Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at a press conference Tuesday at Kirtland AFB. Courtesy/photo
U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter met with reporters Tuesday during his visit to Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque. A transcript of that meeting below.
The Secretary is scheduled to visit Los Alamos today.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Well, thank you, once again. The only thing I wanted to do was say thank you, once again, to the Albuquerque community, to New Mexico more generally, for being such a long-standing and true friend and supporter of defense, and particularly of the nuclear enterprise, with the tremendously dedicated people you have here, the deep technical expertise at the bases and laboratories here and the tremendous support we get from the local communities.
So thank you from the Department of Defense and our colleagues at the Department of Energy for the support for what is, in the nuclear enterprise, the bedrock of our security.
Q: (Inaudible) Mr. Secretary, there’s been quite a bit of public discussion recently in recent months about whether the United States should adapt a policy of no first use regarding nuclear weapons.
And I’m wondering, given your extensive experience in this field, in your position as a secretary defense, do you think that on balance it would be a good thing for the U.S. to have a policy of first use?
SEC. CARTER: It has been the policy of the United States for a long time to extend the – its nuclear umbrella to friends and allies and — thereby to contribute to the deterrence of conflict and the deterrence of war and many of our friends and allies have benefited from that over time. And our future plans will retain for the United States the capability to meet those alliance commitments in the future.
Q: I’m not quite clear whether you – that’s a yes (inaudible) or a no (inaudible).
SEC. CARTER: It has been our policy for a long time and it’s part of our plans going forward.
STAFF: Carla, welcome to the (inaudible).
SEC. CARTER: Hi, Carla.
Q: Hi. Glad to join you guys. First of all, Mr. Secretary, which leg of the triad do you think is in most dire straits and then – also you’d mentioned that the United States had frankly underinvested in what you’ve been calling the bedrock of its security.
We’re about 20 years behind China and Russia. How did the U.S. military get to this point of underinvestment?
SEC. CARTER: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t characterize any leg of the triad as being in dire straits. They are all continuing to operate with a very high degree of readiness, reliability, the excellence that you expect and the president speaks of a – safe, secure, and effective nuclear triad.
We have that today. The issue is going to come in the future because these systems are aging and — just to describe the issues associated with each one — for the submarines, the Ohio-class submarines, an excellent submarine, but a submarine can only submerge and ascend so many times before is hull life is consumed and then it has
to be replaced.
And that is why we are going to do that and because that is a highly survivable leg of the triad, it’s a valuable one. With respect to the bomber wing, we have bombers for a number of reasons and we’re investing the B-21 bomber particularly because of its abilities to penetrate air defenses and contribute to conventional strike for a wide range of possible contingencies.
We also decided to give it a nuclear capability, but it is not a nuclear-only platform anymore than the B-52 is or the B-1 was. And the – the replacement for the ALCM is – the cruise missile – is a recognition of what has been true for decades and which caused us first to develop and deploy the ALCM in the 1970s was that in order to penetrate modern
air defenses – a cruise missile capability, in addition to a bomber capability, was necessary.
And now with respect to the ICBMs, the Minuteman has been in service for quite a long time. We have extended its lifetime, its propulsion, its guidance, and so forth. But there comes a time when it – something that is that old needs to be replaced.
And we have put that — those dates off in the case to get to (inaudible) issue of timing to the point where we really now — need now to move out on those programs.
We have not done that earlier for the very simple reason that we have been very preoccupied for the last decade in a half, particularly with Iraq and Afghanistan. That is very understandable. And so we weren’t paying enough attention to the nuclear enterprise, the bedrock of our security. Now we’re — we have to do that. We will do that. I am confident we’ll do that.
Q: Charles (inaudible) with the Albuquerque Journal. Mr. Secretary, yesterday you told the airmen at Minot Air Force Base that this underinvestment over decades has affected not only their facilities, but morale as well.
Are you aware of any impacts from underinvestment here at Kirtland Air Force Base and any of the nuclear facilities here?
SEC. CARTER: I am not and I – I was speaking of people specifically, and I will come back to that point in a moment, but I think infrastructure’s in the same category, and therefore it has to be part of our investment plan going forward.
And that includes the scientific facilities. It includes all of the support facilities. But with respect to people, which is where you began your — your question, that is important also.
And I think what we have understood and we began to correct about two years ago, particularly in the Air Force, but I think it affects the – the civilians who work either in the Department of Energy or the Department of Defense, itself is that they’re – our talent development approaches there to retention of — of skilled people and to attract even new generation of new people also was something that we needed to renew our attention to and make investments in.
