Nuclear Weapons and
Deterrence in the 21st Century
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Thank you, Jessica, for that very kind introduction. And my thanks also to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace which has, for almost a century, been dedicated to understanding — and preventing — war and its myriad causes.
I’d also like to thank you all for tearing yourselves away from our national election drama, for at least a little while. At one point, President Truman was traveling in England, and he commented on the strange behavior of Americans every four years. He said that “in election years we behave somewhat as primitive peoples do at the time of the full moon.” The moon is certainly full.
It is an honor to speak at a forum with such a long and storied past. In fact, the idea for an endowment dedicated to international peace was first suggested to Andrew Carnegie almost exactly a century ago — right around the time that Carnegie entered the final phase of his life: dedicated to philanthropy and devoted to the cause of peace.
At the time, the nation was reeling from a meltdown on Wall Street — and, I should note, a severe crisis in the credit markets. The international arena wasn’t much rosier. The early years of the century had seen the United States fight an insurgency in the Philippines, in which 4,200 Americans died. Russia and Japan had waged a brutal conflict, and the Boer War had recently ended. At the same time, Europe was arming itself to the teeth and forming a series of alliances whose implications were obvious to anyone who cared to look.
Against this backdrop, there were proposals for arbitration courts, for arms limitations, for dispute resolution — all familiar to us today but somewhat of a novelty then. The movement for international peace may have been in its infancy, but it was having an effect. More so than ever before, the civilized world was focused on efforts to reduce conflicts around the globe.
So was Carnegie, who brought to bear his considerable resources — including the establishment of this endowment. He had also agreed to fund a Peace Palace in Europe, in the Hague — he called it a Holy Temple of Peace — to house an international court of justice and a library, a function it still carries out today. At the dedication of the Peace Palace — in August of 1913 — Carnegie said that “the only measure required today for the maintenance of world peace is an agreement between three or four of the leading civilized powers . . . pledged to cooperate against disturbers of world peace.” The day when men would cease to take up arms against other men, he said, was “certain to come, and come soon, as day follows night.”
Less than a year later, an archduke fell to an assassin in Sarajevo, militarism collided with miscalculation, bombast met bluster, and the continent was plunged into darkness, essentially for the next 75 years.
I mention all of this because one of the hard lessons of history is that it has a way of defying even the best of intentions — especially on matters of war and peace. Consider that the carnage of World War I came in the midst of mankind’s first large-scale, concerted effort to bring about peace. And that this “War to End All Wars” was followed by another world war, employing even deadlier weapons — which, in turn, was followed by numerous conflicts throughout the last century and into this one.
Simply put, we cannot predict the future. And so even as we strive to live up to our noblest goals, as Carnegie did, we must deal with the messy realities of the world in which we live. One of those realities is the existence of nuclear weapons, the subject I want to discuss today.
I should start by noting that three presidents I worked for during the Cold War — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush — genuinely wanted to eliminate all nuclear weapons and said so publicly. More recently, George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn echoed that sentiment in The Wall Street Journal. But all have come up against the reality that as long as others have nuclear weapons, we must maintain some level of these weapons ourselves: to deter potential adversaries and to reassure over two dozen allies and partners who rely on our nuclear umbrella for their security — making it unnecessary for them to develop their own.
The Cold War is over, and with it, much of the need for a massive nuclear arsenal of the same size and composition as that period warranted. Our policies reflect a new set of post-Cold War requirements:
• We have taken numerous weapons systems out of service — including the Peacekeeper ICBM, half our Minuteman ICBMs, and a number of ballistic missile submarines. Our B-1 heavy bombers and four Trident submarines no longer have a nuclear mission.
• In 1992, we unilaterally stopped nuclear testing, and developed the Stockpile Stewardship Program to improve the safety, security, and reliability of our stockpile in the absence of further testing — a subject to which I’ll return later.
• We have completed all the reductions required under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — or START.
• We are planning to reach the limits of the Moscow Treaty — a two-thirds reduction of our deployed nuclear force levels of eight years ago — by 2010, nearly two years early. All in all, within a few years we will have 75 percent fewer nuclear weapons than at the end of the Cold War.
