Transcript

Department of Defense Background Briefing on Nuclear Deterrence and Modernization

Feb. 21, 2020
Senior Defense Officials

STAFF: All right, good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming out this morning. Today's background briefing will be on background, attributable to "a Department of Defense senior official". 

With us today [are two senior defense officials]. They'll start with a brief overview of the secretary's trip, and then get into nuclear deterrence and nuclear modernization, and then we'll open it up for Q&A. 

So with that, [senior defense official 1]

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Thanks, I appreciate it, and I -- I especially appreciate this being a -- a -- sort of a background session so I can speak more freely and sort of get away from the -- the usual talking points.

The secretary's visit was -- was -- was outstanding, and his principle objective was twofold. One was to, again, convey the sense that nuclear modernization is the number one priority of the department, and -- and also, to talk with the -- the -- the troops and their families in a town hall format to understand what their concerns are more -- more broadly about -- about military life and deployments and -- and the like.

At Minot he -- he visited a -- a -- a weapons alert facility; went down into a launch control center; saw the -- the two officers that -- that stand the watch, so to speak, and got an understanding of how -- how the system works, and we helped to -- to disabuse him -- if he had a notion, and I'm sure he didn't -- that our nuclear weapons or ICBMs are not on hair-trigger alert. There are a lot of controls involved, and we -- we could talk some more about that.

Then he had a town hall meeting at Minot. He had an opportunity to -- to look at our aging air launch cruise missiles in the weapons storage sites and crawled into the underbelly of a B-52 bomber, and was accompanied there by the two senators from -- from North Dakota. There was a -- there was a small little press gaggle at the time.

Then we flew off to -- to STRATCOM; spent the night, then the -- the meetings began the next day. The secretary of defense had a one-on-one with the STRATCOM commander, then he -- he went to tour the so-called battle deck where you – you have situational awareness of the threats to the United States and the readiness of our nuclear forces, as well as our missile defense capabilities and just -- Admiral Richard explained to the secretary the procedures that are involved, and then we conducted a -- a mini-exercise, if you will. It was a -- a -- a -- you have a -- a exercise secretary of defense, exercise president, and the -- the scenario included a -- a -- a European contingency where you are conducting a war with -- with Russia, and Russia decides to use a low-yield limited nuclear weapon against a site on NATO territory, and then you go through the conversation that you would have with the secretary of defense and then with the president, ultimately, to decide -- decide how to respond. And so they played out that -- that game, and the secretary got a -- a good understanding for how that went.

There was actually a member of Congress sitting in, as well, Mr. Fortenberry, I believe, who represents the -- the Omaha area. So we actually shared with Congress; gave them a -- an appreciation for -- for how the -- the conversation would -- would occur in -- in a -- during a nuclear crisis.

Then the secretary also received a threat briefing on -- on North Korean, Russian and Chinese nuclear threats, and we spoke a little bit about the -- the transition risks involved with maintaining the old systems -- the old ICBMs, subs, bombers, cruise missiles -- and making sure that the new systems come -- come online before the old systems expire, and this is something that the secretary is very much captured with, and that is managing this so-called transition risk. And so we've had a couple of deep dives with the secretary, so he understands that that period is going to be very risky when the current systems go out of inventory and the new ones come online. And as -- as -- as you know, you've been tracking acquisition programs in the Pentagon for a long time, and there's always a risk that the systems won't be delivered on time, and so how do you manage that risk? So we spent a lot of time on that. Not -- not just the weapon systems themselves, but also the -- the nuclear command and control that -- that supports that.

Then the secretary had an opportunity to tour some of the -- the water damage that occurred due to some flooding last year, and then we were back -- back to the U.S. I mean, back to Washington, D.C. So that was basically the visit itself.

I wanted to maybe talk a little bit about the -- the F.Y. '21 budget and then -- then open this up for questions. I -- I've asked the lieutenant colonel to provide some documents for you to the summary of the F.Y. '21 request. A chart that shows how much we're spending as a percentage of -- of the DOD budget on nuclear weapons, and what I -- what I consider to be one of the key threats, which is Russia's expanding non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons inventory. And -- and those are available for you to pick up.

But our nuclear modernization, the way I think about it is our -- our modernization program, which flows from the Nuclear Posture Review, is sensible, it's reasonable and affordable. It's sensible in the sense that it's a sensible response to the threat. It's all about the threat. You always start with the threat, and this -- this notion of a great power competition, you know it began at the end of the Obama administration, right? And we just carried -- carried through with it. And so the other side is building their nuclear weapons up. They're modernizing their stockpiles, and so this is just a -- a sensible response to that.

