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DASD for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Delivers Remarks at the Mitchell Institute Nuclear Deterrence Forum Series

Sept. 2, 2020
Dr. Robert Soofer, Deputy Assistant Secretary Of Defense For Nuclear And Missile Defense Policy; Doug Birkey, Executive Director, Mitchell Institute

DOUG BIRKEY: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Doug Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute, and welcome to our Nuclear Deterrence Forum Series.

We are very fortunate to have Dr. Robert Soofer with us today. Dr. Soofer is a deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, supporting the undersecretary of defense for policy and the assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities. In this role he develops strategies, creates policies and conducts oversight of national nuclear policy, treaty negotiations and missile defense policy. He is a key architect of both the most recent Nuclear Posture Review and the Missile Defense Review.

Previously, Dr. Soofer served as professional staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and was the staff lead for the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

So sir, with that, welcome and thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. I'd like to start today's session by giving you an opportunity to make a few opening remarks on U.S. nuclear strategy, the future of arms control, and perhaps some of your other top priorities. So sir, with that, over to you.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT SOOFER: Doug, thank you so much for -- for inviting me. I appreciate it. I know that this -- this Mitchell Institute venue is an extension of -- of the -- the Breakfast Series that was started by Peter Huessy I -- I guess at least three decades ago --


DR. SOOFER: -- and I would just reiterate what a national treasure it is to be able to -- to -- to discuss these issues. I've -- I've seen some of the -- the excerpts of interviews you've had with Admiral Richard and Admiral Hill of the MDA and -- and you've been talking to the service representatives and other material developers. So I think you and your -- your viewers understand the importance of nuclear modernization, so I don't want to -- to repeat that, although of course, it is important.

I wanted to perhaps spend some time talking more generally about nuclear policymaking and the relationship between deterrence, strategy and politics and help -- help your viewers understand why we have the debates that we have here in -- in Washington, D.C.

You know, you -- you could be forgiven for thinking that nuclear weapons policy is fraught with controversy, especially in the U.S. Congress. This is the impression you get when you read the newspapers. But the reality is different. For example, for fiscal year 2020, the year we're in now, Congress provided 98 percent and 100 percent of the funding requested for the nuclear enterprise for the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, respectively. So in fact, modernization is securely underway for each leg of the nuclear triad, as well as the Weapons Life Extension Programs and -- and the infrastructure projects that are being overseen by NNSA, so we're in a good position there.

But look, this isn't to suggest that our issues are free from controversy. Indeed, the recommendation of the 2018 NPR to modify a small number of W76 submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads to provide them with lower yields was a large point of contention with Congress and within the broader strategic community. The Democratic chairman of the HASC stated, quote, "The decision to deploy the 76-2 warhead remains a misguided and dangerous one. This deployment further increases the potential for miscalculation during a crisis. Validating the utility of so-called 'low-yield' nuclear weapons in 'winning' a nuclear war adds to the growing pressures of a nuclear arms race."

By contrast, the ranking Republican member of the HASC, Mac Thornberry, stated, quote, "This deployment enhances U.S. deterrence and tells Russia that any attempt to use nuclear weapons as part of an 'escalate to deescalate' approach will not be successful. This action is a needed, prudent step to strengthen the security of the U.S. and our allies."

So how is it that two senior members of the Armed Services Committee can come to very different conclusions about the 76-2? One believes it's a prudent measure; the other calls it misguided, and even dangerous. Can we explain this merely because one has an "R" and the other, a "D" after his name? Or are there fundamental disagreements about nuclear strategy and deterrence theory informing their views?

Look, it's not only politicians who disagree, nuclear experts across the spectrum of think tanks have opined dramatically different ways, no doubt contributing to the discourse on Capitol Hill.

My sense is that these debates over nuclear strategy, policy and force structure are influenced not only by one’s theory of how nuclear deterrence works but also by various external factors not necessarily related to the matters of strategy or deterrence logic, what I term politics. Right?

So a few moments on -- on -- on -- on policymaking. The conventional wisdom of our policymaking, including nuclear policy, suggests that decisions flow from the rational calculation of interests and objectives with a conscious calibration of means and ends. But for those of you who have spent any time in government know, this conventional wisdom is wrong or at least it's much more complicated.

In practice, U.S. nuclear policy is affected by institutional procedures, bureaucratic politics, the push and pull of domestic and international politics, individual priorities, interest groups, lobbyists, the media and even the press of time and events. In fact, there is no pure objective analysis of nuclear policies.

Decisions taken by an administration on what nuclear strategy to pursue, what kind and how many nuclear weapons to build and even when to use nuclear weapons are influenced by a host of factors.

For example, the debate over a nuclear no-first-use policy is influenced by alliance politics. Likewise, the need to reassure allies drives U.S. nuclear force structure requirements and even U.S. nuclear strategy itself. Budgets and domestic politics certainly inform nuclear force structure decisions as much as strategic requirements.

And so my point is there is no pure nuclear policy driven only by rational strategic analysis.

Let's return to the two different reactions to the 76-2 that I mentioned earlier. I might suggest that Chairman Smith and Ranking Member Thornberry enjoy two very different perspectives on nuclear strategy and that these views are based on dissimilar assumptions about how nuclear deterrence works.

For the sake of this discussion, allow me to offer two basic schools of thought: simple and complex deterrence. These categories are illustrative and scholars in the field use different terminology to convey a spectrum of theoretical approaches for the terms.

Simple deterrence, sometimes referred to as minimum deterrence, reckons that deterrence is achieved by maintaining the plausibility of nuclear retaliation which can be achieved fairly easily with a limited number of nuclear weapons.

Deterrence, according to Robert Jervis, a scholar in this field, says it "comes from having enough to destroy the other's cities." This capability is an absolute not a relative one.