In 2001, after a thorough review of our strategic posture, President Bush announced a New Triad. It consists of: First, our strike capabilities, including our traditional nuclear deterrent and conventional capabilities; second, defenses, including limited ballistic missile defenses; and finally, an infrastructure to support the other two. The goal of the New Triad is to reduce our emphasis on nuclear weapons for deterrence and provide the President more non-nuclear deterrence options and responses to potential crises.
Even so, we must be realistic about the world around us — about the challenges we face and about our ability to predict what other nations will do. President Clinton called his nuclear arms reductions part of a “lead and hedge” strategy: We’ll lead the way in reducing our arsenal, but we must always hedge against a dangerous and unpredictable world.
That is still true today, and maybe even more so. Rising and resurgent powers, rogue nations pursuing nuclear weapons, proliferation, international terrorism — all demand that we preserve this “hedge.”
There is no way to ignore efforts by rogue states such as North Korea and Iran to develop and deploy nuclear weapons, or Russian or Chinese strategic modernization programs. As long as other states have or seek nuclear weapons — and potentially can threaten us, our allies, and friends — then we must have a deterrent capacity that makes it clear that challenging the United States in the nuclear arena — or with other weapons of mass destruction — could result in an overwhelming, catastrophic response.
There is little doubt that some nations will continue to think that possession of nuclear weapons is the best way to preserve their regime or threaten their neighbors. We remain concerned that this is the case with North Korea and Iran today, as it was with Libya and Iraq in the past.
At the same time, demographic and budgetary concerns have led other countries to rely heavily on their nuclear forces. This is a strategy that resembles President Eisenhower’s “New Look,” during the 1950s, where nuclear weapons became the top priority for defense budgeting and strategic planning, as Eisenhower feared that trying to compete with Soviet conventional forces would either bankrupt America or turn it into a garrison state.
Ironically, that is the case with, Russia today, which has neither the money nor the population to sustain its Cold War conventional force levels. Instead, we have seen an increased reliance on its nuclear force, with new ICBM and sea-based missiles, as well as a fully-functional infrastructure that can manufacture a significant number of warheads each year.
China is also expanding its nuclear arsenal. It has increased the number of short-, medium-, and long-range missiles — and pursued new land-, sea-, and air-based systems that can deliver nuclear weapons.
To be sure, we do not consider Russia or China as adversaries. But we cannot ignore these developments — and the implications they have for our national security.
Our nuclear arsenal also helps deter enemies from using chemical and biological weapons. In the first Gulf War, we made it very clear that if Saddam used chemical or biological weapons, then the United States would keep all options on the table. We later learned that this veiled threat had the intended deterrent effect as Iraq considered its options. While some may not see a real nuclear threat to the United States today, we should be mindful that our friends and allies perceive different levels of risk within their respective regions. Here, our arsenal plays an irreplaceable role in reducing proliferation.
Ever since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968, the international community has recognized that the fewer nuclear-armed states, the better. In recent years, this concern has been highlighted by the grim realities of ideological terrorism, revelations about scientists selling nuclear know-how to the highest bidder, and information exchanges between irresponsible regimes.
Our goal continues to be to keep the number of nuclear states as limited as possible. And to this end, non-proliferation and arms-control efforts have had real successes over the last 45 years. South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, and Libya have all forsaken nuclear weapons for a variety of reasons. And our nuclear umbrella — our extended deterrent — underpins our alliances in Europe and in the Pacific and enables our friends, especially those worried about Tehran and Pyongyang, to continue to rely on our nuclear deterrent rather than to develop their own.
Our nuclear arsenal is vital for a final reason I mentioned earlier: We simply cannot predict the future. Who can tell what the world will look like in 10 to 20 years? As someone who spent most of his career in the intelligence business, I can assure you that our track record for long-term guesswork hasn’t been all that great. We have to know our limitations. We have to acknowledge that the fundamental nature of man hasn’t changed — and that our adversaries and other nations will always seek whatever advantages they can find. Knowing that, we have to be prepared for contingencies we haven’t even considered.
Try as we might, and hope as we will, the power of nuclear weapons and their strategic impact is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle — at least for a very long time. While we have a long-term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons once and for all, given the world in which we live, we have to be realistic about that proposition.
