goes with, in some cases, laboratory facilities, in other cases industrial plant facilities that support all of that activity.

So I am concerned. The '13 budget contains, I believe, appropriate investment in those activities. What I'm concerned about, though, is that beyond '13 we don't have a plan yet that closes. And that was acknowledged -- the secretary of energy, the secretary of defense wrote that to the committee chairs some months ago and said, we don't yet have a plan that closes after '13.

So as the customer here, I'm going to be concerned until that gets resolved. Work is under way to get it resolved, and we are participating in that conversation. So I am convinced that investment needs to continue to be made.

The second piece of your question is about the people. And I'm equally concerned about the people. One of the things that the lab directors keep telling us is, if you want to continue to have a strong intellectual basis behind this weapon complex, then we've got to continue to invest in the laboratories.

And part of that will occur as we do weapon life extension programs. We do have aging weapons. We have a series of weapons that are due for life extensions. That in and of itself will help the labs to retain and in fact recruit some new, bright, young, shiny kinds of engineers and scientists that they need.

And then the labs have also broadened their responsibilities in some areas, which also continues to attract talent to make them premier laboratories. And I certainly support that as well.

So I think there is clearly investment required here. It is the part -- I am not as concerned about the investment in the delivery platforms as I am in the investment in the weapons. The '13 budget I think continues us in the right direction for the delivery platforms. There's investment money there for a long-range strike aircraft. There's investment there for a follow-on to the Ohio class ballistic missile submarine.

I am most concerned that we make sure that we have the appropriate investment in place for the weapons complexes.

MILLER: Yes, sir -- in the middle. Try to be ecumenical here, each side of the room.

QUESTIONER: Carlo Munoz with The Hill. Just had a quick question. Now, there's been a lot talk in Congress regarding the establishment of a(n) East Coast missile defense shield. In your opinion, as commander of Strategic Command, is there a standing requirement for this type of system? And if not, can you explain to me where that concern is coming from? From -- again, from your point of view.

KEHLER: I'll describe it from my point of view. Of course the commitment has been to deploy a limited missile defense system to protect essentially the continental United States, Alaska and Hawaii against a limited threat, specifically -- and the way this began -- from North Korea, potentially to extend that farther if we need to.

We've deployed a limited missile defense system that's sized to take care of such a limited threat. The question that we have is twofold really; it's really a hedge question. What do we do next if the threat either grows faster than we had anticipated or if the threat changes in some way? Becomes a multidimensional threat, still limited in scope, but maybe from multiple countries. Those are the questions that are going on, and how we address that threat remains to be seen.

There is a hedge strategy, if you will, in work inside the Department of Defense right now. It was asked for by the Hill, and I believe that's the conversation that certainly I've been hearing on the Hill -- is where is the hedge strategy? Does an East Coast site of some kind fit into that? And the answer is that remains to be seen.

Right now, we are committed to continuing with the deployment of the pieces of the missile defense system that are already programmed in the program of record upgrades to radars and some other things that are doing. How we respond beyond that remains to be seen.

MILLER: Hans Binnendijk in the back.

QUESTIONER: Hans Binnendijk from the National Defense University. I'd like to ask you a question about tailored defense with regard to Iran. Right now we are clearly in the mode of preventing, through sanctions and potentially other means, and we're in the mode of defending, with the European phased adaptive approach and maybe the -- this eastern site.

But what about deterrence? Secretary Clinton had talked about this a couple of years ago and then we sort of dampened down the discussion. What, in your view, would it take to deter Iran, should they develop a nuclear -- and associated missile capability? Would that be a U.S. mission? Would it be a NATO mission? Would we need a special declaratory policy for that? Would the weapons available to the alliance and to the United States that are currently deployed in Europe be adequate, or would we have to take other measures to demonstrate our desire to deter Iran?