Bruce Blair, who unfortunately recently passed away, suggested that, quote, "Deterrence today would remain stable even if retaliation against only 10 cities were assured."

For this school of thought, nuclear strategy and a nuclear balance is less important to credible deterrence than maintaining the ability to retaliate against the adversary’s society. Credibility of deterrence is based on creating the fear or chance at uncontrolled nuclear escalation.

In the words of Kenneth Waltz, another scholar in the field, quote "The deterrence effects of nuclear weapons derive not from any particular design for their employment in war but simply from their presence."

The other school of thought is complex deterrence. As the name would suggest this recognizes effective deterrence to be more complicated, requiring an understanding of the adversary, an appreciation for deterrence under varying circumstances and scenarios, and requiring more attention to the types of capabilities and flexibility needed to ensure deterrence credibility in support of broader U.S. strategy.

This school of thought pays close attention to the nuclear balance and places a premium upon assuring the survivability of nuclear forces that can threaten what the adversary holds dear. This approach to deterrence has been the basis of U.S. nuclear policy since the 1970s and probably even the 1960s.

As Secretary of Defense Schlesinger said in 1975, quote, "To be credible and hence effective over the range of possible contingencies, deterrence must rest on many options and on a spectrum of capabilities."

Now back to our two members of Congress. Chairman Smith likely falls into this -- into the simple deterrence category, whereas Ranking Member Thornberry is in the complex deterrence camp.

Chairman Smith likely believes the 76-2 is dangerous because, for him, nuclear deterrence and strategic stability are derived from mutual vulnerability and that for deterrence to be effective, one must make nuclear use as abhorrent as possible. In his view, a low-yield nuclear weapon is designed for nuclear warfighting rather than deterrence, which in turn makes nuclear war more likely.

At the very least, the W76-2 is gratuitous for deterrence. At the very worst, it lowers the threshold for nuclear use and makes nuclear war more likely.

Mr. Thornberry is likely in the complex deterrence camp. He believes deterrence threats to be credible must take into account the views and capabilities of the adversary. And he sees a Russia that is expanding its tactical nuclear weapons capabilities, exercising to a doctrine for limited first use, and is upon occasion threatening our allies with nuclear strike.

For him, the low-yield SLBM warhead provides the president with additional nuclear options in a regional context that would deter Russia -- Russia's nuclear use in any scenario.

For Thornberry, the threat of U.S. nuclear employment on behalf of our allies is made more credible in the eyes of Russia and China when we build capabilities to implement those threats. As NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg put it, quote, "Deterrence starts with resolve. It's not enough to feel it, you have to show it."

The W76-2 raises the threshold for Russian nuclear use, because Russian leaders see that we have taken practical steps to ensure that adversaries can derive no benefit from even limited nuclear use.

So there you have it, two different views about the need for the W76-2 based on very different assumptions about how deterrence works.

Now, it's difficult to explain the disagreements over the 76-2 only on the basis of deterrence theory, if only because it may be too much of a coincidence that mostly Democratic members oppose, while Republican members support the weapon. So perhaps there is an element of politics involved, and one shouldn't discount the role played by interest groups and think tanks. And it is perhaps notable that, although the 76-2 was controversial, House Democrats supported the modernization of the nuclear triad writ large, programs that were started and endorsed by the Obama administration.

So now let's talk a little bit about nuclear strategy.

A problem with discussing nuclear strategy and policy is that these terms can be somewhat ambiguous and not everyone uses them the same way.

I'm not sure we have a par -- publicly articulated nuclear strategy per se, but then I'm not quite sure the Navy can articulate a maritime strategy or that the Air Force can explain its, quote, "aerospace strategy." Instead, we usually speak in terms of nuclear weapons roles, principles, employment guidance and declaratory policy.

So let's start with some key principles in declaratory policy as derived from the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which if you haven't figured out by now, hews closely to the complex theory of deterrence, as did the 2010 NPR for that matter.

So first of all, the highest strategic priority for U.S. nuclear policy is to deter potential adversaries from nuclear attack of any scale. However, deterring nuclear attack is not the sole purpose of nuclear weapons. U.S. nuclear weapons support our broader U.S. national security objectives, such as deterring large-scale conventional aggression, biological and chemical attacks, and reassuring allies against these threats so that they don't seek to acquire nuclear arsenals of their own.

Second key principle, U.S. -- the U.S. would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances: to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies and partners. This is a very high bar that must be met before the president, who is the only one that can order the use of nuclear weapons, will contemplate the use of the 76-2 warhead or any nuclear warhead for that matter.

A third often overlooked principle of U.S. nuclear policy and strategy is that the United States will strive to end any conflict and restore deterrence at the lowest level of damage possible for the United States and its allies.

In other words, should the adversary employ nuclear weapons in a limited manner in a regional conflict, our objective will be to -- our objective will be to deter further nuclear use, while seeking to terminate the conflict on advantageous terms for the U.S. and its allies.

Now, we come to a key point that drives the discussion of nuclear strategy. And by nuclear strategy, I mean the employment of nuclear weapons in support of broader military and strategic objectives, which in turn support political objectives.

The objectives of our nuclear strategy are, first and foremost, to deter war both conventional and nuclear. And second, should nuclear deterrence fail to deter further nuclear use and hopefully bring the war to an end before the worst imaginable nuclear catastrophe unfolds.

To be clear, our nuclear strategy does not rely solely on massive and immediate attacks against the adversary, though we maintain this capability to deter adversaries from contemplating a first strike against the United States.

Instead, such attacks -- that is, massive attacks -- would represent the failure of our nuclear strategy. Rather, our nuclear strategy as articulated in the Nuclear Posture Review calls for tailored deterrence with flexible capabilities, including an appropriate mix of nuclear capabilities and limited graduated response options, something that every U.S. administration over the past six decades has valued.