What seems to work best in world affairs, historian Donald Kagan wrote in his book On the Origins of War, “Is the possession by those states who wish to preserve the peace of the preponderant power and of the will to accept the burdens and responsibilities required to achieve that purpose.” Now, if we accept that nuclear weapons are still relevant — and indeed, necessary — then we also have to accept certain responsibilities.
You are well aware of problems over the last year or so with the Air Force’s handling of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons-related material.
These problems are being addressed as I speak:
• The Air Force is standing up a new headquarters office at the Air Staff that will focus exclusively on nuclear policy and oversight. This office will report directly to the Air Force Chief of Staff.
• The Air Force has also proposed a Global Strike Command that will bring all its nuclear weapons and materiel supporting U.S. Strategic Command — the nuclear-capable bombers and ICBMs — under one entity that can focus solely on the nuclear enterprise.
• The Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base is being revitalized and expanded — with a focus on sustainment and clearing up ambiguous chains of command that have created problems in the past.
• During the 1990s, supply-chain streamlining folded some nuclear-related components — such as the nose cones sent to Taiwan — into the regular supply chain. The Air Force is undergoing a top-to-bottom review of which items need to be taken out of that chain and placed under control of the Nuclear Weapons Center.
• And finally, the Air Force is developing a stronger, more centralized inspection process to ensure that nuclear material is handled properly — an effort that will be bolstered by expanded training for security personnel assigned to nuclear duties.
This will undoubtedly be a long-term process, but I have confidence that the Air Force is now moving in the right direction. And I thank all the Airmen who are currently working to return the Air Force’s nuclear mission to the standards of excellence for which it was known throughout the entire Cold War.
Beyond changes currently underway, I asked former Energy and Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to form a task force to review the organization of both the Air Force and the Department of Defense as a whole to ensure that we have proper leadership and oversight of the nuclear enterprise. And I look forward to receiving his report and recommendations in December.
There is another element equally important to our arsenal’s credibility: the safety, security, and reliability of our weapons.
Let me first say very clearly that our weapons are safe, reliable, and secure. The problem is the long-term prognosis — which I would characterize as bleak.
No one has designed a new nuclear weapon in the United States since the 1980s, and no one has built a new one since the early 1990s.
The U.S. is experiencing a serious brain drain in the loss of veteran nuclear weapons designers and technicians. Since the mid-1990s, the National Nuclear Security Administration has lost more than a quarter of its workforce. Half of our nuclear lab scientists are over 50 years old — and many of those under 50 have had limited or no involvement in the design and development of a nuclear weapon. By some estimates, within the next several years, three quarters of the workforce in nuclear engineering and at the national laboratories will reach retirement age.
Our nuclear weapons were designed on the assumption of a limited shelf life and that the weapons themselves would eventually be replaced. Sensitive parts do not last forever. We can and do re-engineer our current stockpile to extend its lifespan. However, the weapons were developed with narrow technical “margins.” With every adjustment, we move farther away from the original design that was successfully tested when the weapon was first fielded. Add to this that no weapons in our arsenal have been tested since 1992 — so the information on which we base our annual certification of the stockpile grows increasingly dated and incomplete.
At a certain point, it will become impossible to keep extending the life of our arsenal — especially in light of our testing moratorium. It also makes it harder to reduce existing stockpiles, because eventually we won’t have as much confidence in the efficacy of the weapons we do have.
Currently, the United States is the only declared nuclear power that is neither modernizing its nuclear arsenal nor has the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead. The United Kingdom and France have programs to maintain their deterrent capabilities. China and Russia have embarked on ambitious paths to design and field new weapons. To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.
For several years, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have pursued a Reliable Replacement Warhead program — a program to field a safer, more secure warhead. New designs build in enhanced safety features and high reliability that can be assured without actual underground testing. The program would reinvigorate and rebuild our infrastructure and expertise. And it could potentially allow us to reduce aging stockpiles by balancing the risk between a smaller number of warheads and an industrial complex that could produce new weapons if the need arose.