It's reasonable because if you look at the modernization program -- and again, I'll -- I'll say this very much on background -- most of the nuclear modernization that you see before you started under the previous administration, started under the Obama administration. And we're just continuing it. 

The only major change, of course, was the W76-2 low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, and the fact that we're pursuing a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, in the longer term, this is like seven or 10 years hence. 

So it's -- so what I'm saying is that our response is reasonable in the sense that it's dealing with what we thought were the key changes in the Russian threat. But in a way that doesn't start an arms race, all right? 

So for instance, the 76-2 doesn't violate the New START Treaty, doesn't require development of new nuclear weapons, doesn't even expand the size of the stockpile. It's a very reasonable response to what we saw was a Russian nuclear doctrine and nuclear capability that suggested to us that they might use nuclear weapons in a limited way. All right? So, again, a very reasonable response, I would say. 

And ultimately, it's affordable. You've heard a lot about $1.3 trillion triad. And as you know, that's over 30 years, that's over 30 years, right? So today's defense budget includes 4 percent for nuclear weapons. And that's not just modernization, but that's also to sustain and operate the current force, right? 

At the peak of this modernization, we'll be at about 6.4 percent of the budget. For recapitalization, for sustainment, for operations and the like, for about, I don't know, close to 10 years. It would come back down to a steady state of about 3 percent. 

And of course, the total budget request for F.Y. '21 for nuclear weapons is $28.9 billion. $28.9 billion. $12 billion is for recapitalization, the so-called modernization, if you will, and $16.8 billion for sustainment and operations. 

Again, to put a fine point on this, this recapitalization, the $12.1 billion, that's 1.7 percent of the DOD budget request. For sustainment and operations, it's 2.4 percent. So, again, the total is about 4 percent -- 4.1 percent of the DOD budget is devoted to nuclear. 

And of course, there's a Department of Energy share of this, and their request for weapons activities in that National Nuclear Security Administration, is $15.6 billion, which is about 1 percent of 050 funding, right? So if you add their 1 percent to our 4.1 percent, you're up at about 5 percent of all national security spending devoted to the -- to the nuclear enterprise, all right? 

So, again, my message is that this is a sensible approach because it addresses the threat. It's a reasonable approach because it doesn't -- it doesn't precipitate an arms race with the Russians. And it's affordable, again, only 4 to 5 percent of national security spending, all right? 

So the other -- the other big point is, again, when we talk about modernization, it's really a replacement. It's almost a one-for-one replacement. We're taking out a submarine, we're putting in a submarine. In fact, these submarines have fewer torpedoes -- SLBM tubes than the other ones did. 

We're -- we're taking out air-launched cruise missiles, we're adding LRSO. We're just replacing what we have today. 

The big change in all of this, if it goes through, will be the introduction of the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, again in seven to 10 years. And we can -- we're in the analysis of alternatives phase right now. And so $5 million was requested in F.Y. '20 for this effort, there's no additional funding requested in '21 because it was figured, there'll be enough money left in '20 to continue whatever studies we need to do in '21. 

All right? So the other -- the other big issue is the W93 warhead. And I should let [senior defense official 2] talk -- talk more to this, but -- and we'll be putting out more on this, but the W93 is a warhead that is intended for the submarine-launched ballistic missile. So today, we have two warhead families for the sea-based leg. The W76 and W88, right?

Both of these systems are growing old. And so now, we must start thinking about a warhead that will replace one of those two when it's time for those systems to retire. And these things take a long time, there's a seven-phase process by which we start to develop a warhead. 

So we're going to actually be getting a new program of record for a warhead that will go on an SLBM, that will be based on previous designs, previously nuclear-tested designs, it's not going to require any nuclear testing.

And in fact, it's not even going to increase the size of the nuclear stockpile. Because as we start to field, eventually, the W93s, the 88s will probably come out of -- out of the inventory. So there's no plan to increase the size of the stock.

[Senior defense official 2], is there anything more you want to say on this specifically? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: No, I'll just reinforce the -- the idea is to use key nuclear components that have been tested. We're not seeing any need for nuclear explosive testing to certify the design. And the idea and current plans is to, one for one, almost, replace weapons in the current triad with W93s, so no appreciable increase in the size of the strategic stockpile. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: And, again, if you go back and look at your history, even under the Obama administration, they were thinking about the next warhead that would replace both -- you know, for the ICBM, as well as for the SLBM. They called it IW-1, Interoperable Warhead 1 and Interoperable Warhead 2. 