We cannot know if the strategy will succeed, but it is preferable to a strategy that threatens all-out attack against Russian society, particularly in response to limited provocations.

A strategy of massive retaliation long has been deemed to be incredible in the eyes of our nuclear peers, given our own vulnerability to counterattack. The other disadvantage of a strategy based on large-scale nuclear retaliation is that should nuclear deterrence fail, it must fail totally and catastrophically, as it provides no opportunities to cease escalation well before the destruction of the attacker and defender's societies.

Now, critics of the strategy of limited use to restore deterrence will question whether initial use will stay limited. They foresee in the ensuing chaos that both sides will perceive a benefit in escalating to higher levels of violence in the hope of securing victory, or that neither side will be able to control nuclear use even if they wanted to. But indeed, uncontrollable escalation could occur. But this fact in itself, perhaps, adds to the deterrence effect at the outset.

But one can also imagine that nuclear adversaries will want to make an effort to avoid such a catastrophic exchange. And having broken the nuclear taboo for whatever reason, will now want to do whatever possible to prevent further escalation. Our nuclear strategy provides for this possibility. An alternative strategy of solely threatening large-scale attacks does not.

Now, it would appear that the Russians may think along these lines as well. In August, last month, a very important article was published by Major General Sterlin of the Russian General Staff. In this article, General Sterlin added some clarification to the Russian decree on nuclear deterrence, which was released in June.

In addressing the conditions for nuclear use, Sterlin noted that, quote, "The specific actions to be taken in response" -- and then he says in parenthesis, "(where, when, and how much) will be determined by Russia's military and political leadership depending on the situation."

So their use of nuclear weapons will depend on the situation. This suggests that Russia may be interested in limiting escalation rather than resorting immediately to large-scale nuclear attacks.

So in summary, U.S. nuclear strategy is one of resolve and restraint. Our limited use of nuclear weapons in response to a Russian or Chinese attack is intended to demonstrate resolve, convincing the adversary that it severely miscalculated when it contemplated the use of nuclear weapons.

This strategy also evinces restraint and sends a message to the adversary that it has much more to lose if it continues down the path of nuclear escalation.

The requirements for such a nuclear strategy place a premium on the survivability, flexibility and readiness of U.S. and allied nuclear capabilities. It requires a range of delivery systems and nuclear yields. Such a nuclear strategy is based on a complex view of what is needed to deter adversaries under diverse circumstance.

A more simple approach to deterrence, by contrast, would assume that merely the existence of a small number of nuclear weapons is sufficient to deter nuclear attacks, and therefore a wide range of capabilities are either not needed or even provided.

So there's certainly more that can be said about nuclear policy strategy, but let me stop there and reserve time for questions about this and about missile defense and about anything else your viewers might be interested in asking. Doug, over to you.

MR. BIRKEY: Sir, I really appreciate that rundown, the depth of your perspective and insight is most impressive. So thank you.

Let's dig a little bit deeper into some of the points you mentioned. First, NORTHCOM and NORAD Commander General O'Shaughnessy recently testified that our adversaries have demonstrated the capability, capacity and intent to hold the U.S. homeland at risk below the nuclear threshold.

How is the evolving missile threat, which adds hypersonic and cruise missiles to the ballistic missile threat, impacted your thinking about deterrence and missile defense of the homeland?

DR. SOOFER: Right, thanks. So when we conducted both the Nuclear Posture Review and the Missile Defense Review, we -- we drew a distinction between nuclear attacks against the homeland and non-nuclear, right?

And if -- if Russia or China were to attack us with -- with a nuclear weapon, whether it's a hypersonic glide weapon, a cruise missile, a nuclear SLBM, an underwater nuclear torpedo, nuclear deterrence would -- would pertain in this situation, we rely on our nuclear triad and the threat of retaliation.

If -- if the threat is -- is a conventional one, that changes the -- that changes the consideration, a bit. And that is that we have actually faced a threat from conventional Russian strikes in the past. Russia has had conventional sea-launched cruise missiles that could have been launched off the coast of the United States. They have air-launched cruise missiles that could attack the United States.

So being able to defend against these -- these threats has always been part of our calculation. But the NORTHCOM commander rightfully is -- been more concerned about this because these threats are actually expanding in number and type, and it's probably part of a Russian -- it would be part of a Russian and Chinese strategy to prevent us from reinforcing our allies, right?

We think about defending ports in -- in NATO, for instance. Well, we need to also defend the ports of embarkation here in the United States. So being able to protect these critical capabilities with missile defense against even conventional cruise missile strikes or conventional ballistic missile strikes is something that we need to pay increasing attention to.

But, again, if -- if the threat is nuclear-armed, go back to nuclear deterrence 101, right?

And so, in that sense I'm not sure a hypersonic missile armed with a nuclear weapon changes the -- the threat picture much more than what Russia can already do with ballistic missiles launched by ICBMs or submarine-launched ballistic missiles which also fly at hypersonic speeds.

MR. BIRKEY: In many ways it is that back-to-the-future-type scenario with some of these issues?

DR. SOOFER: Right.

MR. BIRKEY: So both the HASC and the SASC fully funded nuclear modernization in their markups of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. And you know, as you mentioned, it seems to suggest there's a degree of bipartisan agreement on the need to modernize our nuclear enterprise.

And you touched on this before but if you could go into a little bit more, is this a fair assessment? And where do you really see this consensus going?

DR. SOOFER: Yeah, I -- I really do believe that the -- the genesis of this consensus can be traced back to first the 2009 Strategic Posture Commission report. This was chaired by -- by James Schlesinger and William Perry. And again they -- they drew the linkage between nuclear modernization and non-proliferation and arms control.

