Watch, Read: Nuclear Deterrence and Global Stability

Retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, moderates a panel discussion with Gen. Anthony J. Cotton, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command; and Lt. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, on “Nuclear Deterrence and Global Stability” during the AFA Warfare Symposium on March 3, 2022. Watch the video or read the transcript below. This transcript is made possible through the sponsorship of JobsOhio.

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies: “Well, good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to this session of the 2022 AFA Aerospace Warfare Symposium. As you can see, to my right, we’re privileged here to have some very distinguished leaders with us to discuss nuclear deterrence and global stability. Let me just take a couple of sentences to set the scene for you. It should go without saying, but it needs to be said that America’s nuclear forces are the bedrock of our nation’s security and key to preserving global stability. But let’s face it, our nuclear enterprise is old, and it’s in need of modernization. That’s why programs like the B-21, GBSD, long-range standoff weapon, and nuclear command, control and communications modernization are so important.

“As all of you know, we’re working extra to execute these modernization efforts at the same time that Russia is developing and deploying next-generation nuclear weapon systems. And China’s in a breakout. I just read about that this morning. They’ve actually sort of triggered some internal lever that sees them perhaps doubling their nuclear stockpile over the next few years. So while these developments might serve as an obvious warning to many about the need for the U.S. to remain committed to its own nuclear modernization efforts, there are also some who are quite vocal in arguing that we should be building down our nuclear forces, not recapitalizing.

“So bottom line, we’re here today in interesting times. And that’s why I’m so very pleased to be joined by two of our nation’s key leaders in this realm, Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, and Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, who’s deputy commander of the United States Strategic Command. So welcome, gentlemen. Thank you both for taking the time to be here. And not only that but what you’re doing in your respective commands. You both command a lot of respect, and it’s well-deserved. So what I’d like to do to kick this off is to give you both the opportunity and make a couple of opening comments, and Gen. Cotton over to you.”

Gen. Anthony J. Cotton, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command: “Thanks, Dave. Well, first of all, I’d like to say thank you to AFA. Orville, thanks for the invite. But more so thanks for the invite of all the men and women that are sitting in the audience that got a good opportunity to kind of hear senior leaders and describe what’s going on in the world today and hear from that vantage point and that point of view. So thanks for being able to do this for the years and years that you guys have been doing this. It’s exceptional.

“So to my right, though, I have to kind of give a shout out to Tom Bussiere. So Tom and I kind of go way back. We actually survived the numbered Air Force commanders and Global Strike Command together. And it was awesome. I had 20th, and he had eighth. And we’ve been friends even before then. And we continue to be incredible friends today. So thanks, Tom, for everything that you’re doing as deputy commander out of STRATCOM.

“You know, you highlighted it, right? The world has changed. I think that’s an understatement. I don’t like to be the guy that says I told you so. And I won’t, because I think all of us kind of knew that the underpinnings of what could happen was always there. But you know, we shifted our posture within within Global Strike Command. When you say ‘nuclear enterprise’ for us, I’d like to say that I’m not necessarily the nuclear deterrent force. I’m actually the strategic deterrent force, the strategic arm, lon-grange strike capabilities, both conventional and nuclear, that represents the United States Air Force in the department, and as the JFACC to the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, being able to present those forces. So being able to do that in a conventional and nuclear, if required, sense, is what we’re all about. And that’s what makes up Air Force Global Strike Command.

“You know, I think we must maintain our nuclear capabilities. You said it, David, right? I mean, we kind of are where we are. You know, everyone keeps saying, ‘Well, you know, well, how quickly are you going to be able to modernize?’ And we can talk about that in some of the questions and answer sessions. The fact of the matter is, I wish I was already 15 years into it. But we’re not. That being said, I’m comfortable of where we’re going and the developments that we’re taking. But yes, it would have been a nice, a nicer opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we’re at the end of our nuclear modernization right now.’

