More Than Words: Why Secretary Carter’s Affirmation of the Nuclear Enterprise Matters

By speaking last month about the importance of the U.S. nuclear mission to a crowd of airmen at the home to two legs of the nuclear triad, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter reinforced a subtle but important shift in the way our leaders have been talking about the nation’s nuclear deterrent.

Carter thanked the audience at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota for their constant stewardship of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, saying

The knowledge that every part of this enterprise is working as smoothly as it should be is what makes you effective, for it’s that which deters… It’s a mission that demands unparalleled excellence, excellence that you define. We count on you for that.

His remarks launched a three-day tour of the nuclear enterprise – which started at Minot and included stops at Kirtland Air Force Base, Sandia National Laboratories, and Los Alamos National Laboratories – during which he recognized, on every visit, the central place of the U.S. nuclear enterprise in U.S. national security. “The nuclear mission is the bedrock of American security,” Carter said at Kirtland. “We understand that every day. It is…what everything else rests upon. And I know that and the rest of our leadership knows that and the president knows that and I think the country knows that.”

Carter has evoked this notion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal as “the bedrock of our security” before, and, like his predecessor and other senior leaders, he has also stated that nuclear deterrence is “the highest priority mission of the Department of Defense.” Yet these speeches go further by openly and plainly describing the important things that our nuclear weapons do for our national security. When he stated at Minot, point by point, the essential functions of nuclear weapons – that they “deter large-scale nuclear attack against the United States and our allies,” “convince potential adversaries that they can’t escalate their way out of a failed conventional aggression,” “assure allies that our extended deterrence guarantees are credible,” and “enable…conventional missions around the world” – he broke from past tendencies to gloss over in jargon and overly-caveated language the reasons why we continue to have nuclear weapons. Moreover, he delivered those speeches at the bases and laboratories that serve the nuclear mission, and he said them directly to those who operate our nuclear weapons. What he said, where he said it, and whom he said it to are all consequential – in part because, in the past quarter-century, our leaders have not consistently affirmed the nuclear mission in this way.

As we discuss in our report released this week, The Evolving U.S. Nuclear Narrative: Communicating the Rationale for the Role and Value of U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1989 to Today, the precipitous reduction in nuclear threats to the United States that accompanied the fall of the ideologically-opposed, nuclear-armed Soviet Union left the United States the world’s only superpower based on its conventional military superiority. These shifts immediately and irrevocably changed the way U.S. policymakers thought and spoke about our own nuclear arsenal. Various U.S. government officials at the time welcomed the reduction of the nuclear arsenal in both numbers and prominence: though the United States would continue to have nuclear weapons to hedge against an uncertain future, they stated, the U.S. arsenal had not played so small a role in U.S. security strategy “at any time since their inception.”

Even as the international security environment has been reshaped in the last two decades, our leaders, Democratic and Republican administrations alike, have maintained the view that the United States can and will rely less on nuclear weapons to ensure our national security. This view is most prominently and recently associated with President Obama’s Prague speech of 2009, but the core message traces its roots back more than 25 years to the end of the Cold War. In 2002, Secretary Rumsfeld signaled a proactive shifting away from nuclear-dependent deterrence towards conventional capabilities, pointing to “the terrorists who struck us on September 11th [who] were clearly not deterred by doing so from the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal.” Eight years later, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review similarly outlined a more limited place for nuclear weapons, stating, “As the role of nuclear weapons is reduced in U.S. national security strategy, these non-nuclear elements will take on a greater share of the deterrence burden.” The public record shows the same refrains repeated, nearly verbatim, across two decades: the role and salience of U.S. nuclear weapons is declining, even as they remain critical to deterring the most dangerous current and imagined nuclear threats. So long as these weapons exist in the world, the United States must retain its arsenal safely, securely, reliably, and effectively.