So there's always a plan. If you're going to maintain a sea-based leg of the triad, you need to have another warhead. And we start now so that, in the next 15 to 20 years, we have a warhead that's available to replace the aging 88, W88. All right? So that's basically the -- the message on the -- on the W93. 

So, for the purpose of time, maybe I'll stop there and we'll just open it up to questions. 

STAFF: Yes, sir. So we have about 15 minutes, and we'll start here. 

Q: Lee Hudson, Aviation Week. [Senior defense official 1], can you talk a little bit about the transition risks? And in your mind the top programs where you see that and how you're looking to mitigate? 

And also on the Hill, is there -- are you gaining any traction about having a separate account for the nuclear triad programs, especially for Columbia-class because it really crippled the Navy's ship-building account. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Right. Well, this is why I brought [senior defense official 2] along, [senior defense official 2] works for the Nuclear Weapons Council, and that's exactly where we manage the transition risk, to make sure that the weapons systems that -- or the delivery systems that we build, right? Are matched up with the -- the warheads that the Department of Energy is responsible for.

[Senior defense official 2], do you have any thoughts on this? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: So on transition risk, it's certainly something we're paying a lot of attention to, as -- as [senior defense official 1] said and the secretary of defense has been captured with this concept and looking at different ways to manage and mitigate that risk. 

I won't say that any particular program, either on the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy side -- because they're our partners in this -- in this key mission area, number one mission area -- is more risky than others. 

But we know, looking at large capital acquisition, recapitalization programs in the past, that it is difficult to keep them on-track and on-budget and deliver on time. 

As [senior defense official 1] said, this is a largely one-for-one replacement of the Cold War-era triad and stockpile. And many of those -- those transitions are delivering just in time, as systems like Minuteman, which was first deployed in 1970, ALCM, which was first deployed in the 1980s, and are well past, 50-plus years past their original design lives, age out. So we need to and we are tracking at very high levels, including the secretary, keeping these programs on track, making sure they're fully funded, and making sure we're -- we're giving the programs the authority and room they need to deliver on time.

And as -- as part of that, the key thing is making sure they are fully funded, and so it's on the Department of Defense and the NNSA side, and that's what you see in the President's budget request.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Right and I ... 

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: No, go ahead.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I mean, on the larger deterrence fund, I -- I -- I don't -- I don't know where that stands. I'm not sure that the department is -- is pressing Congress to do that. I used to work on Capitol Hill and the big problem -- I mean the -- the good news is you -- you -- you kind of segregate this -- this pot of money for -- for the nuclear deterrent, right? But on the other hand, it becomes a big target now.

And people say "my God, you have this -- this huge fund for -- for nuclear modernization" and because it's a convenient target -- so there are pros and cons for -- for that particular approach. All right?

STAFF: We'll go here.

Q: Hi. Rachel Cohen with Air Force Magazine. I know it's a somewhat separate office but CAPE was supposed to come out with a new cost estimate for GBSD in the past year or two and I'm curious how OSD and the Air Force are, you know, working to refine those numbers, how -- how those numbers might be different, especially now that Boeing is saying it's not bidding, you know -- kind of how that's playing out?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Yeah, I don't have any insight into that.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: So CAPE is working through its -- its independent cost estimate. We're going to hit milestone -- the milestone decision on GBSD later this year. So that's all part and parcel of -- of the milestone decision that -- that Under Secretary Lord, as the milestone decision authority, will have to make.

We're working through all of that data along with the -- the proposals received and we're -- we're on track to hit that -- that milestone decision on time.

STAFF: OK, we'll go to Jack.

Q: Thanks, guys. You said the planning for this effort began under the previous administration to counter the Russian threat. I'm curious if, sort of what you've seen from the Russians in terms of their weapons development has held up into the Trump administration from the Obama administration or if you're changing the assumptions based on changes you've seen in their arsenal?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: I -- I think that -- that everything that has been revealed now was probably being tracked by the previous administration, which again led to the decision by the President to go forward with the GBSD and the LRSO and the like.

What you've seen more now -- for instance, the tactical nuclear weapons, the non-strategic weapons. We -- we've known about that. These new novel systems that Russia announced I think about a year ago, that -- that is new but -- but quite frankly, I -- I don't think -- we -- we knew about that when we conducted the Nuclear Posture Review but those new threats -- an underwater nuclear torpedo, right, or -- or a nuclear cruise missile, that does not provide Russia, per se, a strategic advantage over what they have today.