“You talked about it. Back when I was the 20th Air Force commander, I would tell you that I don’t know that we in 2015, that we really were thinking that … by 2035, or by 2030, that the Chinese would have 200, you know, not mobile 200 land-based ICBMs. We weren’t thinking that, right? 2018: Well, maybe 2035; 2021 and 2022, we’re sitting here talking about in … by 2030, they might have an arsenal of over 1,000 weapons. That’s how quick they’re advancing in their capabilities — at an incredible pace. And you’ve heard that all through the day. I think everyone in the audience knows this, but I think it’s worth relaying. Global Strike Command is, I repeat, is the long-range strike capability of the United States Air Force. We are all of the strategic bombers in the free world. We are all the land-based ICBMs in the free world. We are responsible for two legs of the triad. So I think everyone needs to kind of take a step back as Airmen, and Guardians because Guardians as well support us, to understand that fact — that the Department of the Air Force is responsible for two legs of the triad, which is fundamentally foundational to the national security of this nation. And we need to understand that.

“And the world notices us, whether on the conventional side,[garbled] bomber task forces that support all the COCOMS. I think there’s nothing nicer than seeing our allies and partners fly up on the wings of Andy’s bombers when they’re doing bomber task force missions throughout the globe. Because our AOR is the globe. And we’re able to prove that day in and day out. On the ICBM side, being able to have 24/7, 365-day umbrella coverage to not only the United States but to allies and partners, being able to describe or show our capabilities through tests when we launch out of Vandenberg Space Force Base. Those are things that are noticed, to be frank, more by the international press than even by our own U.S. press. So it shows that we’re making a difference. We’ll talk more about modernization. I was going to talk about that. But I’ll pause there and then we can talk about the modernization of the weapons systems in the in the Q&A. But I’m incredibly proud to be here and representing the strikers of Global Strike Command.

Deptula: “Tom?”

Lt. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command: “Thank you, sir. I’m gonna kind of categorize my opening comments in kind of three big buckets. First, some thanks. And then a little bit on the threat and then a little bit on the need for modernization. So, first of all, thanks. You know, before I do that, I think the first time I met Gen. Cotton, I was the IG doing a nuke surety inspection on his wing. So that was our first meeting. That was kind of fun for me.”

Cotton: “Nothing like a nuke surety inspection.”

Bussiere: “So thanks. I want to echo Gen. Cotton’s thanks to AFA from a slightly different angle. So bringing together Airmen, Guardians and their leadership teams and coupling that with the experts in industry is really a recipe for success. So I know it’s the standard, but to the Airmen and Guardians in this room and the leadership teams, take advantage of networking with each other, between the two services as well as with our industry partners, because when the chief says innovate or lose, that innovation resides in this room and with our industry partners. So that’s kind of point No. 1.

“Second, to Gen. Cotton and the Air Force, obviously, as the air component to U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. Cotton’s responsible for two-thirds of the triad. And the strikers do that in a multitude of ways, whether it’s the ICBM force or the bomber force, sustainment and oversight of our NC3 systems. But probably just as important, if not more important, the stewardship and oversight of the, I would purport to be, the most important acquisition programs in the Department of Defense. So all that coupled together is right here in this forum in Orlando.

“The next thing I’d like to, for a moment if you’ll indulge me, is this second, this minute, 150,000 soldiers, sailors, Airmen, Marines and Guardians are standing the watch, providing that bedrock of national security for our nation and our allies every day. And they’ve been doing that for decades. We tend to forget about that. We don’t necessarily forget about the importance of the mission. But I’d like you all to sometime today take a few seconds and silently thank and think about those warriors that do this every day, and many of them are in this room.

“So Gen. Deptula talked about the threat a little bit. I don’t think you have to go too far back in the last couple of weeks to realize that the world is a unique and dangerous place. Whether we’re talking about the Soviet Union’s, now Russians’, arsenal and the recapitalization of their strategic forces, which last year, the president of Russia articulated in the high 80%. And … those are those systems accountable under the New START Treaty. What we have to maintain cognizant over is the fact that there are a multitude of nontreaty-accountable nuclear weapons being developed and proliferated in the Russian arsenal. And that’s growing every day and every week. And that doesn’t account also for the exotic systems that the president of Russia highlighted in public in the last few years, which if you don’t know about those, then I invite you to ask Mr. Google about them. For China, I would say that 10 years ago, their public narrative and their rhetoric match their force posture and their nuke enterprise. I’d say that fast-forward to the 2020s, where we see them today and in the future, as Gen. Deptula mentioned, it’s no longer congruent with their public statement of why they have that arsenal, and we’re seeing a rapid diversification and expansion of their nuclear capabilities.

