WASHINGTON -- 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 reexamined 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.
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.
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