You see the Air Force doing that in its force improvement program, which seeks to, for example, give people whose specialty is nuclear weapons, opportunities to broaden their experience in the course of their careers and enrich their understanding of how their mission fits into the entirety of our national defense mission.
That is important because people thrive on having an understanding of the meaning of what they’re doing. And this is a – very, very solemn, significant and essential function, but people — are people and they want to be enriched in the course of their careers. And people in the nuclear specialties are no different.
So the Air Force is paying a lot of attention to that in the uniformed cadre. I know that — we’re doing the same things — civilian workforce, and I dare say the Department of Energy is as well because its leadership is just as aware of the need to make sure that we have a future generation of scientists and engineering, supporting the nuclear deterrent that we have today.
Q: Mr. Secretary, I wanted to follow on what of the airmen’s question about major power conflict, particularly in Syria. I wanted to ask you, are – is the U.S. and Russia already in a proxy war in Syria and if not, what can be done to avoid one?
SEC. CARTER: Well, we’re – we are not trying to inflame the civil war or to see it won militarily. The approach, and you see it reflected in what Secretary Kerry is – has been doing has been to try to pursue the only thing that can really succeed there, which is a political settlement to the Syrian civil war. That is the way civil wars end.
So that is our approach. What’s hard to explain is the Russian approach because their approach has been to contribute to the violence, directly contribute to the violence as well as indirectly by supporting the regime committing acts of — of — of severe violence, including that which affects the civilian population and that is inexcusable on their part and on the part of the Syrian regime and it’s not going to lead to the putting down of arms by those who have taken up arms against the Assad regime.
That is not the way it is going to work and that is why it is – a path that can lead only to more violence. And that is why we so strongly object to it and are trying to get the Russians to take a different path.
STAFF: (Inaudible), you get the last one.
SEC. CARTER: We can do both, if you want. You – I can get you both, if you want.
Q: Sir, (inaudible) was talking last week –
SEC. CARTER: I’m sorry – start again.
Q: I’m sorry, Gen. Robin Rand was talking last week and he brought up a question about commercial UASs and commercial drones and how there’s this big entanglement right now trying to figure out how DOD and DOE can protect nuclear sites from these devices that could potentially be used accidentally or on purpose to harm the sites.
The understanding you gave us have is that one of kind of a legal issue and not as being worked out at the highest levels, including several different agencies. Can you just kind of characterize what those discussions were like and how much of a concern or issue is this for you?
SEC. CARTER: It is a concern. It’s a concern to us in the Department of Defense because we have facilities where the physical security is of paramount importance. For example, facilities where nuclear weapons are deployed or stored. And we need to provide security for them.
And a — in the Department of Energy, it has the same issues with respect to the nuclear weapons complex. The law enforcement community has concerns about people using it to surveil crime sites or attack sites or using them as part of an attack – in a law enforcement sense and the Department of Transportation in the sense that the FAA has a concern about safety of flight and regulation of flight.
And I have talked to the — my counterparts in all of those departments. They all understand that very well. I believe that there are legal solutions to this and there are technical approaches to it that will allow people to enjoy the benefits of unmanned systems, but still allow us to protect people and people need to be protected from abuse of these things and we’re working out the details of that but I — I believe there is a lot we can do and that we will do.
Q: Iraqi Security Forces have had some success around Mosul lately. I was wondering, do you think conditions are set for the operation to take Mosul by next month? And what additional capabilities would you like to see – and would the Iraqis like to see in anticipation of that operation?
SEC. CARTER: Well, the forces are generated for that purpose that has been going on for some months. They’re being positioned around Mosul. The plan is quite elaborate, as the plan that is in the first instance, a plan of the Iraqi Security Forces, but we have helped with the preparation of that and – and I will remind you that the Peshmerga forces are involved in this as well. And therefore President Barzani also has been involved in planning for it.
And the timing will depend. Obviously, all of this is under the command of Prime Minister Abadi, but you are right. We have long planned on a — and prepared for a — a campaign that culminates in this phase in the envelopment of Mosul in the coming weeks and we are preparing the way for that.
There are some additional steps involving logistics and so forth and I think you’re prepared with – excuse me – you’re familiar with preparations that, for example, Qayyarah West Airfield. The — seizing and control of some of the surrounding locations, with Sharqat as an example.
And again, this is a plan that has been in the works for some time, which the United States is contributing to, but there are other members of the coalition doing that also, and it is obviously the Iraqi Security Forces are in the lead and they followed the plan so far.