Assessing the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review: Closing Keynote and Discussion

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JOHN J. HAMRE: (In progress) – after a long day, so it must be a very good session. I’m delighted that you’re all here. But I understand why, too, that it’s a unique opportunity for all of us to hear from Chairman Thornberry.

I think the first time we met, Chairman, we were talking about Pantex, you know, and he had a more narrow interest in Pantex back then because, obviously, of his district. But he’s gotten a much broader field of view now about all things nuclear, and we’ve had a fascinating conversation just now while we were waiting for the room to get reconfigured. This is a chairman that has to be responsible for so many things these days that stretch across the landscape of security policy, but he continues to give unusual focus for this very important issue. For many, many years we’ve rather drifted intellectually on the question of nuclear policy. The chairman has not. He has been there. He’s now ready to help the rest of us get up to speed, and we’re going to hear some of that tonight with his remarks.

And so would you please, with your applause, welcome the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry? (Applause.)

REPRESENTATIVE WILLIAM “MAC” THORNBERRY (R-TX): Well, thank you, John. And I will say I very much appreciate all of the work that CSIS is doing and has done on the issue of strategic deterrence and other aspects of national security as well. And I also appreciate all the help, guidance, and wisdom you have given me from early days all the way through today.

Look, I understand it’s after 5:00 and you all have heard from a number of leading experts. I got to hear a little bit of that earlier today. So, subscribing to the view that it’s often more important to be reminded of what you already know whether than educated about the obscure, I’m going to spend a few minutes just on the basics, at least my perspective of the basics. And necessarily, given my job, it’s going to have somewhat of a more political tint to it – not a partisan, but the political system tint to it – about strategic deterrence and some of the implications.

Like any good preacher, I’ve got three points. (Laughter.) Number one is that our nuclear deterrent has for 70 years and remains the cornerstone of our national security efforts. Number two, we’ve got a lot of work to do to ensure that our nuclear deterrent continues to perform its vital mission. And, number three, this Nuclear Posture Review moves us in a good direction that will ultimately, I think, be helpful.

OK. Number one, it’s the cornerstone. You know, you hear stuff like that a lot, those sorts of phrases, but just passing off a label doesn’t really tell you about why it’s important. I think of a house, and I think of a foundation upon which you can build all sorts of interesting specialized rooms and do all sorts of things there. But when the foundation crumbles, then all the marble countertops and all the fancy wallpaper and all the expensive furniture really doesn’t matter much, when the house – they all become pretty worthless. And so, for 70 years, the most serious existential threat to the United States has been a nuclear attack against our homeland. Deterring that attack has been the essential foundation upon which the rest of our defense efforts depend, because if we don’t do that then nothing else that we are doing in defense matters very much. It’s the foundation, the cornerstone of what else we do.

And kind of like the foundation of our house, it’s under there and we tend to take it for granted, and we tend to neglect it, which is somewhat understandable when success is defined by never having to use it. You know, you hear the sort of thing that, well, it’s worked for 70 years, we ought to just assume it would be good for 70 more without doing anything differently. That’s part of what we hear.

And for more than 70 years the nuclear deterrent has also been the target of some domestic and foreign opposition, based perhaps partly on ideology, partly on a discomfort with the tremendous power of nuclear weapons. And I think that’s part of the reason that there’s this understandable longing just to make them go away, to treaty them out of existence. However understandable that sentiment is, it’s a fantasy. But I think for our purposes it also makes it more difficult sometimes to objectively look at the deterrent and how well it – and its status, and how well it’s performing the essential mission that we want it to do.

Excuse me. There’s some similarities with missile defense because, actually, I first came to Washington just about three months after President Reagan’s 1983 speech proposing the Strategic Defense Initiative. There was immediate opposition to it, and that opposition has continued, partly because some people don’t want to think about what it’s trying to protect us against. Partly it’s ideological. There may be some other reasons I’ll mention in just a second. But whatever the motivation, that opposition to missile defense has slowed or delayed our ability to protect the country against missile attack, including the kinds of threats that we are facing today from North Korea.

