In a press conference last Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his commitment to revamping America’s nuclear weapons program after findings from two separate reviews revealed institutional failures such as weak leadership, antiquated and sparse equipment and exceptionally low morale.
“The internal and external reviews I ordered show that consistent lack of investment and support for nuclear forces of far too many years has left us with too little margin to cope with mounting stresses,” said Hagel. He also pointed to the existence of systematic problems such as a culture of over and inadequate inspection, poor communication and disconnect between DoD and service leadership.
An example of the derelict state of the nuclear program is a lack of what the Department of Defense Report calls “mission ownership.” There appears to be a disparity in passion and dedication to the nuclear deterrent mission among the service men and women performing the day-to-day mission and the higher-ups in the Department of Defense. According to the report, “[they] are well aware of the public declarations by former (and, occasionally, current) senior national security leaders and others who question or deny the continuing relevance of the nuclear forces or segments of the nuclear forces.”
Even the men and women running the show are unenthused about the triad.
Hagel’s vision for an improved U.S. nuclear program includes a 10 percent increase in Pentagon nuclear spending over the next five years. According to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, the Pentagon spends between $15 billion and $16 billion dollars on nuclear programs each year; 10% over five years is at least an increase of $7.5 billion dollars.
Hagel also highlighted the Defense Department’s commitment to the President’s policy to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons on our nation’s security strategy.”
Hagel, however, went beyond his brief in saying that America’s nuclear weapons program is the “DoD’s highest priority mission.” In actuality, nuclear weapons serve one purpose only: to deter a nuclear attack on the U.S. and our allies.
Nuclear weapons are irrelevant to top U.S. security issues. Are nuclear weapons relevant to the ISIL threat in Iraq and Syria? Nope. How about in winding down our military involvement in Afghanistan? Nuclear weapons play no role in that either. The Russians absorbed Crimea and are intervening in Ukraine. Again, U.S. nuclear weapons did not stop the aggression.
Our nuclear weapons are irrelevant even in security dilemmas with nuclear-armed countries! For instance, in the increasing competition between U.S. and China for dominance in Asia, nuclear weapons play no role.
There are other reasons to be skeptical of Hagel’s proposed reforms; the dichotomy of increasing funding for a program whose purpose the DoD hopes to diminish is a bit contradictory. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, for example, feels that “Throwing money after problems may fix some technical issues but it is unlikely to resolve the dissolution that must come from sitting in a silo home in the Midwest with missiles on high alert to respond to a nuclear attack that is unlikely to ever come.”
Clearly there are administrative and organizational steps needed to be taken to deal with declining morale among the service men and women dealing with our nuclear force, especially considering the recent missileer cheating scandal and reported neglect among senior leadership of the decaying forces.
But neither Hagel nor the two reviews address the top unspoken question: why should the United States spend up to a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to build new nuclear submarines, land-based ICBM missiles, long-range bombers and modernized nuclear weapons?
The United States requires a well-maintained nuclear force. But it can do so with a much smaller number of nuclear weapons and even without the land-based leg of the triad.
Who says? Why, that same Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who, as co-author of a 2012 nuclear policy commission report, wrote:
“No sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 21st century problems we face – threats posed by rogue states, failed states, proliferation, regional conflicts, terrorism, cyber warfare, organized crime, drug trafficking, conflict- driven mass migration of refugees, epidemics or climate change… In fact, nuclear weapons have on balance arguably become more a part of the problem than any solution.”
Too bad the new Hagel did not consult the old Hagel.