This -- this linkage here was reinforced I think during the debate over the New START Treaty in 2010, where again you -- you had a commitment to nuclear modernization as well as, you know, pursuing arms control -- effective arms control where possible. And I think -- I think that fundamental consensus was carried through in Obama's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, because, you know, in -- in that review they recommended the modernization essentially of each leg of the nuclear triad. And this was reinforced in the Resolution of Ratification and the letter from President Obama to the U.S. Senate prior to the advice and consent of the New START Treaty.

So there -- there is this -- this general consensus on modernizing each leg of the nuclear triad as well as our forward-deployed capability in the way of B61 bombs and the dual-capable aircraft.

There was -- there was a lot of discussion when the new Congress took over. Chairman Smith raised some very important questions: Do we need to have an ICBM leg? Should we conduct a new nuclear posture review?

Look, I think these are all legitimate questions to be raised. Every two years we have a new set of members that -- that enter the Congress; turnover in the Senate is less so. But it's always important to discuss these issues.

But at the end of the day Adam Smith asked these questions but the questions were answered, and what came out the other end was support by both Democrats and Republicans, authorizers and appropriators to fund each leg -- the modernization of each leg of the nuclear triad, right?

Where the controversy was was on W76-2, and I explained that -- that reasonable people could disagree about -- about how it fits in with our nuclear strategy and depending on how you think about nuclear deterrence you'll have one view or another. There's some politics involved, of course. But those issues were -- were discussed and I'm glad they were discussed. But at the end of the day, the decision was taken by Congress to support the 76-2. And I would -- I would suggest that there are also members -- my predecessors who've had this position in the Obama administration, understand the value of that the -- understand the -- the strategic logic underpinning that.

So while we can differ on the margins, this consensus on the need to -- to -- to recapitalize our nuclear forces to address a -- a -- a growing Russian threat in the context of this great power competition, I don't think there's any disagreement whatsoever and I think the congressional marks bear that out.

Now, this year, the HASC and the SASC have marked up, they've provided full support again for all of these programs. The House Appropriations Committee took a $2 billion reduction to the -- to the Department of Energy's request for these capabilities. It's -- it's a very large cut. It's going to have tremendous impact on our ability to -- to modernize the nuclear infrastructure but I hope that the Senate Appropriations Committee will fully fund the request and that in conference, we'll be able to explain to the -- the House appropriators again the logic behind this request, point out that these things were funded in the past. For instance, funding the production of plutonium pits, it's something that was supported by the -- the Obama administration, LRSO, modernizing, doing life extension programs on the warheads such as the 76, the 61, and the others.

These -- these things -- these -- most of what came out of the Trump Nuclear Posture Review was an extension of what was agreed to by the previous administration. Again, where the -- where the big change was was on these supplemental capabilities, primarily the 76-2 and the nuclear sea launch cruise missile.

So we're going to have a debate over these and -- as we should -- but again at the end of the day I think -- I feel pretty comfortable that we're going to end up supporting the -- the essence of -- of the nuclear triad and the nuclear modernization program, at least as -- as long as China and Russia continue to grow their nuclear capabilities.

MR. BIRKEY: I appreciate that. You -- you know, obviously, sticking with the Hill theme here a little bit, continuing resolutions are -- are always harmful to the Department of Defense. Particularly when a lot of modernization is under way, it can be particularly difficult. And with things like GBSD in play and other programs, can you please talk to us about how C.R.s are impacting your -- your efforts to modernize the triad?

DR. SOOFER: Well, with -- with a C.R., you're going to have less money than -- than what is needed for the program and that invariably is going to slow down the program. There's no question about it. GBSD, I think the contract is going to be awarded before the end of this fiscal year.

So in terms of -- of a new start, we should be covered but -- but if there is a continuing resolution, there will be less money available in '21 than is needed for GBSD as well as the other programs and it's going to have an impact. There's -- there's no question about it.

But all programs in the Department of Defense will likely be impacted unless certain anomalies are -- are built into that continuing resolution.

MR. BIRKEY: So looking a little bit broader here. Critics often point to Russia and China's nuclear modernization efforts as evidence that the United States' missile defense and nuclear modernization programs are spurring a renewed arms race. How would you respond to that criticism? And as a follow up, what are Russia and China's primary motivations regarding the vector of their nuclear programs?

DR. SOOFER: All right, well, let's -- let's maybe separate this out. I -- I hear it -- I -- I hear the argument, especially when I've -- when I've been on the Hill that our missile defense programs are prompting, you know, Russian and -- and -- and Chinese nuclear modernization but it's -- but if you -- if you go back and you view the forensics, you'll see that -- that the -- certainly the Russian programs were started well before we deployed these 44 ground-based interceptors to protect the -- the homeland.

The -- the other important thing is -- is the Russians -- and some -- some -- some Russians are probably concerned about our -- our nuclear -- I'm sorry, our missile defense capabilities but others, I think, are just using it for political purposes.

In the past, Russians have complained about our -- about our missile defense capabilities and they've threatened that -- that there won't be nuclear reductions if we deploy missile defenses. But look at what's happened in -- in history -- in 1983, Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, we -- we -- there was a prospect that we would deploy huge astrodome defenses, space-based defenses and the like but within a few years, we had not only the INF Treaty in 1987 but then we had the New START Treaty in 1991.

So there was -- there was the potential for missile defenses but yet we had arms control. Then in 2002, we pulled out of the -- the ABM Treaty. One would've thought that if we pulled out of the ABM Treaty, this would lead to a huge arms race but in fact we ended up getting the Moscow Treaty, where we went from 6,000 under START to about 2,200 under the Moscow Treaty. So we had both missile defense and arms control.

