Deterrence planning and forces must fit today’s unique global security environment, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command said July 13.
Air Force Gen. C. Robert “Bob” Kehler said a “safe, secure and effective” nuclear deterrent is vital in a “complex and uncertain world” that includes nuclear weapons and nuclear-armed states, and where several of those states are modernizing their weapons and systems.
“While nuclear weapons represent a unique, relevant and powerful deterrent capability, this is not your father’s nuclear force,” Kehler told the Reserve Officers Association in Washington, D.C. “We’ve witnessed an impressive 67-year period with neither nuclear use nor major-power war. During that time, we regularly adjusted our nuclear capabilities to match the global environment.”
The general recalled deterrence and assurance have been part of the national lexicon for well more than half a century.
“For many of those decades, strategic deterrence really meant nuclear deterrence … because strategic attack really meant nuclear attack on the U.S. or our allies,” Kehler said. “In those days, our predecessors envisioned that a nuclear attack could be a sudden surprise or could arise in the course of a large conventional conflict.”
In either case, Kehler explained, a nuclear attack would typically be met with a “one-size-fits-all” deterrence strategy.
That era, he said, passed with the end of the Cold War. “Strategic deterrence and assurance remain relevant concepts today, but (now) we are shaping these concepts for a broader array of individual actors — each with their own unique context,” the general said.
Perhaps most dramatically is the development of tailored deterrence, which according to the general requires a “deeper and more comprehensive understanding of these actors and their decision processes.”
“(Tailored deterrence) requires a robust understanding of the threats (adversaries) pose and more flexibility and speed in our strategy development and … planning,” Kehler said.
Such flexibility involves an adjustment in assets as dictated by mission requirements, he said.
At the height of the nuclear build-up, Kehler said, the U.S. had more than 30,000 nuclear weapons of all kinds, and the Soviet Union had comparable numbers. In total, the U.S. nuclear stockpile has been reduced by more than 75 percent since the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.
The U.S. also withdrew numerous weapons from abroad, deactivating whole classes of weapons such as ground and sea-launched cruise missiles and the Pershing II ballistic missile, he explained.
“These are significant … very positive changes (and) at each decision point along the way, the United States carefully accounted for potential impacts on deterrent capability and strategic stability,” he added.
The end result is a substantially smaller nuclear force that can still deter adversaries, assure allies and maintain strategic stability in future crises, Kehler said.
“The triad of ballistic missile submarines, ICBMs and nuclear heavy bombers with their associated tankers continue to serve us well.”
The general said he and others in Stratcom are mindful of the capabilities that may still inflict enormous damage on the U.S. and its allies.
“Today’s world … includes the threat of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, a growing potential for disruption or destructive attack through cyberspace and the danger of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of violent extremists,” Kehler said.
And as long as those threats exist “it’s Stratcom’s job to offer the president a safe, secure, effective nuclear deterrent force as a vital component of the multi-faceted strategic deterrent the country needs to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” he said.