KEHLER: So let me just -- let me take a step back here for a second. The point that I was trying to make in my prepared remarks is that the way we view deterrence today -- all the things that you mentioned, the steps that we are taking, are today part of a deterrence strategy. Missile defense, for example, in the case of Iran -- certainly our ability to deploy a missile defense oriented in that direction has deterrent value. Certainly our strong conventional forces that are already deployed in that area of responsibility and that could be brought to bear play a deterrent role.

Ultimately, if, in fact, Iran would go down certain pathways here, I -- the ultimate strategic deterrent is always available for the president to use. You know, in the Nuclear Posture Review, we talked about a negative security guarantee, where what we said was, or what we reaffirmed was, that if you are a non-nuclear state and you are a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, then we would not use nuclear weapons against you. So I think there are incentives here for Iran to not become a nuclear power.

And I think that as has been said, certainly by the chairman, by the combatant commanders, by the secretary and others, I think that all options remain on the table. I do believe that the steps that are being taken today, though, are clearly part of a strategic deterrence effort and package of things that we are trying to put in place that would allow us to have the kind of credible deterrent that would be appropriate for Iran.

MILLER: Jan Lodal.

QUESTIONER: Thanks, Frank. Jan Lodal. I'd like to follow up on Frank's earlier strategic stability question.

So given what you said about the triad and given our force posture -- in the Cold War, I think the triad logic was not assailable. And we had prompt launch capability, and we had a lot of things like that. But if we have the bombs not (mated to ?) the bombers, and we have some capability to avoid prompt launch and, in any event, vulnerability of land-based missiles to surprise attack, so aren't we kind of left relying on the nuclear submarine force for that capability anyhow? And does that have any impact on our need to keep the other two if they, in their present configuration, can't really do what they at one point were designed to do?

KEHLER: Yeah, it's a great question, and it is -- this is the debate that we have with ourselves -- frequently, as a matter of fact -- looking at the -- at the various pieces of our force structure and the utility of those, the value of those, and particularly as we have to reinvest in them. So there's no question. We are -- we are constantly asking ourselves these questions.

But I would take exception to the fact that they don't have value today. I would continue to cite that for each of these legs, there is a -- an attribute that goes with them that I believe still applies. You cited the attribute of survivability for the submarine force. You cite the attribute of flexibility for the bombers. You can upload them. They can become a visible demonstration of U.S. commitment; U.S. interest; U.S. displeasure, if you will, et cetera. And so much harder to do with the ballistic submarine force unless you're measuring putting additional boats at sea and doing some other things, but far easier to do in terms of a responsive, flexible activity with bombers.

That kind of leaves the question for the ICBMs, and there's a difference between having a leg of the triad that can respond promptly and one that you must use promptly because you're afraid you're going to lose it. That situation I do not believe we are in at this point in time. I think that is Cold War thinking. I think that, as I look at the ICBM force today, certainly the Russian -- the high-end Russian strategic force can threaten the ICBM force.

But they have to do it. I think that has value, that has deterrent value that's associated with it.

There is no other nation's growing nuclear force out there that can threaten the ICBM force. I think that has value associated with it. And I think that our ability to insist, if you will, on sovereign -- a sovereign basing mode that forces an adversary to contend with that if they're contemplating a nuclear attack also has value.

So these dynamics, at least in my mind, in my seat today as I sit here and look at this, I still believe that those are valuable pieces to an integrated whole, and we will continue to review those as we go forward. And certainly we will have some tough choices to make as budget pressures continue.

The one that is still the question, I think, about budget investment is the ICBM force and what will we do there when it comes time. We are not at that point yet. We are still to the point where the Air Force tells me that we can sustain the Minuteman force to 2030 if we need to do that. The question is -- an analysis that we are doing now -- what would we do in the future? What would it look like? Would a future ICBM force have other attributes that would be associated with it? All of those, I think, are open questions and remain to be seen.

MILLER: Yes, sir. On the end. Right.

QUESTIONER: Good afternoon, General. (Inaudible) -- with Inside Defense. Sir, a little bit of a different kind of question for you.