The Russians -- when -- when the Obama administration was negotiating New START, the Russians insisted that there had to be limits on missile defenses. There were no limits on missile defenses. We managed to -- to secure a New START agreement which reduced forces further down to 1,550.

So I think the Russians perhaps protest too loudly about this and they may even be using this because they know could potentially drive a wedge between our allies and ourselves and even influence congressional debates over -- over nuclear modernization. So that's -- that's with respect to missile defense.

On -- on the nuclear side of the house, the -- the Russians like to boast that they are about 80 to 90 percent complete with their nuclear recapitalization -- their ICBMs, their submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and their bombers.

So clearly, they've been busy recapitalizing their forces and we have yet to get started. So you can't argue that our nuclear programs led to their nuclear modernization. Their modernization has come first. We are now just on the cusp of beginning to move from the concept phase to the engineering phase to actually procuring these systems and it won't be until around 2030 that the -- the full brunt, the full weight of our nuclear modernization will be witnessed by -- by Russia and China.

And so you -- you can't argue that our nuclear programs are precipitating Russian nuclear programs. Russia, yeah, they've -- they've -- again, in addition to sort of recapitalizing their forces, they're still standing within the -- the New START limits. So there is no arms race, per se, between Russia and the United States, with one important exception and that is Russia's non-strategic nuclear weapons, or we call these unconstrained nuclear weapons, unconstrained by New START. These are the tactical nuclear weapons, the short range systems, the torpedoes, the depth charges, the surface-to-air missiles, the sea-launch cruise missiles, the ground-launch cruise missiles, the air-launch cruise missiles that are all nuclear capable.

They have today probably more of these unconstrained weapons than they are allowed strategic warheads under New START. So under New START, they're allowed 1,550 warheads. They have more of those available for deployment on -- on these theater or -- or -- or tactical range systems.

That's the problem -- that's the problem that we face and that -- that -- this is what kept us awake at night when we conducted the Nuclear Posture Review and which led us to the conclusion that, in addition to these capabilities, the Russian nuclear doctrine, the way they exercised to this, we had to do something to counter Russia's perceived perception that they could use these weapons to coerce us in a -- in a regional conflict, and this led to the recommendation for the 76-2 and to the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.

So I'll -- I'll say that, again, when it comes to strategic forces, there is no arms race; there's only recapitalization on both sides. Russia is racing to grow its tactical nuclear weapons. We're just starting to tie our sneakers to get into this race, right? We've got the 76-2, but now we're going to be unveiling the -- the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, which is our response to -- to Russia's tactical nuclear weapons. We don't need to match them weapon for weapon, but we do need to be able to -- to give the president and our regional combatant commanders another option to address these Russian capabilities. So that's our response there.

Now, the other interesting thing that you raise is China, right? In the past, China has always been a subset of our nuclear requirements for Russia. As China starts to grow its capabilities, whether they're intending to reach parity either qualitatively or quantitatively, they are starting to close the gap. They're closing the gap with both Russia and the United States. As they increase their nuclear capabilities, we will have to respond. If we respond, it's going to impact our relationship, our nuclear balance with Russia, and this is where you could actually see an arms race being precipitated by the growth of Chinese forces.

And so we're telling China, we've been telling Russia, "Let's bring China into these arms control talks. Let's talk about why China needs to increase the size of its capabilities." Because at the end of the day, if they increase the size of its nuclear forces, Russia and the United States will have to respond, and they are not going to be any better off. Better to come to the table now and start talking about these things and see how that plays out.

MR. BIRKEY: Yeah, I really appreciate those insights. So what's your view on the no-first-use policy, and what are the implications of such a choice? And what would be the impact upon our allies?

DR. SOOFER: Yeah. So we have been -- we've been debating no first use since the 1950s, believe it or not. It's not a new concept. It's not a new concept. And at the end of the day, the problem with a no-first-use pledge is that it -- it -- it lowers the -- the risk to adversaries who are contemplating a conventional attack against our allies, right? They may think that they -- you know, if they attack us with conventional forces, overwhelming conventional forces, say, in the Korean Peninsula, that they could push us back as they did during the first Korean War, and that we absolutely will not use nuclear weapons. If that lessens the risk to them they may -- this may encourage them to -- to launch a conventional attack.

We don't want to do that. We want to have a level of ambiguity such that they might think that we would use nuclear weapons. So that's why we -- we -- we cannot adopt a no-first-use pledge. But more specifically, our allies have told us this, both in -- in our Nuclear Posture Review and in the previous Nuclear Posture Review, we consulted with our allies, and they told us, "Do not -- do not say 'no first use.' Do not invoke a no-first-use policy."

Again, the purpose is to increase the level of risk that we would use nuclear weapons should an adversary attack us with conventional forces, or even biological weapons or chemical weapons. There has to be the threat of -- of -- of nuclear use.

But having said that, remember, I told you that our policy is that we would only use nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances. There's going to be a high bar for nuclear use, right?

Now, what is the benefit of a no-first-use policy? Are -- are -- are other countries going to believe us? I don't believe China when they say they have a no-first-use policy. Or maybe they believe that they have a no-first-use policy, but in extremis, if they have to use nuclear weapons, they will use nuclear weapons first. So I'm not sure what a no-first-use policy gets you other than maybe in the -- in -- in the -- in the halls of the disarmament community who would think that you've -- you've now made it less likely that anybody would use nuclear weapons because you've pledged not to use nuclear weapons. But I think that pledge is only as good as -- as -- as sort of the piece of paper that it's written on, and at the end of the day, the risks of -- of invoking a no-first-use policy in terms of the nervousness it's going to cause our allies is not worth any potential gains.