The Congress has so far refused to fund the program beyond the conceptual phase — and this year funding was cut for even that. The reason, I believe, lies in a deep-seated and quite justifiable aversion to nuclear weapons, in doing anything that might be perceived as lowering the threshold for using them, or as creating new nuclear capabilities. Let me be clear: The program we propose is not about new capabilities — suitcase bombs or bunker-busters or tactical nukes. It is about safety, security, and reliability. It is about the future credibility of our strategic deterrent. And it deserves urgent attention. We must take steps to transform from an aging Cold War nuclear weapons complex that is too large and too expensive, to a smaller, less costly, but modern enterprise that can meet our nation’s nuclear security needs for the future.
I’ve spent most of my time talking about our nuclear arsenal. Before closing, I want to take a step back and discuss, briefly, some of the broader implications of deterrence in the 21st century.
There can be little doubt that the post-Cold War world offers a new strategic paradigm for nuclear weapons, and particularly for the concept of deterrence. As our 2008 National Defense Strategy puts it, “the challenge is one of deterring or dissuading a range of potential adversaries from taking a variety of actions.”
Deterrence has a specific policy goal — and, in this sense, deterrent strategies can be applied to many situations.
A few examples come to mind.
Rogue regimes that threaten their neighbors and our allies, potentially with nuclear weapons, are a problem today and will be in the future. Our goal is, in part, to reduce their ability to hold other nations hostage, and to deny them the ability to project power. The New Triad I mentioned earlier, with a conventional strike force and ballistic missile defense, helps achieve this. A conventional strike force means that more targets are vulnerable without our having to resort to nuclear weapons. And missile defenses reinforce deterrence and minimize the benefits of rogue nations investing heavily in ballistic missiles: They won’t know if their missiles will be effective, thus other nations will feel less threatened. And let’s not forget the deterrent value of other parts of our conventional military forces.
We also still face the problem of weapons passing from nation-states into the hands of terrorists. After September 11th, the president announced that we would make no distinction between terrorists and the states that sponsor or harbor them. Indeed, the United States has made it clear for many years that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force to the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, our people, our forces, and our friends and allies. Today we also make clear that the United States will hold any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor or individual fully accountable for supporting or enabling terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction — whether by facilitating, financing, or providing expertise or safe haven for such efforts. To add teeth to the deterrent goal of this policy, we are pursuing new technologies to identify the forensic signatures of any nuclear material used in an attack — to trace it back to the source.
As we know from recent experience, attacks on our communications systems and infrastructure will be a part of future war. Our policy goal is obviously to prevent anyone from being able to take down our systems. Deterrence here might entail figuring out how to make our systems redundant, as with the old Nuclear Triad. Imagine easily deployable, replacement satellites that could be launched from high-altitude planes — or high-altitude UAVs that could operate as mobile data links. The point is to make the effort to attack us seem pointless in the first place.
Similarly, future administrations will have to consider new declaratory policies about what level of cyber-attack might be considered an act of war — and what type of military response is appropriate.
Now, some may find it ironic that I chose this forum — dedicated to international peace — to address this topic — dealing with the most destructive weapons ever conceived by mankind and some of the most cutting-edge ideas for future warfare. At the end of the day, however, every great nation has learned — often the hard way — that, in George Washington’s words, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
Not surprisingly, Andrew Carnegie rejected that notion. Never one to mince his words, even to the president of the United States, Carnegie traded sometimes-caustic letters with Teddy Roosevelt during his time in the Oval Office. In one exchange on arms limitations, Roosevelt cautioned him, writing “We must always remember that it would be a fatal thing for the great free peoples to reduce themselves to impotence and leave the despotisms and barbarisms armed.”
Years later, Carnegie corresponded with a different president. Times were different. It was early 1917; Carnegie’s spirit was largely broken by the horrors of World War One; and President Wilson, who had won reelection with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” was nearing the decision to send American doughboys to Europe. Andrew Carnegie, the great spokesman for international peace — who had once donated a rowing lake to Princeton to discourage football, because, he thought, that sport gave young men too much of a taste for violence — that same Andrew Carnegie encouraged the president in the strongest terms to declare war, because, he wrote, “There is only one straight way of settlement.”
As long as human nature is what it is — as long as the tragic arc of history continues its course — we cannot eliminate the need to be prepared for war any more than Andrew Carnegie was able to eliminate war itself.
As Theodore Roosevelt said, it would indeed be a fatal thing to leave ourselves unarmed against the despotisms and barbarisms of the world.