A new front is opening in the Senate confirmation fight over former Sen. Chuck Hagel as senators from states with nuclear bases are questioning the defense secretary nominee’s role in the Global Zero commission that advocates eliminating all nuclear weapons and making unilateral strategic arms cuts.
Six senators with home-state nuclear bases or membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee said they are either opposing Hagel’s nomination or questioning his judgment for backing the international anti-nuclear movement. Hagel is among some 300 international and national public figures supporting the group’s stated goal of seeking “the elimination of all nuclear weapons.”
“The Department of Defense’s mission is to deter war and protect the security of our country,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.), whose state is host to a major strategic missile base that would be eliminated under Global Zero’s plan to cut all land-based ICBMs.
“Sen. Hagel’s proposal to weaken our nuclear triad by eliminating America’s land-based nuclear missiles would undermine our security and empower our enemies,” Barrasso said. “During the confirmation process, he’ll need to answer questions about the Global Zero report and make it clear that he will take no action to weaken our national defense.”
The concern is bipartisan. Newly elected Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) said through a spokeswoman that she expects to put forth questions on Hagel's nuclear weapons views during the confirmation process.
"Of course any issues that affect the [North Dakota strategic missile] bases will be a top concern for the senator," spokeswoman Whitney Phillips said.
Sen. David Vitter (R., La.) said he opposes Hagel. “I'll be a ‘no’ vote on the Armed Services Committee and on the floor,” Vitter said. "Given his thinking on the New Start treaty, further dramatic U.S. [arms] reductions, and a nuclear Iran, I think he could lead us into a much more unstable, dangerous nuclear world with greatly diminished U.S. deterrence."
Louisiana is home to Barksdale Air Force Base where U.S. strategic nuclear bombers are based.
Senior Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.) also expressed concerns about Hagel’s views on nuclear weapons. The senator plans to question Hagel on the issue during nomination hearings, an Inhofe aide said.
“I am aware of the serious concerns about some of his policy positions, his record, and some of his comments that have been publicly reported,” Inhofe said in a Jan. 7 statement.
Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) is also concerned about Hagel’s positions on nuclear forces.
“While I have great respect for Chuck Hagel’s service in our military and the U.S. Senate, I have serious reservations about his nomination as U.S. secretary of defense,” Hoeven said in a statement.
“As a senator from a state that is home to two legs of the nuclear triad, I am particularly concerned about Senator Hagel’s support for additional, major reductions in U.S. nuclear forces, which I believe puts the United States at a severe disadvantage in a still-dangerous global military environment,” he said.
Sen. Michael Enzi (R., Wyo.) also voiced worries about Hagel’s anti-nuclear views.
Dan Head, an Enzi spokesman, said the senator is withholding judgment on Hagel’s nomination until the hearing process is complete.
“Sen. Enzi believes maintaining a strong ICBM force is a critical part of protecting our country,” said Head.
“They are not only cost-effective and reliable, they are a visual reminder that America stands ready to protect itself and its allies from any who would do us harm,” he said. “By preserving our ICBM force, Wyoming plays an important role in keeping America strong and free.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) said through a spokeswoman that he also has reservations about Hagel and suggested Hagel’s views on nuclear arms could be raised during hearing. Georgia is home to the Kings Bay naval base, homeport to a group of strategic nuclear missile submarines.
"I have serious questions about both appointments,” Chambliss said, referring to Hagel and CIA director-designate John Brennan. “The process is designed to allow for very probing questions and that is what I look forward to."
John Bolton, a former State Department undersecretary for arms control, said support for the Global Zero can be an abstraction, such as the Biblical notion of “when the lions lie down with the lambs.” Or it can be a real policy objective, he said.
“Obama proclaims he is of the latter view and [the Senate Armed Services Committee] should find out where Chuck Hagel is,” Bolton said.
Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, where the U.S. Strategic Command in charge of nuclear forces has its headquarters, served in the Senate from 1997 to 2009. He has come under fire from both ends of the political spectrum from critics upset with a range of issues, from his softline policies toward Iran, to anti-Israel positions, to comments he made on the nomination of an ambassador he deemed to be "aggressively gay."