MR. BIRKEY: Certainly, the example of peace through strength. The Missile Defense Agency's fiscal '21 budget request paves the way for a new layered homeland ballistic missile defense system to protect against attacks from rogue states. Now, I understand that MDA is planning to conduct an intercept test with an SM-3 Block IIA against a representative ICBM target, and is also evaluating the technical feasibility of employing THAAD as part of the architecture. Could you please describe what is driving the need for this approach? And how do you envision the homeland missile defense architecture evolving as you look to the future?

DR. SOOFER: Thanks, Doug. You know, one of the primary fundamental principles of missile defense is layered missile defense. You want to be able to intercept the missile in all its phases of flight -- boost phase, midcourse, and terminal. You want to sort of thin the herd to allow subsequent layers of defense to be more effective.

That's easier said than done, right, because boost-phase defense is difficult to accomplish because you have to be at the right place at the right time as the missile is -- is launched, and you don't have a lot of time. The midcourse phase gives you more time, but the adversary has the ability to deploy decoys and -- and penetration aids and the like, and the terminal phase has certain advantages because these -- these penetration aids and decoys are stripped away. But again, these things are coming in very fast, and you don't have a lot of time to react to it. But the principle is if you have a layered defense, a layered defense is better than just relying on one phase -- defense in one phase of flight.

And so we have, for homeland defense, up until now relied primarily on one phase of flight, one layer of defense. That's the midcourse, right? Our ground-based -- our 44 ground-based interceptors intercept in the midcourse phase.

What we'd like to do is see if we can, sort of, squeeze some extra performance out of our SM-3 Block IIA missile, which is intended for regional defense to defend against medium- and intermediate-range systems and see if they can provide some -- some -- some additional protection, an additional layer, a lower layer of defense to complement the ground-based interceptor, right? And potentially, THAAD could do this, as well. But as you get to -- to these systems, the SM-3 Block IIA and THAAD, the defensive footprint starts to shrink. So it's not -- it doesn't provide a -- as wide an area of protection as the GBI does, but it does complement it because you have different layers.

What's driving us to consider this more urgently now than in the past is the fact that the -- the -- the modernization of our ground-based interceptors has been delayed.

Originally, we were going to add an additional 20 ground-based interceptors in the middle of the next decade. But due to complications associated with the redesigned kill vehicle and the increase in the threat, the Department of Defense made a decision based on engineering and threat estimates to pursue a -- a next-generation interceptor, a more capable interceptor. In fact, this interceptor will be new from including -- include a new booster as well as a new warhead -- sorry, kill vehicle and it's truly going to be the next-generation system. And as a result of that, it's going to take a little more time. We're going to start introducing that system in 2028, right?

And so the -- potentially there's a gap -- there's a risk, I should say, between 2025 when we had anticipated having the -- the additional 20 GBIs, and 2028.

So we don't know exactly what that gap is -- we don't know what the risk is because we know that North Korea is planning to increase the size of its ICBM capabilities, maybe even move to a submarine launched ballistic missile. But we don't know the extent of that.

So in order to buy down some of that risk, we're going to look at whether or not the SM-3 IIA can perform this under-layer role. We'll conduct a test before the end of this calendar year, and if it works, then figure out some way to integrate it into our defense.

I'm not sure the -- the plans have been laid out, the concept of operation. But one could contemplate, because these are sea-based systems, the initial deployment would occur on ships, and the ships would have to be located in a particular position closer to the U.S. shore in order to provide that -- that layered defense.

Of course, this provides complications for the U.S. Navy that would want to have its -- its nuclear ships more forward-deployed to address conventional threats. And so we'll have to work that out. But eventually, in addition to deploying the SM-3 IIA on ships, you could envision the system being deployed on -- on U.S. territory as well.

And again, we haven't thought completely through this. We need to figure out, first and foremost, whether or not this is going to work. And that's going to happen hopefully by the end of this year.

And if it does work, now, we have a capability to address the North Korean threat. I don't think this is going to pose a threat to -- to a large nuclear force such as Russia. Again, remember, Russia has, under New START, 1,550 warheads. We have 44 interceptors, we're going to add another 20 to get up to -- up to 64 ground-based interceptors.

And we'll have a number of SM-3 IIAs probably in -- I'm not sure what the total number is, but it's going to be in the low hundreds. And these are systems that are not just doing to be deployed for the United States, but spread throughout the regions.

So given -- given the small numbers of GBIs and SM-3 IIAs in the underlay, this doesn't pose a threat to Russia. It will, however, help us deal with the North Korean threat, and that's why we're pursuing it.

MR. BIRKEY: I appreciate that.

There have been several rounds of talks between Russia and the United States to extend New START, but the two sides appear to be far apart on several key points. What are some of the issues that need to be addressed with an extension to New START, and how likely do you view progress in some of those areas?

DR. SOOFER: Thanks, Doug. I've had the privilege of joining Ambassador Billingslea, who's the special presidential envoy for arms control in -- on our talks with the Russians in Vienna. And I would characterize those talks as being very professional. We've sort of gotten beyond the talking points, we've had good exchange back and forth between the two sides.

And in addition to pursuing the arms control discussions per se, we're also delving into nuclear doctrine, nuclear policy, nuclear strategy, which of course influences your nuclear force structure, which could influence the way you think about arms control.

All very helpful, and I think we're making a lot of progress. In fact, I think this article by Major General Sterlin that I mentioned, which follows the Russian nuclear decree back in June, is potentially a response to -- to our discussions with the Russians. So I think we're making progress in that sense.

MR. BIRKEY: I really appreciate that.

DR. SOOFER: But -- but let me -- let me talk more specifically about --

MR. BIRKEY: Yeah, yeah.

DR. SOOFER: -- New START extension because I think that there -- there is a -- a misperception, at least in some sectors of the press, that we're not -- that the Trump administration is not interested in an extension under any circumstances and we're just going through the motions.