So for instance, the underwater nuclear torpedo is meant to obliterate a coastal target. Well they can already do that with nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, ICBMs, so it doesn't add an additional capability.

What really kept us awake at night when we conducted the Nuclear Posture Review was not these few new novel systems but was a huge inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons. These are tactical nuclear weapons, sometimes referred to as theater nuclear weapons, and we say at the unclassified level they have about 2,000 of those, right?

And it's not just the numbers, it's the different types. They have ground, air and sea-launched. For instance, they -- most -- most of their -- their -- their tactical systems or conventional systems are dual capable so they have depth charges. They're nuclear and they're conventional. They have torpedoes that they fire from surface ships as well as subs -- nuclear, conventional. Their surface-to-air missiles, they have nuclear warheads for those. They have ground-launched cruise missiles in violation of the INF Treaty, right, so -- so -- why do they have all these numbers? Why do they exercise to these numbers and why do they have a doctrine that suggests limited nuclear use?

That's what kept us up all night and we figured that at the end of the day, we needed to do something different than the Obama administration to address that threat. And deterrence really comes down to a combination of credibility and capability, right?

You have to have a resolve to respond to nuclear use at any level but you can't just say you have the resolve, you can't just feel it, you have to show it -- you have to show it in some way. And so we -- we say in the Nuclear Posture Review that if Russia were to use nuclear weapons in a limited fashion, we would respond.

It's not enough to say it, you have to show it, and so the W76-2 was the least expensive, quickest way that we could put something in the field to show Russia that we have the capability in addition to the resolve to address any threat that they could pose to us, and that was the -- the -- the rationale.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 2: And I'll -- I'll just add deterrence is dynamic, not static. If -- if we -- the modest capabilities put forward by the NPR are -- are an attempt to get after the changes in the geopolitical context we've seen that has developed since the 2010 NPR.

I'll also just give a shout out to our friends at the Department of Energy and at NNSA, the W76-2. Things generally don't move fast in the nuclear acquisition world. That one moved fast. Within -- within a couple of years, at -- at most, we went from concept in the NPR to -- to Under Secretary Rood announced the other day a fielded capability.

That's -- that's an important signal to both allies and adversaries that we can -- we can respond to changes in -- with our nuclear deterrence.

STAFF: Let's go to Ryan.

Q: Thank you. Just to follow up on two things. One, you mentioned the ground -- the intermediate range missile in -- in the context of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia. Is -- are you -- are you saying that they are -- it's designed on missiles designed to field tactical nuclear weapons?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Yes, the -- the ground-launched cruise missile that they are deploying in violation of the INF Treaty is both conventional and nuclear.

Q: But specifically nuclear, it’s a tactical yield or a lower yield nuclear weapon that they're ... 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Well I'm not going to get into yield but -- but yes -- yes.

Q: And then you mentioned allies as -- a signal to allies and partners. We've heard that some of the allies have been resistant to the fielding of a new low yield nuclear weapon.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Whoa, hold on there. We -- we have no intention to field a new low yield system in Europe. Our response to the Russian violation is a conventional response. We'll respond with conventional cruise missiles and conventional ballistic missiles of the range that's captured by the INF Treaty but we have no intention to make it nuclear capable, nor have we actually spoken to the allies about basing it on their territory, at this time.

Q: Sorry, I was referring to the W -- the 76-2, that -- that some of the allies were a little bit -- the sub-based missile, they were just a little -- not necessarily welcoming it. Is that the feel that you've gotten in your conversations?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: No, when we consulted with our allies during this process, they saw it -- in fact, many of them saw it as a viable alternative to withdrawing from the INF Treaty. They thought you could respond to the threat with -- with a deployment of 76-2.

So we -- we actually have a lot of support, especially from our Asian allies, where we don't actually forward deploy nuclear weapons. So they were very supportive of it at -- at the governmental level but just -- just as in the United States, you have different points of view, you have parliaments that are anti-nuclear and -- and so you have a big -- a broader discussion.

STAFF: So we'll go to David Martin.

Q: In the scenario exercise that you've described, did you say that the Russians had detonated a low yield weapon on their territory?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: No, on our territory.

Q: OK and what was the U.S. response?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: The U.S. response was -- I think -- I think I won't -- I won't talk about it but it was a limited response. So I don't want to ... 

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Did it go nuclear?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Well, yes. They attack us with a low-yield nuclear. I mean, in the course of exercise, we simulated responding with a nuclear weapon.

STAFF: OK. Courtney?