“And we can discuss at length the differences between our treaty obligations and mechanisms of security with Russia and the fact that we don’t have those with China. And then last, to be the master of the obvious, if you believe that the bedrock of our national security is the strategic deterrence forces, which I do. If you believe that the world as we see it today is a dangerous and an ever-expanding threat base, which I do, then you can agree with me that the recapitalisation of the nuke enterprise is absolutely essential in all three legs. And hopefully, we’ll have an opportunity to discuss that during our comments today. So thank you.”

Deptula: “Well, thanks very much, Gen. Cotton. It might be pretty basic for some people, but I think it’s pretty important and useful to ground folks in the core arguments regarding why we have a triad. So could you just kind of hit on those basics? For not just the audience here but those who might be watching this and we can help educate? You know, the naysayers and others.”

Cotton: “Yeah, thanks, Dave. So when we talk about the ‘triad’ in this conversation and the rhetoric that’s going back and forth on whether or not you need one or not, I think presenting forces to the commander of STRATCOM for all three legs and being able to provide options for him to be able to provide options to the president is key and fundamental. So when we talk about the land-based ICBM leg, we’re talking about the responsive leg. When we talk about the bomber leg, we’re talking about that leg that can be seen, that can be a generated force. What people don’t really talk about is how each one of the legs — and of course, the third leg being the SLBMs in the subs that is the donor leg that the United States Air Force doesn’t own — but what we don’t talk about a lot is how each leg of the triad complements each other, how each leg of the triad, actually, or can be hedges for the other leg … to ensure that we’re maximizing what Adm. Richard as the commander of STRATCOM can present to the president. Right?

“So when you — and oh, by the way, it must work because our adversaries are doing exactly the same thing. Right? … The Chinese has announced that, you know, that they have, not a fledgling triad, that they have a triad. Right? The Russians have a triad for the exact same reasons on being able to complement each of the other legs. So this argument that if you — which I don’t agree with; I want to maximize the options that we can provide as the provider of the force and present the force to STRATCOM, who then presents it to POTUS. I want to be able to maximize those effects to be able to do that. And I don’t, you know, it’s really hard to kind of figure out how you can do that when it is not a triad. And when you say, ‘Well, will a diad work?’ I’ll say to that, for me, I think the answer is no.”

Deptula: “No, it’s very good. Gen. Bussiere has often said that we’re talking about the triad, but NC3, your nuclear command, control and communications, is the fourth leg of that triad. That would be a quad, I guess, but whatever.”

Cotton: “A quadad.”

Deptula: “Yeah, it clearly is a crucial part of the modernization plan. And obviously, nuclear command and control, if there’s anything that ought to be secret, really secret, it’s that, but can you talk a little bit about a broad scheme of modernization for NC3?”

Bussiere: “Yeah, absolutely. I guess I’ll just expand upon your comment about the fourth leg of the triad. You know, the credibility of our strategic deterrence forces is in the three legs of the triad. The credibility of our ability to deter is in our ability to command and control it. So over many, many decades, we have developed and fielded, both in the Air Force and in the Navy, 204 systems that account for NC3 that are currently on the books. And over the last [garbled] years, the Department of Defense, the Air Force and the Navy has gone to great strides to acknowledge and account for those systems and make sure that their readiness and operational utility is extended into the future. It was so important to then Secretary Mattis that he directed the stand-up of the NEC, the NC3 Enterprise Center in Omaha, so the commander of STRATCOM, Adm. Richard, is also the commander of the NC3 Enterprise Center, which accounts for that connective tissue between the Air Force systems and the Navy systems both for today and the future. I’d offer to you the expertise in this room and then the industry partners are going to be the future for what we call NC3 Next.