Let me quote to you from our U.S. ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan. He said, quote, "We are willing to contemplate the extension of the New START, but such an extension will only occur if we agree on a broader framework.

"Three things here: one, address concerns that we have with Russia's buildup of its unconstrained nuclear weapons, so-called nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which include short- and medium-range systems; second, strengthen the verification mechanism under the existing New START agreement; and three, enable China's future inclusion in nuclear arms control discussions and ultimately future arms control agreements."

So there are some conditions that have been laid out for a possible New START extension. And whether and how Ambassador Billingslea will recommend to the president to pursue a New START extension will depend on how much progress we're making with Russia.

We have given them proposals during these meetings, and now we are waiting to see if Russia has the political will now to come talk to us about it.

MR. BIRKEY: Yeah, that's a really interesting perspective. Well, sir, thank you so much for taking time to share your insights with us today. On behalf of the Mitchell Institute, we wish you the very best in this era of ever-increasing challenges.

As a reminder to our listeners, our next Aerospace Nation event will be this coming Monday, September 8th, with Brigadier General Adrian Spain. General Spain is the director of Plans, Programs and Analyses, United States Air Forces in Europe and the Air Forces-Africa.

Now, sir, we're going to open the session to questions from the audience, who have been listening to our conversation.

As a reminder to our listeners, you can participate in the Q&A by raising your hand on the menu device. When I call on you, before asking your questions, please unmute your mike and state your name and affiliation for our guest. You can also submit a question in writing using the Q&A function.

So with that, let's see what's in Q&A here.

First one here from Joe Gould. Question on GBSD Minuteman III. "The Air Force planned to award the development contract for the GBSD program in August according to the F.Y. '21 budget request. So first question, when will DOD announce the award and has COVID delayed it?

"Two, if the Minuteman III won't be able to penetrate Russian and Chinese missile defenses, is there something they figured out about defeating a large number of ICBMs armed with penetration aids?"

DR. SOOFER: I believe that the award will be released before the end of the fiscal year, right? So the fiscal year ends September 30th, so I don't think COVID has stopped that from happening, so that's the good news.

In terms of being able to penetrate Russian missile defenses and Chinese missile defenses, China -- and especially Russia, they -- again, and this sort of belies their criticism of the U.S. missile defenses. They have a -- a missile defense system of Moscow that consists now of about 68 nuclear-tipped interceptors. That's the extent of their homeland missile defense system.

They also have the S-400, they're building the S-500, which could have some capability against -- against, you know, short, medium-range systems. But -- and given the fact they only have 68 interceptors, this poses no threat whatsoever to U.S. retaliatory capabilities. So for us, it's not a concern.

MR. BIRKEY: No, appreciate it.

We've got a question here from Rachel Cohen.

Q: Good morning. Thank you for doing this.

So, as the Air Force is drawing up its -- its new conventional and nuclear integration, sort of, strategy, I'm wondering if, you know, either you personally or you as -- as DOD believe that there should be new investment in maybe the Air Force's -- you know, its own version of a low-yield, sort of, tactical nuke or any other systems that aren't part of the nuclear modernization plan right now.

DR. SOOFER: Rachel, every morning after I have my cup of coffee, I give thanks that the Air Force is committed to GBSD, LRSO and providing the F-35 with a nuclear capability. But the Air Force is doing more than its fair share in this area. I don't think they need to do anything more.

Oh and I forgot to mention the significant role in funding they provide for the nuclear command and control effort as well. And -- and, of course, the B-21.

MR. BIRKEY: Great.

We've got a question sent in by Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg.

The China report released yesterday implied that the PRC is modifying its no-first-use policy by putting some of its silo-based force on launch on warning. How significant is this apparent change? And realistically does the PRC pose a threat of using nuclear weapons against U.S. versus Russia?

DR. SOOFER: Well, again, I -- I don't -- I tend to ignore -- whether they have a no-first-use policy or not, I ignore. You've got to look at the forces, you've got to look at their strategy, you look scenario for potential use in a regional conflict, and that's how we -- we evaluate the -- the Chinese nuclear threat and our -- the way we tailor our deterrence strategy against them.

The fact that they have a launch-on-warning approach bears some -- some consideration. We and the Russians have a launch-under-attack approach but, you know, we also target our ICBMs against an open ocean, right? It's not clear what the -- what the Chinese approach is.

Which is why, again, we need to get them to come back to the table and talk to us so we understand better their strategic doctrine and exactly what they mean by launch-under-attack or -- or launch-on-warning.

It's an important consideration and we need to pay attention to it.

MR. BIRKEY: Good deal. I've got a question here from General Elder.

There's been interest expressed in having a multilateral nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, China, the U.K., and France. How might the U.S. go about reaching such an agreement?

DR. SOOFER: Right, well, that's our approach right now. We've made it -- the president's made it clear that there are -- there are three elements to this -- to this new framework for arms control.

One is we've got -- we've got to address all nuclear weapons, not just the ones that are limited under New START, by the strategic systems. But we've got to include the tactical nuclear weapons, what we call the unconstrained systems. They all have to be included.

Second is we have to have effective verification. There are ways that we can – there are things that we are purposing to the Russians to -- to help bolster some of the verification provisions under New START, but any -- any future agreement must also incorporate effective verification mechanisms.

And the third element of this new approach has been to -- to bring China into the discussions, right? China is growing its nuclear forces. China is -- is -- is -- and -- and -- and I think the reason they're growing their nuclear forces is because this is part of their approach to becoming a great power. They said quite openly that by 2049 they want to be top dog in the region, and if you're going to be a great power, nuclear weapons is a part of that. But they have to understand that if they build up their nuclear capabilities, this is going to impact Russian and U.S. nuclear forces. And at the end of the day they may be worse off by increasing the size of their nuclear forces if this precipitates a response or an increase by the U.S. and Russia.