I think we have to be alert to the danger that when something becomes politically controversial we don’t think about it, or we take some sort of moderate, middle-of-the-road path and don’t really focus on what needs to happen for the country’s security, and thus let the cornerstone neglect ultimately to crumble.

One other historical note I think of considerable relevance today about political opposition to our strategic deterrent. In his memoir about his time at the CIA, former Secretary Gates wrote about the Soviets’ massive covert action operation aimed at thwarting the GLCM and Pershing II deployments in Europe in the ’80s. Those active measures included providing propaganda themes to peace movement groups in Europe, as well as organizational expertise. They sent them money. They forged U.S. military documents. The list goes on and on.

Now, there’s been some declassified CIA documents that not only goes into greater detail about what the Soviets were doing to try to stop that deployment, but some of it even goes back to the ’77-’78 discussion about the neutron bomb. And there was a similar Soviet active-measure campaign, using political influence, political means, to try to prevent the deployment of the neutron bomb, just like there was the INF deployments in Europe.

It’s part of their standard playbook. Nobody should be surprised that they would try to influence an election here, that they would try to influence a key strategic decision here, and use all sorts of methods to try to do that.

I suspect we’re going to – you know, of course, Putin’s speech this morning may be a little part of it, but I suspect we’re going to see much more sophisticated methods coming from Russia to try to influence the decisions that are required to implement this national – this Nuclear Posture Review. So it’s a big deal.

Number two, I think we’ve got a lot of work to do. Again, I’m on basics here. There are two undeniable realities. One is the effects of time. Time degrades and changes machines. And so there’s no question that there’s only so much longer our nuclear subs can stay in the water. Even with life extension, there’s only so much longer that our missiles can stay in the silos with any reliability. Even the B-52s cannot go on forever. So the three legs of the triad are aging and have to be modernized.

I think what is often forgotten is it’s not just the delivery systems. It’s the weapons themselves. As you well know, we are still dependent upon weapons that were designed in the ’60s and ’70s, largely built in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s the same weapons. We’ll change out a part or two. But time changes things. And we still do not fully understand all of the effects of time and some of those – some of the results.

And so you’ve got the delivery systems, the weapons themselves, and the most neglected aspect is nuclear command and control, which fortunately this NPR at least mentions. Again, time takes its toll.

The other thing that takes its toll is the international security environment. I suspect I’m not the first person today to quote the 2010 Posture Review where it said Russia is not an enemy and is increasingly a partner. Needless to say, things have changed a little bit since the last Nuclear Posture Review. And I’m not going to spend a lot of time. We heard some of it in the previous session about the constant modernization that both Russia and China have done of delivery systems, of the weapons themselves. And, of course, that doesn’t even include the North Koreans and the Iranians.

The only point I’ll make is I do get a little frustrated sometimes when people talk – when there are discussions or articles about how many weapons we have, how many the Russians have, but, of course, their tactical nukes don’t really count. Press reports indicate a couple of thousand of those and lower-yield weapons. I think they definitely count.

Back to basics. The most important word and concept, it seems to me, when we talk about strategic deterrence, is credibility. We have work to do to ensure that our deterrent remains credible and is therefore able to do the job we expect it to do. Deterrence is about preventing a nuclear attack or a blackmail. Its success depends on the decisions of an adversary. The adversary has to believe you have the capability and you have the willingness to use that capability.

So the success or failure of deterrence is determined in the mind of the adversary. Sometimes, as basic as that sounds, I think we forget about that. It’s determined in his perceptions of our strength, of our willingness, and his value judgment about how far to take it. And so, if what we have are weapons designed in another time for another purpose, it may be that we are leading the adversary to believe that we will self-deter ourselves and not use those weapons in other circumstances, and incline him to be more aggressive than he would otherwise.

Deterrence is also dynamic. What worked for 70 years may not automatically work for the next 70 because of technology change, because of mindset changes, because of these environmental changes. Obviously, battleships seemed great for World War I; they didn’t turn out to be so great for World War II. So things change and we have to be willing to change with them.