I understand that you have the authority to negotiate space situational awareness agreements with allies, kind of share that information with some of the nation's partners. Could you talk about what that meant for you over the last couple of months or what you think it will mean in the future?

KEHLER: I can.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

KEHLER: Let me start by saying we have seen great value in partnerships with not only allies but commercial companies and other -- and by the way, huge success earlier this week -- late week, earlier this week -- with SpaceX, I think. It was something that we all ought to take note of.

So we see value in our ability to both share space situational awareness data at a certain level with commercial entities, which we have been doing for quite some time, and we see the value in going with other partners, national partners.

What the authority I've been granted allows me to do is essentially take a preapproved template that says this is kind of information we would share and then go sit down with our allied partners and other international partners and see how they might fit into that kind of an arrangement. I think it's very valuable.

And we've already discovered that this relationship, although it causes -- it's a -- it is a -- it is a strain on our resources to be able to provide situational awareness data at our current state of being able to automatically share data -- there's a website and other things that do this. But I think the -- at the -- certainly at my level, the value of doing this is the partnerships that we establish, the way that we are helping others to perform sort of routine safety of flight kinds of activities, and in return, we get feedback from them and when there is something going wrong, we now have people we can pick up the phone and call and talk to.

So I think there is value across the board here, and we're going to try to pursue this as much as we can.

How this changed us is -- (clears throat) -- excuse me -- we're able to go in now and work with some of our partners in ways that are a little bit deeper than where we were before.

MILLER: In the back. Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: Thank you, General. My name is Dong Qi Yu (sp) with China -- (inaudible) -- news agency. When we talk about a START treaty or strategic force, we usually focus on U.S.-Russia relations. Could you please talk about -- a little bit about U.S.-China strategic force relations? Do you have any exchange program with the Second Artillery Force of PLA? And do you see in the Chinese strategic capability as increasing threat to the United States? How to reduce the mutual suspicion between the two countries? Thank you.

KEHLER: So first of all, you're right in that our arms control agreements thus far have been between Russia and the United States. And even today Russia and the United States can claim well over, I'd say -- this might not be the exact number -- but well over probably 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons are in those two arsenals. And so we see that certainly this next step, assuming that there is a next step beyond New START -- and certainly that was the desire laid out in the Nuclear Posture Review -- will likely be with the United States and Russia.

I think it's a great question, though, for what happens next. And my predecessor, shortly before I took command almost 18 months ago, hosted a Chinese delegation at STRATCOM headquarters. We would like to see more of that. We think that there are tremendous opportunities.

I do not see the Chinese strategic deterrent as a direct threat to the United States. We are not enemies. Could it be?

I suppose if we were enemies, it could be. And therefore, we at least have to be aware of that, and I know that there's a modernization effort under way, as there is throughout the Chinese military. We've said fairly publicly, across the board, from the chairman on down, that's why we would like to engage more with China and China's military in particular. We would like to have routine contact and conversations with China's military. We think there would be tremendous benefit to that in both China and the United States, in particular to help us avoid some misunderstanding or some tension in the future. So we would like to see that happen.

MILLER: Michael Krepon (ph), whose hand was up at the same time that --

KEHLER (?): I saw him leave.

QUESTIONER: Stimson Center. Sir, do you support President Obama's pursuit of a space code of conduct, one of whose provisions is likely to be no purposeful harmful interference against space objects in peacetime? We all know that, in wartime, you play by different rules. What about the code and this particular provision?

KEHLER: You asked me two questions: One, do I support a code, and then, two, do I support that provision? So let me split those apart for just a second.

Number one, do I support a code? I support a -- establishment of some kind of code or rules of the road or however we're going to describe that. I believe it is time for us to begin to put -- phrase it how you'd like -- norms of behavior, a code of conduct, something in place that begins to define behavior in space. I think that's to everyone's benefit, and I believe that it is to our benefit as well. And I say that with an operational -- a military operational eye on this.

