In what may be his last major policy speech before the next administration takes power, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a strong pitch today at a highly symbolic venue -- the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- for a new generation of nuclear weapons.
Clearly worried that nuclear deterrence has been neglected as a strategic issue, and not just as an operational one, Gates argued for a broad deterrent approach, letting enemies and potential enemies know that the US will use nuclear weapons if attacked with weapons of mass destruction. And Gates made clear that this is aimed right at states like North Korea and Iran, eager to develop their own nuclear capabilities.
"Rogue regimes that threaten their neighbors and our allies, potentially with nuclear weapons, are a problem today and will be in the future. Our goal is, in part, to reduce their ability to hold other nations hostage, and to deny them the ability to project power," he said. This will also hold true for "terrorists and the states that sponsor or harbor them."
He appeared to expand the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, saying that, "Today we also make clear that the United States will hold any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor or individual fully accountable for supporting or enabling terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction – whether by facilitating, financing, or providing expertise or safe haven for such efforts."
And the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, or something like it, will be necessary, Gates argued, because of the aging nuclear stockpile. This is not about new capabilities, he said: "Let me be clear: The program we propose is not about new capabilities – suitcase bombs or bunker-busters or tactical nukes. It is about safety, security, and reliability. It is about the future credibility of our strategic deterrent. And it deserves our urgent attention."
Part of ensuring deterrence works will be the pursuit of "new technologies to identify the forensic signatures of any nuclear material used in an attack – to trace it back to its source." The US will also strive to "prevent anyone from being able to take down our systems." That may include "easily deployable, replacement satellites that could be launched from high-altitude planes -- or high-altitude UAVs that could operate as mobile data links." I'm not sure if Gates is referring here to AirLaunch's Falcon Small Launch Vehicle program to deploy rockets from C-17s or to other, even more experimental programs. Regardless of the technology, he said the point of all this would be to "make the effort to attack us seem pointless in the first place."
As part of that broader goal of deterring adversaries, Gates also mentioned what has to be one of the most intractable policy problems facing the national security community: how to define a cyber attack. "Similarly, future administrations will have to consider new declaratory policies about what level of cyber-attack might be considered an act of war – and what type of military response is appropriate," he said in one of the more nuanced statements to be made about the issues in some time..This issue has been around since John Hamre, then deputy Defense Secretary under Clinton, first pointed out its importance. Since then neither the intelligence community nor the military has successfully defined what constitutes an attack.