“So not only do we have an obligation to maintain the current 204 systems today at full operational capability, but there has to be a graceful transition into the future. So you can think about, I think it was the chief that said this morning, when he came in the Air Force, he was a captain before he had email. So think about how we’ve developed our NC3 systems to do command and control decades ago, and then think about the technology we have today. And so how we’re going to transition and take advantage of the technologies and the innovation that industry and the Air Force and the Navy have both from operational perspective and a technical perspective and merge that into what we’re calling NC3 Next, and couple it with JADC2 that the Department of Defense is doing with the services, is absolutely essential.

“But we can’t lose sight of the fact that we have to maintain our current full operational capability today as we gracefully transition to those systems. All that I’ll offer is if the ‘NC3 Enterprise Center,’ ‘the NEC,’ is a new term for you, we’d invite you out to get educated on that, both from a component perspective and then from a joint perspective.”

Deptula: “Thank you. And Gen. Cotton, as the strategic deterance landscape is changing markedly given proliferation issues, actions by Russia and China and the increasing role of technology, could you walk us through a bit about what other actors are doing when it comes to building their own nuclear weapons capabilities?”

Cotton: “Yeah, let’s start with China. I mean, you alluded to it in your opening comments, so, you know, and I spoke of it as well, so think about where we thought the minimal deterrence rhetoric that was being articulated in the mid-2010s. Right? Minimum deterrence; 2015, from where I alluded to being a commander of the 20th Air Force, where you know, the talk was, ‘We don’t need to worry about that until about 2035-2040s.’ Then I become the deputy commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, and that moves to 2035. I’m the commander of Global Strike Command, and now it’s 2030. They are building their arsenal at a rapid pace.

“So from that perspective, seeing the H6N, for example, as their nuclear-capable bomber, saying that it has extended legs, seeing that they’re actually now doing air refueling. Where if that was a regional notion in the past, why now train your crews on air refueling capability and etc. Seeing hypersonics being introduced for China. Let’s move to Russia. So, Russia: 80 to 85% complete on their nuclear modernization. And we’re just beginning.

“So that’s just two of our, you know, what I call our near-peer adversaries that we’re dealing with, with capabilities that are actually, you know, quite dire if you really think about some of the capabilities that they have presented. And you heard Tom talk a little bit about some of those capabilities as well. So 85%, 80 to 85% complete, and their modernization over the past 20 years, when we were in the desert, they were still modernizing their force. A China that is a true triad nuclear-capable, probably no longer a minimal deterrent, China. Then we look at Iran. I think Iran is sitting at about, I think they just announced that they have kept capacity and capability for 60% in uranium enrichment. North Korea, who is thinking the month of January launch seven ICBMs, or I’m sorry, ‘space venture tests.’ And you know, and even recently, in the month of February, you can add to that number.

“So, it’s real. Right? So that’s why it is imperative, it’s very important for us to continue with the rigor that we are right now and modernizing our force.”

Deptula: “It’s a real challenge. You heard the NORTHCOM commander earlier in the prior session talk about while China may be the pacing threat, Russia right now has the preponderance of nuclear weapons. But now we see China getting to the point with accelerating, just like you talked about, that we’re facing some serious challenges. Gen. Bussiere, in that regard, my sense is that the Cold War paradigms are in need of some major update. This may be especially true given that past understandings we had with our adversaries just might not translate to the current climate. I’ll toss out a concern that we might not fully understand what China’s going on and thinking about their no first-use policy, for an example. Everything Gen. Cotton just said, given what he said, what does that mean for the U.S. as we seek to ensure that we’ve got a modern relevant strategic deterrence strategy?”

Bussiere: “So I think we’ve had this conversation a few times in the past year. I’ll kind of reverse the order there a little bit. So I would offer that any discussion of how we’re going to approach the threats that we see today and in the future has to start with a recapitalized, modernized triad that’s underpinned with our ability to command and control it. So that’s a given in this discussion. Because if you don’t have that as a premise, then the discussion of how we’re going to deter two near-peer adversaries plus the regional actors gets somewhat skewed and gets derailed pretty quickly. So I’ll offer that as the first thought.

