The Nuclear Option

Senators seek Hagel promise on congressional role in arms cuts, clarification on his Global Zero nuclear position

February 11, 2013

Four Republican senators wrote to defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel asking the former senator to explain his shifting positions on nuclear arms cuts and strategic modernization.

The four senators also asked in the letter sent Thursday whether Hagel, if confirmed for the defense post, will continue the policy of current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who told Congress that strategic arms reductions would only be carried as part of the formal START Treaty negotiating process.

Hagel’s past role in the international nuclear disarmament group Global Zero has raised questions among Senate Republicans and others about his commitment to modernizing the aging U.S. strategic nuclear forces and infrastructure.

President Barack Obama announced in 2009 that he favored eliminating all nuclear weapons but would not seek to do so as long as other nuclear threats remained.

He agreed in late 2010 to spend $85 billion over the next decade modernizing nuclear arms in exchange for GOP support for the New START arms treaty ratification.

The former Nebraska Republican was one of four signers of a May 2012 Global Zero report that called for steep cuts in nuclear forces, either in collaboration with Russia or unilaterally if necessary.

Hagel has sought to back away from the controversial views, telling senators during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week that the report and its recommendations were "illustrative" and not a concrete plan of action.

The four senators, however, said in their letter that the Global Zero report recommends a 75 percent reduction in deployed nuclear warheads.

The letter was organized by Sen. David Vitter (R., La.), and signed by Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

"These steps could be taken with Russia in unison through reciprocal presidential directives, negotiated in another round of bilateral arms reduction talks, or implemented unilaterally," the report said.

However, during questioning by senators at the committee hearing Hagel said, "Every option that we must look at, every action we must take to reduce warheads or anything should be bilateral. It should be verifiable. It should be negotiated."

The senators said: "We are confused as to which position you hold."

They then stated that a reasonable approach to nuclear force cuts is to adhere to the policy of Panetta, current defense secretary, who told the House Armed Services Committee recently that "reductions that have been made, at least in this administration, have only been made as part of the START process and not outside of that process; and I would expect that that would be the same in the future."

An official working on Hagel’s nomination said Hagel is working on a response to the senators.

"Sen. Hagel supports President Obama’s policies on all national security issues, including issues involving sustaining and modernizing the United States’ nuclear forces," the official told the Washington Free Beacon.

The senators asked Hagel if he agreed with Panetta’s approach and would continue it.

Also, the senators stated that the Global Zero report called for deferring or canceling the multibillion-dollar program to modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and supporting infrastructure.

Global Zero recommends canceling a program to develop a follow-on nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile, limiting plans for building a next-generation strategic bomber, delaying a new nuclear submarine program, and dismantling all B-52 nuclear bombers or converting them to non-nuclear bombers.

Nuclear submarines would be cut from the current level of 14 to 10 while the Minuteman ICBM forces would be eliminated.

"Such a position is directly at odds with President Obama who certified to the Senate in February 2011 that, ‘I intend to [a] modernize or replace the triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems: a heavy bomber and air-launched cruise missile, an ICBM, and a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and SLBM,’ the lawmakers said.

"Again, sir, our question is simple and can be answered in one word, do you now agree with President Obama’s pledge to the Senate?"

Republicans are worried Obama is set to enter a new round of strategic arms talks with Russia that could undermine current efforts to modernize U.S. nuclear forces.

The concerns were heightened last spring when Obama was overheard telling Russia’s leader at the time, Dmitri Medvedev that he will have "more flexibility" to negotiate a missile defense agreement with Russia after his presumed reelection.

The president has never been asked in public what he meant by the unusual comment made to a foreign leader.

A Senate aide said the letter is part of an effort to seek a commitment from Hagel to continue past policies of working with Congress on strategic arms reductions.

Secretary of State John Kerry suggested during his recent confirmation hearing that the administration faced "frustration" in dealing with Congress and thus has not ruled out using executive agreements for further arms reductions.

The Constitution gives the Senate the authority to provide advice and consent on all international treaties.

The senators sought a prompt response from Hagel considering Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) has said he plans to move ahead with a committee vote on the Hagel nomination soon.

Another group of Republican senators has asked that a vote on the nomination be delayed because of new questions about Hagel’s receipt of foreign funds that he is refusing to disclose to senators.