Someone said to me, not so long ago, speed limits don't stop speeders, and my reply is, no, but it lets you know who they are.

I think that there's a -- there is value in having some rules.

The second question you asked me, I'm not going to speculate on the specific piece -- specific things that I would or would not support. We've offered our viewpoint through our joint channels. Those will be integrated as an interagency effort. And at the end when I see all of the position of the United States government, then I'll be able to offer an opinion about what I think on all of them.

MILLER: Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Todd Jacobson, Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor. You talked earlier about your concern for funding for the nuclear weapons complex. Some folks in Congress think the problems run even a little deeper, and the House has passed some NNSA reform language that would do a whole bunch of things, from increasing the autonomy of the administrator to moving the management of the big projects that you spoke of, CMRR and UPF, to the Department of Defense. I guess as the customer for NNSA, do you think NNSA needs to be reformed, or do they even -- need to go even further, which some have suggested, and move it altogether out of DOE?

KEHLER: Well, as the customer, I would say two things. Thing number one is, this issue about how to manage the nation's nuclear weapons complex has been around for a long time. One of the things that I did also when I took command was I looked back through 20 years worth of reports that have been written on that subject alone, and there are many opinions about what to do. Some of them have been implemented, some have not.

And I don't really, as the customer -- I don't mean to have this sound the wrong way, but at the end of the day what I'm really concerned about is that they deliver the weapons to us that we need when we need them. And the management of the enterprise is certainly important to me, but only to the extent that it gets to that broader end.

I do know that there are a lot of folks -- and certainly within the Office of the Secretary of Defense there are people looking at that, about what the management structure could be or should be, and that remains to be seen.

But from a customer standpoint, I am like a customer in any other place. I bought a car not so long ago; I didn't much care how -- well, maybe I did -- (chuckles) -- I didn't care a lot how the car company ran itself. But I think from a customer standpoint here, what is really important to me is that I can advocate for the investment that they need and I can advocate for the people that they need, and that what is coming out of the complex is the -- sort of the product that I need.

MILLER: Gentleman over there. Yes.

QUESTIONER: Alexander Gasyuk with Russian press. Sir, as you know, Moscow has other concerns regarding the missile defense system in Europe and in general. And the Russians believe that at some point, the system could undermine the strategic deterrence of the Russian Federation. I do believe that this concern is justified. And there is another concern on the Russian side, which has to do with the global strike capabilities which U.S. is trying to develop. To what extent are these global strike capabilities relevant in terms of the strategic stability? Thanks.

KEHLER: So first, yes, I am certainly aware that the Russians have those two concerns, number one, about the missile defenses making their -- rendering their strategic deterrent ineffective -- (coughs) -- excuse me -- and second, about global strike.

So on the first case, I can't say it isn't right for them to be concerned. What I can say is that technically, my view is that the limited missile defense that we've deployed does not threaten the viability or the capability of their strategic deterrent.

It is not oriented in that direction. It is -- it is not sufficient in numbers nor is it sufficient in technical capability. I think those details have been shared with the Russians, and so the dialogue continues.

Regarding a prompt global strike, most of what we talk about in prompt global strike is on the drawing board for us. We see the need -- and one of my predecessors, several removed, established a need to be able to strike a target somewhere on the face of the earth within 60 minutes of being told to do so with a conventional weapon, not a nuclear weapon. Again, I think, as we would look at this, we see that -- the word that we would use is "niche weapon." But it would be for very -- a very small number of highest-value kinds of the things that we might encounter, and we would not see that in large numbers. So, again, I think that, as we look at that in terms of stability, I certainly don't see that as a destabilizing kind of a weapon.

MILLER: We probably have time for about one more question or so.

Joan?

KEHLER (?): Oh, good.