A U.S. official close to Hagel said the senator strongly supported the Nebraska-based Strategic Command. The official previewed Hagel’s expected position on senators’ concerns about his Global Zero work during upcoming hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee. A hearing could be held as early as the end of the month.
The official told the Free Beacon the senator “believes we must work towards a world free of nuclear weapons just as President Obama said in his April 2009 Prague speech.”
But Hagel agrees with the president that, as long as the threat of nuclear arms exists, “the U.S. must retain readiness of a strong nuclear arsenal.”
Hagel was one of five members of the Global Zero Nuclear Policy Commission, along with retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, former ambassador and New York Times reporter Richard Burt, former State Department official Thomas Pickering, and retired Gen. Jack Sheehan, a former NATO commander.
The report called for cutting U.S. nuclear warheads to 900 strategic weapons by 2022, with 450 deployed and the rest in storage. The cuts should be part of “a path of reductions that lead in verifiable stages with an objective of their total elimination—‘Global Zero,’” the report stated.
A force of 450 strategic warheads would be less than the number estimated to be in the Chinese strategic nuclear arsenal, which is being modernized and expanded, as well as in Russia’s nuclear forces. Such an imbalance would raise questions about whether other nations could be deterred from using nuclear blackmail against the United States and could lead U.S. allies reliant on U.S. nuclear protection to seek their own strategic forces.
The most controversial part of the Global Zero plan is its call for the elimination of all land-based U.S. ICBMs.
Instead, the U.S. nuclear force under Global Zero would include 10 Trident ballistic missile submarines armed with 720 strategic missile warheads and 18 B-2 bombers armed with 180 gravity bombs.
Hagel also co-sponsored legislation in 2007 with then-Sen. Barack Obama advocating that the United States reach an agreement to halt all production of “fissile material for nuclear weapons.” The bill also sought talks with the Russians on cutting tactical nuclear arms and further reducing strategic nuclear arms, continuing to ban nuclear tests and seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty that was voted down by the Republican-led Senate in 1999.
The Zero plan also calls for eliminating all forward-based nuclear weapons, such as tactical nuclear arms currently used to deter North Korea and China in Asia and Russia in Europe.
The plan would also prevent the United States from responding to a nuclear attack for 24 to 72 hours, shift strategic targeting of Russia from nuclear to conventional forces, delay construction of the next-generation U.S. ballistic missile submarine, and require that the missiles on the new submarine be designed for use without warheads.
The planned strategic nuclear cuts and de-alerting measures could be done together with Russia or unilaterally, the report said.
The report also appears to accuse current U.S. nuclear policy of possibly leading to war. “Current U.S. nuclear policy also unnecessarily incurs risks of unintentionally initiating a nuclear conflict,” the report said.
The report claims that the risk of nuclear war is now so low that there is no need for a strong deterrent arsenal.
“The risk of a nuclear confrontation with either Russia or China belongs to the past not the future,” the report said. “It seems increasingly improbable that U.S. relations with Russia or China would deteriorate so severely during the time frame of this report’s plan (2012-2022) that the nuclear balance among them would become a salient factor.”
Both Russia and China currently are engaged in large-scale nuclear weapons modernization programs. They include new long-range missiles, some with advanced capabilities designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses. Other new weapons being developed by both Beijing and Moscow include new ballistic missile submarines and new strategic bombers.
Foreign Policy’s blog Situation Report disclosed Wednesday that Hagel visited the Pentagon Tuesday to receive briefings in preparation for his Senate appearance.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended Hagel on Thursday from critics of the former senator's nuclear weapons views.
"I think a lot of the criticisms that are being made right now are unfair," Panetta told reporters. "But he'll have the opportunity to speak to those when he goes for his confirmation hearing."
Panetta said "confirmation battles" produce a lot of charges and criticism but "ultimatley the truth prevails." He predicted that Hagel would be confirmed by the Senate.