The rationale for U.S. nuclear weapons has long been dominated by descriptions of decline, reduction, and diminishment that have sought to delineate a circumscribed role for the arsenal – and rightly so. These themes reflected both the security environment of the time, which saw nuclear threats receding from the high-water mark of the Cold War, and the United States’ continual commitment to disarmament, responsible stewardship, and the further reduction of nuclear dangers. For many U.S. policymakers, nuclear terrorism became the foremost “nuclear danger,” and the risks associated with nuclear proliferation were given greater priority, because both seemed more likely than a nuclear war.

We must recognize, however, that while the perceived role and salience of the nuclear mission has diminished following the end of the Cold War, the operational demands required to sustain our nuclear forces have not. The men and women who sustain, secure, and operate the world’s most destructive weapons do so in highly challenging environments and under exacting requirements, ready to execute the nuclear mission on a moment’s notice. Those men and women are charged with an awesome responsibility and a vital mission. These members of our nuclear enterprise share the yearning for a world free of nuclear weapons and safe from nuclear dangers, but until that day the arsenal they steward serves as the critical foundation for U.S. power and influence and underwrites the United States’ national survivability against the greatest, most existential threats. This vital role in our national security remains regardless of the size and dimensions of our nuclear arsenal. They deserve a more persuasive explanation as to why the U.S. nuclear arsenal, regardless of its size or shape, is critical here and now and in the foreseeable future.

Such a coherent rationale has not been sufficiently stated and promulgated across the force. We are far from the first to argue that a healthy, vibrant, and highly motivated nuclear workface requires a compelling rationale about the essential role and importance of U.S. nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. This rationale must account for an uncertain and increasingly complex threat environment, frame the role of nuclear weapons as limited but essential in coping with 21st century security threats, and signal U.S. resolve in preserving stability while flatly rejecting any impression of a renewed arms race or a return to the Cold War.

That is why Carter’s words, and the context in which they were said, are important. They demonstrate the continued commitment at the highest levels of leadership to publicly affirm the nuclear mission, speaking plainly to what the nuclear arsenal actually does to protect Americans, our allies, and our most vital interests. They attest to the department’s determination to invest the time, resources, and attention appropriate for its “highest priority mission.” And, importantly, they open a dialogue with the people who comprise our nuclear workforce about why their mission is so crucial.

We must continue the conversation, through this administration and the next, where Carter left off. But even that is not enough. Pentagon leadership must inspire a climate of strategic thinking and inquiry, promote more effective deterrence education and exercises across both the nuclear and conventional force, and always ensure that its words of priority are consistently matched with the meaningful needs necessary for a healthy enterprise. Central to this effort are the re-communicators – the junior and mid-grade officers – who must every day translate the strategic necessity of the mission into practical terms for the thousands of young military personnel under their command. These officers need the opportunity to cultivate strategic and policy knowledge through education and training, so that they better understand their mission earlier in their careers and translate it to others more effectively. In addition, the benefits of and responsibilities for nuclear deterrence fall to the entire U.S. military, not just our nuclear operators, and basic literacy regarding the purpose and function of U.S. nuclear weapons is essential to all. The Department of Defense must sustain the essential progress of the last couple of years by continuing to invest in the nuclear workforce’s developmental and promotional opportunities, and their maintenance and mission support, so that they see the Secretary’s message reflected in their quality of life.

The challenges that we face in articulating the strongest, most enduring themes of a rationale for our nuclear weapons are nuanced. But we must continue this dialogue and think deeply about these issues, because the airmen and sailors who carry out the nuclear mission every day on behalf of the American people deserve no less.

 

Our report, The Evolving U.S. Nuclear Narrative: Communicating the Rationale for the Role and Value of U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1989 to Today, and its accompanying website are available now through the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

 

Rebecca Hersman is director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Ms. Hersman joined CSIS in April 2015 from the Department of Defense, where she served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction.

Clark Murdock is a non-resident senior adviser of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the former director of the Project on Nuclear Issues. Prior to joining CSIS in January 2001, Murdock taught at the National War College and served in a variety of positions in the Office of the Air Force Chief of Staff, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the House Armed Services Committee.

Shanelle Van is a research assistant with the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She graduated with a B.A. in public policy and a minor in economics from Duke University.

 

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christian Sullivan