Atomic Bond

Does Hagel’s nomination mean Obama will cut the nuclear arsenal?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Since word first leaked in mid-December that Chuck Hagel was President Obama’s likely choice for secretary of defense, opponents of his nomination have sought to paint him as anti-Israel, soft on Iran, and a supporter of sweeping defense budget reductions. The intensity of most of those charges has waned, with the Israel issue being dealt a seemingly fatal blow by Sen. Chuck Schumer’s support for the nominee. But there is another potential hurdle — one that sounds more appropriate to 1983 than 2013: is Hagel hawkish enough on nuclear weapons?

Hagel’s Republican critics have claimed that he is "an outspoken supporter of nuclear disarmament" and "seeks a world free of nuclear weapons." Conservative media outlets have parroted these charges in their continuing attacks on Hagel and Senate Republicans are poised to make an issue out of them at his January 31 confirmation hearing. They are unlikely to succeed — Hagel’s nuclear views are mainstream. The real question is whether he’ll have the opportunity to do anything about them.

As it begins its second term, the Obama administration faces a number of key nuclear and budget decisions left over from its first term that will have profound consequences for U.S. national security. If confirmed, Secretary of Defense Hagel would be a key player in formulating and implementing those choices. While it remains to be seen how vigorously the Obama administration will pursue nuclear threat reduction over the next four years, Hagel’s past writings and affiliations suggest that he would strongly support reshaping U.S. nuclear strategy and spending to address today’s threats and the budget crunch. Indeed, few Americans, including secretaries of defense, have thought as seriously about the appropriate role of nuclear weapons as Chuck Hagel.

Obama and Hagel actually go way back when it comes to nuclear weapons. In August 2007, when they were both senators, they co-sponsored S. 1977, known as the Nuclear Weapons Threat Reduction Act. The bill’s purpose was "To provide for sustained United States leadership in a cooperative global effort to prevent nuclear terrorism, reduce global nuclear arsenals, stop the spread of nuclear weapons and related material and technology, and support the responsible and peaceful use of nuclear technology." The legislation was inspired in part by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, who earlier that year had published a now famous op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining a step-by-step plan to ultimately rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Though the Senate never voted on S. 1977, the bill served as the framework for Obama’s first major foreign policy speech as president — in April 2009 in Prague, where he pledged America’s commitment to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons and laid out a series of interim steps that the United States must take to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. In his first term, Obama issued a Nuclear Posture Review that moderately reduced the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, removed some 1,380 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from around the world (enough material for approximately 55 nuclear weapons), and signed the New START agreement reducing U.S. and Russian arsenals. But key elements of this ambitious agenda remain unfinished, and the views of the next secretary of defense on how to move forward will carry significant weight.

One of the first major tasks is the revision of high-level nuclear policy guidance that could pave the way for further reductions in the arsenal below the levels agreed to in New START, which limits the United States and Russia to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review did not reevaluate the existing nuclear employment and targeting strategy; the New START levels were based on the George W. Bush administration’s guidance. Despite reports last summer indicating that there was interagency consensus about reducing the number of deployed warheads to about 1,000, Obama postponed a decision on new nuclear policy guidance and force levels until after the election.

Once the president settles on new guidance, he will then need to decide how to implement further reductions. Options include a new treaty with Russia that limits all types of nuclear warheads, a new treaty that limits only deployed warheads (or an amendment to the New START treaty), or scrapping the treaty process altogether and seeking Russian buy-in for non-binding, reciprocal cuts — as previous Republican presidents have done. For its part Russia, which is already below the New START limits on deployed warheads and delivery systems, has linked new treaty-based reductions to its concerns about U.S. missile defense plans in Europe, and efforts to reach a cooperative agreement with Moscow on missile defense have so far been unsuccessful.

Related to the issue of further reductions is the fiscal challenge posed by sustaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons. For example, over the next 10 to 15 years the departments of defense and energy plan to spend over $100 billion to build 12 new ballistic missile submarines and $10 billion to refurbish the B61 nuclear gravity bomb. A smaller arsenal could obviate the need to build as many new delivery systems and free funding for higher priority programs in a time of budget austerity.

Where should we expect Hagel to come down on these issues?  Since leaving the Senate in 2009, Hagel has remained active and outspoken on the importance of reducing the nuclear threat, in particular through his work with Global Zero, an international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons that is supported by some 300 world leaders. Hagel was a member of Global Zero’s U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission, chaired by former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright. In May 2012, the commission published a report calling on the United States to move away from a Cold War-era nuclear posture, including an illustrative proposal to reduce the US nuclear stockpile to 900 total warheads by the end of the decade. Though the Commission argued that such cuts should be undertaken via a treaty with Russia, it sensibly noted, "Some unilateral steps, or parallel reciprocal steps along the lines of the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, could facilitate the effort."

The area where Hagel would be positioned to have the biggest impact is on nuclear weapons spending — especially plans for the next generation of nuclear delivery systems. Most experts agree that the Pentagon budget is slated for a haircut well below the initial $487 billion reduction scheduled to be implemented over the next decade — with or without sequestration (which would require an additional $500 billion cut). Such reductions could force changes to U.S. nuclear weapons levels that exceed those recommended by the guidance review process and also prompt more serious discussion inside the Pentagon about whether to eliminate a leg of the nuclear triad.  Indeed, in a Nov. 14 letter to Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that sequestration could force the Pentagon to delay the next generation nuclear ballistic missile submarine and reduce the buy from 12 to 10 subs, terminate until the mid-2020s the next generation strategic bomber, and eliminate the ICBM leg of the triad.

As the overseer of the impending drawdown, the next secretary of defense will be confronted with a number of stark budget choices between nuclear forces and other major investments. While small pockets of the Navy and Air Force and Republicans in Congress are likely to view nuclear spending as sacrosanct, much of the military views nuclear weapons as a waste of time and resources. As Colin Powell once put it: "We have every incentive to reduce the number [of nuclear weapons]. These are expensive. They take away from soldier pay. They take away from O and M [operations and maintenance] investments. They take away from lots of things. There is no incentive to keep more than you believe you need for the security of the Nation."

In response to questions in advance of tomorrow’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination, Hagel pledged his support for the president’s commitment to a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist and stated that "providing necessary resources for nuclear modernization of the Triad should be a national priority." However, Hagel was careful not to tie himself to a specific number of nuclear weapons or level of nuclear spending. If President Obama plans to make further strides on nuclear threat reduction in his second term, he’s likely to have a willing partner in Chuck Hagel.  

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