U.S. Strategic Command gets new leader: Air Force Gen. Anthony J. Cotton

Navy Adm. Charles Richard, who retired from active duty on December 9, 2022, passed command of U.S. Strategic Command to Air Force Gen. Anthony J. Cotton during a ceremony at the LeMay Command and Control Facility at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III oversaw the ceremony and told the audience that the command is adjusting to face new challenges. 

A Navy admiral and Air Force general salute each other on stage as Lloyd J. Austin III stands between them.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III stands by as Adm. Charles “Chas” A. Richard, left, the outgoing U.S. Strategic Command commander, salutes the incoming commander, Air Force Gen. Anthony J. Cotton, during a change of command ceremony at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Dec. 9, 2022.

Austin said U.S. Strategic Command’s mission is to responsibly manage the U.S. nuclear deterrent. “Your mission is to deter war — and to do it with unmatched professionalism,” he said. 

Part of this professionalism is the ability to deal with new situations.

“The United States is on the verge of a new phase — one where, for the first time, we face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors,” Austin said. “The People’s Republic of China is expanding, modernizing and diversifying its nuclear forces. And Russia is also modernizing and expanding its nuclear arsenal.”  

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks at a lectern.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks during a U.S. Strategic Command change of command ceremony at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Dec. 9, 2022.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues to go badly for President Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader has resorted to nuclear threats.

“As the Kremlin continues its cruel and unprovoked war of choice against Ukraine, the whole world has seen Putin engage in deeply irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling,” Austin said. “So, make no mistake: Nuclear powers have a profound responsibility to avoid provocative behavior, to lower the risk of proliferation, and to prevent escalation and nuclear war.”  

The B-21 raider aircraft sits in a hangar with the American flag in the background.
The B-21 Raider was unveiled during a ceremony in Palmdale, Calif., Dec. 2, 2022. Designed to operate in tomorrow’s high-end threat environment, the B-21 will play a critical role in ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability.

Strategic Command oversees the U.S. nuclear triad, which is being modernized to face this new world. The secretary noted that he was in California last week to unveil the B-21 Raider. This new conventional and nuclear-capable bomber – the first since the B-2 – will become the backbone of the Air Force’s fleet for decades.  

“We’re working to modernize the other legs of the triad through new Columbia-class submarines and the Sentinel ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] system,” the secretary said. “Strategic Command is here to deter conflict and keep the peace, and that means a safe, secure and effective U.S. nuclear arsenal as the ultimate backstop to deter strategic attacks on our country and our allies — including NATO, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Australia.” 

Illustration of submarine
An artist’s rendering of the future Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines.

The command is also working to build a truly integrated deterrence, that lies at the heart of the U.S. National Defense Strategy, which includes the conclusions of the Nuclear Posture Review.  

“Our nuclear capabilities don’t exist in a vacuum,” Austin said. “We must integrate our nuclear deterrent across all domains, including space and cyberspace. And we must also reduce the risk that escalation in one domain could spill over into another. As our National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review make clear, that type of integration is more essential than ever to prevent conflict and catastrophe.” 

Navy Adm. Charles Richard, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, and Air Force Gen. Anthony J. Cotton participate in a ceremony at the LeMay Command and Control Facility at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, passing leadership of U.S. Strategic Command.

Nuclear deterrence is not a numbers game, the secretary warned. That idea could spur a dangerous arms race.  

“So, [the command] is developing the credible capabilities and the concepts that we need to prevent conflict in this century,” he said. “You are integrating our efforts across all domains. And you’re weaving our capabilities together with those of our allies and partners.”  

Two Air Force missileers look over a map.
Air Force 1st Lt. Gordon Lam and Capt. Ana Garzon look over a map before departing to their missile alert facility at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., Oct. 19, 2018. DOD photo by Brad Kimberly

Austin said the talk of deterrence does not lessen the United States’ work to eliminate nuclear dangers. “We are working to reduce the global role of nuclear weapons through arms control, nonproliferation and strategic stability,” he said.  

“For decades, the United States has used these tools to decrease the potential for nuclear war — all underwritten by our strong deterrent. We remain committed to putting diplomacy first and to enhancing transparency and predictability. And we stand ready to pursue new arms-control arrangements with willing partners operating in good faith.” 

An airman gives signals to the pilot of a B-2 bomber.
Air Force Airman 1st Class Christopher Rucker marshals a B-2 Spirit returning to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Sept. 6, 2018, following a routine training mission. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Danielle Quilla

Austin said it’s up to U.S. Strategic Command to continue to deter nations from using the world’s most dangerous weapons. “For three years, the vital work of this command has been led by Adm. Charles Richard,” Austin said. “He has led Stratcom with vigilance and resolve at a time of evolving threats — and during a global pandemic. He has focused relentlessly on China’s expansion of its nuclear capabilities… and on Russia’s dangerous escalatory behavior.” 

A man speaks at a hearing. A cup and microphone are in the foreground.
Navy Adm. Charles A. Richard testifies before a Senate panel about threats to the United States from China and Russia, and the Defense Department’s steps to provide a credible deterrent, April 20, 2021.

Austin said Richard has worked to ensure that the United States’ extended-deterrence commitments to our allies remain ironclad. The secretary thanked the career submariner for his 41 years of service and leadership and wished Richard and his family “a fair wind and following seas.” 

Austin welcomed Cotton, who comes to the position from Air Force Global Strike Command. The Air Force general will continue overseeing the important DOD investments in nuclear command and control and in the modernization of the nuclear triad.  

A service member and two civilians stand behind a mound of dirt and hold shovels.
In this file photo, Gen. Anthony Cotton, Air Force Global Strike Command commander, and South Dakota state representatives prepare to break ground during a ceremony kicking off the B-21 Raider bomber facility at Ellsworth Air Force Base S.D., May 25, 2022.

Still, “deterrence has never been just about the numbers, the weapons or the platforms,” Austin said. “The heart of American deterrence is the people who protect us and our allies. It’s the young missileers who keep the watch; the sailors who patrol the depths of the oceans; and the pilots who remain ready at a moment’s notice. It’s the technicians and operators who keep our systems humming.” 

Strategic Command defends the United States and its allies from catastrophe, Austin said. “Let us always ensure that the most dangerous weapons ever produced by human science are managed with the greatest responsibility ever produced by human government,” he said.

Air Force Gen. Anthony J. Cotton

Cotton is a United States Air Force four-star general who serves as the 12th commander of the United States Strategic Command since December 9, 2022.

He most recently served as the commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command from August 27, 2021 to December 7, 2022, having served as the deputy commander from 2019 to 2021. Prior to that, he was the president of the Air University.

Anthony Cotton was commissioned through ROTC at North Carolina State University in 1986, where he also earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. Prior to his new assignment, Cotton commanded the 20th Air Force, served as deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office, and was senior military assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence.

Cotton is from Dudley, North Carolina, where he graduated from Southern Wayne High School in 1981. He is the son of James H. and Amy K. Cotton; his father was a chief master sergeant in the Air Force.

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