Q: Just one on that. When you say "U.S. territory," you mean here in the continental U.S. as opposed to U.S. installation overseas, in that exercise?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: No, it was in Europe, the -- they struck a target in Europe.

Q: Europe, OK. 

Can I ask you to explain a little bit more about why you think that this is not going to precipitate an arms race with Russia?

And then what are the -- what's the assessment of how some of the other nuclear states like Russia or like China and North Korea could respond to the U.S.'s modernization?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Well, the broader modernization -- again, it's almost a one-for-one replacement. We're not trying to broach the -- the New START treaty limit. So -- so there's no reason for them to add to their inventory, right?

Q: Right.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: The 76-2. Again, we take out a 76-1 and replace it with a 76-2. So we're not adding to the size of the inventory. There's no reason for them to increase the size of their strategic forces. They're already increasing the size of their tactical nuclear weapons.

Q: So -- but you're making the assumption that Russia is going to believe the United States that they're not actually adding to their inventory, that they're actually eliminating the older models and replacing them with the newer ones.

So that -- but that's what you're basing your assessment on, that Russia is not going to build up their arsenal more based on the U.S. modernization?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Yes.

Q: And then -- and the assessment by China -- or on how China and North Korea could respond or...

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Well, again, China is already in the process of expanding the size of its arsenal. They're going to double the size of their nuclear stockpile by the end of this decade.

Q: And North Korea?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: North Korea -- again, they are increasing the size of their nuclear stockpile.

STAFF: Marcus?

Q: Can -- can you talk about -- back to the exercise, can you talk about how U.S. exercises have changed or evolved in recent years, in terms of the scenarios that you're running? And has -- has the pace increased?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: You know, there's different types of exercises, right? On the one hand, we conduct -- and this is something that STRATCOM and the joint staff do. There's the mechanical exercise of what do you do during a nuclear crisis, during a nuclear threat event?

Usually, actually, when there's a missile event, the joint staff is wired to hold a missile conference, where you determine very quickly whether it's a threat to the United States or not, right?

And so you constantly exercise that. And then, if there is a -- a required response, a nuclear response, again, they exercise that, and they get different people to play – exercise secretary, exercise president, so they're familiar with the mechanical process of -- of making these decisions and providing the orders back out to the fleet.

Those aren't true war games, where you decide what to do, right?

Then, separate from that, the joint staff, as well as the -- STRATCOM, they hold table-top exercises, where they go through a scenario. And, you know, they hold these war games at Rhode Island and Naval War College and other places, where you -- you run a scenario. There's a -- a Russian attack of Europe and it potentially goes nuclear and you decide what you're going to do.

And these are just -- I don't -- I'm not sure we've increased the number, but we -- we hold these fairly regularly.

Q: Did Secretary Esper play himself?

(Laughter.)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: This is more of a demonstration. So, again, it was a demo for him.

Q: But he played -- but he was himself, or was he, like, the president or...

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: No, he -- he was the secretary.

Q: OK. 

(Laughter.)

STAFF: OK, we have one -- one question left, and we'll go to Meghann.

Q: Meghann Myers, Military Times.

So, in terms of personnel, how does this modernization push affect recruiting or basing or training for all of the operators and maintainers who are going to work on these things?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: I mean, we need all of the above. And they continue to recruit and train for that. And, actually, this is one of the things that the secretary wanted to find out. He spoke a lot with the -- the airmen and the officers, the junior officers, the senior officers at STRATCOM and Minot, the ones who -- who turn the wrenches on these -- on these -- on these forces.

And, you know, about 10 years ago, we had a terrible morale problem. We had problems with the Air Force flying missiles and cheating on exams. And a lot of that has turned around, because of the senior leadership attention and focus, providing new equipment, providing, you know, Astrodome turfs for -- for -- for playing sports and improving childcare.

Across the board, senior-level focus on the nuclear mission, and we start to see the morale starting to build even better in the nuclear force.

And so I don't think there's a problem with recruitment in this -- in this field.

Q: So modernization, then, is a chance to look at everything about all the people who are involved in this and the things that they're going to need in order to run this properly?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Ultimately, yes. Ultimately, yes.

STAFF: OK, thank you, ladies and gentlemen. That's all the time we have for today. I would like to highlight that the exercise that the secretary witnessed at STRATCOM is a routine...

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL 1: Yeah. 

(Laughter.)

STAFF: It is routine for STRATCOM to exercise all scenarios. So please understand the context of that. And with that, a reminder that this was on background, attributable to a senior DOD -- defense official. Thank you.