This was referenced earlier and I just – I think this is one other aspect of strategic deterrence that gets neglected. Because we have no chemical or biological weapons, we count on our nuclear deterrent to deter other kinds of mass casualty attacks. I noted that a couple of weeks ago Bill Gates was quoted as saying, "A small group can have an impact — in the case of nuclear [weapons], on millions; and in the case of bio[terror], on billions. That is scary to me."

Well, it’s scary to me, too. If you want to know one of the things that I worry the most about, it is the developments in the biological field and how they affect national security. I just make the basic point that we count on our nuclear deterrent to have a broader deterrent effect, and we need to keep that in mind when we are thinking about the characteristics of that deterrent. It’s not just to deter the multi-megaton bombs that may come at us; it is for a variety of purposes, and sometimes those are hard issues for us to talk about.

So point number three: I think this Nuclear Posture Review is good and solid, and takes us in the right direction, partly because it is consistent with the bi-partisan policy that administrations of both parties, Congresses of both parties have followed for basically the last 70 years.

A couple of weeks ago, Secretary Mattis came to testify in front of our committee about the Defense Review and about the Nuclear Posture Review, and I just asked him, point blank, about press reports that he was – came into this job thinking that maybe we could do away with one leg of the triad. And he – in his answer he said that was true. He wondered if we still needed to have a land-based missile leg of the triad, but after having studied and discussed it with a number of people, he is absolutely convinced we need all three legs and all three legs need to be modernized. That has been the U.S. policy, the U.S. approach for the last 70 years, and this NPR affirms that, and I think that’s a positive thing.

The most common question you get is can we afford it. At no point does revitalizing all three legs of the triad, plus the weapons, plus the nuclear command and control – at no point does it exceed 7 percent of our defense budget. As a matter of fact, the closest it comes is 6.4 percent in the year 2029, and that includes all the costs of the new bomber, which could be attributed elsewhere, obviously.

So never more than 7 percent of our defense budget – I think we can afford that. In 1984, the nuclear triad was 10 percent of the defense budget. I think an even better answer, though, was one that Secretary Mattis gave: America can afford survival. Yeah. I think – I think that is the bottom line.

Actually, in a lot of ways, the bottom line is this: I think this Nuclear Posture Review reaffirms the principle – articulated best by President Reagan – that the best – but followed by statesmen throughout history – that the best chance for peace comes through strength, and it has to be a credible strength. And I think this Nuclear Posture Review takes us on a path to have more credible strength which can continue to deter mass-casualty attacks against the United States, and that’s the first job of defense and the first job of the federal government.

Thank you. (Applause.)

MR. HAMRE: Thank you very much, Chairman. And we’ve got about – originally the schedule was up till quarter to six, but – now, the chairman has his wife here tonight, the first lady of Armed Services Committee. (Laughter.) And they’ve told me it was a date night. (Laughter.) So we’re –

REP. THORNBERRY: It’s an exciting life we lead. (Laughter.)

MR. HAMRE: It’s an exciting life, you know. So we are going to let him out at 6:00. But we do have a little bit of time for some questions.

I’m going to get started, and it’s just really more to stimulate this audience. I don’t need to do much to stimulate this audience. But if I could, first, Chairman, what is the state of kind of consciousness in the Congress today about nuclear weapons and about deterrence? How much do they think about this? What do we know?

REP. THORNBERRY: Much more about nuclear deterrence and much more about missile defense, given the North Korean situation. I would say that both topics have languished in recent years and even across the whole country. So we would talk – I would talk about the aging of the delivery systems, the aging of the weapons, and it was somewhat blank faces. But not only in Congress, but in the country, there is much deeper concern about what North – where North Korea leads, and so what we have available to defend the country and prevent our country from being attacked.

MR. HAMRE: Could – could I ask you – I completely agree with you that deterrence is the foundation. And it’s obviously – should be the focus of all of our efforts. And that depends on having some discipline in how we articulate what we’re prepared to go to war over. You know, it was, I think, Steve Hadley who once said famously you draw lots of red lines, you get a red carpet, you know.

