White House plans for a radical shift in U.S. nuclear policy came under fire from the military leaders who voiced concerns to Congress on Thursday about adopting a so-called no-first-use weapons policy.
Strategic Command chief Adm. Cecil Haney warned that the policy shift could undermine global stability in deterring growing nuclear threats posed by Russia, China, and North Korea.
President Obama is considering adopting the no-first-use nuclear policy along with several other disarmament measures in his final months in office.
Asked about no-first-use, which was rejected in the Pentagon’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and subsequent 2013 implementing guidance for nuclear arms, Haney said the threat environment is not conducive to a new declaratory policy.
"We know the current policy has served us well over many years and if there’s some movement to change that, it would require some scrutiny to make sure we’re not going to impact strategic stability at large by such a move," Haney said.
"We need to be very careful given the directions and the developments we see around the world, that we do everything in our power to maintain strategic stability," he added during a hearing of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala), chairman of the subcommittee, urged the administration to follow through with plans to modernize U.S. nuclear forces.
"Our forces and enterprise are aging rapidly while potential adversaries are modernizing and deploying new capabilities," Rogers said, adding that if Obama makes significant changes to the U.S. nuclear posture it would undermine American security.
"We hope he will ignore the small—but well-funded and vocal—nuclear disarmament echo chamber," he said.
Appearing with Haney, Air Force Gen. Robin Rand, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command that is in charge of 450 Minuteman III missiles and nuclear bombers, also said he supports keeping the current nuclear use policy.
Asked if he favors the current policy of not adopting no-first-use, Rand said, "My personal opinion is yes."
Haney said the current security environment is dangerous and unpredictable and made more worrisome by advances in asymmetric warfare weapons, advanced air defenses, and "the increasingly provocative and destabilizing behavior by potential adversaries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran."
Current nuclear use policy calls for keeping silo-based missiles, missile submarines, and strategic bombers on alert and ready to use as a deterrent to any state that would consider attacking. Critics of no-first-use say that policy is destabilizing because alerting nuclear forces in a crisis could lead to a preemptive attack.
Robert Scher, assistant defense secretary for strategy, plans, and capabilities, said that "there has been no decision within the administration to change the no-first-use policy."
Disarmament activists, including some officials in the White House, are seeking new anti-nuclear executive action before Obama leaves office, the Washington Post reported July 10. Options discussed among senior administration officials include adopting the no-first-use policy and circumventing Senate ratification of a nuclear test ban treaty by seeking a U.N. resolution on the treaty.
There also have been internal discussions in government indicating the president may seek to extend the New START arms treaty with Russia to 2026 and seek to cut deployed warheads from the treaty level of 1,550 to less than 1,000.
Scher said there are ongoing discussions of extending the treaty and that the president would ultimately make any decision to do so. "I’m really not at liberty to discuss ongoing discussions before decisions have been made," he said.
On a U.N. Security Council resolution on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Scher said he could not disclose what was going on regarding the issue but said nothing being considered would undermine the Senate’s treaty approval authority.
Rand, the Strike Command chief, issued a dire assessment of the aging nuclear arsenal, specifically the land-based missiles and bombers under his command.
"The current nuclear threat environment facing our nation has never been more complex, and will only become more so in the near future," Rand stated. "Potential adversaries continue an unprecedented modernization effort across the full spectrum of nuclear capabilities, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and land attack nuclear weapons."
Both Haney and Rand also challenged anti-nuclear advocates who want to scrap plans for a new ICBM and a new long-range standoff nuclear cruise missile.
Rand said the current nuclear air-launched cruise missile has "aged out" and must be replaced if the U.S. nuclear deterrent is to remain viable.
The new long-range standoff missile is urgently needed because of growing anti-access, area denial weapons, such as advanced air and missile defenses, Rand said.
The defense and military officials testified that modernizing nuclear forces with new missiles and bombers will cost between $350 billion and $450 billion over 10 years, using existing nuclear warheads and bombs.
"We are at the point now where we can ill-afford to wait longer" in modernizing forces, Haney said. "Now we’re at a point where reliability, survivability [of nuclear forces] will be at risk, and hence deterrence and our assurance to our allies will be of question."
Keith B. Payne, a former Pentagon nuclear policymaker and current president of the National Institute for Public Policy, said a no-first-use policy would eliminate a needed ambiguity in U.S. nuclear weapons use policy.
"It sounds warm and progressive, and has long been a policy proposal of disarmament activists," Payne stated in a recent report.
Payne said now is not the time to change the policy because the risks are too great. Maintaining the current policy keeps "nuclear ambiguity" that helps deter war while the no-first-use would "undercut the deterrence."
"The fatal flaw of the warm and progressive-sounding [no-first-use] proposal is that it tells would-be aggressors that they do not have to fear U.S. nuclear retaliation even if they attack us or our allies with advanced conventional, chemical, and/or biological weapons," he said.
White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in response to questions about the new nuclear policies that the president’s 2009 speech in Prague outlined the "trajectory" of plans for a world without nuclear arms.
"We are always looking for additional ways to achieve progress on the president’s path forward while maintaining a credible deterrent for the United States, our allies, and partners," Price said.
"As we have said, we will continue to review our planned modernization program, assess whether there are additional steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our security strategy, and pursue ways to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime further."