Press Release | May 14, 2014

Dr. Ashton B. Carter, Remarks delivered at National Defense University on May 14, 2014


Well good morning, it is a real privilege and pleasure for me to join this group and celebrate 20 years of the Center. I was president at the creation and so were some others of those on the panel today and I particularly want to salute Bob Joseph and John Reichart who have done such a wonderful job with the leadership of the Center and more about Bob’s role and the founding at the beginning. I have been sitting here today (and I am sorry I can’t be with you), but I have been speaking with Dr. Margaret Sloane and Dr. Natasha Bajema of the Center about the early days of the Center and where it’s going. I want to share with you some of those thoughts.

First let me say that I have seen the benefits of the Center; I saw it as Assistant Secretary of Defense, I saw it as Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, and I saw it most recently as Deputy Secretary of Defense and I know my bosses Secretaries Perry, Gates, Panetta and Hagel all benefited from it, as well. It’s made a tremendous contribution to our security and to combatting weapons of mass destruction.

I want to go back and recall the history of the Center and why it was setup in the first place; and you have to wind your mind back to those days and let’s remember what the issues were that were animating us to create a counter proliferation initiative back in 1993 and the Center in early 1994. There were three really defining issues dealing with weapons of mass destruction at that moment and they were the three major security issues of the day that were in the newspapers and that were dominating the attention of all policy makers. The first was the legacy of Desert Storm, a war that while overall miraculously executed and successful was also a grim reminder of the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. Remember we didn’t know when we went into Desert Storm whether Saddam Hussein would use, at least, chemical weapons. They had been used in the Iran-Iraq War and there was every reason to believe that they might have been used in Desert Storm and everybody was very concerned at the time about whether our preparations, which we had kind of let relax in the course of the Cold War (as nuclear weapons dominated our thinking about the weapons of mass destruction standoff with the Soviet Union), whether those capabilities would be adequate to protect our troops in Desert Storm. Fortunately, they were not used in that war, but we also found after the war that Saddam Hussein had a much more advanced biological and nuclear program than we had appreciated and that was a sober caution to us about what we really knew and also about the ambitions of some countries like Iraq, at the time, that might have exceeded what we thought they would do with weapons of mass destruction.

A second defining issue for us was the North Korea crisis that was then building and reached a crescendo in 1994 as North Korea prepared to remove fuel rods from Yongbyon which was, at that time, and appropriately so, a red line and that had to get us thinking about, first what to do if diplomacy failed with North Korea and some other means needed to be found to halt their nuclear weapons program. The principle consideration we gave at that time was to the possibility of attacking Yongbyon and eliminating the reactor, the fuel storage facility, the reprocessing facility in an air strike.

And the third, and by far in a way the most important thing that was going on in those days was the residue of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first ever disintegration of a nuclear superpower into 15 countries and creating a circumstance in which overnight proliferation might occur to several new countries blinking in the bright light of newfound freedom, but also subject to considerable economic and social turbulence, corruption and other things that they fell prey to in those days; and also the possibility of the loss of control of the nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction legacy of the Soviet Union. That is the loss of control to groups that were not new states at all, but were breakaways, or rogues, or terrorists, or something else.

So those three issues of the day were what was concerning us and what caused us to establish first with Secretary of Defense Aspin and later Secretary of Defense Perry the so-called Counter Proliferation Initiative; and we deliberately chose a new word, a new coinage, and I’ll get to this in a moment. It was controversial at the time. Counter proliferation, by which I at least at that time meant a concept that included non-proliferation, but complemented non-proliferation with some other tools and techniques of both diplomacy and defense that were not adequately represented in the armamentarium of the United States for countering weapons of mass destruction.

On the diplomatic front and on the negotiated front, the new concept was the Nunn-Lugar concept. Several years before I had worked with Senators Nunn and Lugar on the original Nunn-Lugar concept and legislation, and, of course, I was at that time – with many of you in the room – implementing the Nunn-Lugar program; and that was a cooperative approach to protecting us from the weapons of mass destruction of the former Soviet Union; a capability that we had previously dealt with, with “Deterrence,” our own nuclear arsenal as the principal tool. Now there was a whole new diplomatic tool and that to our minds opened up a whole frontier of expanding the Nunn-Lugar concept, of cooperative, assisted elimination and control of weapons of mass destruction to other parts of the world.

And then, on the defense side, where we had previously had just nuclear deterrence, we wanted to strengthen the other tools of defense. Missile defenses: that’s why we were developing Aegis, Thad, and the GBI subsequently deployed and now operating at least in the case of Thad and the GBI actively defending US allies and US forces and US territory against North Korea. The protective equipment and vaccines that go with countering biological and chemical weapons, which we had inadequately developed and deployed, we’ve done a lot of work in that area and the Center has contributed to that. Incorporating weapons of mass destruction more seriously in our plans [and] a lot of attention to preemption and appropriately so. We just saw an almost instance of that in Syria, more on that in a moment, but also seriously incorporating the reality of weapons of mass destruction in our plans. And lastly in our intelligence, which as I noted the first Gulf War had suggested was inadequate technically and analytically when it came to the subject of weapons of mass destruction.

