Our mission at The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation is to educate the public and policymakers on issues of peace and security. On February 26, we brought our mission directly to Capitol Hill.
The Army JLENS blimp fiasco, the $43 million Afghan gas station, the fumbling F-35 program, the NDAA veto, government shutdowns, the Syrian train-and-equip program, etc. These are just some of the issues that have come up in recent times that highlight the desperate need to work towards defense reform in the United States. And the work should start now.
Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter’s confirmation hearing is set for the first week of February. Coinciding with Carter’s confirmation, on February 2, the president will send Congress his fiscal year 2016 budget request. One of Mr. Carter’s first tasks as Chuck Hagel’s replacement will be to defend the President’s FY 2016 budget request – a document on which Mr. Carter has presumably had little influence.
The President announced Monday that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has resigned, just days after announcing his commitment to increase spending for the U.S. nuclear enterprise by $7.5 billion dollars over the next five years. For a top Pentagon official with a habitually good record on nuclear non-proliferation, this was a pretty bad last move. And it could be a sign of things to come.
William Hartung, the Director of Arms and Security Project at Center for International Policy, posed an important question in an article for Huffington Post this week: what if Hagel had resigned for a reason? Hartung posits that Hagel’s resignation was “a missed opportunity to put our security policy on a sounder footing at a time of increasing uncertainty.” Hagel certainly could have resigned ‘on principle,’ in protest of the administration’s drift toward a more hawkish foreign policy. But it doesn’t look like he did.
Helene Cooper of the New York Times posits that Obama was too close with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Secretary of State John Kerry to give them the axe; Hagel was the easy pick. In times of trouble, the sad truth is that a scapegoat sometimes has to take the blame. But regardless of the reason for Hagel’s dismissal, a firmer truth remains: a shift is taking place in Washington that’s likely to lead to higher spending.
Hagel assumed office in February 2013 at a time of projected peace. He was brought on to oversee the end of the war in Afghanistan and help trim down the Pentagon budget. Now, whether we like it or not, the U.S. is headed back into war in the Middle East and has revised its exit plan for Afghanistan.
Glen Thrush of POLITICO writes that Hagel didn’t see himself as “the kind of gung-ho, wartime consigliere Obama needed as he recalibrates his national security strategy to deal with a new round of conflict in the Middle East.” It follows that a new leader in the Pentagon would be part of a larger strategic pivot towards ramped up military engagement in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
With an increased wartime spending request and a larger base budget request on the way, the Obama administration seems primed to amp up the pressure on Congress to increase Pentagon spending, a move that could ultimately bust the budget caps.
While there is no obvious front-runner to replace Hagel, Michéle Flournoy and Sen. Jack Reed have already pulled their hats out of the ring. That leaves current and former Deputy Defense Secretaries Robert Work and Ashton Carter. Both men are considered technocrats with experience maneuvering the Pentagon’s bureaucracy. But their mission at the helm of the Pentagon, should they accept, will largely be dictated by a strategy already set in motion by the White House.
So far, that strategy looks like spend, spend, spend.
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.