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Hagel’s Support for U.S. Nuclear Disarmament: Why the Senate Should Care

12:50 PM, Jan 17, 2013 • By ROBERT ZARATE
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Former senator Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee to be the next secretary of defense, has drawn sharp criticism for championing even deeper cuts to military spending, making statements hostile or indifferent to Israel, denigrating pro-Israel groups in the United States as “the Jewish lobby,” and objecting to the potential use of military force to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Another issue that deserves close and careful scrutiny by senators and their staffers, however, is Hagel’s advocacy for global nuclear disarmament—and, toward that end, drastic cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. 

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For nearly 70 years, America’s nuclear forces have provided the nation with the ultimate insurance policy against major military aggression by foreign powers. Moreover, the U.S. nuclear deterrent has played a direct and undeniable role in dampening the destabilizing proliferation of nuclear weapons—in particular, by empowering the United States to extend a “nuclear umbrella” of shared security over allies who might otherwise feel compelled to build their own nuclear arms.

The problem, however, is that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is growing old. It will need sustained investments over the long term—not only to keep extending the service lives of aging nuclear warheads in the absence of actual testing, but also to begin replacing the bomber aircraft, the land-based long-range missiles, and the submarine-launched missiles that comprise the nuclear deterrent’s fleet of delivery vehicles.

In return for Senate support for a treaty to reduce American and Russian nuclear arms, President Obama promised Congress in 2010 that he would advance and completely fund programs to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Since then, lawmakers in the Senate and the House have repeatedly criticized the commander in chief—who, during a high-profile Prague speech in April 2009, had famously announced his goal of eventually achieving “a world without nuclear weapons”—for subsequently failing to fully live up to his promise.

Enter Chuck Hagel—who, after leaving the U.S. Senate in 2009, aligned himself with Global Zero, an international movement agitating for “the elimination of all nuclear weapons,” and also joined the board of directors of the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that funds research to promote nuclear disarmament and arms control.

Hagel now stands within reach of becoming the highest-ranking civilian official in the Pentagon, responsible for America’s conventional and nuclear military forces. Yet it was only in May 2012 that he co-authored a controversial report for Global Zero that urges deep cuts to America’s nuclear forces—by unilateral means, if necessary—on the path to global nuclear disarmament.

In particular, the Global Zero report co-authored by Hagel urges the United States not only to cut down to 900 total strategic nuclear warheads—only 450 of which would be actually deployed—but also to:

·        Entirely eliminate land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  The U.S. Air Force currently deploys a total of 450 “Minuteman III” ICBM missiles at three locations—at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, represented by Democratic senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester; at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, represented by Republican senator John Hoeven and Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp; and at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, represented by Republican senators John Barrasso and Michael Enzi.

·        Completely eliminate “B-52” long-range bombers from nuclear missions, by dismantling them or diverting them to other non-nuclear missions.  The U.S. Air Force currently deploys roughly 76 B-52H bombers for nuclear missions at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, represented by Democratic senator Mary Landrieu and Republican senator David Vitter; and at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, represented by Republican senator John Hoeven and Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp.

·        Reduce the number of “B-2” strategic bombers with nuclear missions.  The U.S. Air Force currently deploys 20 B-2A strategic bombers at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, represented by Republican senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill.

·        Slash four “Ohio-class” submarines armed with sea-launched nuclear missiles, and delay plans to replace it with a new and modern class of submarine.  Although the U.S. Navy maintains 14 Ohio-class submarines, two are generally kept in overhaul, leaving 12 operating subs in the world at any given time.  Seven submarines are based in Bangor, Washington, represented by Democratic senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray.  And five subs are based in Kings Bay, Georgia, represented by Republican senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.  Moreover, just as the Ohio-class submarines were manufactured in Groton, Connecticut, represented by Democratic senators Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy, so will the replacement subs for the Ohio-class.

The sweeping recommendations of Hagel’s co-authored Global Zero report were forcefully rejected by the U.S. military’s Strategic Command, which oversees the command and control of the nuclear arsenal.  As Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters in August 2012, “Regarding the Global Zero report, in my view we have the force size, force structure, and force posture today that we need for our national security needs.” 

As senators and their staff prepare to examine Hagel’s nomination to the Pentagon, it is critical that they closely and carefully scrutinize Hagel about the implications of his public proposals to slash the U.S. nuclear arsenal for their states—and, most importantly, for America’s national security. Understanding these implications are all the more important, given that President Obama still has not fully lived up to his 2010 promise to Congress to modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the ultimate guarantor of America’s national security.  What’s troubling is that Senate confirmation of Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense almost certainly assures that the president never will.

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