Four questions for Chuck Hagel on nuclear weapons

Rebeccah Heinrichs Foreign Policy Analyst
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Last May, the Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission released a bombshell of a report. The nuclear disarmament group called for draconian cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Many defense experts, including the current head of Strategic Command, General C. Robert Kehler, flat-out disagreed with that report. So why give it another thought? Because President Obama’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, former Senator Chuck Hagel, is a co-author.

The administration is expected to unveil its proposal for further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal soon. But it will doubtless want to postpone the unveiling of that proposal until after the next secretary of defense is confirmed. That way, the nominee can’t be asked questions relating to the proposal.

But the premises and conclusions in the Global Zero report provide ample information to dig deeper into how Chuck Hagel would advise the president regarding America’s nuclear weapons. Perhaps no other subject is more vital to American security. Here are four questions that should be raised at the confirmation hearings:

1.) Please explain your report’s premise that “Security is mainly a state of mind, not a physical condition …” Do you mean tanks, ships, guns, bullets, bombs, nuclear weapons, conventional missiles, and aircraft do not provide security to Americans, our allies, and our property? And if so, should we also conclude that those things in the hands of our enemies are not a threat to our lives and livelihood?

2.) How can you recommend steep cuts to the U.S. nuclear force, including the elimination of short-range nuclear weapons, when U.S. allies under the American “nuclear umbrella” insist they rely on such U.S. nuclear weapons for security? It’s important that our allies believe they’re protected by our nuclear umbrella. If they don’t believe they are, won’t they pursue their own nuclear weapons?

3.) How do you justify recommending the U.S. eliminate all of its ICBMs and B-52 bombers? Democratic and Republican administrations have agreed on the need to maintain all three legs of the Nuclear Triad. As Dr. Keith Payne, president of the National Institute for Public Policy, recently testified, numerous expert assessments have concluded that eliminating intercontinental ballistic missiles from the triad would remove about 450 of the current 455 strategic forces targets our enemies need to worry about. Absent ICBMs, our entire strategic force could be easily eviscerated by any military power capable of hitting the five remaining targets. Should the U.S. also get rid of its B-52 bombers? That would leave U.S. enemies able to take out the entire American force by striking only three targets.

4.) Given your history of advocating for steep nuclear reductions, do you plan to pour significant amounts of money into missile defenses and conventional forces? That would seem necessary if we are to rely less on nuclear weapons. Conventional weapons don’t come close — in either quality or quantity — to having the capabilities required to replace nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons possess not just great destructive capability but a necessary psychological effect that contributes to deterrence. That’s unique. And that’s why even successful missile defense systems cannot entirely fill the role nuclear weapons play in U.S. strategic planning.

Current and future decisions about the appropriate number and quality of nuclear weapons in the American arsenal should be driven by U.S. security needs, not by ideological opposition to nuclear weapons. If Chuck Hagel cannot satisfactorily answer the questions raised here, it will suggest that he and the other co-authors of the Global Zero report believe the world can be made safer with fewer nuclear weapons, even if it means America is altogether weaker and more vulnerable. The next secretary of defense must be convinced of the opposite.

Rebeccah Heinrichs, an expert on nuclear deterrence and missile defense, is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).