You know, we have been pretty indisciplined in recent years about making ominous, solemn threats. It seems to me that is corrosive to getting people to believe there are thresholds here. Could you share with us your thinking? How do we talk clearly, not only to the American public, but to our opponents? What will we really go to war over?

REP. THORNBERRY: I think you make a very good point. Now, at the same time, I think you should not say what you’re never going to do, because that’s the other side of this equation.

MR. HAMRE: Right. Right.

REP. THORNBERRY: You simplify an enemy’s calculations by telling him what you – what he does not have to worry about.

On the other hand, if you’re going to draw a red line in the sand, you’d better be willing to back it up. Or as Phil Gramm used to say, never take a hostage you’re not willing to shoot. Maybe that would – (laughter) – but you need to – for people to take you seriously, you need to be very careful about what you say and the way you say it. I think that is absolutely true.

But another aspect of that question, though, is part of our credibility depends on allies believing that they can count on us. The reason that some of them have not gone on their nuclear path is because they have trusted in the credibility in our deterrent, as the last panel was just talking about.

So I do think you need to be crystal clear about your commitment to – at whatever cost to protect your allies, but otherwise don’t simplify the enemy’s calculations. Leave him guessing.

MR. HAMRE: I’m glad you brought up extended deterrence, because – but we tend to think about it rather narrowly. It’s that we’re extending our nuclear guarantee to others. It’s also an extension backwards, that we’re prepared to fight like crazy for them so we can avoid using nuclear weapons. So it’s tied to our conventional credibility. And I think that’s a question people are now having. Is America pulling back too much from the world that it makes incredible its threat to use nuclear –

REP. THORNBERRY: Well, I have been worried about that through a series of decisions that have been made. At the same time, my view is what they watch is what we do much more than what we say. And I think one of the most important things we have done in several years was two or three weeks ago, when we reached a budget agreement to essentially have a 10 percent increase in our defense budget. That shows adversaries, allies, and wavering neutrals that we are serious about standing up and defending ourselves, and we are willing to put the resources into it. And, I don’t know, somewhere I was just reading some writings from another country here recently where they doubted that, thought that we were probably too soft, too dependent on domestic, you know, sorts of mandatory programs in order to do that. So I do think one of the most – one of the clearest messages, and I hope one of the strongest messages, we can give all of those parties is the recent budget agreement, which will be a – is a two-year budget agreement that shows we are not only willing to rebuild the military we have, but invest in the systems that we need in the future.

MR. HAMRE: I’m going to ask an awkward question. Forgive me for this. But it’s – we have not had as much enthusiasm for nuclear modernization from our own military because it’s been seen as being a drain of resources from things they think they’re going to need far more and use far more. The state of your conversation, do you sense that there’s a willingness when budgets might tighten up in three or four years to keep this modernization program on track?

REP. THORNBERRY: I think it’s part of our job in Congress to make sure it stays on track. You know, one of the reasons I said that this Nuclear Posture Review is a helpful contribution is because it has to be followed up with programs and funding to actually implement it. The document itself is not worth much unless it has the dollars and the sustained commitment to the modernization of all the legs, plus the weapons and nuclear command and control.

There’s no question that the services are going to generally take a more parochial view of things. And depending on the dominant culture of the service, that’s going to be your primary focus.

Another example. You know, we have prevented the Air Force from retiring the A-10 for several years now because if you’re from an Air Force standpoint, that’s not your top mission. You want the resources to go into the F-35. If you’re the guy on the ground who’s – who the A-10 comes in and protects, then you have a different view of things. So that’s the top leadership in the department and the Congress that our job, if we do it right, is to look at that broader view and not let service parochial interests or district parochial interests overcome what clearly has to be done for the nation.

MR. HAMRE: Yeah, thank you.

OK, let me open this up here. We’ve got – we can take some questions. John Harvey. I recognize John Harvey anywhere. Everybody else does, too. (Laughter.)

Q: Mr. Chairman –

MR. HAMRE: John, stand up so we can see you.