QUESTIONER: Joan Rohlfing with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. You've spoken in your remarks about the need to preserve options for the president in the face of a short-notice attack, and even though you perceive that to be -- a very small chance of that ever happening, that this is the basis for maintaining a prompt strike capability.

But what we haven't talked about -- and there's been a little bit of discussion today about the need to maintain a high-alert posture -- we haven't really talked about the possible danger of accidents. And you mentioned earlier that you have confidence in the U.S. capability to positively control its weapons. But we haven't talked about the flip side of the coin, which is do we have the same kind of confidence in the Russian capacity to maintain positive control over their weapons 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year? And I think that should really be the metric against which we're measuring the kind of pros and cons on this issue.

So that leads me to the question of what would it take ultimately to move beyond the current prompt-strike posture that we're in to something that doesn't look like the old Cold War posture of our fathers?

KEHLER: Yeah. Well, I'm not an expert -- I am not personally an expert in the Russian command-control systems and their -- what we could call nuclear surety efforts, but I'm told by our experts we know a lot about how the Russians do that. And we are confident in their ability to maintain surety. I wouldn't say launch control over that -- that's different than theft and maybe other things that we would be talking about that have other programs like the one you work on that help us work that part of the problem as well, securing nuclear material and nuclear weapons and those kind of things. But in terms of the inadvertent launch of an operational system that is deployed out there, I do not concern myself when I go to bed every night that the Russians will somehow inadvertently launch something at us.

But this is a reason for why we would like to have more transparency into other arsenals around the world. I think that it's a good question. And it's something that we ought to be very mindful of as we go forward.

We do see some other nations out there working on some platforms that would have more of a prompt launch kind of a capability. And I think that should be of a concern to us.

What would it take for me, as a military commander, to say, we didn't need to have to contend with the possibility for surprise? First of all, at least in my own -- this is my own personal view here now -- I would -- I would want to look out at other arsenals in the world and not see some with a prompt launch capability in it. I would want to be able to assure ourselves, in some verifiable way, that a surprise attack was not in fact possible. I can't assure myself of that today, even though I think it is highly, highly unlikely. I can't speak for what would happen in a future crisis. And I am uncomfortable today with being in the position where the soonest we could respond in some way, if the president needed us to respond, is 72 hours from now, for example.

So one would be I would have to be very comfortable that we were not facing any potential adversaries out there that had a -- the ability to surprise us in some way. That's a tough challenge. That would be a tough verification challenge. And that would be up to those of you that work those problems, is to try to work that.

The other thing, I think -- I would want to be reassured in a broader sense than just Russia, because there are other arsenals out there in the world, and we may find ourselves in positions -- you know, not only have missiles proliferated, but mobile missiles have proliferated -- very difficult for us to find, which is why they are mobile, of course, is to preserve someone else's deterrent.

And I understand why they do that. But that is also potentially a problem for us. Underground tunnels are a problem for us in that regard. Hiding inside facilities is a problem for us to determine exactly what's happening.

So I think to me, it would be a verification issue, making sure that we were not ourself in the position where a prompt response from us was going to be required. But I do believe -- and I've said this all along; I say this to our own people all the time -- this is something we need to continue to review. This is not something that's static, and it's something that we ought to look at frequently.

MILLER: Bob, thank you very much for a set of really fascinating remarks.

Let me remind everybody that General Kehler's remarks are on the record. I'm biased; I've known the general for decades. But I think we are all very lucky to have him as the STRATCOM commander. You're the most capable and best-prepared person to hold that post.

So please join me in thanking General Kehler. (Applause.)

More on This Topic

Video

A Conversation with General C. Robert Kehler

Speaker: General C. Robert Kehler
Presider: Franklin C. Miller

General C. Robert Kehler discusses the future of U.S. strategic nuclear forces, as well as U.S. Strategic Command's broader mission to deter...

Transcript

A Conversation With Robert O. Work

Speaker: Robert O. Work
Presider: James E. Sciutto

Robert O. Work, deputy secretary of defense, discusses U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific region.