“The second piece I’d like to intellectually challenge everyone is if you go back into the ’60s and ’70s, whether it was, you know, at the time the RAND Corp. or other think tanks or other industry or academic partners, there was an unbelievable effort of intellectual energy looking at how we are going to develop the theories of deterrence, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, now Russia. Well understood, a lot of documentation, a lot of literature, even though we may not necessarily have that conversation as much as we should now, I think it’s being rebirthed. And I’ll offer to you that it’s being rebirthed in Gen. Hecker’s organization both, at SAS and SANS, and I think there’s some school of advanced nuclear deterrence studies students here at AFA this year.

“But our ability vis of the service, whether it’s the Air Force, the Navy, Army, Marines, or our Guardians, or it’s the joint force or OSD, it has to start, I think, in the Air Force and the Navy, with the operational experts that can come up with theories of how we’re going to develop a model to deter two near-peer adversaries that have the capability. They have their own rheostat now. You know, we’ve had the luxury of, for decades now, of having our ability to dial the rheostat up on primarily the conflicts we’ve been fighting in the Middle East. We’re now facing two near-peer adversaries there that have their own rheostat of escalation that is not only nuclear but multiple domains involved in that. And so how do you approach that from a peer-to-peer perspective, and now couple that with two near-peer adversaries, potential adversaries, that we have to deter, and I’d offer to you, that we have to deter in different ways. So innovation is not just operations, not just new weapon systems, innovation is intellectual power that we need in the Enterprise also.”

Cotton: “Dave, can add?”

Deptula: “Absolutely.”

Cotton: “One of the things I think is going to be important for us as Airmen and Guardians, because whether or not you’re in the Enterprise or not, you are in the Enterprise as Airmen and Guardians. You, as members of the Department of the Air Force, are going to have to be able to articulate what it means to own two legs of the nuclear triad. Because every one of you in this room own two legs of the nuclear triad. Right? And if we can’t get there as a service to have, because I remember what Gen. Goldfein used to say. He says when you’re in a room as an Airman, and now Guardian, folks are going to look at your tape that says United States Air Force. They’re not actually looking at all of this that’s sitting up here. Right? You have to be able to articulate who we are as a department. And as a department, we own two legs of the nuclear triad and the majority of the NC3 systems by the way.”

Deptula: “Very good. Gen. Cotton. What were the key drivers pushing DOD to develop a new generation of triad capabilities? I mean, let’s face it: Minuteman 3, B-52, command and control—all of these are decades old. But, so are we talking about sustainment challenges, a diminishing pool of support vendors or the basic viability of the systems?”

Cotton: “Well, so the systems are viable. What we want to do is ensure that we never reach the expiration date. So let’s talk about the weapons systems a little bit. So for the Minuteman 3, for example, the sustainment challenges, they’re real. It was a system that just celebrated its 50th anniversary not too long ago, on the backs of young Airmen, by the way. The maintainers out in the missile fields are incredible. The ICBM operators who operate them are incredible. The defenders who defend them are incredible. But it’s on their backs. It was a system that was, I mean, it’s an incredible weapon system. The Minuteman 3 is an incredible weapon system. It was designed for a 10-year lifespan. Right? So it was designed using 1960s technology; 1970s technology, then, is modernization.

“So if you think about that, it’s really, really hard to take what we would see as what we do in a 21st century, in an open architecture system, to be able to just do basic maintenance and things of that nature to support that weapon system. It was never even designed in. But like I said, those incredible Airmen in the northern tier that are monitoring them each and every day are keeping them viable. So that’s one.