Q: – in a political environment – domestic political environment as corrosive as we can – as many of us recall, we have succeeded in putting together a modernization program in the last few years of Mr. Obama’s administration and reinforced by the budget request from Mr. Trump in FY ’19, a modernization program that is going to recapitalize our nuclear forces and the associated infrastructure in command and control. What, in your view, is the biggest risk to bipartisan – continued bipartisan support for that modernization program?

REP. THORNBERRY: Let me just say first I think you’re exactly right, and I give Secretary Carter credit for making it clear at the end of the Obama administration that we had to take action, and Secretary Moniz in the Department of Energy. We were in desperate straits, and they began to – especially Secretary Moniz at DOE began to turn things around.

I guess what worries me the most is automatic knee-jerk political opposition to anything Trump supports. That’s one of the reasons I tried to emphasize that I think this NPR is consistent with 70 years of bipartisan approach on strategic deterrence, because I do see, like you referenced, an increasing polarization – if he’s for it, I’m against it. And you see it in both parties, but since President Trump is in office I think you see it a lot on the Democratic side. And I think it would be not in the country’s best interest to have this become a very partisan thing. There’s always been partisan differences about nuclear issues, I know. As I say, I came here in the early ’80s so I remember how intense some of those got to be.

But there was a broad center from both parties that upheld the nuclear triad and the importance of strategic deterrence, and one of the reasons I think it’s so important for CSIS to put on events like this is we need to keep all the smart people on both parties like are in this room on that track to make sure it does not get waylaid by partisan considerations.

MR. HAMRE: Yep, right here. Yes, please. Yes. Thank you.

Q: Thank you very much. Kingston Reif with the Arms Control Association.

Thanks for your comments, Mr. Chairman. I wanted to talk about the cost issue for a moment but open the aperture a little bit to look at future constraints on national defense spending and discretionary spending. As you noted, the budget deal that was reached recently was very good to defense, but the BCA caps are still in place for 2020 and 2021. And then, even after the Budget Control Act, there’s likely to be continued pressure on defense spending, some internal to the Defense Department, namely, the rising costs of O&M and personnel and then some external, including an aging population, growing interest on the debt.

MR. HAMRE: Shorten the question. Shorten the question.

Q: So the question is, do you worry in the future about a mismatch between resources and requirements and, if so – for defense spending and, if so, what should we do to try to head that off now?

REP. THORNBERRY: Yes, I worry about it, and I know everybody here knows these numbers, but 70 percent of the federal budget is entitlements and interest payments. Defense today is 15 – one five – percent of the federal budget. So it is, obviously, very possible if we do nothing that entitlements grow and crowd out everything else. So and the world is not getting any safer as we do that.

So I think we’ve got to – and my view is it’s – defense is the first job of the federal government. We’ve got to spend whatever it takes to defend the country. But I’ll just note that we have been doing some things that do help save money. So, for example, the FY ’19 request for defense health is $400 million lower than it was last year, partly because health care is not going up as much, but it’s lower, and part of the reason is in our defense authorization bills we have put in some reforms of – in the health care system to help bring those costs down.

The FY ’19 budget request also talks about I believe it’s $2.9 billion in savings that they expect to achieve because of some of the acquisition and other reforms we’ve already enacted. Now, none of that counts the retirement – new retirement system, which also brings substantial savings in the out years. We’re not going to fix our budget problems by reform and those things.

But it helps, and we have gotten a pretty decent start. But there’s, obviously, a lot more work that could be done in streamlining, in efficiency and the main goal of all that is to help us be more agile in confronting these very determined adversaries that we face around the world.

MR. HAMRE: OK. Way in the back.

Q: Walid Abdul Jawad (sp), Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

Can you contextualize what you have articulated in a language that people in the Middle East can understand, especially Saudi Arabia, in light of the proxy war on the ground in Syria and the perceived nuclear arm race that is kind of taking place at this point between Iran and Israel and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, starting with the energy program there?

