Defense Secretary Ash Carter kicked off a visit to DoD's nuclear deterrence enterprise, telling airmen at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, that DoD will invest, innovate and sustain to rebuild that enterprise's capabilities that remain the bedrock of U.S. defense strategy.
The secretary spoke at a hangar on the flightline of the base. He thanked the airmen at the base, and by extension, thanked the thousands of other technicians who man, maintain, guard and operate the bombers, ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines and the command-and-control systems around the world.
"As you know, everyone has their role to play," he said, "and while each physical piece is important, it's really the people who make the whole greater than the sum of the parts."
The secretary emphasized throughout his talk with the airmen that America's nuclear deterrence is the bedrock of U.S. security and the highest priority mission in the Defense Department.
"Because while it is a remarkable achievement that in the more than seven decades since 1945, nuclear weapons have not again been used in war, that's not something we can ever take for granted," he said. "And that's why today, I want to talk about how we're innovating and investing to sustain that bedrock."
Carter has a long history with the nuclear mission, working in the 1980s on basing for the MX missile system. He speaks from experience when he says the deterrence mission has both remained the same and changed.
"At a strategic level, of course, you deter large-scale nuclear attack against the United States and our allies," he said. "You help convince potential adversaries that they can't escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression. You assure allies that our extended deterrence guarantees are credible — enabling many of them to forgo developing nuclear weapons themselves, despite the tough strategic environment they find themselves in and the technological ease with which they could develop such weapons."
The nuclear deterrent also provides an umbrella under which service members accomplish conventional missions around the world, the secretary said.
But the nuclear landscape has changed and it will continue to pose challenges, Carter said.
"One way the nuclear landscape has changed: we didn't build new types of nuclear weapons or delivery systems for the last 25 years, but others did, at the same time that our allies in Asia, the Middle East, and NATO did not," the secretary said, "so we must continue to sustain our deterrence."
Russia has modernized its nuclear arsenal, and there is some doubt about Russian leaders' strategies for the weapons.
"Meanwhile, North Korea's nuclear and missile provocations underscore that a diverse and dynamic spectrum of nuclear threats still exists," Carter said. "So our deterrence must be credible, and extended to our allies in the region."
North Korea is building nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them, the secretary said. The North Korean threat spurs spending on missile defense in the United States and the deployment of systems to South Korea, he added.
"We back all of that up with the commitment that any attack on America or our allies will be not only defeated, but that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with an overwhelming and effective response," Carter said.
India and China are behaving responsibly with their nuclear enterprises, the secretary said.
"In Iran, their nuclear aspirations have been constrained and transparency over their activities increased by last year's nuclear accord, which, as long as it continues to be implemented, will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," Carter said. "The last example I'll cite is Pakistan, where nuclear weapons are entangled in a history of tension, and while they are not a threat to the United States directly, we work with Pakistan to ensure stability."
Despite the changes since the end of the Cold War, the nature of deterrence has not changed, the secretary said.
"Even in 2016, deterrence still depends on perception — what potential adversaries see, and therefore believe — about our will and ability to act," he said. "This means that as their perceptions shift, so must our strategy and actions."
A large-scale nuclear attack is not likely, the secretary said. The most likely scenario is "the unwise resort to smaller but still unprecedentedly terrible attacks, for example by Russia or North Korea, to try to coerce a conventionally superior opponent to back off or abandon an ally during a crisis," Carter said. "We cannot allow that to happen, which is why we're working with our allies in both regions to innovate and operate in new ways that sustain deterrence and continue to preserve strategic stability."
NATO is reexamining the nuclear strategy to integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence to deter Russia, he said.
Meanwhile, across the Pacific, the United States engages in formal deterrence dialogues with its allies Japan and South Korea, Carter said, "to ensure we're poised to address nuclear deterrence challenges in Asia."
Carter said the U.S. is taking steps to ensure that its nuclear triad -- bombers, ICBMS and ballistic missile submarines -- do not become obsolete.
"We're now beginning the process of correcting decades of under-investment in nuclear deterrence," the secretary said.
The Pentagon has underfunded its nuclear deterrence enterprise since the end of the Cold War, Carter added.
"Over the last 25 years since then, we only made modest investments in basic sustainment and operations, about $15 billion a year," he said. "And it turned out that wasn't enough."
The fiscal year 2017 budget request invests a total of $19 billion in the nuclear enterprise, Carter said. Over the next five years, he said, plans call for the department to spend $108 billion to sustain and recapitalize the nuclear force and associated strategic command, control, communications, and intelligence systems.
The budget also looks to modernization, the secretary said. Plans call for replacing old ICBMs with new ones that will be less expensive to maintain, keeping strategic bombers effective in the face of more advanced air defense systems, and building replacements for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, the secretary said.
"If we don't replace these systems, quite simply they will age even more, and become unsafe, unreliable, and ineffective," Carter said. "The fact is, most of our nuclear weapon delivery systems have already been extended decades beyond their original expected service lives. So it's not a choice between replacing these platforms or keeping them. It's really a choice between replacing them or losing them. That would mean losing confidence in our ability to deter, which we can't afford in today's volatile security environment."
While these plans are expensive, they are only a small percentage of total defense spending, the secretary said.
"In the end, though, this is about maintaining the bedrock of our security," Carter said. "And after too many years of not investing enough, it's an investment that we as a nation have to make, because it's critical to sustaining nuclear deterrence in the 21st century."