“And you’re right. You know, I was joking in the audience here earlier. I said that I might need a component that’s the size of what’s holding that rail, and there’s no one out there that makes it anymore. And the supply line no longer has it. So you reverse engineer it. Right? So … how do you get a vendor … in the audience to say, hey, I need 500 components of this piece of aluminum. They said sure, I’ll make it 10,000. I don’t need 10,000 of them; I need 500 of them. Well, OK, that’s great, I’ll charge you, you know, imagine what that cost will be in just building that one piece of equipment. … So that’s why modernization of the Minuteman 3 absolutely has to happen. … No, we’re past that. We’re past that. What I find that’s interesting in the conversation about GBSD: We’re five years into the program of record of GBSD, of the replacement of the Minuteman weapon system. So let’s stop talking about it like we’re trying to figure out if we’re going to turn it into a program of record. It is a program of record. It is the system that we need to replace the Minuteman weapon system. And the team, many are in the audience, are doing an incredible job to do just that.

“For the B-52, as we talk about the B-52 and its CERP program in replacing and modernizing its radars, modernizing its avionics. We just recently announced the engine contract on putting new engines on that airplane. You know, people pick on the B-52 and its age all the time. You know, it’s funny, I was just telling someone, so we’re getting ready to celebrate its 70th birthday. So for all but five years of the United States Air Force’s life as a service, there’s always been a B-52, except for five years of its life. And guess what? There will be until 2050. So the modernization efforts that are going into the B-52 is incredibly important for strategic deterrence.

“The B-21, the B-21, is a penetrating and daily flyer that we have to have, and it will be the preponderance of the bomber force moving forward. As we drive down to a two-tail force, that will be a B-52 updated version of the H model, as well as the B-21. That’s what the United States of America is going to have as a bomber force, the two-bomber force. Incredibly important for the conventional role as well as the nuclear role that it will play. LRSO to replace the ALCM, the long-range strategic weapon that will replace the ALCM. Incredibly important, as Gen. Bussiere has mentioned, in the modernization of the nuclear force. Let’s see what else, I think I’ve captured all of them. … So when we talk about, I have to do that, because every weapon system that I own is getting modernized. That’s great. I wish we could have done it earlier. But I’m happy that it’s happening now.”

Deptula: “Very good. Thanks for that. Now, Gen. Bussiere, could you give us kind of a system-by-system breakdown of when this modernization is going to be complete?”

Bussiere: “So I’d like to dovetail off what Gen. Cotton just said and kind of approach your question, Gen. Deptula. So what Gen. Cotton just said about the air and land leg of the triad also is true for the maritime leg. So we’ve seen the ICBM Minuteman 3 fielded potentially for 10 years, now at 50. We talked about B-52. And we can’t forget the Ohio class has been extended to 42 years of service, and that’s a different dynamic when we’re talking about haul pressure on the boomer fleet. So if you look at the B-21, the GBSD or the Columbia class that’s underpinned by our ability to command and control it. You know, it has served our nation well. Our current triad and our current NC3 equipment has served our nation well. And it has underpinned our national security and that of our allies and partners. It was built in a different world. It was fielded in a different world.

“So as we look at the world as we see it today, the threats we see it today and going into the future, this one, underscore underline and bold text, the fact that we need to recapitalize the triad and keep it on schedule to not only keep it operationally relevant to account for the vanishing vendors, the increase, the sustainment cost, but to meet the threats of the future. So it’s not just a mechanical, operational or vanishing vendor challenge. We always step back from that which is real and look at the operational requirement within our nation’s triad and what the threat is presenting, and … we don’t have any more operational margin to continue to life extend these programs.

“So I’m sure I don’t see Gen. Bunch out here, but I’m sure he would not want me to go program by program and challenge his acquisition programs. But I can tell you right now, both from the Air Force side and Navy side within the department writ large, we are happy and pleased to see the emphasis both from the Air Force and Navy perspective, as well as in the department’s perspective to make sure we field these capabilities on time.”

Deptula: “Well, thanks very much. Unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of this Aerospace Warfare Symposium event. And I think the audience will agree with me that we’re blessed to have both of you serving in the positions that you are. We thank you for what you have done, what you continue to do and what you will do in the future. So please join me in thanking our two guests this afternoon.

“And just as a reminder, we’re gonna have our final event of the day with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt on accelerating artificial intelligence, and that’s coming up here at 4:40. So we’ll see you then.”