REP. THORNBERRY: Well, I think when you start with context, you have to start with what Iran is doing and, obviously, the Iran nuclear agreement was designed to at least delay their acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, I don’t think it’s lost on anybody that they are continuing their missile development program as well as using proxies in all sorts of aggressive ways. So that is part of the context under which country – other Gulf nations have to figure out how they’re going to defend themselves.

Now, I believe it was in Eisenhower there was an atoms-for-peace program to help develop nuclear power in a way that could not be converted to weapons but would help provide energy. And I – you know, for a number of resource-constrained countries around the world, it seems to me that that concept makes a lot of sense. We want to be involved, however, to make sure that it’s done in a way where it cannot lead to proliferation of weapons.

But I guess the basic point to me is today, in 2018, the technology is not that hard. There can be a variety of motivations to acquire nuclear weapons. We need to try to do what we can to limit their spread. But ultimately what we have to count on to defend the United States of America and ours allies is our own strategic deterrence. And that has to be unquestionably credible. And that’s the reason I think we need significant efforts now to do that.

MR. HAMRE: OK, we’re encroaching – one last one here, because we’re encroaching on date time. (Laughter.)

Q: Eric Jacobson.

How much do you worry about growing Russian and Chinese nuclear and conventional strike capabilities to act as a shield for low-level conventional operations, whether it be in Ukraine and the South China Sea? And, if so, what can the U.S. do to thwart these low-level actions if we are deterred at the nuclear or other high-level levels?

REP. THORNBERRY: Well, my guess is that’s part of what Putin was trying to do this morning; say essentially you attack us, we are going to hit you back with nukes. And so it’s the typical tactics of a bully – see what you can do with bluster and intimidation. And I – you know, that’s gone pretty well for him in a number of places. And I have no doubt that he will continue to push in that way unless and until he meets resistance.

I think one of the best things the administration has done when it comes to Russia, in addition to signing the defense bill to increase our own defenses, was to agree to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine.

So we need to look at our own toolbox and see if we have the tools available to counter and push back on these lower-level, sometimes non-kinetic sorts of tools that the Russians and the Chinese are using. We had been calling them all-of-government approach, because, you know, they’re authoritarian regimes. But we’ve been corrected. They’re all-of-nation approaches.

So whatever resources in the nation of China the government can command them to steal our stuff, push their influence in a whole variety of ways. And obviously we’re seeing that from the Russians, slightly different tools, but they’re doing the same thing. We need more tools. And we need to have the tools we have more effective, because if all we’re left with is our strategic deterrence and our conventional capability, then that’s probably not enough tools to be able to have that wide array that we need. We’re left with too many bad choices. We’re left with bad choices then if all you can do is hit back kinetically.

So some of these – I’m going on. Some of these are hard choices for us, hard decisions, because somebody will try to scare about privacy or they’ll try to talk about government propaganda. You know, there’s these watchwords. The only thing I’ll reinforce is – and – is this point. There are well-meaning, very sincere opponents to all of the things we’ve talked about today – missile defense, strategic deterrence, strategic communications, whatever it’s called. But don’t – we – after what we’ve seen the past year or two, we’d better look under the hood and make sure that the Russians are not fueling our controversies in the way that we have seen them do in recent months.

From their perspective, I suspect it’s been a success. We saw, even with the recent shooting in Florida, Russian-sponsored messages on social media, for some gun control, some against gun control. My point is we better look under the hood when it comes to these sorts of issues because there may be outside sources that are adding fuel to the fire.

MR. HAMRE: Before I let you say thank you to the chairman for his remarks, I would like to say thanks to our friends at Northrop Grumman that really launched PONI 18 years ago. I remember the conversation. Don Winter said we need to so something for the rising generation that needs to get experience and exposure, leadership and mentoring from the senior generation. And, Northrop, you stood up for that, and thank you. Chris, please pass on our thanks. (Applause.)

And let me – and, finally, let me ask you to warmly say thank you to the chairman. Every time I hear him, I’m reassured. And I’m grateful for his leadership. Please join me in thanking the chairman. (Applause.)

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