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Top general says U.S. needs fresh look at deterrence, nuclear triad

Military needs to head off threats in other ways, according to Gen. James Cartwright.

The nation's second-ranking military officer on Thursday called for a broad reassessment of how to deter significant threats to the United States.

A future national military strategy should strike a balance between fielding conventional weapons and nuclear arms, with the latter viewed as less usable against most threats, said Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fresh planning should also account for the emerging roles played by missile defenses and cyber capabilities, he said.

Cartwright suggested, as well, that the future role of each leg of the nuclear triad -- bomber aircraft, ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles -- must be fundamentally re-examined so that desired capabilities and quantities are maintained, rather than determined by budget-cutting drills or political horse-trading.

"I'm advocating a conscious decision on: What is deterrence? How does it work?" the Marine Corps general told reporters at a breakfast Q&A session. A 21st century approach should also account for the role of nonmilitary forms of power and persuasion, such as economic and diplomatic tools, he said.

During the Cold War, the United States sought to balance its fielded atomic weapons against the Soviet arsenal in a standoff dubbed "mutual assured destruction," in which either side that initiated a nuclear war would risk a devastating response.

With the growing possibility today that the first modern detonation of a nuclear weapon could be at the hands of a terrorist rather than a foreign government, the game has changed, said Cartwright, who is slated to retire early next month after a nearly 40-year military career.

"Violent extremist organizations are very real" and have signaled interest in using weapons of mass destruction against the United States and its allies, he said. "It's not a nation-state you're dealing with [but] it's equally threatening. So we have to start to think about this a little more holistically."

Washington in the future might attempt, for example, to head off threats from major nuclear powers in one way, while using a different strategy to deter any smaller nuclear-capable adversary, he said.

"You may actually decide that you're going to stay [with] mutual assured destruction with one country, but the other one is not going to be that," Cartwright said at the event, sponsored by the Center for Media and Security. "You're going to have to have the capability ... to convince them that you are, in fact, capable" of hitting an adversary that contemplates using a nuclear weapon, and that such an adversary is "not going to win," he said.

The general is a longtime advocate of developing conventional "prompt global strike" weapons that could give the United States a capacity to respond to surprise threats without using strategic-range nuclear arms.

Missile defenses might someday become capable of intercepting an adversary's attacks for 24 or 48 hours, but that is still not long enough to deploy ground troops or even aircraft to many parts of the world, he noted.

"What is it that you do, when you get the president up in the middle of the night and you say, 'So-and-so is attacking. The only thing I've got that can get there for the next 24 hours or 48 hours is a nuclear weapon'?" Cartwright said.

"We have to find some way to get a range of action that allows us to be credible in those first few hours if we're not there" with military forces on the ground, and "allows us also to not have to start at the nuclear level," he said.

The Air Force is developing Conventional Strike Missile technology, said to be ready for fielding in roughly 2020, that could hit targets at hypersonic speeds anywhere around the world with just 60 minutes' notice (see GSN, June 24).

Whether the Pentagon can await the Air Force missile's long-promised debut before fielding some form of conventional prompt global strike capability "just depends on how the threat emerges," he said. "If you felt like it was necessary, you'd go sooner and then you could do it."

He hinted that, if needed urgently to address an emerging threat, ICBM rockets could launch simple conventional payloads at high speed against virtually any target.

To date the Pentagon has not fielded such a conventionally armed missile out of concern that foreign nuclear powers like Russia or China might mistake its launch for the onset of an atomic war. The conventionally armed, nuclear-look-alike option remains feasible, though, as a quick fix in a serious crisis, if needed.

"I mean, we use cement to test with today," Cartwright said. "It makes a very big hole."

Although the Defense Department completed a Nuclear Posture Review -- as well as a more sweeping Quadrennial Defense Review -- just last year, in Cartwright's view a full assessment of all U.S. capabilities versus anticipated threats has not yet occurred.

Taking emerging Pentagon capabilities such as long-range conventional strike, cyber warfare and missile defenses into account, "are those all just additive or do we put a balance in here that acknowledges that the number of countries now that we have to deter has gone up from one to more than one?" the general said. "And the deterrence for one is not necessarily the deterrent for the next?"

He added: "We haven't really exercised the mental gymnastics, the intellectual capital, on that yet. It's starting. I'm pleased that it's starting. But I wouldn't be in favor of building too much [more military equipment] until we had that discussion."

In terms of modernizing today's nuclear-weapon platforms, Cartwright acknowledged that he has been skeptical of Air Force arguments that a future bomber aircraft must include a wide array of highly technological capabilities and include a human in the cockpit.

"I'm known as a bomber-hater, I guess," said the general, who went on to explain why he thinks the caricature is not quite accurate.

"I think you have to have a bomber," Cartwright said. "I'm questioning what it is we're building, and what attributes we're putting against it."

The Joint Chiefs vice chairman -- who heads the Pentagon's top-level review panel with authority to determine all of the military's major hardware requirements -- said the nation should buy an affordable bomber to replace its aging fleet of conventional-only B-1s and nuclear-capable B-52s and B-2s.

"What I'm trying to understand is: What is it we're going to build it for? Is it the most exquisite, high-end, penetrating, go-anyplace anytime weapon system?" Cartwright said. "Or is it a truck that has today's state-of-the-art survivability attributes, can incorporate the next-generation attributes in a way that makes sense -- [including] sensors and whatnot -- and carry a reasonable payloads?"

The price tag to develop a new long-range bomber has been estimated at $15 billion or more, and total costs to both design and procure the new aircraft fleet could reach $30 billion to $40 billion.

A cheaper aircraft would allow the Pentagon to build a larger fleet, Cartwright said.

"If we're going to go out and spend billions of dollars to build something less than 20, then I question the investment," Cartwright said.

He also said he would "throw down the gauntlet" by asking whether the bomber truly requires a human pilot, or if instead all of them could be remotely controlled. Air Force leaders have called for a new bomber that could be flown either manned or unmanned.

"Nobody's shown me anything that requires a person in that airplane. Nobody," said Cartwright, noting that "the manned part of this does not necessarily drive the cost."

However, a manned bomber is typically designed to be more survivable and human-friendly, features that could be modified or jettisoned if the aircraft is conceived to be remotely piloted from the start, he said.

While the Pentagon has already started planning how it would modernize the nation's fleet of nuclear-capable bombers and submarines, studies on how to update today's Minuteman 3 ICBMs are only just beginning. The Air Force was said to be completing an initial assessment of its future-ICBM options late last month.

"The land-based deterrent [is] the last one to be recapitalized," Cartwright said. "The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three [triad] legs and we don't have the money to do it.

"What I'm worried about is ... that the [funding] trough should not determine which one we have," Cartwright added. "So we ought to make that decision now, and we ought to engender the discussion about what does deterrence look like when we get out to 2020 [or] 2030."