And so the approach right now is -- is, let's talk to -- we're talking to Russia trying to reach some sort of an arrangement, some sort of a framework to include all nuclear warheads, improve our verification techniques, and then figure out how we would then bring China into these discussions and into a -- a -- an eventual agreement.

Now, it's possible that the Russians would want us to consider the -- the U.K. and the French forces in this as well, and I won't speak for our allies on this. But -- but that may -- you may eventually see a -- a -- a much larger multilateral approach, as opposed to just the -- the three-way approach that we -- we think about it right now.

MR. BIRKEY: I appreciate that.

We've got a question here from Sun Hyung Kim from Radio Free Asia. He asks, "On IAEA's report released yesterday, it said there is no sign North Korea reprocessed spent fuel from its main react -- nuclear reactor and the plutonium in the past year, but it seems to have continued to enrich uranium. Is the U.S. government aware of the latest development in North Korea, and can you comment on the latest with the overall program?"

DR. SOOFER: I'm -- I'm only familiar with this in a very general sense, so I -- I would prefer not -- not to comment today on that.

MR. BIRKEY: Yeah, no problem. Got a question here from our very own Peter Huessy. He compliments your presentation. And when you look at the present nuclear consensus, do you see any possible fissures on that in the future and -- and any dangers there?

DR. SOOFER: Yeah. So there's -- there's always dangers, right? And it's -- it -- it's -- it -- it's politics. It comes -- it comes down to politics. Again, I -- I think there's a solid consensus on the -- on the -- on the deterrence logic that underpins our nuclear strategy that requires a nuclear triad. That -- that -- that is clear. It is clear by -- it was made clear by President Obama, and it's been made clear by President Trump. And so that consensus should -- should hold.

Now, what's going to happens, though, is as we start moving from -- from the -- the conceptual stages and the engineering stages to actually bending metal and procuring submarines and -- and -- and ICBMs and -- and bombers, the budget is going to go up, right? The share of the DOD budget will go up. Right now we spend -- we commit about three, three and a half percent of the DOD budget to the nuclear enterprise. At the peak of our modernization we're going to probably add another three and a half percent. That's still only about seven percent of the DOD budget. But this is going to put a lot of pressure on the services, no doubt -- the Navy, the Air Force, and we -- we -- we are going to have to figure out how -- how to deal with that. And these budget pressures create their own dynamics. This is the politics within the building, right?

Then there's the politics on Capitol Hill. As these numbers tend to go up, there's more opportunity for -- for those that take a more simple approach to deterrence, as opposed to complex, to argue, "Well, we can't afford this. We don't need the ICBM leg, you know, we're going to modernize -- let's -- let's take care of the -- the -- the submarine first, maybe do the bomber, and then push the -- the ground-based system out -- out to the side."

So that -- that's always going to be a pressure, and I don't foresee that occurring under a -- a -- a Trump administration over the next four years, but if there were to be a new administration, depending on who our -- who -- who -- who will -- who is appointed in a position of authority to make these decisions, you may have these -- these types of discussions.

But again, that core, that fundamental consensus to go forward with the triad and the -- and -- and the -- including the LRSO and the F-35, I think it's -- I think it's solid. I think it's there. Where the arguments are going to occur are probably on things like no first use, whether to -- to go forward with the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. But at -- at the end of the day I say to my good friend Peter that thanks to -- to his efforts, to the Mitchell Institute, to helping to inform people about what's going on --

You -- you know, when I -- when I give my -- my little elevator speech to a member of Congress, it's, look, the reason that -- that we -- that we need to modernize the -- our nuclear policy is it's sensible, it's reasonable, and it's affordable. It's sensible because it's -- it's a response to the strategic environment. We -- we know that Russia is modernizing its capabilities. You just -- you've seen the report on China. They are -- they are growing their nuclear forces. So this is just a sensible response to -- to the strategic environment.

It's reasonable because all we're doing, essentially, really, is just recapitalizing what we've had in the past. The only new capabilities are the -- the W76-2 warhead, which again, was just a modest modification of the existing 76 warhead, and the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. So it's -- it's -- it's actually a very reasonable response. We're -- we're not precipitating an arms race.

And finally, it is affordable. I just pointed out that at the height, this will be seven percent of the defense budget, so I think that's -- that's affordable, and that -- that's -- that's only over a -- over a certain number of years, and then we return back down to -- to our normal funding of about three to three and a half percent. So it's sensible, it's reasonable, and it's affordable.

MR. BIRKEY: Yeah. We've got time for one more, and we'll -- we'll pick on Dan Leone with The Exchange Monitor. He's asking, "When was the last time DOE briefed DOD about the effect of COVID-19 response on the B61-12 and the W88 Alt 370 programs? Is DOD confident that these refurbs will be done in time to meet the IOC for both weapons?"

DR. SOOFER: This -- this is something that the Nuclear Weapons Council tracks very carefully. Under Secretary Lord chairs the -- chairs the council, and her staff have paid particular attention to this. I regret to say that -- that I have not attended those meetings because -- because of my other duties, but I do know that they're tracking this very carefully, and I -- I don't believe that there have been any COVID-related implications to the life extension programs.

MR. BIRKEY: Well, sir, we've come to the end of this Nuclear Deterrence Forum session. We thank you very, very much for your time today, and we thank our audience for attending. And from all of us here at the Mitchell Institute, have a great Aerospace Day.

DR. SOOFER: Thank you, Doug. I appreciate it.

MR. BIRKEY: Sir, and thank you so much, and we look forward to seeing you again soon.

DR. SOOFER: All right. Bye-bye.

MR. BIRKEY: Take care.