So, the idea of counter proliferation was to marshal all of these tools to complement what we had traditionally, and very importantly, done in non-proliferation and to include non-proliferation in it. I have to tell you, in my mind also at the time, was an effort to or an intention to bring the great analytical and technical weight of the Department of Defense more seriously into the non-proliferation game. And to join the very serious expertise that the State Department had in non-proliferation and that the Energy Department had to support the non-proliferation effort. To add a real weight on the part of the Department of Defense because as I noted the Department of Defense’s principle contribution to this field had been nuclear deterrence; and appropriately so, but that was too narrow of a focus for the future.

So the Counter Proliferation Initiative was born, there was some controversy associated with that: the use of the word, whether that would in some way undermine non-proliferation diplomatic efforts. That proved not to be the case. Once the concept was explained to our best allies and partners in non-proliferation, they understood it. It was popular at NATO.  We established under a unique arrangement, which had myself as an American chair (which was pretty normal in NATO), but a French Co-Chair, a group within NATO specifically dedicated to combatting weapons of mass destruction.

So the Counter Proliferation Initiative was overall welcomed in time, though there was some stubbornness here and there, and after a while became part of the mainstream. I thought it was important to have an intellectual center in the Department dedicated to elaborating this concept, making sure that we got it right, and proving our original thinking, and that was the reason why I asked the Joint Staff – in particular, it was Shally and Wes Clark at the time – the Joint Staff, to establish the Center, and, why I asked Bob Joseph to be its first head. Bob really understood counter proliferation. He was part of the initiative at the beginning; and I have to say, for those of you who know Bob, he’s relentless, and once he has the rag in his teeth, he doesn’t let go and that was a feature of leadership that I really wanted for the Center and Bob was the right guy at the right time. And he’s now been very ably succeeded by John Reichart who is the Director today. So we have been blessed to have two terrific leaders.

There are a number of people you are going to see in the next two days who were also part of the original founding and discussions in those days. Let me just acknowledge them: Dan Poneman, Bob Einhorn, Gary Samore, Elaine Bunn, Andy Weber, Vayl Oxford, and, of course, the incomparable, the great, the fantastic, my right arm at that time, Laura Holgate. All of those people and many more in the audience were part of it.  It couldn’t have happened without them. And, to all those people, you bringing this effort this far for 20 years has made a real contribution to our security.

Let me tell you a little something about where we go from here and what’s happened since then. We couldn’t have foreseen everything that’s happened, specifically since then, but we did anticipate, I think, the broad outlines and, as a consequence of counter proliferation, we are more ready in this country than we might otherwise have been. Let me start with, of course, no one foresaw 9/11and an airplane as a weapon of mass destruction. Yet it was true that from the beginning, we understood that counter proliferation encompassed counter terrorism and that’s why an important part of the strengthening of our counter WMD capabilities in recent years has been through the addition of the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other new things that came about in the aftermath of 9/11. We have deployed missile defense as I noted, which we hadn’t done at the time, since then, sadly of necessity. But at least we had some capability when it became necessary to do that. The Nunn-Lugar program and concept has basically accomplished its principle purpose in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union and has gone on to expand beyond its initial focus on nuclear weapons to chemical biological weapons and beyond its initial focus in the former Soviet Union to a global reach.

For nuclear deterrence, I think I would say we continue to struggle with the managerial challenges of the nuclear weapons complex. I know more will be said about that and the challenge here is to preserve quality in the nuclear deterrent business, despite the aging of a lot of the design expertise, despite having to operate at smaller scale, despite the fact that our nuclear arsenal is not at the center of people’s preoccupations in defense. It tends to be an afterthought and the people accomplishing it [are] inadequately appreciated and cyclically rewarded and that might be showing up in the ability to recruit and retain such people. And then, of course, in some of the managerial challenges having to do with cost overruns and schedule slips and so forth in the nuclear weapons complex. All of that remains a tremendous challenge.

And last, of course, we have seen and are seeing unfold two examples of counter proliferation capabilities at work. Whatever you thought of the very curious turn of events in Syria: both the precipitating threat of military action by the United States and the capabilities to hydrolyze Syria’s chemical weapons. Both of those capabilities are the kinds of things that we were talking about in counter proliferation and I would say that the country was more ready for both of those forks in the Syria drama as a consequence of the work of the Center and the thinking that lay behind it.

And then finally there’s the unfolding drama in Iran. Likewise, I think it’s true that we understand better the diplomatic path with Iran and I think Iran understands that the United States was and is prepared to take military action against the Iranian nuclear weapons program. We developed for example (and I worked on it when I was Undersecretary) the MOP, which Bob Gates used to call the only acronym in the whole Department of Defense that meant what it said: the “Massive Ordinance Penetrator”. Both that and the analytical basis for the diplomatic path, I would say, were improved by the emphasis on counter proliferation and the work of people in the Center and the tremendous alumni of the Center that have subsequently joined the government. There’s a lot to be proud of.

So Bob Joseph, John Reichart, all of the faculty, the fellows, the staff, and the alumni of the WMD Center congratulations for 20 terrific years. You’ve made very real contributions to US security and to global security, both through your studies and through the wonderful people who have passed through the Center and into the government. We’re all in your debt. I am sorry I can’t be there today, but I look forward to seeing the 30th and the 40th anniversaries of the Center. [I] wish I could be with all of you today.